Jennifer Vano is the Executive Creative Director, Verbal Design Lead at R/GA.
What Makes It Design And What Makes It Great
You don’t need me to tell you that brands today are not passive, waiting for people to take note; or megaphones, shouting one-way messages down and out. Brands are in direct conversation with people; when a brand like Wendy’s tweets, they expect a response.
But brands are also in constant conversation with people indirectly and figuratively. Here’s the thing, even without words: what a brand puts into the universe, its actions, or lack thereof, its omissions, the experiences it builds, how what it promises in one place (say a clever ad) adds up to what it delivers somewhere else (say in the product). Likewise, how it treats you (say when you’re trying to get a problem solved), who and what it celebrates and includes or not—all of it tells people something about what it believes, how it sees you and the world; leaves people with something that can be just as powerful as any spoken or written words. And that goes for everything, everywhere.
So there is no designing a brand without designing how that brand speaks, what that brand says, the conversations a brand is having, and the feelings and non-verbal messages a brand leaves a person with after it’s all said and done.
There is no Brand Design without Verbal Design. And yet, unlike in advertising, where the art/copy team are the creative powerhouse, language is still often an afterthought or supplemental part of branding. Take a standard brand guideline, and you’ll be lucky to find one page dedicated to “tone of voice,” often a handful of attributes explained with a couple of sentences.
That’s not good enough. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a writer.
You simply can’t build a brand to last, a brand to positively influence business and people, a brand that’s multidimensional and that people trust and believe in, without Verbal Design.
But let me take a step back. When I say designing, I mean this (thank you Oxford Languages): “do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind.” How something looks and how it functions. And why. And when I say Verbal Design, I mean this: crafting a purposeful approach to how a brand uses language — and the conversations a brand is having, in the broadest sense of the word — everywhere. And systematizing it. Verbal Design is an essential key to making every experience, every channel, every claim say something that’s clear, credible and respectful, every word or moment feel like it’s coming from the same place. Because it is.
Okay, we buy into this declaration: that language should be considered a brand design craft. But how do we treat it that way?
The first step is breaking and reshaping how we do this work.
- Consider Verbal Design fundamental and inextricable. Build dedicated Verbal Design teams alongside your Visual Design, Behavioral Design, and Strategy folks.
- Look for balance between makers and thinkers and levels across the crafts.
- Design processes and outputs around integration, with designers working iteratively and hand in hand to find ideas, give them shape within frameworks and identities, and build the tools and inspiration needed for others to keep giving that brand life.
The R/GA Brand Design and Consulting team is designed around these four equally weighted pillars — Strategy, Visual Design, Verbal Design, and Behavioral Design. If there’s Strategy, there’s Verbal Design. If there’s identity design, there’s Verbal Design. And Playbooks break silos and go deep. We couldn’t build brands that can act as operating systems-all elements can continually work in concert towards a shared goal-any other way.
Next, we must hold ourselves to a new set of standards. Great Verbal Design delivers on an essential trifecta of factors — inspiration, utility, and integrity —all in equal measure.
These standards aren’t suggestions; they’re necessities. Because essentially, Verbal Design is character development, which drives not only how we speak, but also how we look, behave, relate, and what we do, don’t (or wouldn’t). And without character, brands, like people, may reveal themselves as hollow — or disappointing — when you take a closer look. Or listen.