Brand guidebooks teach a lot. On the surface, they teach just what they’re made for—explaining how a company’s graphical assets should be used in communications.
But upon closer reading, they teach much more. They show how nuances in graphics and typography convey what a company stands for and the target audience it wishes to serve. They sometimes explain the rationale behind details of the company’s visual identity, providing something almost like a behind-the-scenes summary of the design team’s strategy-level discussions. And they often show—with examples—improper deviations from their guidelines. (I enjoy those sections a lot, much in the same geeky way that I enjoy Strunk & White’s examples of confusing sentences.)
Anyway, I came across a 2012 brand book for Barnes and Noble. It’s an interesting one for several reasons.
The cover has a closeup photo of wood.
Wood, being the raw material of paper, the backbone of books, is a fresh, unexpected concept as a visual introduction. But alone, this is still a hop and a skip and a league away from evoking the memories, textures, or scents of books to me. It could be a fitting look for a home renovations company. The blue strip on the left hints at a book’s binding, which does help.
On the inside cover is a dedication—the first dedication note I’ve seen in a brand book. It’s poetically written, almost like a toast or speech. It celebrates who B&N seeks to serve: people who love paper books and walking among bookshelves. Here it is:
I feel rather sad that it’s buried in tiny italics down in the corner—not only is it nice writing, but it also captures the company’s target audience well.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this brand book is the new logo B&N seemed ready to launch back then in 2012.
Here’s where I got confused. I found no trace of this logo in my excavations of Google Images. No snarky criticisms online, no oohing and ahhing, no photos of it installed on storefronts. Not a pixel, not a word. Except there’s one site that seems to suggest this whole book was a project for a class, though it doesn’t say if the logo design was part of the class project. (At 136 pages, it is an impressively professional brand book if it was really developed as only a class assignment!) But there’s one ooh/ahh on the ampersand here, which, with its other commentary, seems to suggest that this logo was not only for educational purposes. So, I’m confused. (If you know the answer to the mystery, please tweet at me @MayaPLim and I’ll update this post.)
If the blue logo was really something B&N considered implementing, this leaves us to wonder…Why was this new version not rolled out? Sure, there are financial aspects to a rebrand, but could there be a visual basis for the decision?
We can have some fun speculating.
The current logo, except for the coloring, is the one that the brand book refers to as “the old logo.” The “old” logo looks old school.
The dark green and gold feels old, like a grandfather’s office armchair, or like those antique banker’s lamps (green glass shade, brass stand), or a gilded hardcover book. It looks serious and strong—the sans serifs are tall and thick, standing like books. That sophisticated ampersand lends a classic, scholarly/literary appeal, especially with the slight open space in the center of it.
Even with the current logo, with the dark green toned down to hunter green and the gold swapped out for a pale tan (dusty shelves, musty paper?), it looks sensible, sturdy, and smart. The current logo:
The would-be new logo says none of these things to me. The curves and rounded typeface remind me of dairy, babies, and icing. The emphasized ampersand, with its circular curves particularly reminds me of pregnancy. (Maybe the T portion of the ampersand is a wriggling infant, in the arms of a rotund mama? Sorry, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.) The robin’s egg blue color says nothing to me about books or literary experiences. Spring and birthdays and cake piping and baby boys, yes.
Even with its applications to other B&N products, it looks juvenile. This college product looks too soft to be academically rigorous. Though possibly it could be a transferrable look for a nursing school.
The description accompanying the new logo in the brand book says it is a “fun, friendly” look, which is true. (The R is reaching out to you! The Bs bat their long eyelashes!) But it’s too macaroni-y. Books are angular, not curvy. Books are heavy, not wiry or airy.
And though this is hip and fresh, is that who this company wants to speak to right now? Maybe that was the key question that stopped the presses from revealing this logo.
What’s viscerally gratifying about the old/current logo is how it reflects reliability and tradition and authority, in part because it has been around so long that it’s familiar to us. It provides reassurance that good old things are still around and holding steady against fibrillating tech trends. It looks comfortable with its history, confident about its identity, and not trying to be a tween in skinny jeans desperate for attention.