JournalFeb 2015

The story of 4-years spent building the Hanno brand

Over the past few years we’ve been slowly building and evolving our brand and identity. There are few projects as challenging as designing for yourself, but we’ve had a lot of fun with this one.

How it all began

I remember when Jon first contacted me about working together on a freelance project. At the time, his and Sergei’s humble little design pairing was going by the name “Fireball Design”. Let’s just say that I wasn’t massively impressed by the brand they were working under, but I didn’t dare to ask what that name stood for, or to suggest a re-brand.

Fortunately after that first freelance project, we got to know each other and I slowly won their trust and respect. When Jon mentioned that they too were a bit embarrassed by that brand name, I was more than happy to help.

So we started a rebrand, and came up with something we were all really happy with: Kernel. For all of us, it had a nice balance of the natural and technical, and the visual mark itself was one I was pretty pleased with.

You might be wondering what this has got to do with Hanno? Well, sadly about 2 years later, we had to rebrand again due to a few legal complexities and an agreement with another design firm who were also called Kernel. Unfortunately, Kernel were in exactly the same industry, and also operating in the UK. Somehow, we’d not spotted them at all when we first came up with the our name. It was frustrating, for sure, but we realised that this might actually be a rare opportunity to come up with an even better name and identity.

While we’d been very happy with the Kernel brand at first, it wasn’t perfect. The first problem was how hard it was to pronounce, especially for non-English speakers. We were constantly getting called “The Colonel”. And not having any sensible reply when people asked “Why are you called The Colonel” was frustrating. The brand was also a victim of its own success. We had such a strong visual mark (which looked great as a sticker and a rubber stamp) that it was very hard to use it online next to the text part of the logo.

So we had a second chance to do things better. The mistakes we’d made in our first attempt helped us to set an even stronger brief for the second rebranding. This time we knew exactly how we wanted to use and present the brand. We were determined to integrate the company’s story and history into the brand we built.

Luckily, Matt was just joining the team when we were starting the redesign. It was actually the first project he had a chance to work on. Having a more experienced storyteller on the team would make this a lot easier.

Beginning our voyage of exploration and discovery

Exploration and discovery were two themes that we identified as being really central to the work we do with clients. As designers, we’re in charge of navigating the world of ideas to come up with strong design solutions to their problems. We wanted to make sure that this spirit came across in the brand we created.

We also wanted to make sure that our distributed team was a big part of the logomark that we put together. Being unrestricted by geographical location is a big part of our team’s identity.

The name also needed to be strong, clear and simple to pronounce. We were determined to get people to stop calling us The Colonel.

So we spent a lot of time brainstorming and picking out words and themes that might work for for the new brand. There was some seriously weird stuff in that mindmap…

We had a lot of interesting ideas, but one of them really stood out: Hanno. Our soon-to-be namesake, Hanno the Navigator, was the King of Carthage and a famed explorer. On one voyage, he commanded a fleet of ships along the unknown and unexplored African coast, discovering gorillas (which he thought were very large, hairy men). In recognition of his discoveries, he even had a lunar crater named after him. This word had the perfect combination of everything we were looking for.

Our first steps: designing the logo

Trying to distill a big story into a perfect little signature is the first big challenge when you’re designing identities. The story behind Hanno gave us a lot of freedom to explore many different directions: kings, explorers, navigators and lunar craters. We had to somehow turn this into something strong and clear. Learning from the weaknesses of the Kernel brand, we decided to set ourselves some limitations.

This time around, we wanted the brand to be a little bit simpler. That would help it to be distinctive and memorable, and give us a chance of building a lasting brand. So we decided that when we were conceptualising the brand, we’d try to focus on just one of those directions in each concept. That would keep us focused, and stop us from designing a horrible frankenstein-logo.

We spent a lot of time sketching and exploring, getting more and more complex. Trying to design a simple logo can be much harder than it looks.

But we finally came up with an idea which we felt brought together these elements in a simple, yet striking way, while still represented the story behind the brand.

At first glance the logo appears to be a king’s crown: a direct reference to king Hanno. But it’s also intended to be seen as a boat, symbolising the explorer and adventurer within us. And with the series of interconnected dots, we tried to symbolise the star constellations that ships would navigate by. We also hid a little history inside that constellation. There were 5 of us on the team when we were designing the logo, so those aren’t just random dots and lines. Each of the 5 points represents one of our 5 shipmates: a distributed team located apart geographically, yet still strongly connected.

With the biggest challenge behind us (coming up with a strong symbol), we had to find the best way to represent this logotype and “crown” it by pairing it with the word ‘Hanno’ itself. So we chose a bunch of typefaces and tested them side by side with our new crown. We knew we needed a typeface that was both geometric and would also pair well with our angular mark. We also wanted to make sure it wasn’t as weak as the typeface had been in the Kernel logo, where it was totally overpowered by the strong visual mark we paired it with.

So we tried to be very thorough with our choice here. Last time, we’d rushed into choosing that typeface for Kernel, and had then found that to be quite restrictive when we wanted to use the logo out in the real world. It never looked quite right when we used it on the web or on business cards. So this time, we thoroughly compared several typefaces we’d shortlisted (Avenir, Gotham, Proxima Nova, Seconda and Bryant) to see which would be best. All of these were very similar in their characteristics, but one came out as the favourite for using as a primary font: Proxima Nova. We finally had a logo that the whole team was happy with.

Taking the brand online: designing our ‘ship’

We all know that a logo isn’t the only component of a great brand. When we finished the logo, we put it onto the Kernel website and changed the URL and brand name references on the site. But we all knew that we had much bigger ambitions for the brand.

About a year later, we finally made the time to totally rebuild our online brand around the logo. We kicked off that project with a standup meeting as a team, on our very first day in Kuala Lumpur. We all begun by analysing the current website and lisiting all of the problems we could see. We then took those problems and converted them into a hitlist for the new website we’d be designing. We’d only given ourselves a week to rewrite and redesign with quality content and a strong brand. We wanted to challenge ourselves to ship something on a tight deadline, but we realised the risk of failing if we tried to be too ambitious with the aesthetics of the brand we were trying to build. So we kept things pretty simple at first:

One of the big problems we’d identified was the responsiveness of our old site, and how well it worked on smaller screens and mobile. So we forced ourselves to really stick to using a mobile-first approach and think about the larger screen experience afterwards.

Overall, the logo worked really well. It was a lot more flexible than the Kernel logo had been, and was also a really strong starting point for us to extend it into a fully-formed brand, right across the website. But there was one tricky problem we had to overcome.

We’d picked Proxima Nova for the word Hanno in the logo itself and as our primary brand typeface, and were happy with how flexible the Proxima Nova type family was. There were a lot of variations, and lots of nice pairings with different weights which we could use for headings and body text on the site.

But somehow, the combination of heavier weights of Proxima Nova for headings, and lighter weights for the body text didn’t quite feel right, particularly when we used it at larger sizes on larger screens. We were looking for something that would be a little bit tighter:

We were designing the whole site in the browser, and we could see how the site looked with Proxima Nova used throughout. Eventually, having tried a few alternatives, we settled on Montserrat as an improved heading font, using Proxima Nova for the body text on the site. A small change, but one we thought was a better option than using Proxima Nova everywhere.

Shipping a content-focused website turned out to be a sensible decision. We shipped something which was a huge improvement on the previous site, and also gave ourselves space to to iterate and refine the brand and content over the time. Bringing in further identity elements and building the brand consistency across the website was something we’d do gradually, as we begun to learn how the brand would perform offline as well.

Offline and online branding

Particularly when putting together illustrations and visuals, we’ve tried to keep the consistency of visual style wherever we use the brand. That has been a challenge at times, because of the number of different situations we’ve wanted to illustrate for. There’s also a natural desire to keep pushing ourselves and coming up with great creative work and fresh new ideas.

But we think we’ve struck a good balance here, as you can see from all the different ways we’ve used the brand.

A brand ecosystem that goes beyond visuals

We wanted to make sure that our brand identity wasn’t just represented by the visuals you see here. The great thing about having such strong ‘theme for the brand is that this can easily be extended into the language we use to describe our company. Shipmates, portholes and anchors all contribute to a strong brand which has plenty of personality!

. . .

For me personally, building the identity and brand for Hanno was the type of project I’ve been longing to get involved in, ever since I first started my design career.

It’s no surprise that the best results come when you build something for yourself, when you can make some time to refine and build your own “ship”. One thing I know clearly is that there’s still room for improving and evolving the brand further.

Posted by
Arnas Goldberg

With the team since 2011, Arnas started out as an illustrator and identity designer and now leads all things creative, media and arts at Hanno.