Branding Design: Self-Brainstorming

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

This is a term coined by advertising executive Alex F. Osborn for group co-operation in generating ideas. Three basic principles govern successful brainstorming:

  1. All judgement is deferred to later.
  2. Idea quantity is the goal.
  3. Unusual ideas are valued, as are combined ones.

For this to work in a group, no participant comments verbally or otherwise on any idea expressed. All ideas are recorded. This maxim prevails: “Quantity Breeds Quality.” It is only later that the ideas are evaluated or sorted critically.

Ideas can come from many quarters. Since getting each and every idea drawn is essential, our stick men here
are particularly appropriate.

One successful variation on this technique is called directed brain-storming. Each participant is asked to write one idea on a piece of paper. The papers are shuffled and exchanged, and each participant is asked to come up with a new idea that improves on the one already on the sheet. Participants again swap pages, and add improvements for another few rounds.

We’ll look at these techniques and see how they apply to generating corporate identity concepts.

Left Brain, Right Brain
It is a popular notion that the two hemispheres of the human brain have divergent capabilities and inclinations, in addition to controlling opposite sides of the body. Generally speaking, the left side is credited with being the analytical, verbal/linguistic and logical side of the brain. The right side is thought to be the spatial, visual and creative side. Typically, the belief is that both sides can’t work on their respective specialties at the same time.

Modern brain research does not support this concept. Instead, it shows that capabilities like speaking are dependent on various specific areas of the brain, each with different contributions to the whole process. It also shows that most processes are not exclusively left-brain or right-brain functions. While the pop wisdom about left and right brains isn’t completely true, the idea that different parts of our brains do different things is validated.

With that caveat in mind, and still using the model that the right side of the brain is the creative side, we might suppose that conceptualizing and designing corporate identities should be largely a right-brain activity, right?


Even though it is not a scientifically accurate model according to the latest research, the left brain/right brain image is useful for this exercise.

Why would we think that half a brain could do a better job than a whole brain? Is there a way to get multiple parts of our brains working together synergistically?


Visualize the four kinds of identity concepts as an outer ring of a wheel that can revolve around an inner circle that contains the three kinds of identity components. You can use this wheel to generate more ideas. Each identity component can work with any of the four identity concepts. Since signatures have no concept at all other than font choice, they don’t show on the inner circle (but are still needed to accompany a logo or a monogram).

You should try to have at least one or two of each of the following combinations:
• Corporate Activity Logos
• Corporate Ideals Logos
• Corporate Name Logos
• Abstract Logos
• Corporate Activity Monograms
• Corporate Ideals Monograms
• Corporate Name Monograms
• Abstract Monograms
• Corporate Activity Wordmarks
• Corporate Ideals Wordmarks
• Corporate Name Wordmarks
• Abstract Wordmarks

Rather than the left brain getting in the way of the right brain, one side can act as a catalyst for the other. Instead of stifling creativity, this approach can promote it. Correctly practiced, this kind of conceptualizing can put any designer in the position of working from a wealth of good concepts. Instead of trying to come up with a single good idea, the designer might have to decide which of the good ones is the best. That’s where we all want to be.
As you consider each idea, write it down and draw a quick thumbnail to record it. Every idea, not just the “good” ones. By considering each of the four different kinds of concepts, you are getting the left side of your brain to collaborate with or jump-start the right side. Later, every thumbnail or sketch can also help pollinate new ideas.

Working the Technique
Be sure to take notes when interviewing your client. Single words or phrases can be crucial. After reviewing your interview notes, ask yourself the same questions, but don’t be content only with the client’s answers. An experienced set of outside eyes may see things that the client doesn’t. So when you ask yourself the following questions, see if you can come up with the most accurate and useful answers.

• What is this company’s activity?
• Specifically, what does it do?
• What is the essence of the business?
• What objects or images can relate this company’s products or services?
• What niche (such as quality, speed or price) makes this company different from its competitors?

Ask yourself all the questions you asked the client and put your answers, if different, in a different color in the margins of your client notes. Compare them. Try to articulate why you had any answers that vary from the client’s. Note those things too.

Some of the answers may lend themselves to more than one of the conceptual approaches. For instance, something might be interpreted as the company’s activity or the company’s ideals. It doesn’t matter what slot it gets categorized in. What matters is that the concept was generated, and became a tangible idea.

Make written lists of objects that can represent, or be associated with, the corporate activity. Make initial sketches of those objects.

Then take it a step further. Think how these concepts might be shown in a less-than-literal way. Some designers tend to be too realistic in producing an image. Logos are not illustrations and certainly not clip art. Back off. Instead of being confined by a literal likeness, try to merely suggest the object in question. Many of the best corporate identities have this less-than-literal quality.

Next, consider ideals that the client might legitimately aspire to or, conversely, which qualities or ideals might be antithetical to the client’s image. After determining the top five company ideals, think of ways to represent them. What symbols might you use? A lion can represent superiority or royalty as well as strength. A flower can represent love, freshness, growth. Lines slanting to the right or arrows can mean forward motion and speed. Hearts, eagles and crowns are all images that communicate ideals. There are thousands of possibilities.

Is there a way to visualize the company name, perhaps with a mascot? Many company names are family names of the founder, but often those surnames have meanings that could be visually represented. Sometimes the logo can show how to pronounce the company name (such as the bear profile logo for Behr Paint). Always look up a company name in the biggest dictionary possible or an online dictionary that will define non-English words as well. Wikipedia has entries on a surprising range of words.

The term “abstract” conveys a lack of associations. That doesn’t mean that any old image will necessarily work for a given logo. What graphic shapes are naturally compatible with the corporate activity or ideals without actually representing them? The Chevrolet logo doesn’t look like a car but has been a very effective abstract logo for more than a century.

You haven’t done a complete exploration of conceptualizing until you have come up with a few ideas associated with each of the four identity concepts on the outside of the wheel, combined with each of the three components on the inside. It may be difficult to focus your brain to each combo, but the exercise will bear fruit, be assured.

In effect, this technique allows you to brainstorm with yourself. During a proper multi-person brainstorming session, evaluations are not allowed. The object is to get as many ideas as possible on the table or on paper and do the sorting later. It should be the same for you at this stage. Resist the temptation to evaluate while in the act of generating ideas. Let the flow happen.

Evaluating from a Position of Plenty
With a basket full of ideas, the designer can turn off the idea stream and put on a different hat. Now each idea can be examined. If a single concept seems inadequate, see if two concepts can be merged, as long as the concepts are compatible. Even those ideas that may look useless, overused or trite, in combination with some other element, may become a truly remarkable design.

With some practice, this technique will produce several good ideas, from which the very best can be selected. Conversely, designers who stop at one or two ideas cannot afford to evaluate them too closely because they have not developed the ability to generate ideas on demand. But when generating ideas no longer is a major hurdle, attention can then be directed to developing the greatest ones, instead of the merely adequate ones.

Two Warnings:
Don’t conceptualize on the computer. Use a pencil for quick sketching.
Later, when combining and refining ideas, don’t draw lines but solid shapes.

This will be understood better after we discuss the Seven Deadly Sins of Logo Design.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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