Notes on words

Writing about words

When clarity costs personality

There’s too much information out there. We all seem to know that we should be more thoughtful about the ways we consume it.

So it makes sense that there’s a tendency towards simplicity in branding these days. We’re time-poor, disinterested and ready to switch tabs at any second.

It’s strongly reflected in logo design these days. As logos become simpler and more suited to small screens they look more and more the same. But a logo isn’t just a logo. It hints at a brand’s visual and verbal dialect.

On the verbal side of brands, I definitely see the move to a cleaner, simpler sensibility. It’s still rare that the voices I get to craft are brutally minimal, but the descriptions I hear a lot from clients are things like ‘clear’ and ‘simple’. Understandably, new brands want to be easy rather than alienating. But I wonder if they risk something worse: being bland.

The issue is when ‘easy’ brand voices become the default. It sometimes feels like the case for new start-ups vaguely based in technology. What if all car share, ride share and car subscription services had the same verbal identity?

What’s the point of building an ambitious brand if you sound like everyone else?

Brands need distinct voices to show their difference.

This is an idea that’s innate to publishing and editorial style. Take the difference between the voices of Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

Vogue is generally understated or, at its most giddy, like the kind of quip you’d hear at a civilised dinner party. It makes room for beautiful imagery and treats its subject matter as a serious business — even when it knowingly points out how frivolous fashion can be. Conversely, Cosmo’s voice is more intimate and familiar with readers, but bombastic too. Cosmo is a kind of satire of young women communicating with each other, it’s over-the-top and full of verbal flourishes.

Guess which magazine this is from?

Guess which magazine this is from?

The crucial thing is that it’s voice, not just content, which helps to crystallise these mastheads as ‘brands’. If you re-wrote their cover lines in the other’s voice you’d know that something was off. (Vogue’s version of the above might read “Ungendered: When men watch reality TV” …or something else more subdued.)

It’s not that every new start-up needs to create voices that are eccentric or erratic. Verbal design should be about knowing your audience thoroughly. And where an audience is being served by words, those words should be clear and useful, of course.

The challenge lies in creating voices that can be simple, but never simplistic. Plenty of behemoth brands invest in personality-driven writing, even though new brands seem to be running away from it. Google has a touch of whimsy, Apple is a bit smug and Ikea keeps a wry sense of humour. Yet all are brands built on simplicity and efficiency.

Branded voices can still privilege function while maintaining a distinct character. It’s in exploiting text that is typically ignored or not accepting utilitarian copy as the only option. It’s in re-writing the same damn sentence a dozen times until something feels closer to a brand’s persona.

For emerging companies, the risk in demanding ‘clear’ voices without much else is that they may undercook their words, and greatly underestimate their audience.

Celina Siriyos