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Brexit: How design made the difference

I’ve been talking recently about how design makes the difference for brands. And now, a month after the EU Referendum, I can think objectively enough to say that design had a big impact on that result too.

When it comes to design and branding, ballots are rare occasions when the return on investment becomes crystal clear. For once, we’re able to compare two campaigns going head to head, with one outright winner and one loser.

Design works by creating a strong emotional pull. This is something that focus groups struggle to measure because, when asked, people will use logical, rational explanations for their choices. Our brains don’t like admitting they’ve been undone by our hearts.

And if ever we needed an example of a campaign designed to stir emotion beyond reason, it’s Brexit. Of course, there are dozens of reasons why the Leave campaign won, but let’s look at a few relating to the design of each campaign and how these worked – or didn’t.

Words are important

When I talk about ‘design’ in this context, I mean everything about the campaigns, including naming and language as well as the visual look & feel. Because the words we choose are important, and as brand identifiers they become extremely powerful.

For a start, the simple presence of a de facto brand increased the likelihood of it happening. As irritating as it is, ‘Brexit’ ticks all the boxes for a strong brand name: short, easy to spell, good mouthfeel. It’s immediately familiar – the sort of brisk, sprightly portmanteau you might use to name a new breakfast cereal. Which makes it sound quite a jape. Something fun to fill that restless period between elevenses and lunch.

So the idea of leaving was already baked into the vote’s name. It wasn’t a ‘Breferendum’. This wasn’t ‘Brecision Time’. It was ‘Brexit’, and it was already on the way to being brecided. Two powerful motivation theories were at work here. While humans are generally averse to the idea of loss, we’re happier being ‘pulled’ towards something than ‘pushed’ away from something else.

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