Thesis Summary

design+branding: an intersection of art and business


Students and young professionals often do not have a full understanding of how branding and design work together in the professional world—providing value for people, companies, products and services—now and into the future.

In addition to cooperative education and other experiential learning experiences, further emphasis on the development of a strategic design+branding curriculum will provide new opportunities for students and professionals to gain knowledge and experience through existing interdisciplinary methods. This initiative could pioneer new areas of academic research and principles, linking consumer perception and market needs with the evaluation and development of brands. Additionally, an innovative program would provide further sources of revenue, recognition and recruitment for an academic institution.

A new series of classes, combined with a selection of existing cross-college courses, would create opportunities for new types of undergraduate and graduate level learning. A cross-disciplinary undergraduate minor track, as well as graduate courses, could be structured to complement existing curriculum. These courses would look to the future, and how design+branding strategy could be leveraged across disciplines in practice.

Finally, an avenue could be developed for professional growth, through executive learning, faculty development, continuing educational programs or other ongoing professional studies. Professionals could be involved in the curriculum as students, as well as experienced resources and even instructors.

A curriculum linking design and branding will help equip and empower the next generation of learners to lead business through a principled and strategic approach, to not only theory, but also interdisciplinary design+branding practice.

Project Background

This project makes the case for a collaborative learning initiative—providing for the creation of curriculum—focused on the intersection of design and branding. Research included specific coursework, secondary research, one-on-one interviews, and an online survey of over 400 industry professionals, as well as personal experience. This argument underscores the significance of a holistic design+branding education and hopes to facilitate a plan to equip and empower the next generation of learners to lead.

Questions Beg Questions

As a practicing professional, the gap I perceived between the perspectives of both the academic and professional worlds appeared wide—with little commonality. Academia seemed focused on knowledge, theory, and education. While the practicing design and marketing communities busied themselves making money—by providing solutions for consumers, clients and corporations—they often lose sight of what could be. In practice, theory and principles are often compromised in an effort to reach the end goal.

Experience is the primary prerequisite within the professional setting—experience and a strong portfolio or book of work. Then, just crank up the money machine and rake it in. Within education, cooperative and experiential learning initiatives provide students a certain level of first-hand-knowledge, but it is often limited. Theory makes for interesting water cooler conversation in an office, but provides little relevancy to those in control of the budget without additional perspective. Theory doesn’t pay the bills.

The gap widened further, as I investigated professional designers’ understanding of branding principles, as well as marketers’ understanding of design.

Creating Value

At the heart of both design and branding disciplines, are the tasks of problem solving and persuasion—storytelling with a purpose. Both areas of expertise—at times—exist to inform, educate, advise, influence, urge, sell or argue. Both disciplines require knowledge, experience and talent. Both rely upon method and process. Both explore a vision of what might be—across products, services, companies, perspectives and even individuals.

Both design and branding create value.

An early conversation with Colgate-Palmolive marketer Jeannie Chan, led to the question, “where did you first learn about branding?” To which she mentioned, “there are some great books—read early in my career—that have pretty much set up my mind on how I think about a brand.” A digital and brand strategist from the Atlanta area stated, “I learned the most from my professional mentors.” My own reflection revealed that although I am a designer and life-long learner—now back in the academic world—I have managed to learn the most about design and branding from clients and industry organizations.

Not one of my initial conversations mentioned academics—not one.

Within the project’s primary research survey, responses were a little more varied, but still only a little over a third mentioned academic curriculum as where they first learned about branding. Almost half stated that on-the job experience was where branding was first learned.

Many of the initial respondents suggested that design and branding knowledge should always start with a better understanding the consumer—an opinion that I tend to share. Thought leaders from Maslow to Gobé appear to agree. Although (without evidence) Henry Ford is often quoted as saying, “if I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse,” most practical marketers of products, companies and even ideas, seem to agree with the need to investigate both the competitive marketplace, as well as the perceptions of their consumer or audience.

Empathy is paramount. Unmet needs and desires are fertile ground for finding problems.

Both design and branding are means to an end—tools—for those marketing products, companies or ideas. A brand may be described as a promise of value—to both the audience and the marketer or producer. Design represents the opportunity to plan—to build, adapt, change, break, or start over. As Aristotle suggested long ago, you do not persuade people through reason—you do it through emotion. However, design is not just “the last decoration station on the way to market.” It is much more than that.

Leveraged together, design and branding help describe a future with differing solutions.

Multiple Research Methods

By embracing a mixed-method of research—included graduate coursework, secondary and primary research, as well as personal experience—I hope to answer my initial questions and uncover additional insight. Core classes, electives and experiential learning—including marketing, ethnographic methods, trend forecasting and arts-based research—have helped to inform my work. Readings included select journal articles, and existing thesis projects, as well as numerous books and websites. I seized opportunities to attend events at regional universities and industry gatherings to gain further perspectives. I also leveraged memberships in professional organizations—most notably DMI and AIGA.

DMI and AIGA are just two of the organizations that champion design thinking across both the academic and professional worlds, as well as engage in the continuing discourse surrounding brands.

As previously mentioned, while initially surveyed where they learned about what builds a brand, just a little over a third of practicing professionals mentioned academics. While students are learning specific skills, techniques, and processes, these theories and methods may require better context—than that provided through traditional academic experiences. Holistic curriculum built from the disciplines of design and branding with multi-disciplinary experiences across colleges will help broaden this context. Experience and knowledge from practice, paired with validity—from academic rigor—may provide for new universal or trans-disciplinary principles. Students of design and marketing—as well as other disciplines—must learn from each other to become better problem solvers and storytellers.

Multi-disciplinary collaboration and experiential learning are key—the earlier, the better.

Overall Findings

Social media and networking groups were leveraged to disseminate the survey and recruit respondents from a broad sample.During the exploration of the primary research survey, relevant insight was uncovered from a wide range of individuals and backgrounds. Respondents included over 400 students, professionals and educators from thirty-nine different states within the United States and over twenty-five countries around the world. Utilizing a variety of formats—including multiple choice and open-ended response—a series of twenty-six questions were asked.

While not a quantitative study, the survey data and relative size of the sampling provided for interesting comparison, between the differing perspectives. Contrasts and similarities were observed across respondent groups, by leveraging online survey tools and sorting by typical demographic questions, as well as professional experiences. In particular, the differences with how respondents viewed their own experience levels—within a listing of both design and branding tools and methodologies—was especially engaging. The responses to the open-ended questions were also extremely telling.

There was no hesitation to voice controversial opinions.

Certainly, significant qualitative data was provided through the survey, much of which gave specific direction for study. Further investigation should leverage the research undertaken during this study and expand the sample—in an effort to provide additional insight and validity to these findings.

Specific areas to focus upon would be a greater emphasis within the academic community, building upon the course curriculum described, and an even larger sample—to lend credence to the principles and argument described.

Additionally, there were a number of intriguing questions posed by respondents, providing relevant initial direction for subsequent research.

Academic Whitespace

Although there are emerging postgraduate programs that focus on a hybrid of both branding and design, holistic and inter-disciplinary branding and design learning opportunities appear to be rare at the undergraduate level. Typically, undergraduate programs related to branding either are specific to marketing degrees from business schools or design degrees in graphic design or design communication—often from art or design based institutions.

There are over 183,000 Google hits for “Brand Principles” and well over fifty-nine million for brand principles without quotes. Very few are from academic sources. In an effort to create a new and more rigorous design+branding curriculum within the academic community, it will be necessary to leverage existing professionally accepted brand principles.

Design principles appear more defined within academics, but are often specific to individual and focused aesthetic executions of differing aspects of design and media. Rarely are design principles leveraged across multiple touch points and almost never in context of the competitive marketplace.


Storytelling is still the most compelling piece of branding—past, present and future. As Botsman and Rogers observe in What’s Mine Is Yours, “not only do the things we own fill up our closets and our lives, but they also fill our minds.” Brands live in our hearts and minds, and in doing so, provide significant value to both producer and consumer. The future of branding and design includes a consistent evolution to survive in the competitive environment, but the future is still unwritten.

Colleges and universities can write the next chapter.

Branding is about differentiation, emotion and value, but is rarely taught holistically in school with design. Although emerging online academic programs may pose threats, traditional colleges and universities will be positioned to create true trans-disciplinary programs with global reach and influence. The first schools to market new curriculum will receive the greatest recognition and revenue from the programs and principles developed.

A design+branding curriculum which allows students to distinguish the differences between the individual disciplines, explore areas of collaboration and innovation through experiential learning—while becoming better storytellers—will empower the next generation of learners, leaders and brand builders.

A new collaborative learning initiative, balancing design and branding—an intersection of art and business—should be further developed from this project.

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This summary document represents a thesis submitted to the Division of Research and Advanced Studies of the University of Cincinnati in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Design in the School of Design of the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP).
The thesis was submitted to the Division of Research and Advanced Studies of the University of Cincinnati in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Design in the School of Design of the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning Thesis Committee: Craig Vogel, Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies at University of Cincinnati Professor at College of DAAP, School of Design; Peter Chamberlain, Assistant Professor at University of Cincinnati, College of DAAP, School of Design; At-Large Committee: Peg Faimon, Professor at Miami University Director, Miami Design Collaborative at Miami University Co-Director, Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies © 2012 Thomas Hewitt Gilmore