I am sometimes asked by college students who aspire to a career in branding, what books they should read; whose works they should study to help prepare them for the profession. It is my view—perhaps only or narrowly mine—that if you’re going to pursue a career in branding—and excel at it—you should not spend the lion’s share of your time reading the usual suspects: Ries, Aaker, or Olins, or the good, but lesser known authors who ‘practice’ branding in the more esteemed houses—Landor, Lippincott, or Prophet. Nor do I suggest reading, in the first instance, those names familiar from the pages of the HBR, like Christensen, Porter, or Drucker.
It is not that I think you should not read these authors. You should. I have nothing against them and, indeed, I’ve read them with profit and admire their work. But there is plenty of time for them. My point, rather, is one of timing and about getting a deeper intellectual grounding in more foundational subjects, specifically during one’s undergraduate studies. It is then, especially, that one should read widely and deeply in art history, literature, poetry, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, and rhetoric. Learn a language. Take a drawing course or an instrument. Leaf through “picture books.” Read dictionaries. Seriously. Seriously.
Why? Why, you might ask, would I steer you away from authors, books, journals, and courses on marketing theory, business strategy, economics, even branding itself, that are so obviously relevant to the profession? Let’s assume your interest is in design (or even selling design): why would I suggest that you invest your time with arcane and impractical works, like EH Gombrich‘s Sense of Order, Arnheim‘s Art and Visual Perception, or Languages of Art by the Harvard philosopher, Nelson Goodman? First, because you will learn more on the job, apprentice-style than you will from the conventional curriculum, anyway. Second, because you are unlikely to have the opportunity or inclination to read these authors once you’re working. But mainly because:
Nowhere else—from no one else—will you learn better the subtle, complicated art of discussing, explaining, and defending with intelligence and clarity, the uses to which visual design and visual imagery are put in business and commerce.
To be sure, some of these scholars do touch explicitly on the use of images in business, even if passingly. Their remit was naturally much wider. All the same, what is of relevance—particularly in the case of Gombrich and Arnheim—was their pioneering role in employing science, and especially the science of psychology, in the study and explanation of “image-making,” and the “reciprocal” act of image-perceiving.
Branding is, among other things, about the creation and use of certain kinds of images and visual forms for certain kinds of business purposes (and effects). It therefore behooves the strategist, as well as the designer and the salesperson, to be able to articulate to and for clients (and prospective clients) the provenance, purpose, and rationale behind the design and deployment of imagery in the service of their strategies.
Your clients will mostly be businesspeople—left-lobe people. You will find them temperamentally uncomfortable with “creative types” (as they will refer to you—behind closed doors) and positively ravenous for data. At least, this is the trend now. If you can defend your (creative) work with the backing of science and social science, with articulate, rational explanation, you can sell your ideas and win them over.
In spite of the widely held conviction that all is subjective in the realm of—and response to—art and visual imagery, there are in fact provocative principles and correlations that have been discovered by science, psychology, art criticism, and anthropology, between colors and images on the one hand, and emotional states, meanings, and beholder responses on the other. Roundly educated designers—the best ones—know something of this and cleverly exploit it in their work (even if they cannot expressly articulate how they do it).
To the names of those (above) I will add several more: Erwin Panofsky, whose Studies in Iconology is a masterful meditation on decoding the symbolic meanings of pictures; the American critic, Clement Greenberg, best remembered for his brilliant apologetics in defense of the Abstract Expressionism and particularly his courageous early praise of Jackson Pollock. In psychology, there is Heinz Werner and Bernard Kaplan’s Symbol Formation, a deep, complex work about the role of visual and verbal symbols in thought, feeling, and action.
A designer might learn as much about typography and composition from EE Cummings than from Robert Bringhurst. One may learn more about the diagrammatic mapping of abstract ideas and organizing information visually from studying the boxes of Joseph Cornell or the paintings of Mondrian than from a thick PowerPoint manual. Hybridization of disciplines and subjects ought also to be a part of your intellectual formation.
For strategy, I would turn you to at least one great tome (and two board games: backgammon and chess): Lawrence Freedman‘s magisterial Strategy: A History. His grand book is an intellectual tour of the concept in its various historical, practical, and theoretical manifestations—including its application to business. And copywriters shouldn’t read other copywriters. They should read poetry, novels, rhetoric, even grammar books, and dictionaries.
So, with all due respect to the business faculties at Wharton and Harvard, to Drucker, Ries, Aaker, and Olins, leave them for later. Here is my provisional, incomplete, (non-canonical) syllabus:
- Rudolph Arnheim: Art and Visual Perception
- Nelson Goodman: Languages of Art
- Ernst Gombrich:
- Clement Greenberg: Art and Culture
- Werner & Kaplan: Symbol Formation
- Edward Tufte:
- Visual Explanations
- Envisioning Information
- The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
- Beautiful Evidence
- Lawrence Freedman: Strategy: A History
- EE Cummings: Collected Poems
- Roy De Carava: The Sound I Saw
- Clifford Geertz: The Interpretation of Cultures
- Beryl McAlhone: A Smile in the Mind
Drew Letendre is a proven practice and agency thought leader with expertise in corporate brand strategy, language, and architecture, and over a decade-and-a-half of experience with a number of nationally ranked firms.