On the importance of references and a broad visual culture

︎ By Jorge Garcia, Senior Brand Designer

Probably every designer nowadays, and especially designers working in tech, are aware of the creative moves from big tech companies. We all wish we could have those whimsical Notion illustrations, the stunning Airbnb campaigns and the slick art direction from Apple’s website. It’s in our Figjam, Pinterest and Are.na boards. It’s in our Linkedin feed and they’re mentioned quite frequently during meetings with stakeholders from non-design teams. Everyone loves them.

And I’m not here to say they’re not good, because they are. But in this tech-savvy, attention-grabbing, social media era things have been looking dangerously similar for the last few years. We’ve seen those common aspects in lots of different brands, but the case is particularly strong when it comes to tech companies. Same geometric Sans Serif typefaces, same color palettes, same layouts on print and digital, same art direction for photography and illustration.

This has turned into a bit of a tightrope walk, because as brand designers, part of our job is to stand out from the crowd, but also to make it clear enough that we are a fintech company doing this and that. So yeah, “go make something different, but not too different or our audience might get confused. A bit like the last iPhone campaign, but with Google colors. And make sure to add some floating UI elements. We’re in tech!”

In our brand design team, we have some rituals that help us in different ways to keep up the motivation, do good work, and stay away from burn-out (although this might be a topic for a whole different article). But one of them, apparently an innocent one, has proven to be quite productive.

Every Wednesday morning, a Slack prompt tells us to share what we’ve been looking at for the last week on a thread. Personally, I wasn’t used to keeping a record of the things that were visually appealing to me during a normal week, but once I got into the habit, it’s wonderful to have that sort of visual diary. And if you have a team of 8 people doing it, the effects grow exponentially.

It’s great to have that shared library of good references, that go from signs that we find in our trips to exhibitions we attend, book covers we spot on a shop, or record sleeves that we find when visiting our parents, just to name a few. Of course there’s also a dose of the latest creatives that we’ve discovered recently, either online or in real life.

This is an absolute visual salad, something I never thought it would be so easy to do and so powerful and inspiring at the same time. It’s incredible to see what other designers like and enjoy, and how that expands our visual culture without doing barely any effort. And of course, this is very helpful when it comes to staying away from current trends and what everyone else is doing.

Actually, we have some solid proof from past projects about this.

For example, how looking at 90s corporate ads led to this photoshoot:

How a book about mid-century cartoons was the seed for all the visuals related to petty cash:

How looking at some contemporary lifestyle publications helped us to fine-tune our illustrations towards a mid-market audience:

Or how the love for medieval stuff from some team members definitely informed our merch from last year’s team camp in Croatia:

We’ve decided that we should share at least a selection of this collective moodboard that we put together every week in case it’s helpful for other people and sparks some fresh ideas. Stay tuned for juicy (and sometimes very random) inspiration from the brand design team.

© Pleo 2023