Branding complex invisible products and services is a challenge for creatives – one they face more and more often.
Not everything was better back then – but it was a lot simpler. Companies offered concrete products and services that provided designers with a basis for developing a corporate design. Digitization has made business fields not just less “tangible” and more immaterial, but much more complex. Today, creatives need to be able to thoroughly understand abstract issues and processes, breaking them down in such a way that they can be transferred into an identity that is visible, emotional and easy for people to understand.
The Stockholm-based agency Essen International faced this very challenge as they were hired to design a new visual identity for the Swedish company Fintech Instantor. In 2010, the startup emerged with the goal of making the world of finance more democratic and transparent. Too many aspects of this industry were still analogue and old school. When applying for a loan, for example, people were still required to fill out a ton of paper forms, and risk managers could often only make decisions based on out-of-date information. The core of the Instantor solution is a digitized financing process in which real-time data replaces the former puzzle of formulas and documents, making the calculation of risk fairer and quicker. Today, 250 banks in 25 countries around the world rely on Instantor – and it’s about time that the brand introduced a consistent corporate identity.
Ones and zeros
The designers spent the first weeks just doing research and holding interviews. “We talked to the people at Instantor as well as many of their customers, and organized workshops to try to understand the variety of products they offer,” explained Fredrik Franzén, Client Director at Essen International responsible for running this project. The team also conducted competitive analyses and comparative studies. The strategists at the agency then translated the results into a brand platform. The ever-recurring theme was reading and evaluating data correctly. “This is Instantor’s core. Many companies can access transaction data, but Instantor’s employees and the AI they use makes this very convenient and quick. This is why we created an identity based on ones and zeros”, Franzén continued.
The creatives translated ones and zeros into lines and circles – and used them everywhere. They are in the logo, illustrations, icons as well as the 3D renderings created by Motion Designer Andreas Wannerstedt, in which balls and pipes stand for dots and lines. The agency chose the Space Mono font from London-based Colophon Foundry. “It has the perfect technical, slightly quirky look that we had in mind. Unfortunately, it was a monospaced type. Thankfully, the type designers at Colophon were willing to adapt it to fit our needs,” said Fredrik Franzén. The colors of the visual identity are reminiscent of the world of finance, but are much warmer – and the shade of lavender used is far more innovative than the already very familiar blue used throughout the banking sector.
Next, Essen International needed to find out how to present and explain Instantor’s many different products and services on their website. “We bundled them into five groups (Access, Smart, Ease, Dev and ID), each for a defined target audience (New Customers, Risk Managers, Growing Business, Developers & Pioneers, Fintech and E-Commerce), and each with their own icons and illustrations,” Fredrik Franzén explained.
Everything flows – including data
Another company involved with risk – specifically its assessment – is Cytora, located in London. The artificial intelligence firm founded in 2014 wants to modernize the insurance industry. They believe that calculating insurance policies should be simple, quick and transparent, and based on the latest data. The heart of the company’s efforts is the Cytora Risk Engine. Instead of relying on static data collection, the company uses AI to create dynamic risk profiles for companies and properties based on real-time data.
To reflect this momentum, London-based Pentagram partners Luke Powell and Jody Hudson-Powell used the 3D tools Houdini and Blender to create five pastel-color blocks that represent a different type of risk, such as floods or storm damage. Their shapes and colors change, constantly blending and visualizing the data flow of the risk engine together with the mathematically inspired lines. At the moment, the blocks are only used as static images online as well. This will change as the corporate design is implemented, though. In addition to being dynamic, they will also show real data visualizations of risk assessments.
The typeface Studio Pro from Bold Studio in Konstanz and the typewriter type iA Writer Duospace from Oliver Reichenstein Information Architects round out the overall look. Pentagram used both typefaces to design the Cytora wordmark. The logo represents the link between human and artificial intelligence at Cytora by combining generous proportions with angular technical details.
Looking for a name
Before the Stockholm-based agency Volt could think about a visual identity, it needed to come up with a name. In 2018, the Swedish subsidiary of the global PwC network – involved in accounting, tax and corporate consulting – decided to become independent.
Volt’s job was to develop an identity for the “new” company, which already had 1,100 employees. “We worked with a naming company called Skriptor Zigila,” explained Matthew Squire, designer at Volt. “We wanted to find a more abstract rather than descriptive name that would be easy to pronounce and remember. And, of course, it needed to be available.” The list of over 100 suggestions quickly shrunk to around 30. Together with Aspia, this was reduced to just 15. Then the discussions began. “I like this part of the process. Suddenly, people start to open up and share their true opinions. This does cause some tension, but this is important to actually create something,” Matthew Squire continued. Among the creatives’ favorites were Embly (short for assembly), Capviso (like capacity and vision), Visago (a mix of vision, wise, good) and Samka (an old Swedish word for “collect”). Aspia, a combination of inspire and aspire, eventually made the cut.
Next, it was time for the designers to work on the visual identity. Creatives worked tirelessly in a series of workshops to explore the core of the company. What emerged in the end was the guiding principle “Growth through Efficiency”. “We looked through Google for suitable images, and quickly found the Weaire-Phelan structure, a complex three-dimensional structure representing how bubbles grow with maximum efficiency,” Matthew Squire continued. This provided the basis for a logo that the designers could expand upon and develop further: Volt designed a series of different patterns and illustrations based on the structure, and continued these throughout the entire identity – in more or less complex variations, depending on the available space. For example, the app icon consists of a single bubble – the logo has two, and illustrative patterns three.
When it came to the colors, Volt flirted with the blue so synonymous with the financial industry. The very dark shade and link to turquoise and red give Aspia’s look a modern touch. The creatives chose the sans-serif Madera font from French type designer Malou Verlomme: This modern, but not trendy type transports a certain corporate feel that a large company like Aspia needs.
Letters instead of images
Will unknowing viewers recognize that the Instantor balls and pipes are based on ones and zeros? Will people notice how the dynamic changes of Cytora’s blocks are linked to the engine’s algorithms? And would they recognize the connection between the Aspia logo and the Weaire-Phelan structure? Possibly not, but perhaps this isn’t such a big deal. It’s more important that Essen International, Pentagram and Volt managed to translate complex services into emotional, likeable identities, making algorithms seem a little more human. The difficulty involved in branding invisible products is shown in how all three products don’t look similar, but still use the same tools: icons, geometric shapes, technical-looking typefaces.
An entirely different approach to positioning is the typographical solution that Munich’s Blackspace chose for Green City. The environmental organization differs in that it is more tangible, but some of its aspects – from sustainability to mobility – range from complex to abstract. “There’s a section where people can buy green electricity, but there’s also the non-profit association and its many offers, which are not considered products,” explained Alexander Gialouris, Design Director at Blackspace. During the strategy development process, the agency team realized that Green City wanted one shared brand that reduced complexity while promoting the greatest possible synergies. They wanted a departure from an old, conventional wordmark and abstract logo.
“Our approach works with a greatly modified version of the Lineto typeface Replica: Five graphic patterns connect with the exclusively uppercase letters, which are arranged in a very compact setting,” Gialouris continued. Together with the Swiss type foundry Lineto and the font engineers from Berlin’s Alphabet Type, Blackspace implemented a randomizer in the font that varies the pattern itself as well as the impacted parts of the letters. For example, there are 20 versions of the letter E alone. It’s only possible to replace straight lines – which is why curvy glyphs like the letters C and O are not patterned. The abstract patterns are inspired by urban structures, like architecture. The colors are assigned to the individual business fields. While the Green City umbrella brand naturally sports a green color, the five business fields each have their own colors.
The actual product of Green City – making the city greener and more livable – is extremely multifaceted and difficult to understand,” Alexander Gialouris stressed. “We created these dynamic patterns to translate the idea of urban structural change into the type – which gives the brand a powerful voice.” Above all, Blackspace effectively used striking typography to make the many different individual aspects of the Green City brand clearly recognizable – whether people can touch them or not.
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