In his new book CAPS LOCK: How Capitalism Took Hold of Graphic Design, and How to Escape From It (available at Valiz Publishers, Dutch designer and writer Ruben Pater uses accessible language and striking visual material to dissect the complex relationships between graphic design and capitalism. Here, we publish, with permission of the author, a shortened version of the chapter ‘The Designer as Brander’.
“Iron instruments fashioned into rather simple printed type became tools of torture.” — Simone Browne, author and educator
From the Nike swoosh to the Christian cross, abstract symbols play an important role in human society. Elementary shapes such as the circle, square, triangle, the line, the arrow, and the cross have been found in 35,000-year-old cave drawings on different continents.1 Historian Yuval Noah Harari mentions sociological research that suggests groups of up to about 150 individuals can exist without symbolic representation. Once a group becomes larger, stories and myths are necessary to establish a social order. Harari cites religions, politics, professions, nation states, social classes, and corporations as examples of such narratives.2
Branding started with the marking of agricultural property. Workmen in ancient Rome and Egypt left inscriptions of symbols and their initials at construction sites, discovered thousands of years later. Today it is often the unheard and unseen those who use graffiti tags to leave their mark in public space. Brands were a symbol of identification, but today they have become synonymous with mass-produced commodities. Branding has now come to include all aspects of life, with brands achieving an almost omnipresent and religious status. Nothing can escape ‘branding’; cities, nations, water, air, we are even encouraged to brand ourselves.
Many design studios advertise branding services on their websites saying something like ‘We love brands’. But while many designers love brands, some feel uneasy about the relentless barrage of consumption messages that branding inevitably leads to. A discomfort that is no less part of the history of branding, at its most violent.
The word branding comes from the ancient Norse word brandr, meaning ‘to burn’. One way of marking property was by burning a symbol into the hide of an animal, using a wooden torch called a brand. The word dates back to the early Middle Ages, but the Egyptians branded their livestock five thousand years ago. Livestock wasn’t the only living form of property that was branded. David Graeber describes how in ancient Greece, slaves could be freed for a ransom, and they would be branded with the mark of their own currency.3 Under Roman law, slaves were considered property. Runaway slaves were marked with the letters FGV for fugitivus (fugitive), while robbers were branded with FUR, for fure (thief) into the forehand, legs, and arms.4
Branding iron with the letters ‘E’ and ‘W’, Latin America, 1877. Source: © Collection Museum voor Wereldculturen. c.18 cm. TM-H-2978, before 1877. hdl. handle.net/20.500.11840/201347.
Slavery took on an industrial scale during European colonialism, when labour was needed in the colonized territories. Enslaved peoples were branded with a hot iron on the forehead, breast, or arm. The horrifying act of burning an owner’s logo into a person as branding is understood by author and educator Simone Browne as both a technology for marketing and for torture.5 When slaves from the Dutch West India Company (WIC) arrived on the Caribbean island of Curaçao they were branded before being sold. The WIC was one of the first corporations in the world, and already had ‘brand’ guidelines: “as you purchase slaves you must mark them at the upper right arm with the silver marker CCN, which is sent along with you for that purpose”, and then the method of branding itself,
note the following when you do the branding: (1) the area of marking must first be rubbed with candle wax or oil; (2) The marker should only be as hot as when applied to paper, the paper gets red.6
The graphic systems for branding slaves signified locations, situations, or owners. Browne explains the branding system of the WIC after 1703:
The company began to use alphabetic branding irons in an A–Z sequence, with the exception of the letters U and J so as not to be confused with the letters V and I, and the letter O was not used due to the iron being worn down.7
John H. Felch and William Riches, branding slaves, c. 1858. Credit: John H. Felch and William Riches. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Branding_slaves.jpg.
The Barbados Council branded the letter R on the forehead of slaves that set fire to sugarcane fields. In Brazil, runaway slaves were branded with the letter F. It is important to understand this violent part of the history of branding not just as an exceptionally barbarous act, but as a fundamental capitalist strategy. The transatlantic slave trade itself was a capitalist enterprise driven by profit that made industrial capitalism possible.
In the craftsman’s workshop, the merchant’s mark was a personal guarantee of quality by the workshop’s master. The invention of the steam engine set in motion industrial production in the late eighteenth century, and the market would soon be flooded with identical mass-produced goods. The form of these products revealed little about the people who designed and produced them, and under which circumstances.
To compensate for the absent affinity that craftsmen instilled in their products, designers were hired. They invented narratives, names, and symbols to replace the craftsmen’s signature. These were always partly fictional, as the design of packaging and branding wasn’t done on the factory floor where the objects were produced. One of the strategies to instil a familiar feeling onto lifeless industrial products was to invent fictional persons. Design theorists Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller write that early industrial brands “replaced the local shopkeeper as the interface between consumer and product”.8 This is why the brands for generic foods were folksy and family-like: Campbell’s Soup, Uncle Ben’s, Aunt Jemima, and Quaker Oats. A lot of these early advertising ideas can still be found today, as brands create brand personalities as a substitute for human relationships. By using a consistent way of speaking, informal language, and friendly imagery, brands make us associate a product with a person.
The grocer’s, from a Dutch school teaching aid. Most items are sold brandless in bulk quantities. Credit: llustration Josef Hoevenaar. Via Boekwinkeltjes.nl.
Overproduction under capitalism requires aggressive methods to sell the surplus of products. Branding is one of them, as it has become a promotional vehicle that disconnects the conditions of actual production, the workers, and the materials, from how products are sold. “It has been the very business of the advertising industry to distance products from the factories that make them”, writes Naomi Klein.9
To a large extent, the workers who actually assemble or make the products have no influence on how these are communicated and branded. This is done as far away as possible, to enable designers to develop fictional narratives for the purpose of selling the product independent of its material quality and origin. Copywriter Helen Woodward started her advertising career in 1907 and said
if you are advertising any product, never see the factory in which it was made.... Don’t watch the people at work … because, you see, when you know the truth about anything, the real inner truth—it is very hard to write the surface fluff which sells it.10
The first for-profit corporations were established in Europe during colonialism. Governments could not afford to back the risky, but highly profitable sea journeys, so they created joint-stock companies that could attract money from investors. The enormous profits that were made in the slave trade as well as from colonial extraction and exploitation were the conditions under which the corporate form emerged. Among these first chartered multinational corporations were The Dutch East India Company, the Dutch West India Company, the British East India Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The first corporate identity and the first multinational, the Dutch East India Company, 1602–1799. Credit: Compiled from various sources by Ruben Pater.
The Dutch East India Company, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), was one of these first corporations. It was founded in 1602 as a merger between competing shipping companies and it was decided that incorporating them would increase profits. The VOC had a fleet of 4,700 ships, its own army, fortresses, colonial settlements, and even minted its own coins. To communicate its power across continents, it created what might be the first corporate identity. VOC logos were emblazoned on stock, documents, books, maps, coins, flags, cannons, and even on branding irons used on slaves. The colonial armies of the VOC engaged in torture and terror, and for the indigenous populations the corporate identity had “become a sign of murder, torture and dispossession from their lands”.11 For centuries, European colonial corporations reigned supreme, and the VOC is estimated to have been the most valuable company in history, with an estimated worth of $7.8 trillion today.12
Branding began literally as a weapon of torture, intended to dehumanize people by subjugating them into becoming objects for sale. We are also reminded of the uneasiness of advertisers with industrial production, who did not want to see the horrible circumstances under which products were made, as it would make it impossible to write the copy to sell them.
In the design press, discussions around branding are usually limited to evaluating the redesign of corporate identities, preceded by heated discussions on the Brand New website. Discussing the design of a logo is perhaps amusing, but has little to do with the role that branding plays in our economic system. Brands are one of the ways in which designers fuel the continuous consumption of goods, and how every part of society is commodified. Even a well-designed brand for a museum still uses the same logic of branding to sell more tickets, more merchandise, to increase visibility, to make more profit, perpetuating the narrative that everything needs branding. Designers cannot claim ignorance and externalize all ethics to the client. The partners of Chermayeff & Geismar—who branded oil companies, banks, and pharmaceutical companies—explain their view on corporate identity design as follows in Printmag:
When we create a great logo for an environmental organization, we do not see ourselves as saving the planet. In the same way, we cannot take responsibility for the ‘evil’ actions of corporations we brand.13
Using symbols to signify a product’s origin has its uses, as it has been done historically. Branding to simply mark a product or service is useful, but if we would limit branding to its functional qualities, the majority of brands would disappear instantly. Designers’ automatic response is to simply put the logo on every imaginable product, and to display it as often as possible. The process of enclosure of the commons in society, where shared spaces available to everyone that aren’t privately owned are seized and sold off, from healthcare, to housing, to nature, often happens through branding.
The products in supermarkets give the perception of unlimited choice. But a closer look reveals most brands are owned by a eleven companies, who often compete with their own brands. Source: reddit.com
We should be reminded how graphic design has turned our streets into an architecture of billboards, and our media platforms into a banner paradise. Branding shows that capitalism sees everything as a product, and every social encounter as a sales opportunity. Graphic designers can play an important role in refusing that logic. To not treat every design job as a branding opportunity, and to take our responsibility to stop turning all aspects of our daily environment into products.∎
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Ruben Pater, The Politics of Design (Amsterdam: BIS Publishers), p. 135. ↩
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Vintage UK, 2015), pp. 26–27. ↩
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011), pp. 188–189. ↩
Boris Badenov, “As many enemies as there are slaves: Spartacus and the politics of servile rebellion in the late republic”, Libcom.org, 8 June 2010, accessed 17 January 2021. ↩
Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), p. 99. ↩
Instructions for branding set out by the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie, or the Trade Company of Middelburg, a Dutch charter company that later displaced the WIC in slave trading. Quoted from Browne, Dark Matters, p. 99. ↩
Ibid., p. 100. ↩
Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Design, Writing, Research: Writing on Graphic Design (London: Phaidon Press, 1999), p. 177. ↩
Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York: Picador, 2010), p. 249. ↩
Ibid., p. 345. ↩
Charles Zuber, “The Logo That Lasted”, Design Online, 2017, accessed 18 January 2021. ↩
Ned Dymoke, “5 of the Richest Companies in History”, The Big Think, 17 October 2018. ↩
Aaron Kenedi, ‘Marks Men: An Interview with Ivan Chermayeff, Tom Geismar, and Sagi Haviv of Chermayeff & Geisma’, Printmag, 14 September 2011, accessed 18 January 2021. ↩