Does Consistency in Design Lead to “Blanding”?

The short answer is yes and no.

“Blanding” is a combination of the word branding + bland. It is intended to mean a brand image that is familiar, clean, and ultimately, boring.

When I attended the 2017 Digital Signage Expo in Las Vegas, Eric Heiman of Volume Inc. was speaking at the SEGD Branding Environments seminar. I heard the term “blanding” for the first time by Eric at his talk about Site Specific Branding.

He made the statement, "Consistency can lead to blanding". And it got me thinking...

Over the last decade, in an effort to clean up poor usability, ugly aesthetics, and pushing brand identity across omni-channel experiences, designers and marketers have created design patterns and brand identities. Using the design 'successes' of popular brands and looking consistent everywhere has become the gold standard of the design and marketing industry. This has led to a lot of today’s modern brands and design across companies big and small looking more and more...the same.

As an UX designer (and engineer...and technologist), a large portion of my career has been making designs look beautiful...and consistent and uniform…everywhere. Most designers also like to follow popular user interaction trends and design guidelines established by big brands to ensure we follow the"principle of least astonishment".

So I ask, has consistency resulted is everything looking bland?

Well, I would have to agree with Eric Heiman. Great design needs thoughtful consistency and surprising creativity. However, consistency is sometimes needed for different types of brand and design projects.

So in defense of consistency and combining the familiar and surprising in brand design, here’s a look at just some of the ways consistency and surprise are needed to improve brand design:

In defense of Brand Consistency...

Consistency is a key component of building a great brand. A good brand is built over time and requires thought, strategy, and consistent implementation. In my opinion, the two most important reasons to maintain consistency in branding is:

  1. Consistency Makes Your Brand Feel More Dependable

  2. Consumers Trust Brands They Recognize

For designs like signage, wayfinding and placemaking, consistency is needed to give people a sense of familiarity for where they are and where they are going. This is hugely important for navigating complex environments like content-rich websites and online marketplaces to airports and cities.

A lot of creativity will pose a major issue for people's understanding of what the signage, and as a result that organization, is trying to tell them. In general, people are slow to embrace anything too unfamiliar and do not want to decipher what should be simple and consistent.

In defense of Surprise in Brand Design...

Great design should be both familiar and surprising. Great design should be meaningful and interesting. Surprise adds interest.

At the SEGD Branded Environments seminar, I sat front row in a room filled with over 150 environmental graphic designers and those that help us do what we do. Volume Inc. worked on the experience and experiential design for theBloomberg R+D Building in San Francisco and the Boys Scout Sustainability Treehouse. Both projects are very inspiring, original, and creative. The designs for these projects used the familiarity of the environment, the culture of the organization, and enhanced those familiar environments by adding surprising and fun elements inspired by the organization's culture.

Though great experiential designs are used to educate and entertain people, static displays has the potential to loss its wonder quickly. Adding digital interactivity in experiential spaces can add an element of dynamism and creativity to an environment. You can also add surprise by having engaging and relevant content frequently generated and available in whatever experience you create. Combining the physical displays that tell a story of history, culture, and beliefs of an organization and digital elements from signage, motion sensing walls, beacon technology, and interactive media create a great mix of familiar and surprise.

When done right, the physical and the digital work together to delight, keep people engaged, and coming back to see what’s new. This is one of the cornerstones of creating habit-form designs. Any physical experiential design needs digital experience design and any digital experience design needs to enhance and embrace the physical environment for a greater customer experience and ecosystem.

Consistency without surprise falls flat and surprise without consistency confuses. Let’s always aim for great design that includes the consistent familiar and creative surprises.

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