Could I Interest You in a Less Modern Brand?

To call modern design a plague would be overdramatic. It’s not that. Modern design is a tool available to branding execs. However, too many of them use this tool improperly. They default to minimalist design when they shouldn’t; they needlessly crowd into that niche when it doesn’t serve their brands.

Some creative directors embrace modern design because they love the style. On packaging, websites or showroom interiors, the style is clean, pure, loud, and luxurious when a talented craftsman holds the reins.

Baron & Baron - Michael Kors Bags

Michael Kors bags by Baron & Baron

Other creative directors and chief brand officers perceive an obligation to create minimalist visual identities. These are the execs frightened of being left behind in the race to be most contemporary; and these are the designers who halfheartedly go along with Bauhaus-chasing clients. They build their designs around a generic typeface rather than a smart concept, and their mantra is “Make it look expensive.”

Both visionary and charlatan Modernists can churn out high-impact, albeit charmless packaging that cuts through the clutter. Competitive minimalism has a place in New York’s mediascape because an empty square stands out amidst the overwhelming waves of imagery crashing against consumers. Michael Kors can maintain a niche in New York’s fashion scene. Credit the outside designer Fabien Baron with keeping the Proxima Nova logotype in the corner, thus protecting that beloved empty square. Glossy beige against white does help the brand look expensive.

At Apple and Louis Vuitton, designers balance emotional impact, art, and modernity.

The Michael Kors visual identity is good, not great. I want to briefly contrast it with Apple’s. We often regard Apple as one of the cleanest, sparest, most modern brands (web designers always hear “Can you make the site look like Apple’s?”). Both Kors and Apple gravitate to the same color scheme, but their design philosophies come from opposite sides of the tracks.

In the words of former Apple CD Karl Heiselman, Apple”pastich[es] stuff from the analogue world.” Faux textures called skeuomorphs and a translucent-plexi logo give Apple a layer of richness that eludes Michael Kors. Onlookers approach Apple’s brand materials with a web of associations to plexi, to brushed chrome, to beveled edges, and to analogue dashboards. Apple plays with the viewer’s associations to these materials. You can imagine how it would feel to touch the trompe l’oeil icon for iCloud or iOS 6. You can imagine how if would feel cold against your skin, how it would smell. Skeuomorphs can be elegant, and yes, even modern.


Like an iPad, a Louis Vuitton bag is presented as a labor of love, perfected through tinkering, and expertly crafted. The ornamental graphics surrounding the LV brand reinforce this message: she who shops at LV becomes a connoisseur of fine art.

The most boring place in Disney World is the Contemporary Hotel.

You move towards your audience if you design in a way that engages their emotional associations with materials, textures, sound, and imagery. You move away from them if you don’t.

Disney’s Contemporary Hotel in Orlando is wearyingly dull. It’s a plain white shirt compared against the vibrant Grand Floridian, Polynesian Resort, Port Orleans French Quarter, or Coronado Springs. The latter four resorts serve visitors sounds, smells, colors and textures that they’ll remember. They engage visitors emotionally.

Disney's Saratoga Springs vs. Disney's Contemporary Resort

Disney’s Saratoga Springs vs. Disney’s Contemporary Resort

Disney built the Contemporary Resort as a hub for professional conventions and as a space for overflow from the other resorts. Like the Michael Kors graphics, the resort’s design is a timid solution to a problem, but nothing more. No Disney magic here.

Minimalism fails when brands subtract art from design in the pursuit of purity.

I’ve criticized the competitively minimalist brands for being too artless, not for being too modern. As we saw from Louis Vuitton and Apple, a brand benefits from dialing down its adherence to 100-year-old Bauhaus values. Only by relinquishing minimalism can Louis Vuitton look artfully hand-crafted (expensive). Only by relinquishing minimalism can a brand elicit an emotional reaction from an audience.

You might remember a Cooper Hewitt study that asked non-designers to vote on whether they preferred popular logos before or after their redesigns in the modern style. Michael Bierut writes about the study:

I was surprised by how often the civilians got it “wrong,” voting enthusiastically for the cartoony old version of the Comedy Central logo, the needlessly fussy and insecure pre-redesign Starbucks, the dated Clarissa Explains It All-era Nickelodeon splat.

Again and again, commoners hated the logos that designers admired, and loved the logos that designers snippily derided. Beirut concluded that (1) audiences favor complicated or even busy visual identities over modernized ones, and (2) they prefer literal imagery over that which is cunningly implied.

People like actual splats on their Nickelodeon logos, not metaphoric splats, actual drawings of Saturn on their SciFi logos, not metaphoric alternate alien spellings. And they react with suspicion, if not outright contempt, when designers refer to the mystical characteristics of colors and shapes, to meanings that are open to interpretation or that will emerge only upon examination.

nickelodeon logo before vs after

Nickelodeon’s fans largely prefer the old visual identity to the modernized one.

The old Nickelodeon splat aligns with the spirit of the brand while the modern logotype doesn’t. Likewise, the cliched Saturn symbol is true to the SciFi brand and its audience, all of whom would find Disney’s Tomorrowland more inspiring than the Contemporary Resort. Are branding execs really this out of touch with consumers?

In all likelihood, Michael Kors wants to appeal to the minority that voted for the modernized logotypes. The company may grasp the tastes of its audience to an extent that Starbucks, Nickelodeon, SciFi, and Comedy Central demonstrably do not. Yet, Michael Kors seems to occupy a needlessly overcrowded niche—that is to say, supply overwhelms demand for those Baron & Baron brands. And that means the empty square on the shopping bag doesn’t stand out from the background so well as it used to.

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2 thoughts on “Could I Interest You in a Less Modern Brand?

  1. Pingback: Environments: Modern but not Minimalist | Joshua Eckert - Experience Design

  2. Adding to your manifesto: The SyFy switch was for licensing. They couldn’t put “SciFi” on shirts or lunchboxes because they didn’t own the name. Then, the name adjustment turned into an unneeded and overzealous 360 rebranding effort. This doesn’t refute what you said, because I agree these guys were chasing minimalism when it didn’t serve their brand. Just a little more context for the tale.

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