Since my post about Facebook and PayPal’s branding a couple of weeks ago, PayPal have rolled out a much improved UI, so an update to that post is in order.

In short: This is a vast improvement. The overall UI has been improved greatly by simplifying the primary navigation into three main signposts: Buy, Sell, Transfer, which makes perfect sense as these are after all PayPal’s core services. The login is now at the top of the page in its own menu bar with tabs to toggle between services for individuals and businesses.

The overall visual language is much more friendly, the typography is clean and the messaging much simplified. Simplicity is the keyword with this redesign and the copy reflects that with its humanist approach, we now finally feel that humans may actually work at PayPal, rather than the robots that must have been responsible for previous iterations.

The main image on the homepage is a little cliché however — aaah the faceless couple stare out across the beautiful lake, they are at perfect peace to enjoy the simplicity of nature now that all their online payment woes are handled safely and securely by their trusty friend: PayPal. Vomit. Aah well, still a huge improvement on the dreadful mid 90s stock they were using up until last week.

As you click deeper into the site the layout continues with the simple approach. Copy is kept to a minimum and rather nice illustrations help drive the point home, with prominent and descriptive buttons guiding you to where you want to be.

Sadly, this all falls apart once you login, as you are then back to the clunky old interface that’s been in place for years. I can only assume that a rethink is underway and will be updated sometime soon—but it is somewhat telling—they’ve added a new cosmetic surface to appeal to new customers, but the underlying product and service design is exactly the same: Unwieldy, convoluted and generally displeasing. Now there’s a tagline.

Both Facebook and Paypal enjoy dominating their marketplaces — Facebook claims to have 800 million active accounts worldwide, and Paypal boasts 230 million and growing, so there’s no doubt that both companies enjoy ubiquity, but does this ubiquity equate to a warm and glowing brand perception?

Not for me, which is why I singled out these companies, and I don’t think I’m alone. While Facebook has become an everyday part of our lives, moaning about Facebook is also a very popular theme. The rollout of new features such as the activity feed, the integration of messaging with chat and Timeline have all met with moans, groans and sometimes outright rage. A lot of that is probably down to our human aversion to change, but surely rollouts could be dealt with in a better way that serves to warm people to the notion and bring them on board with progress? Privacy concerns are another constant sticking point for Facebook which regularly make the news and the blogs as well as dozens if not hundreds of usually dumb and unfounded status update memes that spread about like wildfire. Privacy concerns are obviously a real issue for a company based around using personal information to target advertising and sell to marketers. You’d think Facebook would work harder on PR to counter these worries.

Now amidst a slew of lawsuits regarding their IPO that have merely been fobbed off as ‘without merit’, it makes me wonder what’s going on behind the scenes (if anything) to make people feel warmer about Facebook. However, they seem content to continue their sealed lip policy of doing what they want with no user engagement. “We’re Facebook, we do what we want.” seems to be a theme. CEO Mark Zuckerberg even continued with his personal trademark of wearing a hoodie at all times when attending a pre IPO meeting with some of the most powerful investors in the world — seems pretty arrogant and naive, and certainly didn’t go own well with many prominent analysts who questioned the maturity of the 28 year old CEO.

And how about PayPal? As a customer I have had dubious experiences with PayPal. My account has been frozen several times for no reason and has proven a chore to resolve, I have had difficulty moving accounts from the UK to the US, I have had Paypal send old addresses to retailers causing my purchases to go to the wrong place, I have had difficulty contacting customer service and resolving these issues and when finally speaking to someone I was talked to like an idiot by a customer service rep who was clearly just happy to repeatedly recite standard lines from a form. Don’t get me started on fee increases. Not pleasant experiences though I have heard horror stories from people who have had much worse (think having thousands of dollars locked in an account for no reason for months on end, or a small business having payments go awry).

Those are largely service and product issues, but what about the visual side of their brand. Paypal uses the traditional, risk averse shade of blue we associate with large, faceless corporations. Somewhat understandable for a company involved in online finance, users need to feel safe and apparently insipid blue means ‘safe’. But surely they could try a little harder in both service and visual brand to better connect emotionally with users? Dull, lifeless, outdated and cheesy stock images are Paypals sole attempt to engender good feelings and they fail miserably.

Facebook has also opted for the safe, insipid, corporate blue — with 800 million users across the globe from all ages and demographics it’s somewhat rational not to go crazy — but Facebook is about life, friends and sharing, couldn’t it at least try and liven things up a bit?

So what to do about it? Where to look for inspiration?

The first place that springs to mind is Virgin. Virgin is one of the worlds most successful brands. People love it, from the experience, customer service, products, visual brand right up to the CEO, Richard Branson — people love him more than the brand itself, and rightly so, he’s inspiring and has infused that in all aspects of his companies. Virgin asks you to fly at 30,000 feet with them, they are also in banking, health, holidays, trains, mobile phones and a bunch of other stuff you’d want to feel safe with. Are they insipid blue and lifeless? Absolutely not, they’re bright red, vibrant and fun. Virgin has a brand that exudes life. Facebook and PayPal could take a leaf out of Branson’s book, but unless they shape up the way they operate I’m almost glad they haven’t, nobody likes a wolf in sheep’s clothing after all.

There’s a lot of fuss right now about the Kony 2012 campaign ran by non-profit organisation Invisible Children. In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard about it, it’s a viral campaign based around a 30 minute video that serves as a rabble-rouser in order to get people to ‘act’. The activism in this case revolves around buying bracelets, t-shirts and a kit full of posters which you are expected to paste up in your area on a specific night, all in order to ‘raise awareness’ about Joseph Kony — leader of the Ugandan guerrilla group known as the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). Formed in 1987, the LRA with Kony as it’s leader is accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual enslavement of women and children and forcing an estimated 60,000 children to participate in hostilities.

There’s currently dozens of news articles covering something of a backlash, many alleging dubious use of funding, questioning the timing of the campaign (Kony probably hasn’t even been in Uganda since 2006), scepticism regarding its efficacy, the motives of the films producers and the arrogance to assume it takes young white Americans to ‘save’ Africa. You can find all that on all the regular news outlets, what I want to talk about is the campaign strategy and implementation.

The video is slick, using all the emotional touch points we’re used to seeing employed by large consumer brands. It begins with a dramatic overview of planet Earth, grandparents talk to their grandkids on Skype and share videos on YouTube. We’re shown images of the Arab Spring and how Twitter helped it’s cause. A woman gives birth and we’re reminded how important our children are with a series of ‘cute’ family videos. We then hear the harrowing story of a boy whose brother was taken and killed. There are tears and the screen fades to black. The narrator promises the child he “is going to stop them”, he then tells us “exactly how we are going to do it”.

Except he doesn’t really, we’re just fed the usual ‘raising awareness’ rhetoric. By raising awareness we are told that the US government will be forced to step in and do something about this problem. All we have to do is buy some bracelets, t-shirts and a kit full of posters to put up, spread the word on social networks and we will have, overnight, raised awareness which will ensure US military involvement in Africa. We’re not expected to question whether encouraging military collusion with a notoriously corrupt African state is something we should be doing, nor are we told that Kony has been very much off the radar and hasn’t even been seen in Uganda since 2006.

So how does the campaign work, and how does it fail? It has certainly achieved an incredible amount of publicity with support from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, P. Diddy and Rihanna, and teenagers and young people are spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. The Kony 2012 website has put sales of the kit on hold due to high demand, I assume this means they have sold out. Ease seems to be the key here, we can all now be feel-good pseudo social activists and all we have to do is buy something from a website and send a tweet or two to help continue ‘raising awareness’.

But what issues does the campaign actually raise awareness of? The only messaging on the posters is “KONY 2012″ and the strap line “Stop at nothing”, or on an alternative poster we’re shown the merging logos of the Republican and Democrat parties with the line “One thing we can all agree on”. That’s it, that’s your lot. Utterly meaningless. We are told that the aim is simply to make Kony famous. This guy has been running around with his militia killing people for 25 years, ‘fame’ may help Lady Gaga’s cause, I’m not convinced it’s the best way to bring justice to African warlords.

So, on the day these posters will suddenly appear on our streets, if we’re not already aware who Kony is, we’re expected to what? To google his name and buy some more bracelets? Aside from the half hour video that provides no real information on the situation in Uganda today, there is zero further information about Kony, Uganda, or anything else for that matter, just a donate button and purchasing options, “yummmmmm.. things”. Awareness is not really raised at all, we’re just given a name. If anything, Joseph Kony will simply become—overnight—a nationwide graffiti king, all thanks to the American youth. The posters even have a rather edgily, if not somewhat dated, stencil style illustration of Kony, putting him alongside the usual icons of evil and terror, Bin Laden and Hitler. Ironically, Nike used the exact same style imagery several years ago to make heroes of Brazilian football players.

Vimeo stats indicate that at this point, 14.9 million people have viewed the video, though it’s unclear how many watched all 30 minutes of it. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate success, there’s clearly a backlash and I believe it’s almost entirely down to the superficiality of the campaign messaging—in that—there is no messaging. There is no real education. The campaign almost solely targets a ‘hip’ American youth that may be keen to try their hand at being Shepard Fairey for an evening, street art once again used as a convenient way to grab the attention of a seemingly predictable youth. But is that really true? Isn’t it incredibly patronising to assume that young people are just willing to get on board with your cause simply because you tell them they should and that you can sell them some ‘gritty’ posters? To add to the ridiculousness the organisers even chose a date (4.20) that celebrates cannabis culture. I guess the expectation is that these kids are going to spend the afternoon getting blunted and then run through the streets pasting up posters. Well who knows, maybe it will happen… if they’re not too stoned. Maybe they should have included some Kony 2012 chocolate bars in the kit.

The strategy is one of ‘trickle-up’, it functions not to provide real awareness but solely to get money out of pockets and then that money can hopefully be used to somehow bring some change, we’re not really told exactly how, but it likely involves lining the pockets of Washington lobbyists so they can get the go ahead to send more US soldiers into Africa. We’re expected to believe that this kind of hollow ‘awareness’ and vapid activism on one evening of one year is really going to bring about worthy change in what is in fact a very complicated political landscape. I don’t buy it.

Awareness campaigns need to be treated with tact, and audiences need treating with respect. Treating an entire demographic as a bunch of mindless hipsters who will get on board with your cause not through want of genuine awareness and knowledge but rather through the belief that making something look ‘cool’ is enough, is a wasted opportunity. This campaign is arrogant, superficial and based on short term fad interest and vanity. Though we can assume it has raised a lot of money, if not awareness. Let’s just hope they spend it where it can make a difference rather than the $1.1 million spent on personal travel and $400k on nice new offices in San Diego. I guess you can’t really judge the ‘success’ of a campaign without complete transparency as to the objective.

The traditional handpainted sign look has been on the up in the art world for a while now thanks to forerunners such as the late Margaret Kilgallen and Steve Powers, along with the resurgence of traditional yet progressive tattoo styles. I expect this visual style to become much more apparent in more mainstream circles over the next year or two, crossing into both fashion and graphic design circles and likely popping up in use by brands and in formats you perhaps wouldn’t have expected. Other artists of note are New Bohemia Signs and Jeff Canham, and a big mention to the unknown mural and signage painters in India, I’ll let you do the googling there.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked “How much do you charge for a logo?”. I guess it’s an obvious starting point for someone unfamiliar and unexperienced in buying design, but it’s also a red flag warning of a possible nightmare client as it’s such a flawed question. I’ve never commissioned an architect, but I can tell you I’m not about to ask one “How much does a building cost?”.

A brand is more than simply a logo, walking away with just an eps file of a logo will get you nowhere. That’s not to say every small company or startup requires a hefty brand manual and an almighty range of marketing material, but what it does mean is that you should be equipped with the insights into what you stand for and how best to position your brand, the knowledge on how to communicate that successfully, and the tools and assets in order to be able to portray it visually. Put in some effort and investment and reap the rewards.

All clients are different, all projects are different. There is no one size fits all job description and so there is no one size fits all cost. Any designer that offers a menu of prices, be it for brand identity or websites costed per page or marketing material or whatever it may be, is almost certainly a rank amateur that cannot possibly be working in a way that will benefit you. Why? Because…

  1. They’ve already skipped asking questions about your company to find out how they can best help you get what you need. Research, discovery and strategy are clearly words that are not in their vocabulary
  2. They are usually bottom of the barrel cheap, so out of necessity they’ll be knocking up the first idea they think of and making it shiny. They rely on churning out a high volume of poor quality work as quickly as possible in order to survive
  3. They’ve set a fixed time limit on how much work they will do and merely want you in and out with an invoice sent as fast as possible. They do not care about your project.

So here’s some advice for clients — Be open, start a conversation and offer transparency to your budget. Holding your cards close to your chest is probably the most ineffective thing you can do. Understand that good branding and design delivers ROI and invest realistically in your business, nobody will be able to help you and nobody worth their salt is going to be interested in working with you otherwise.

You can read more about ‘what’s in a brand’ here.