You weekly dose Oli Sansom‘s expertise and wit is here. Oli is an incredible Australian wedding photographer with a decade of experience in advertising and design. Prior to wedding photography, he worked as an illustrator, animator, and creative director. His unique creative background grants him a multitude of advice and fun examples that he’s ready to share with you. If you haven’t read the previous 2 articles that he wrote for our blog – this one about the real purpose of a website, and this one about clarity vs industry jargon – make sure to do it, as both of them are filled to the brim with exclusive .
Today, Oli is deep-diving into a fascinating topic: design eras and how the knowledge of them can help you build an original brand.
Let’s talk about the “strategy”, in branding strategy, and how implementing one small, thoughtful concept around how we position ourselves in our market, can help us stand out.
When we’re rebranding our photography business, and deciding how we want ourselves and our work to show up to the people looking at it, there are a few specific things we can do to wrap some strategy around the brand and design-decisions that we’re making, which can lead us to finding new weird and wonderful things to be influenced by. Often, a template shop might have their own signature style, and this tip can also help us avoid leaning into a style that might result in our brand being diluted and lost within our own market.
Branding strategy is a big, complex beast that goes far beyond simply the visual look and feel – and indeed it’s one-part “standing out” and one-part “serving your target audience”, but in this piece, I just want to focus on one single area of branding that I don’t see discussed in our niche (wedding and people photography) – historical eras as a source of influence when looking at our choices in the colours, typefaces, and brand voicing that we choose to use for our photography brand.
And for the application of that idea, we’ll look at it in the context of point one above: “standing out”.
Why this article is here
Design is a beautiful and expansive craft. As someone who spent nearly a decade as a brand and experience designer, working on projects with budgets ranging from the hundreds to the millions, I want to share with you my passion for design. It’s rooted in something that existed before I even came close to stepping into that career; before social media began to homogenize many visual industries and hide the incredible depth and opportunity of what’s available to us as creators: curiosity and an anarchist mindset. If you’ve had a bit of a tickle in your brain, telling you that there must be a different way to do things, I hope this piece is one little actionable mindset and practical tool that will help you with that, through widening your vocabulary in the incredible craft of design.
So let’s dive a little bit into the idea of “eras”
An “era” is simply a period in history. Here, we will talk about eras in the last century (50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and beyond). And in that period, certain things were made. Each era also had its own wars, medical discoveries, cultural movements, love and loss at scale, but when we think of a period in history, what might immediately spring to mind, is the art that humans made in that period, and the brands that filled our homes.
Art is powerful!
But, you knew this (which is why you’re here, doing what you do, you brilliant photographer).
And importantly, art is tied to cultural movements, and often geographical areas of the world.
Think about it from the point of view of something that is widely understood: music! When we hear Elvis, we instantly visualise the Americana of the 1960’s. When we hear thrash metal? It might make the 1980’s Bay Area music scene come to mind. And if we deep-dive into the Bay Area thrash metal scene, we’ll see that period of time and that movement of art, had its own distinct typography, colours, and way of communicating gigs, press-releases, and album art.
Just as music leaves unmistakable markers on a decade in history, the craft of design operates in the exact same way.
Every decade, we would see trends in colours, typefaces (often mostly referred to as “fonts”), layouts, and more.
In every era, there are inevitably a set of influencers that informed the look and feel of a period of history: and this incredibly powerful fact changes how a viewer, or listener, feels when they hear or see something produced in that time.
So when Walmart is looking to sell some new t-shirts to folks featuring bands they’ve never heard of and other random designs to match? They’ll create the illusion of that moment by referencing what type of typefaces people were using then, what type of colours, and more. It’s a historical moment in design and a language of its own, forever etched in stone.
Why are eras important?
Again, let’s look towards music: in modern history, we can see patterns in how we communicate with music: as trends come and go and are forgotten, only to be recycled by a new generation discovering them.
Music and design tend to be revived in roughly 40-year cycles. If you don’t believe me, keep an eye on the re-emergence in the wild of the fabulous 80’s hair icon, the mullet. In the 2000’s, for example, as standards of production value in music rose so high in the 90’s, a new wave of music listeners wanted something raw: and so the rough, gritty edges of bands like the White Stripes entered the mainstream. Then flares and 70’s music made a comeback, and we are seeing 80’s stylings make their way into the underground synthwave genre, all the way over to artists like The Weeknd, whose recent track “Blinding Lights” is unmistakably peak 80’s in its sound and piggybacking off the emergence of synthwave. It can stand out in the charts for many reasons, but one of them is because it opens up a previous world of communicating a story through sound – the 80’s – to a new generation of music listeners immersing in melody and music for the first time. When the distance to an era is thrown in the mix, there’s a huge opportunity to be had by creating new ties to it with a new audience.
In a decade or so, I’m sure we’ll see the comeback of the 90’s boyband and peroxide-tips in a fusion that presently is terrifying to even think about (and one that my hairline couldn’t honour even if it tried).
Understanding the natural recycling of art and design that happens from one decade to the next can help us see when something is on trend, but most importantly, it clarifies and opens us up to what’s on either side of that trend – and therefore available for harvesting, as your own dirty little secret. If you’re going through a branding process – which includes all of the pieces of brand design (colour, typography, your writing style, your personal dress sense), then you can make a strategic decision of just how different you want to be, or how much you want to sit in the mix of what’s working, by doing a simple analysis on what is being used, and make forecasting decisions on what might be safe from turning into a trend.
In the 1960’s, we had the iconic design of the New York Subway way finding system: its signature was the Helvetica typeface, with its clear, brutalist lines, and unmistakable plain beauty. It just… works, and fabulously at that. 40 years later, in the 2000’s, block Helvetica again reached peak, and was seen everywhere in a form very similar to that Subway system design.
I’m yet to see it used in that way by a wedding photographer… hint hint.
And now? What’s working right now is a clean 1970’s design sensibility, which is nearing the peak of its natural cycle in trend. If you’ve looked around at much of the modern wedding photography world, that pattern can be seen in the choice of typefaces and colours in our own industry: ochres, terracotta, pointy 70’s typefaces, images in arches, and so forth.
And it looks great, but so did shiny gelatinous buttons on websites in 2002: and this is where stuff that looks good, gets confused for brand-first design, which is a very separate thing (design is about solving a problem, and the problem here when we’re looking for a market difference might be defined as “standing out”).
So, what about standing out?
Great. So what are the specific things that define an era?
It’s no mistake that things from the 1950’s look like they came from the 1950s, and the same for any other decade around it. It’s because there is a theme: a particular styling of typefaces, maybe a colour palette that ran across multiple famous brands, and particularly in the 1950’s, a specific way of communicating with the written word.
These aren’t accidents: they’re specific things, and we can choose to cherry pick from them, or consciously avoid them, in order to stand out.
Much like a musician might infuse the old with the new, we too can see what combinations of eras are there for us to explore in new and interesting ways. Tom Morello fused a percussive approach to the pentatonic scale that makes the sound of the iconic band Rage Against the Machine unmistakeable and un-replicable. A fusion of distinct things, a recipe: whether consciously or unconsciously. No guitarist in the world sounds like Tom Morello, because of his unique, lean intersection of ingredients that make his sound, his.
Let’s Look at some of the defining looks of three eras:
The great depression. Artful art-deco, gentle restraint, gorgeous lines and simplicity. The 1930’s have little representation in current photography brands. Here, we see a classic deco-typeface family and colours ripped from a 1930’s shipping poster.
At least in the USA, best known for vibrancy and excitement, but offering so much more than that. Most associated with the building of home-empires via the “American dream”. The 50’s as we know it is not at all represented in photography branding. Here, we see a characterful display typeface with rich colour.
Thick in the mist of the sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, with the addition of punk, disco, and what would become heavy metal. Thin Serif-typefaces and muted palette are a hallmark of the more subtle-minded graphic design of the 1970’s, and currently seen in small business branding everywhere. Here, a gentle serifed typeface against muted creams. Add an image inside an arch shape, and voilà.
Three distinct eras up there in a sea of hundreds of possible ones, when we consider all the unique, large and small areas that we can find branding trends in. Which begs the question: if gentle 1970’s is the current trend apex, what’s next?
The juicy bit: how can understanding eras impact my business?
The look and feel of a time in history is driven by a mix of underground artists and corporate advertisers who are right on the edge of what is current.
Here’s how this usually plays out.
Underground artists collude in an alchemic bunker of unhinged creativity, saying no to showers and yes to rampant experimentation, and start something. Then the advertising world rips it off, and the pattern continues. From there, those ideas trickle down, all the way over to service industries, where it finally reaches us, who without the benefit of an in-house senior designer or an advertising budget, are generally about 5-10 years behind both the underground arts and the advertising world. In the early 2000’s for example, the advertising industry was making heavy use of watercolours, flourishing typography and more throwbacks to 1940’s design. In the commercial world, I bet that the suits couldn’t wait to get their hands on the music of Rage Against the Machine to try and sell products with.
In the wedding photography industry, whatever was hot, hits us about 10 years later.
As mentioned earlier, we’re in the middle of a gentle 1970’s resurgence with edgy Serif-typefaces paired with an abundance of arches, not just in our own industry, but in countless others. It’s totally beautiful – which is why it’s everywhere. But it’s now impossible to stand out by using 70s’ typefaces and images in the shape of an arch. And there has been an emergence of a lot of branding designers without any formal education not doing their jobs and protecting photographers from looking like the person next to them.
But knowing this pattern is incredibly useful and powerful to know because…
It’s easier to stand out than you think.
If we want to know what’s already 5-10 years out of date, then look within our own industry. Don’t get me wrong, this is not throwing shade on photographers or modern branding shops, it’s simply the nature of small business where everything is bootstrapped: we tend to be a little bit behind, and fear is a great driver in folks doing similar things to the person next to them. It’s why I began with the same blog system as the person next to me, it’s why I used the same tricks my community were using when I started, and why I have to continue to check myself if i’m doing things with a future-forward mindset or because something is safe. But if we want to stand out and design ourselves for the future, and build a brand that is more sustainable that we will want to hold on to for longer (rather than rebranding every 2 years), then we will gain our external inspiration from elsewhere: the underground arts, and cutting-edge advertising: where true experimentation is happening (music, fashion, food, the arts), and then being backed up by money (advertising).
Or, straight-out timelessness.
If you’re currently considering a rebrand, I want you to look at the below chart
I made this chart, just to illustrate roughly the enormous opportunity that sits *around* what’s currently on trend, if we are brave enough to look beyond what’s working. Even if we omit every decade before, say, the 1920’s – pretty quickly we begin to see that by focusing only on one narrow era of inspiration, we are immediately missing out on a pool of brilliant, diverse, inspiring eras that make the pool of incredible opportunity 90% larger.
Another little tip for using design eras
No, not generally… I mean in the example I gave further up.
As big as Elvis is, his presence looms larger with a western audience, because that’s generally the world he was in. The 1950’s in the USA was different to the 1950’s in Russia. Which was different to the 1950’s in Australia, or to Indonesia, or… the list goes on. Where design has its own language on a historical era, it is also deeply connected to a geographical area: which all comes back to people, and artistic movements. Just a handful of people in a single city can influence an entire design movement, based on their own artistic leanings, or outside political influences.
Let’s use architecture as an example
Buildings in New York City most notably from the 1930’s onwards have a unique slant as they reached their top. This was due to building legislation that aimed to reduce their shadows across the city, without limiting their height. This stuff isn’t an accident or a trend that came out of nowhere sprinkled by the magical 1930’s fairies from the heavens above, it’s specifically due to the 1916 zoning resolution: and eventually, these iconic slants form a part of the design language of the 1930’s and 1940s in movie posters, as well as becoming a distinct marker for what we know as “art deco”. Also think about the Soviet brutalist design movement. Concrete, hard forms, a design code that became one of the most iconic in the world over.
So when researching design eras, understanding that design eras are linked not only to a time in history but a geographical area, suddenly opens up more enormous doors into finding brand new sources of inspiration.
What was on cereal boxes in the midwest USA in the 90s? What distinctive shapes and palettes were happening in Russia? What typefaces are architects using to sell luxury developments? Why have all hipster barbershops over the last decade referenced design elements from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s?
Patterns are everywhere.
But the key is to notice them first, and what they’re telling us. As a photographer you know this, because noticing what your couples are feeling is integral to the experience and integral to the images they will receive. Noticing their ups, their downs, their natural dynamic, and noticing the beautiful idiosyncrasies and expressions that differ from person to person, makes or breaks a photographer.
Now apply that same seeing, that same noticing, to the craft of design, and the languages and patterns that are already a part of your every day. The products you use, the signage in your neighbourhood, the colours, shapes and textures that are across every industry that you connect with in one way or another, and how those make you feel.
One final note on branding and eras
As mentioned right up at the top, branding is a big, complex beast involving far far more than just the visual design, and certainly far more than the single concept of research into eras. But by looking into eras, and discovering how we communicated effectively using design and writing in the past, we give ourselves a simple (this can’t be overemphasised), measurable, and actionable tool to put more strategy around our branding and communication processes.
And if you’re a sole-operator, there can never be enough simple, actionable tricks that we can indulge in.
When beginning a rebrand, most branding experts will advise a reasonable course of action – to start by looking inwards, asking ourselves who we are, what our brand is, etc.
Sometimes we don’t know what we are,
So anything worth doing well,
Is worth flipping on its head.
What incredible new inspiration will you discover by deep-diving into a single, unique era of design?
A few final tips for using the concept of “design eras” in developing your own brand
- List 20 of your competitors, assess their brands, and make note of what era their brand appears to be influenced by
- Put a cross right through those eras. Compile the remaining, un-represented eras into a list: use that as your initial design inspiration. Don’t worry, this won’t unnecessarily limit you: there are thousands of sources of inspiration within each era alone, once you know what industries to research in.
- In your research, find out who designed movie posters, band-posters, and brands in that era. Find their names, find their bodies of work, and compile those visual languages together (and now, at this point, you may use Pinterest). Also search for fast-moving-consumer-goods, architecture, and other forms of design from within those eras, and see what you find. Often you just need one little thing. One unique typeface, or colour pairing, that will instantly separate you, and even drive how you’re communicating your brand in every other way.
Four of my favourite general tools in support of design-era research
- Colorlovers and Kuler: these two competing tools help you build a colour palette
- Niice.co – a fabulous tool for deep-diving on design themes: use the “~” button to go down rabbit holes
- brandsoftheworld.com – a peerless brand research tool
- https://fontsinuse.com/tags/2376/1940s – use fontsinuse.com and search by era to literally see examples from the era you select
You may not be doing your own branding (I sure don’t recommend it – there’s a reason why good branding designers in demand are formally educated and understand all the work involved), but if you gain anything from this piece, I hope it’s a wider vocabulary in the beautiful craft of design, and more inspiration to draw from in the development of your own brand, even if commissioning a professional designer.
If you want to connect to Oli, ask him any questions, or follow his brilliant work and mind – you can find him via one of his 3 websites:
Or via Instagram: instagram.com/olisansom