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SanDisk through a Q&A with Brett Wickens

Reviewed Apr. 22, 2008 by Christian Palino

Industry / Technology Tags /

SanDisk Logo, Before and After

Brett Wickens, Vice President and Executive Creative Director at MetaDesign (and of former Ceramic Hello fame) has been kind enough to provide us with some valuable insights into their recent redesign of SanDisk, the world’s leading supplier of innovative flash memory data storage products.

Christian Palino: Brett, it’s a pleasure to have this opportunity to interview you about this MetaDesign project. To get us started, what was the primary motivation for redesigning the SanDisk logo?

Brett Wickens: There were two main reasons for redesigning the SanDisk logotype. First, the company was establishing a foothold as a consumer electronics company with the success of products like their Sansa media players — second only in sales to the iPod. This suggested that they were entering territory dominated by Apple, Canon, Sony, Samsung and others, all of whom but one (Apple, which has a symbol) have logotypes with tremendous equity. Second, SanDisk invented, and remains the leader in, flash memory storage. Some of these chips can be smaller than the fingernail on your pinky. The previous logo did not print very well at such small sizes.

CP: Could you tell me about how this project began? For example, was it always going to be a matter of redesigning the typography and abandoning the logo mark?

BW: Initially, we were invited to the table by SanDisk’s leadership because of the success that we helped Adobe achieve with their rebranding and packaging efforts. That work caught the eye of a lot of technology customers and leaders.

So, our work began with a discussion with the leadership of SanDisk. It was our belief that despite years of exposure, there was little unaided consumer recognition of the so-called “flash mark”. It also contributed to legibility issues: it was a distraction from the company’s name, and caused the name to be even smaller when reduced to very small imprint sizes. And it was formally at odds with the existing style of the wordmark.

The “flash symbol” origin, as I understand it, came from two places. First, the company used to be called SunDisk when it was founded in 1988 (It later changed its name to SanDisk as a result of some controversy with Sun Computers in the early 1990s). Therefore, the flash illustration could be interpreted as rays of sunlight. Or, it was a simplistic attempt to visually depict the idea of a “flash” (as in flash memory). I believe that the overlapping parallelograms were meant to portray actual memory chips.

For these reasons we were certain that it was more important to focus on creating a strong logotype.

Many companies think they need a symbol, but few actually do. And when they think they need a symbol, they usually want it to be “diagrammatic” — to be an illustrative capture of everything they do. Of course, that’s impossible. If you are blessed enough to have a name like Apple or Shell, then you can pictorially represent the noun in a stylized way, and even add some overt personality to it (like the bite taken out of Apple’s logo, implying “forbidden fruit&rquo;.) If you have a compound or invented name, then pictorial solutions become a lot more difficult. You also have to be prepared to spend years — and a lot of money — getting people to recognize you by your symbol alone.

SanDisk Card

CP: Was there a brief developed for the project?If so, would you share with us some of the objectives, attributes or challenges outlined in that document?

BW: Well, the brief — which we wrote — was rather extensive because it involved not just the logotype, but also a comprehensive audit of SanDisk’s visual and verbal presence in the world, its brand positioning, messaging, packaging and all the other elements of a comprehensive rebranding program. Here is a summary of the objectives from the brief:

1. Streamline the logotype to:
- reflect SanDisk’s desired position as a trusted consumer electronics company
- enhance recognition and legibility
- accommodate a broader range of application techniques

2. Own a distinctive color

3. Clarify and harmonize packaging and product information design

4. Own a “look and feel” that:
- represents the intersection of “intelligent technology and human values”
- embraces the brand attributes of creativity, power, and ubiquity

5. Create a brand system that is manageable and easily extendable

Of course, some of these objectives apply more to the overall story of SanDisk on the retail shelf than specifically to the logotype, especially the desire to occupy the intersection of intelligent technology and human values. That bit is really about creating smart products which we use to share our most personal, entertaining, valuable or critical business information.

CP: How does your design process begin?

BW: It starts with a meeting with the leadership of the company. We like to have face to face discussions with our clients to really understand their business objectives and their self-identified needs for change. From this, we can help determine what actually needs designing. Is it a logotype? Better packaging? A better process for managing a design system? There are many possible answers that can only be determined once we understand the client, and immerse ourselves in their world by taking receipt of existing strategic documentation, samples, field observations and analysis.

For the design of a logotype, the brief is discussed with a team of our designers. With identity programs, I like to cast the net wide at first. I like to see ideas that comprise equal parts “art” and “logic”; I like to see what happens when we move the needle just a little bit to places where we move the needle off the chart. From that vantage point we curate the solutions that best respond to the brief and we usually end up showing as many as three directions to the client, though we always have one particular solution that we would recommend.

CP: Does MetaDesign have a formalized process of creative exploration and revisions?

BW: The “format” of creative exploration is usually left up to individual designers, though I provide guidance and direction where appropriate. I have been designing for over 25 years, so my experience helps guide designers in avoiding common dead-ends or, more importantly, to find fruitful lines of enquiry.

As for revisions, we do have a formal process where the chosen direction is refined based on both client feedback and my direction. When discussing final directions with clients I try to remove as much subjectivity out of the equation as possible. As experienced designers, we simply know what works and what doesn’t. That experience is what clients are paying for.

CP: While the client places their trust in the experience of their hired designers, certainly they often have strong opinions about specific visual elements or ideas — how do you effectively remove this subjective influence from the evaluation process?

BW: Deftly. Sitting in front of a CEO — or board — and telling them why your solution is right sometimes feels like you are giving the closing statements in a courtroom trial, albeit in a friendly manner. You have to be acutely aware of the clients situation, the competitive landscape, some “futurecasting” and, frankly, presence and engagement. It’s very much about literal storytelling, with a beginning, an arc, and a d�nouement — so that your audience can come to no other conclusion than the one you are trying to reach with them. That being said, I’ve experienced my share of plot twists and alternative endings.

SanDisk Jump Drive

CP: Were there specific reproduction or contextual issues that guided the formal solutions?

BW: Yes. There were the usual multi-media considerations (does it look good in print, on the web, at television resolution (all things we test for) but this project had the additional issue of very small scale reproduction in chip manufacturing, where a rapid silk-screening process is used. This latter consideration certainly guided the typographic craft of many of our solutions. The other main driver was shelf presence. If you go into any retailer and take a look at the shelf where memory cards are sold, you will notice a chaotic mess which subjugates brands and — even worse — prevents customers from quickly identifying what they need. We believed that a reasonably sized, more streamlined SanDisk logo, the presence of SanDisk red, and comprehensive color-coding and typographic system would help overcome both of these unfortunate realities.

CP: Any difficult obstacles to overcome either in the design or management of the project?

BW: The packaging was probably the hardest nut to crack. We had just come off a hugely successful redesign of the Adobe CS packaging and initially tried to apply some of the metaphor-based thinking that went into solving that. But we quickly realized that a systemic, and frankly, more obvious approach to the design was going to be more helpful to SanDisk’s customers, and SanDisk itself. We have a very powerful project management team at MetaDesign, and to their credit the project was handled smoothly, with any obstacles being identified far enough in advance to be dealt with appropriately. Another issue we frequently have to deal with is foreign languages. A system designed in English may present issues in other roman languages, like German, or non-roman languages, like Mandarin. We have to be cognizant of all the languages so that the system can accommodate localization without the system falling apart.

CP: How were the solutions evaluated?

BW: For the most part, the solutions were evaluated internally in collaboration with SanDisk’s leadership. I personally presented the identity options to Dr. Eli Harari, SanDisk’s CEO, and we discussed the benefits of each solution. In the end, he made the decision about which one he felt best represented the future direction of his company, and he agreed with us that moving the needle too far might diminish the existing equity of the brand he and his team had worked so hard to build over the years. We also didn’t want to confuse SanDisk’s loyal audience.

I am a strong believer in NOT subjectively testing logotypes or identity systems. Typical research techniques such as focus groups, IDIs (in-depth interviews), intercepts and web surveys, yield very little actionable information. All that market research can tell us is what the most number of people don’t mind the most, and that seems like a huge compromise to make when you are trying to tell the world something very important and very personal about why people should care about your company.

The only testing we generally recommend in identity projects is cultural testing: does a style, color, symbol or word have a particularly negative meaning in a particular culture. If it does, then we weigh that into our refinements and decision making process. In the case of SanDisk, there were no issues.

CP: Compared to the previous logo, how is this redesign better?

BW: Formally, it looks more professional, sophisticated and trustworthy. The typeface we created added gravitas that the existing logotype lacked. We tested it for legibility and presence against the logotypes of SanDisk’s major competitors and it staked it’s territory very well. It retains the character of the previous logotype, and pays homage to the old “flash” mark by shaping the dot in the “I” as a parallelogram. Probably the biggest difference between the previous and new logotypes is simply that the stroke width of the characters is now more uniform. The previous version suffered from too great a difference between the thicks and the thins in letterforms.

Systemically, it is simpler and more legible. This allows it to be used as a solid figurehead for a more complex information system that has to communicate to customers — at a glance — what format of memory they are buying, how much memory is in the card, and what the most common uses are for that type of memory. For the latter, we designed a highly recognizable icon system that accompanied each of SanDisk’s multiple SKUs.

In marketing collateral and advertising, the new mark has far more presence and legibility without expanding the footprint of the original logotype/mark.

CP: What process do you employ to test legibility and presence of the logotype against the competitors?

BW: We put them all up on a wall and look at them. There is a formula we use: you take the cap height of the work and multiply it by 200. That gives you the maximum distance from which the logotype is generally legible to people with average eyesight. For example, the maximum viewing distance for a 72 pt cap height logotype (or any typography) is 200 x 72 pt = or about 16.5 ft. So, from that distance you can evaluate legibility and presence when all logotypes are matched to cap height.

CP: Were there any valuable lessons you walked away from this project with?

BW: I can say without doubt that one of the tenets that I strongly believe in was reinforced by this project, even if it wasn’t new to me. That is, “good design is not about what you put in, it’s about what you leave out.”

It’s also important to filter previous learning because not everything you know will be applicable to everything in the future. You have to determine what is right for a given situation, and be open to new possibilities. As the futurists used to proclaim, “all things flow…”

CP: Thanks so much for sharing these insights with us.



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