Do the fine details really matter to a powerful brand? Last year I took my family on holiday to Center Parcs. In terms of a brand experience, I was rather impressed. From its well presented and easy to use website, through to the information packs we received in the post and the demeanour of the staff on arrival, it all met with my expectations of what Center Parcs was about.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="580" caption="A pleasingly on-brand cosmetic bottle"]A pleasingly on-brand cosmetic bottle[/caption]


Once we'd arrived at our chalet, the positive experience continued. All the welcoming literature was on-brand and clear, and even the complimentary shower gel was branded! However, my spidey-senses were tingling. I knew that someone, somewhere, was using Comic Sans in the name of Center Parcs.

I was right. As we entered the swimming pool, there it was – our jaunty, fun-loving friend informing us of CCTV cameras. Sometimes I hate to be proven right, and this was just such a time.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="580" caption="A displeasingly off-brand sign"]A displeasingly off-brand sign[/caption]


Vipond’s Law

Finding evidence of Comic Sans was an inevitability. In 1989, the author Mike Godwin coined what is now known as Godwin's Law“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Basically, it is inevitable that any online discussion, if allowed to continue long enough, will reference Hitler and the Nazis.

In a similar vein, I'd like to propose Vipond's Law – that no matter how tightly controlled a brand's design may be, as the number of individuals responsible for communications grows, the probability of Comic Sans being used in a branded touchpoint approaches 1. It cannot be stopped.

I bet that there's an out-of-order sign somwhere on a toilet cubicle door at one of Apple's offices, or an email signature belonging to a receptionist at British Airways that undermines the efforts designers and brand guardians make to ensure consistency.

The Co-op (or Co-operative, as their branding dictates) threw me quite a curve ball recently. I had been involved with organising a funeral, using the Co-op's funeral services. Included with the final bill was a stamped, addressed envelope for posting a cheque. You can imagine how incensed I was.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="580" caption="A jauntily-titled piece of funereal communications"]A jauntily-titled piece of funereal communications[/caption]


The question I'm asking, however, is does this *really* matter?

Who cares?

Do microscopic chinks in a brand's armour really weaken it, or are they a reminder that any organisation is run by real people? Designers, myself included, speak at length of the importance of consistency in communications, and that any deviation from the style guide is a grave act.

I can spot brand deviations a mile off – it's my job. But I doubt the average member of the public notices, and if they were to notice, they wouldn't care. Did any Center Parcs customers enjoy their holiday less (excluding myself), because some swimming pool signage was off-brand? Would someone dealing with the loss of a loved one really think less of a funeral director because of an off-brand envelope? It irks me, but I would say not.

I've been responsible for large brands before, and to a certain degree, you do have to choose your battles, or nothing would ever get released to market. However, as innocuous as these little branding indiscretions are, it is still the job of the designer to stamp them out. Yes, it makes us seem petty, but the moment we let things slide, bigger and bigger mistakes will be made, and all of a sudden your brand is out of control. We must plug the tiny leaks in the dam, lest the whole structure becomes fragile.

So I urge designers (and clients) to keep a keen eye on the fine details. And when asked, 'does it really matter?', reply with an emphatic 'yes!'

Leave a comment


  • Brian Minards | January 5, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Appleheads the world over say about Comic Sans users ‘Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do, they are only PC users’.

    It’s about the chinks in the brand armour and the fact that well-meaning staff are merely trying to take easy options in communicating something like ‘don’t take wet towels into the dry area’, badly Blu-tacked on A4 sheets on tiled walls. They mess things up, they erode the overall brand and, sadly, most punters don’t give a tuppenny fuck, because they know not what they see… My 16 yr old son often responds to my brand rants by asking me ‘What’s it matter. Dad?’

    What the Co-op is saying is ‘Cheer up, it may be sad for you but it’s only business and not that serious to us, so we’re communicating using a cartoon-like font’.

    ‘Two meals for £10’ run out in CS on A4 and tacked inside restaurant windows alongside often badly designed brand messages don’t bring in the right trade. They unintentionally bring the brand down to a greasy spoon level because someone said ‘What’s it matter?’

    Does it matter? Yes it does.

    Can we fix it? Yes, but at a price that clients are not always prepared to pay.

  • Chris Masters | January 5, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Good stuff Dean it reminds me of when I was asked to do the collateral for my brother’s wedding.

    After spending a bit of time on the design and getting printed with metallic inks and spot varnishes etc everything I was asked to produce I later discovered at the meal that my old man had decided to print up name tags for each place. Of course, he’d butchered the design masterfully so instead of a subtle metallic logo it was now all flat grey and he’d set each person’s name very large in bold comic sans.

    I vowed to make sure he’d never work in this industry again.

  • Brian Minards | January 6, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Hey Chris – Collateral Damage? It’s a lot to do with the following polemic…

    Brand diversion. This is something central to my philosophy. It’s a development of the liver and bacon approach, based on the fact that you know what you’ll get whichever Little Chef you stop at. OK, they don’t do liver and bacon any more, but when you’re hungry you’ll wolf down a plastic omelette, chips (called fries) and beans without disappointment because you expect it to be exactly the way it is. And we know it’s a Little Chef because of the tacky red blur in the distance. And they offer something more important than nosh. Bogs…

    The current splash about the Starbucks siren ( is the case in mind.

    Like Center Parcs (what a funny way to spell flash-middle-class-aspirations-leisure-shed in the countryside), inadvertent intervention by the very staff who should be singing from a brand hymn-sheet queers the pitch.

    But all this is not down to minimum wage workers who simply seek to make day to day operation a little smoother. Their Comic Sans signs saying ‘please don’t throw baby nappies on the floor with the dirty mugs’ are an attempt to bring some sort of order to their working lives, just like Chris’s Dad was doing when Chris didn’t think of doing place setting labels for Bro’s wedding. It’s easier and quicker to do it yourself than go back to the source. And in most cases the mantra ‘wassitmattaanyway?’ is to be heard. I bet the wedding was great and the bride still looked lovely.

    The Starbucks siren and proposed bone china mugs don’t address the way in which an overworked, hairy-arsed, graduate minimum wager wrapped up in a fancy word like ‘barista’ simply does not have the time to juggle skinny lattes and clean tables.

    The central point of marketing an outlet like Starbucks is to sing the praises of the quality of the product, which seems to be well orchestrated. Tell enough people enough times and they’ll eventually believe they have choice and quality, especially when most UK towns have nothing better to offer. We all live in Greggs County.

    The brand journey IS the experience. We go to Center Parcs to ride bikes and drink in bars with NICE, like-minded people and hopefully dump the kids with a min-wage dolly. It applies the same philosophy as going to Butlins. On the whole we know who we’ll rub shoulders with and what we expect. That’s the brand.

    The way in which operations are managed in coffee chains in the UK ignores the subtleties of centrally generated graphic marks and relies heavily on acceptance by the customer base and the firefighting of the frontline min-wagers.

    Yes we all recognise the differntiating visual manifestations of Cafe Nero, Costa etc, but the generic free-for-all inside is common to all. At busy times (which is most of the time) the queues created under the guise of choice eventually scrabble, relieved to actually be served, hopelessly looking for a clear table. There will be no clear tables. The min-wage baristas are convinced they are a breed above. Job titles mean more than paying a real living wage or staffing to slightly exceed demand. One or two extra hand in a branch costs, say, £50 each per day. The benefits in terms of brand would outweigh that cost manyfold.

    So, who cares about a brand manual issued from an ivory tower when all we want is a decent cup of coffee and somewhere clean to sit and drink it? And ‘wassitmattaanyway?’

    Loved the new siren, hated the mess on the table, but hey – I’m not that important.

    I’ve likened the creation of a brand to the accurate white-lining of a football pitch. Pre-match it looks great. An arena for precision football. Then the players’ boots smudge the lines as the game progresses. That won’t stop players scoring goals or carrying out professional fouls. It won’t stop people watching football and it won’t stop lemmings buying coffee to drink in a littered skip.

    The logo-uniformed shop workers who stand outside other shops for a fag-break? They’ve been told not to shit on their own doorstep on pain of sacking. Maybe the brand rules should be that they wear an overcoat and make sure the logo doesn’t show?

    Go to almost any street café in Spain or Italy and you’ll see the opposite. Clean tables, white-aproned waiters who serve you, a smaller choice of good coffee in non-branded cups and SAUCERS. Think of what Terence Conran says in today’s Guardian: ‘When I’m driving long distances in France, I love having breakfast in lorry drivers’ caffs – or crisp croissants in a good hotel’. Note, he didn’t feel moved to say how much he enjoys a coffee and croissant in Pret a StarNero when he’s at home.

    So, brand standards… ‘wassitmattaanyway?’ It’s all sans comedy.

  • Imran Ali | January 6, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Who can forget Stratis’ Comic Sans laden email announcements to the technology division… wasn’t that the brand YOU were responsible for, eh? EH? You can’t HANDLE the truth etc.!

  • Matt | January 6, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Brian’s football pitch analogy is lovely.

    I’ve changed my mind on this one, having lately come round to the view that Comic Sans truly is the People’s Font. Wherever you see that lowercase ‘s’ poking it’s funny little head above the x-height, there’s a human being making a subconsious stand against corporate solipsism.

    Surely great brands are made by, for and of people. If you want people to pick a particular font from the dropdown menu you need to give them a good reason to do so, and one that goes further than “consistency is important”. Consistency is over-rated.

  • DeanVipond | January 8, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks for the great comments everyone; some really interesting insights.

    Matt – in terms of it being the ‘font of the people’, and a reaction against stifling corporate homogeny, I’m not so sure. Yes, I want the companies with which I do business to be populated by real people with their own thoughts and personalities. We all hate automated call centres, or (perhaps worse), call centre staff who insist on reading from a script. When we interact personally with a company, we want to be dealt with by humans – humans, however, who understand the service they are supposed to be providing, and who act accordingly, occasionally bending the rules to improve the customer experience.

    However, in lieu of actual, human interaction, businesses must rely on their brand guidelines to ensure their messaging still has an appropriate tone. Using Comic Sans is just swapping one homogeny for another, and one which sticks out. I would much rather see a hand-written note or sign in a Starbucks/HSBC/whatever, than a poor simulation of one.

    It’s not the use of Comic Sans which is the problem (and I was careful with the original article not to make it a CS-bashing exercise); it is the lack of realisation by staff that what they’re doing is undermining their own company that is the issue. Of course this must be embedded in the business’ culture. As you say (Matt), staff must be given a good reason to ensure they remain on-brand, and as Brian says, most overworked, underpaid minions of large corporations don’t have the time, let alone the inclination, to do so.

  • Tom Morgan | January 10, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Is it possible though that the producer of the offending Center Parcs sign was actually attempting to stay on brand? The Pool Duty Manager having to create a sign who’s message is fairly stern (“you are being watched”) is mindful of the fact that the people coming to the resort are on holiday, hoping to have an relaxing, enjoyable and fun time and he’s probably had it pummelled into him that his job is to facilitate that at all times. Given this predicament he’s gone with what he thinks is a good way to dilute the authoritarian tone. The problem is not so much his lack of good brand intention but a weaker understanding of typography and deeper brand theory. I’d take Comic Sans in this case as evidence of good intentions. To me, in this instance, Gill Sans would be a more heinous crime! 😉

  • Dave Ellis | January 28, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    The whole designers against Comic Sans has been completely overplayed now and I’m tired of reading about it. Non designers choose it as an alternative to Arial from time to time and the design world sniggers and mocks. It’s pretty pathetic when you think about it.

    Small deviations like the ones you mention above matter not to the general public and I think you’re right when you say it’s a reminder that real people are involved.

    Imagine being mocked every time you used a word slightly out of context or made a slight pronunciation error that most people would never notice. Does it matter to ambassadors for the English language? Yes it does. Does it matter in your day to day life, no.