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The Evolution of Brand Strategy

The Changing Roles of Identity and Navigation Design

By Vic Zauderer and Marc Escobosa

As the Web continues to be integrated into the world of business, it is increasingly important for companies to differentiate themselves through brand strategies that exhibit clear messages and provide fulfilling user experiences. The most successful brand strategies take advantage of the Web medium, using well-designed identity and navigation systems that showcase a site's purpose and provide the infrastructure for an intuitive user interface. This gives Web designers newfound inroads into the conception of a company's brand. In fact, there has never been a more opportune time for creative people—Web designers, Web builders, graphic designers, and UI designers—to cross the imaginary design boundaries they're used to and to take part in the design of business.

What Is Identity? What Is Brand?

A company's identity is most often its first visual representation of itself, and therefore critically important in a world where first impressions are paramount. Designers are taught that an identity is the graphical representation of a company through the use of a symbol (also described as a mark or logo), a typographic treatment (also known as a logotype), or a combination of the two. In print design, the identity is often extended further into a "graphic system," which combines all of the visual elements used in promoting a company (stationery system, advertising, collateral, T-shirts, and so on). Whenever we review a designer's portfolio, we're always eager to find examples of graphic systems because we know they require an in-depth awareness of how design overlaps with corporate messaging and strategy. In our opinion, this tells us that a designer is not limited to creating great visuals, but is capable of presenting a company's key messages in intricate detail, thereby protecting its brand.

A company's brand is the sum of all the experiences the intended customers have with that company. Take the Gap clothing company as an example. The combination of seeing the logo, watching the ad on television, walking into a store, talking with salespeople, using the Web site, calling customer service, opening a gift box and, of course, wearing the clothes all help define the company's brand. Even things that happen behind the scenes—such as how well a company manages inventory and its effect on order fulfillment—can contribute to the public perception of the company.

How the Web Has Changed the Role of Brand

Today, shoppers are very aware of shipping times, order status, and their overall account balance with a company. They're also very aware of how the company deals with them on a person-to-person basis. In short, customers now interact with companies more often and in more meaningful ways than ever before. From finding product information to ordering the latest offerings, from providing product feedback to getting realtime technical support, the user comes into contact with all aspects of your business within seconds, not months. It's not surprising, then, that a Web site's user experience has a profound effect on brand perception, nor that managing a brand online has become a daunting but necessary challenge.

For the purposes of this article, we would like to focus on two of the components of brand over which designers have the most control: identity and navigation. These two systems, especially when used symbiotically, can go a long way toward reining in a company's brand.


When we're asked to help a company update its existing identity for the Web or craft a new one, we find it useful to start with discussions about the company's future and product strategy. There are several reasons for proceeding this way. First, we want to ascertain the goals that this identity system needs to achieve. Second, we want to understand the potential short-term and long-term contexts for the new identity. We examine internationalization issues (how will its identity be seen internationally?), product growth issues (will the flagship product always be positioned the same way?), as well as marketing issues (does the public need to be reeducated about the benefits of this company?). The Web helps flush these issues out faster and helps us foresee the right strategic approach to take for establishing a company's identity.

The Web also presents some technical issues involving the identity system. Due to the global nature of the Web, it's important to account for different types of viewing devices by using appropriate, device-independent colors. Because so many Web strategies include the placement of a logo or logotype on a third party's site, it's also important that the shape of an identity work on many "surfaces"—including both light and dark backgrounds. The identity must be significantly reducible in size so it can be integrated easily into the spaces other people have designed for it. Given these constraints, the most successful identities are those that are well balanced, highly legible, and mostly geometric.


Some of the same issues apply when designing a navigation system. The size, shape, and color of navigation elements must support a company's identity. They must not draw attention away from the more important portions of the page, nor should they appear incongruous to the rest of the site. Some companies even go so far as to make site navigation a part of the identity. By doing so, they can take advantage of the Web as a key part of their brand message even in offline applications (see Figure 1 and Figure 2).

However, the role of navigation supercedes that of identity when it comes to defining the user experience. Because content on the Web is organized hierarchically, navigational choices are the most succinct way to describe what can be found or accomplished on a site. So while identity encapsulates the concept of a business at a general level, navigation should give visitors a deeper understanding of what a site is specifically about. For this reason, it's imperative that you create an information architecture—an organized view of all of the information you're presenting on the site—so that the choices you present your user most clearly represent what the user can find on the site.

Think about navigation as the embodiment of the most sought- after tasks by each type of user. We spend much of our time developing task-analysis scenarios to help us better understand the "actors" coming to the site and the "actions" they're attempting. The prioritization of those tasks becomes the basis for the navigation system (see Figure 3).

You should also consider that the words you use in the navigation will say a lot about the Web site. First-time users' perception of what a company does is based on the most prioritized words they see on the home page. And the tone you choose is also critical. Simple words for sections like "About Us" have a different feel from "About IBM." The language you use within the navigation should correspond with the overall identity as well as the general personality of the site.

Remember that the ultimate point of navigation is wayfinding. Without wayfinding there is no browsing. So when you're building your site's navigation, consider how people will find their way around within a section as well as find their way out. These details have a significant impact on the "experience" of the site. Consider the recent growth in the number of tabs at (see Figure 4). Many of them seem to overlap (is what I'm looking for in "Toys & Video Games" or "DVD & Video"?) and some of them are downright confusing (what exactly is Home Living?). Here are some good practices to follow when developing navigation systems:

Capture the Business in the Navigation. Answer the question, "What business is this company in?" The navigation system and information organization should describe the company's business and cover all of the aspects necessary in making that business successful in its space.

Limit Information Overload. Limit the categories to a number that people can remember. When you develop a list larger than seven you're riding on thin ice. If your list approaches 20 or more, it's a sign that some subcategories should be combined into a larger category.

Use Familiar Wording. The list of categories should be in a tone that fits with the personality of the company, and should be understandable by your target user.

Don't Mix Apples and Oranges. Categories should seem related. If you end up with some that fit together and some that feel like they don't belong, chances are they don't. Consider merging some so that you have a consistent organizational model. Primary navigation should establish a concise, logical site architecture. The Barnes & Noble site clearly establishes a list of related products. At a glance, visitors can quickly understand the framework. Conversely, Amazon's primary navigation includes a list of various products and then suddenly a seemingly new category like "zShops." Visitors stumble because it doesn't relate simply to the other categories.

We've explained how critical it is to build a usable navigation, but navigation also plays a more subtle role in connection with the overall brand that you're building. Often it may be more appropriate for the navigation system to take a secondary position—allowing the overall page-by-page experience to take center stage. We've seen this approach handled most successfully in sites that are promoting an experience in which users can explore information—a less "direct" sales approach.

On certain sites, the whole point is to explore and wander, so the navigation needs to be designed so that it recedes and becomes invisibleavailable just in case the user needs it (see Figure 5).

Other sites use a basic index of categories as the primary approach to navigation. Here again, the overall site navigation is secondary and allows the page level choices to stand out (see Figure 6).


Folding the implementation of the identity and navigation systems into an overall brand strategy requires a lot of thoughtful planning and ongoing care. But it also represents a fabulous opportunity for designers and Web builders to take part in an increasingly significant portion of the business they're helping define. The transition isn't easy; designers will find they need to learn new disciplines quickly and apply the reasoning used to solve graphic problems to other strategic problems facing the entire business. We can't imagine a more exciting time to be involved in the design business. With the proliferation of digital information into every nook and cranny of our lives, the fields of identity and navigation design will be key components in the longevity of the great brands of today and tomorrow.

Vic and Marc are the founders of the design firm Zaudhaus, LLC, in Mill Valley, CA.

Copyright © 2003 CMP Media LLC