I always struggled with a singular identity. Maybe that had something to do with going back and forth from East Africa and the United States, maybe it is because my father had a lot of books and it gave me a curious nature. Whatever it is, I am the kind of person who, when I find myself in a bookstore, picks up a magazine on a topic I know nothing about and enjoys trying to discover the nuances of a not yet explored world of information. I’ve done it with things like pens, model trains, and antiques.

When it comes to design, as much as it may seem by some to be orthogonal to software development, I’ve had the growing understanding that the two go hand in hand. Design, to me, is not picking nice colors for gradients or making icons. Design is planning, it’s understanding a problem and solving it. Although as a software developer my visual design has often been an afterthought (something I’ve fought with increasing intensity over time) and yet when I write a piece of software, put together a user interface, or model data structures, I am planning and problem solving. I am designing, even if I’m making a poor effort of things.

The more aware I’ve become of this, the more I’ve sought to have a baseline understanding of design which is why I found myself at the South Dakota AIGA hearing Debbie Millman give a talk on the history of branding, which was originally prompted by her thinking about the phenomenon of MySpace. I’d long been aware of Debbie; I listened to her Design Matters show when it originally became available online and look forward to a new podcast via Design Observer.

In speeding us to the present, the question of why there may be 300 national brands of cereal or 100 different types of bottled water in a store, Millman began 50,000 years ago with the “big brain bang” where scientists believe we developed our Triune brain. The 3 parts of the brain Millman talked about, Reptilllian, Limbic, and Neocortex are a basis for how she believes that branding works today – if I could shortcut to the conclusion, the reason why we put ourselves in groups and find affiliation important is because this need is hardwired. In one humorous aside, Millman said of the part of the brain that fears the unknown:

“You can’t meditate it away. It’s just there.”

The talk bolstered this point along many fronts, some anthropology, some historical/statistics and other scientific studies and anecdotes. She then divided the history of branding, starting from the US Trademark Registration (landmark legislation that is the legal foundation for branding) in 1876, into 5 different “waves:”

Wave 1: 1875 – 1920

Brands as a guarantor of consistency (Think Campbells soup, Quaker Oats).

Wave 2: 1920 – 1965

Brands as a guarantor of quality. (Think Mortin’s Salt, Pepsi).

Wave 3: 1965 – 1985

Brands as self expressive statements, telegraphing what others should think of us. (Think Nike, Levis, Volskwagen).

Wave 4: 1985 – 2000

Brands as an experience. (Think Starbucks.)

Wave 5: 2000 – present

Limbic brands. (Think Social Networking). In reference to the earlier portion of the talk on brain development, this is the part of our brains which serves us emotion and sense of group. In our present, fractured world, where traditional models of group like family are being uprooted by modernity, we turn to brands to fill that portion of our lives, which is hardwired.

I found the talk riveting, in large part because it aimed at a higher level thinking of how branding works. Afterward I had a chance to talk to Debbie and it sounds like there are new Design Matters shows in the making. I’ll look forward to hearing them and learning more.