Image by Wilhelm Staehle
As brand designers, we have many tools at our fingertips: from the strategic thinking that sparks the big idea, to the daily essentials of color, type and imagery. There’s another tool, however, that often gets overlooked, and that is a brand’s voice.
There’s been lots of ink dedicated to the process of finding that voice. Are you the kind of company that people would want to sit down and have a beer with? Or are you the type people would go to for scholarly advice? It takes time and honest reflection to define that voice, and once you do, it can be an important and powerful ally.
But once you discover it, what do you do with it? Send a mailer? Maybe. Write a blog? Sure. But integrating that voice into a visual identity—one with actual words, that people read—can captivate your audience in a memorable way.
Copy is typically considered the domain of advertising, where tag lines trumpet brand messages from magazine pages and bus shelters. But when designers adopt them as their own and give them as much shelf space as the Pantone books, words can expand the opportunities for brand storytelling and engagement.
Reading is not just a matter of deciphering letters—it requires searching for meaning and interpreting it. It’s an intimate experience for the reader (not to mention one of the few activities that distinguishes us from our animal cousins). So words can be powerful stuff, and when they’re placed in an unexpected context, they gain the power of surprise.
There’s another reason designers should reacquaint themselves with the written word: type. Thoughtful use of typography can impart layers of meaning, and the right typeface can make or break an otherwise well-considered design. But the opposite is also true. Unless you’re designing a type specimen, a font needs words to exist—those carefully crafted letterforms have to take the shape of something. And that something better be more compelling than agile vulpes vaulting sluggish canines. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Image from Re: Sydney
This brilliant identity by Re:, for film production company Visualaz, is a great example of designers integrating copy into a visual identity. When a brand tells its story this way, it’s hard not to be engaged and want to see more of it.
Gourmet market Brooklyn Fare is another example, and one that I worked on, developing the brand from the name to the packaging to environmental design. During the positioning process, it became clear that winning over Brooklynites, a savvy crowd unresponsive to overt marketing, was key to differentiating it from nearby chains. This being a small, neighborhood store, we wanted it to have an approachable but slightly edgy personality, like the locals.
 Cycle1_Andrea_mainOur solution was a stripped-down, copy-driven approach in which droll, irreverent phrases became the linchpin of the brand. Paper coffee cups printed with “It’s a medium, not a grande,” chide a certain omnipresent coffee empire, while napkins encourage cappuccino-foam-mustachioed patrons to “Wipe that smile on your face.” It got attention, and although it wasn’t the first identity to integrate language in a holistic and visual way, its success made me wonder why it wasn’t more common. 
There will always be naysayers, cynics and marketing managers who claim that “people don’t read.” But they do read, all the time, and usually it’s pretty boring stuff. So if you respect the intelligence and curiosity of your audience by giving them something that truly surprises or intrigues them, they will gratify your efforts by spending the few seconds it takes to digest a sentence or two. Maybe three. And they might smile, or laugh, or take a moment to think. That moment will stick with them, and they might even share it with someone else—because we all love a good story.