“The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make” – William Morris
The 21st century loves novelty. We prize innovation, disruption, and the cult of the new. There is a buzz around new ideas, new technologies, and new business models. This can favour entrepreneurs and start–ups at the expense of older and more established firms. Big businesses find themselves tagged with unflattering metaphors: dinosaurs, fossils, oil tankers that are too slow to turn around.
We argue that for the new to be authentic, it has to flow from what is, and what has been. We make a point of learning from history.
As a branding agency, we trade in the new. Our clients come to us because they want something new, whether that’s a logo or a website or a full blown rebrand. An easy answer is to look around at what other successful brands are doing, looking for trends and what is popular right now.
A more satisfying answer is to look back as well as sideways. We argue that for the new to be authentic, it has to flow from what is, and what has been. We make a point of learning from history.
In search of connection
Take William Morris, a key figure in the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement. He was a designer and manufacturer who was disappointed with the aesthetics of his own era. The Great Exhibition of 1851 is a good demonstration of the problem. Everything on display came with frills, finials and filigree. Victorian design was fussy and excessive – think of lace, or the ornamental ironwork still found in churchyards or parks.
At the same time, more and more objects were made through industrial processes. A lot of this ornamentation was stitched or stamped by machine. The human touch had been lost, and for the Arts and Crafts movement, this impoverished the object and the person making it. The household items had no soul, no craft; and the manufacturer had been reduced to a machine operator, with no connection to what they produced.
Remembering the best of history
Morris believed passionately in the importance of creating beautiful, well–made objects that could be used in everyday life, and that were produced in a way that honoured craftsmanship. He looked to the past for inspiration, particularly the medieval period, for simpler and better models for both living and production. This led him to set up manufacturing in small–scale workshops, not just because it was traditional, but because it was better. He insisted that “we have no wish to put back the clock.”
The Arts and Crafts movement found new expression across art and design, architecture and manufacturing. The Barnsley Brothers applied its thinking to furniture design, creating pieces with visible construction, simple structures and limited decoration. Charles Robert Ashbee was a notable maker of silverware who was known for leaving visible hammer marks on the finished product.
And demonstrating that the movement was not a rejection of technology, William Arthur Smith Benson produced light fittings with all the hallmarks of Arts and Crafts, but made with machines.
All companies have to adapt to a changing marketplace, but staying relevant isn’t about re–inventing all the time. It should be about bringing the best of your heritage forwards in new ways.
Building on the past
William Morris and his contemporaries understood that the future is built on the past, and this is a lesson we apply in our approach to branding. All companies have to adapt to a changing marketplace, but staying relevant isn’t about re–inventing all the time. It should be about bringing the best of your heritage forwards in new ways.
That might take different forms. Sometimes it could mean simplifying. The Arts and Crafts movement dialled down the “excessive ornamentation” of their time, focusing in on specific elements and elegant lines. Often branding is about refining what is already there, finding the essence and carrying it forwards. It may be a colour, a shape, a typeface, something distinctive that can serve as an anchor, and then removing the clutter around it. It might mean clearing away sub–brands and programmes, and seeking clarity and simplicity in your offer.
Arts and Crafts also valued utility. “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”, as Morris advised. Branding has to communicate what your company is there for. It’s an expression of utility and purpose, and an in–depth branding exercise gets right to the heart of a company’s reason for being. Locating that, embedding it in the internal culture, and then communicating it effectively to customers is what branding is all about.
Finally, Arts and Crafts recognised the role of craftsmanship. That’s important in an age where design is digital and often sleek, smooth and soul–less. As we’ve written about before, illustration can be distinctive and personal. Hand–drawn lettering can introduce personality and authenticity. It makes a connection. Let people see the pencil lines.
Taking your story forwards
As you think about your brand, keeping it fresh doesn’t mean endlessly going back to the drawing board. It’s also about history. What inspires you about your origin story? What lessons or major decisions shaped the company? What do people love about what you already have? How will you keep the best of your legacy alive, as you move into the future?