A brand can be a difficult thing to define. The concept started out as a single mark or name used to distinguish cattle, then it became a visual method to distinguish a shelf product from competition, then a set of communication methods to nurture connotations, and so on and so forth into the future taking several repeat trips along the way.
Over time the concept has transitioned away from a way to solve a specific problem, such as dissuading thievery in the case of branding cattle, towards something much, much larger. Now we actually form relationships with brands. We can think of a brand in our minds eye and those thoughts aren’t singular or even necessarily visual. They can even be emotional.
That’s where a brand’s ultimate resource and goal lies, becoming memorable. Becoming something that you can actually recall, create connections with, and in the best case scenario, tell someone else about. Memory however, as we all know, is a tricky and fickle thing. Reliably accessing it can prove difficult even under the best circumstances and knowing how to reliably create memories can be even more difficult. But that’s the role of a brand now; to become memorable.
Here at Automattic, we’re actually going through a bit of a reunion with our brands and it feels a lot like remembering them for the first time in a long time. Almost like seeing old friends again. You’ve known all of them for years now, but haven’t actually had to describe them to anyone else for quite some time. They’re well known to you of course, or so you think, but what if you had to describe them beyond the people you also know? What if you had to describe them to complete strangers?
You’d probably try initially using a few adjectives, maybe you’d describe how they look, and later maybe you’d even try to describe what it is they all do. Eventually though, you might say something like
Oh, you know what. Let me tell you a story about this one time. It pretty much describes them perfectly.
And you’d be right. Given enough time the best way to describe them would probably be to tell a story. After all, it’s what most of our memories, especially the ones about relationships, eventually come down to; telling stories.
But the way you’d tell that story changes right? You wouldn’t always use the exact same story or even tell it in exactly the same way because your goal isn’t to give a perfect description of your friends in every setting. It’s to let your audience infer their own ideas based on the story you’ve had time to tell. And maybe, given enough stories, even feel like they know the friends themselves.
This is where we are now at Automattic. We know our brands deeply, but the majority of that understanding comes internally through years of context and countless stories we repeat every time we get together. What we’ve realized however, is that now it’s time to focus on sharing those stories externally and picking just the right ones that we think “sums up” our brands. This is especially true for WordPress.com and any of the partner brands such as VIP (my particular team).
The avenues by which we can tell these stories are almost limitless, but let’s focus for today on one avenue in particular, static graphics; and on one team in particular, VIP. VIP is currently going through a bit of rebranding process and we’ll be using that brand to shed some light on some of our recent visual direction, specifically static graphics for today.
Static graphics are basically any method by which we communicate using images or text that isn’t in motion. And there are a few key pillars along this avenue, each of them with a piece of the story to tell.
When we started to examine what colors we would use, we first focused on a monochromatic color scheme. We did this because we always want to be the backdrop for our clients and a simple understated palette really allowed us showcase their work without distracting too much towards anything else.
As we experimented more however, we started to realize that what we were looking at began to feel less and less like “WordPress.com”. So instead of selecting a whole new palette, we adjusted all the colors to be a subset of the WordPress.com palette with the only addition being a gold color.
We didn’t completely switch the way we use the palette however because during some of the initial experiments we quickly realized that we wanted to focus on providing a very high contrast for any presented text. We then carefully selected key pieces of the original palette so when we do use text, regardless of light or dark backgrounds, everyone can read it more easily.
Originally, like with the color palette, we started with a selection of typefaces we thought would look right for VIP. But again, we wanted to stick closer to our roots, so we began to play with our (then standard) “Merriweather” & “Open Sans” selections.
While both “Merriweather” & “Open Sans” are fantastic typefaces in their own right, something we really needed was more language support since our clients are from all over the world. Luckily, around this same time, WordPress.com was realizing it also had the exact same problem for customers. Even more, our teammates had actually already started to investigate switching over to the “Noto” family of typefaces from Google.
This of course was another opportunity for us to not only hearken back to the larger WordPress.com brand, but also provide some much needed support for more languages beyond what “Merriweather” & “Open Sans” already did.
During the initial research phase of our rebranding process, one of the key takeaways was realizing that we’re not exactly selling a product. Sure we use a whole lot of technical things under the hood that we refer to when getting into the details, but the initial goal is to showcase building a relationship with us.
And since we’re not selling a product per se, one of the more effective ways to visualize more abstract concepts is through the use of illustration. Since realizing that illustration could be a powerful tool for us, again quite luckily WordPress.com was realizing the same thing.
They took the reins on developing the overall style with a phenomenal illustrator named Alice Lee and we very quickly started to adopt the same style the moment it was ready. We shifted the color palette to echo our own, but we are sticking very closely to the that project’s style. Again to hearken back to the WordPress.com brand, but also because there’s a sense of inclusion baked into the style which is important for all our brands to showcase.
Along with the illustration style, one of the other pillars we’re focusing on is our use of photography. This is mainly for the same purpose as the illustration style as we want to focus on showcasing the relationships we have with our clients and photography can also be a fantastic tool for doing just that.
As for subject matter, we’re definitely targeting shots with people in them vs. places or objects. Specifically people in a collaborative setting as again, it hearkens back to our idea of building a relationship. Stylistically, we’re trying to get shots with bright & clean kind of vibe and hopefully with as much natural light as possible.
Overall getting photography can be a real challenge for a completely remote company, but since realizing how useful it is for us, we’ll be making it a priority moving forward.
While it may not initially seem like an important pillar for static graphics, the typography selections from above don’t really mean much if the words they’re showcasing aren’t presenting the right message. This is yet another place where we want to hearken back to the WordPress.com brand, while still tailoring our own particular message for prospective and existing clients.
This is where a recent positioning meetup (since Automattic is remote, we get together every so often) comes into play; again from WordPress.com. During this meetup, something that resonated quite well was the idea of supporting your freedom. It was something that everyone could get behind because it felt like an empowering message that even hearkens back to the larger WordPress mission to democratize publishing.
We’ve since taken this idea to heart through all of our copy writing, but it’s especially noticeable in our tagline:
We free you to publish.
We’re now in a spot to begin rolling out our updated branding across the various channels (keep on eye out for an updated vip.wordpress.com very soon) and if you’re curious about how all this all comes together, take a peak at our updated design handbook which is available in two formats.