Students in my graphic design classes spend a lot of time talking about branding. They learn and discuss how a brand is more than a logo: it’s a set of ideas, images, lifestyles, and beliefs. In a sense, a brand is its own constellation of culture.
Some of my students’ favorite brands include Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Fake, Supreme, Bape, and Off White. Each brand can be traced back to its own connected appropriations and dependencies – Supreme using the styling of graphic designer Barbara Krueger, Off White’s reliance on Kanye West for its popularity. Still, a brand exists as its own identity.
Branding connects. Two students, adolescents with no prior history with each other, can be wearing clothing or other apparel with the same brand’s stamp on it and feel a connection to that common source. If a brand is opaque enough, or more generalized in its use such as that of Apple, its lowest common denominator is a far wider audience. A clever brand, in its use of those opacities, finds ways of letting the consumer still feel a meaningful individuality within their connections to the common source.
It’s nothing new for my students to hear that consumers often buy a product for the brand, not just the product’s function. They’re also very familiar with the marketing strategies of corporate brands such as the use of product placement in movies, paid celebrity or influencer sponsorships, or user-data-based micro advertising on social media through marketing algorithms. Through using these social platforms, the consumer is involuntarily thrust into this incredibly noisy, shifting web of corporate multimedia messages, fighting to grasp both the consumer’s attention and financial participation.
The challenge for my graphic design students then becomes to take a top-down vantage at a brand’s constellation and deconstruct it for its nuance – its tools and techniques being employed for its capital. To find and draw its extended connections to prior brands, designs, lifestyles, and aesthetics. To find the value in its cultural ethos and root out any deception or dishonesty. Then, with the acquired and practiced knowledge of these techniques, students design their own brand. Some students seek to express their own subcultural lifestyles, others opt to create subversive brands aimed at social justice and using the modes and methods of the market against itself. The goal, in either case, is that students become critically engaged and active producers of culture rather than passive consumers of it. To critically negotiate their own relationships with the global constellation of brands and media.