All I know about branding

The first visit to Mexico that I remember was the one where I was six years old. On a trip to my grandfather’s field, my mom explained to me the concept of branding.

People still worked the land using animals there, making oxen, mules, and donkeys valuable business equipment. In case someone needed to track down a lost, stolen, or adventurous animal, it helped to have a clear way to identify who its keeper was. My grandfather’s brand was a broad, angular A, designed to be easily welded onto a circular piece of iron, and to last for decades, if not generations.

In a village where everyone knows each other and their work, including their animals, the brand was in many ways a formality, or a way to convey legitimacy. No one enjoyed the process of branding. Given a choice, both animal and keeper would prefer to go back to working. The product, usually consisting of corn for tortillas, or beans, was the most important thing anyway. It fed them both, for one.

For a man who had “just enough literacy” to satisfy the legal and business requirements of running a small subsistence farm, it’s interesting for me to think about his approach to his own brand–his signature. A young man spent a lot of time designing what his signature would be like, for pragmatic reasons as well as vain ones. Forgery could be devastating, for example, with everything being so analog and limited. But it could also be the primary way of documenting and communicating oneself visually, since people owned very few things, including photos. My grandfather designed his signature with both an offense and a defense. He was proud of his signature: it was considered both beautiful and secure.

Fast-forward some years, and a less agrarian setting. I think these were principles that I unconsciously applied in some weird contexts–which is what tends to happen with good design principles I suppose. When I was a kid my parents bought their first house. The neighborhood was in between two gang territories, which meant there was tagging. Not random scribbles of ironic phrases, and not the beautiful murals you take pictures of for your Instagram feed while you wait for your cortado either. They were gang names, and the characteristic, but consistent way in which they were visually executed.

I remember the first time I saw a tagger at work. The strokes weren’t careful, or exploratory, or playful, or as if this person got up that morning saying to himself, “I am a maker.” They were quick, efficient, assertive. It lasted about five seconds, after which he promptly walked away, spray can swiftly sliding into the perfectly sized side pocket of his Dickies that I didn’t even see it (I suppose craft extends to how well you clean up after yourself). Branding served its purpose. I recognized the name and I suppose its brand promise too, because I promptly turned around and walked home another way.

Knowing these things, when I got to sign my name for the first time, I remember being annoyed with the results. I was excited to get to do this adult task. But I didn’t like that my library card looked like a rushed penmanship exercise. When I showed my mom she frowned too. “This isn’t a signature. It’s just your name.” She went to point out that my cursive probably looked like every other kid’s, making forgery easier. A signature, she said, had to be intentionally designed, because it was how you would brand your name onto important things.

I ended up asking a kid in my class, who I knew wanted to be a tagger, to help me come up with a better one. It’s remained the same ever since, even after changing my last name when I got married. It is quick, efficient, and assertive. Sometimes it takes almost 4 seconds to make. That may be a long time for a signature, but it is hard to forge, and you can definitely tell its mine. It’s a good skill to know how to articulate design decisions, and always nice if you can do it with a story.

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