The Making of a Modern Gandalf: The Story Behind Spatial’s Brand
I’m a big fan of stories.
Especially the ones with wizards and elves, epic battles and majestic landscapes. The wonder and beauty within these narratives often leave me with a sense of awe.
Indeed, stories are powerful. Powerful enough to shape entire cultures. In some cases, stories are retold over and over, not merely for entertainment, but as a reminder to the current generation of what their identity is. For millennia, people groups determined who they were and why they existed through narrative.
Today, stories are just as powerful. And when it comes to branding, they are indispensable.
As a designer, one of my favorite things to work on is branding projects. They force you to dig deep, ask those weighty questions, and reflect on your company’s story. Daunting, yes. But so rewarding in the end.
At Spatial, we recently did quite a bit of soul-searching, which resulted in a pretty big visual make-over. This is the story of where our brand was to where it is now. If you’re a startup looking to rebrand (or develop your brand for the first time), I hope this can provide some guidance and inspiration. Ready? Let’s dive in!
Before walking you through our updated brand, let me show you where we started off. At first, we had a logo, a few colors picked out, a Wordpress site, and a pretty solid vision for the company. A good start, but we knew it was time to dig deeper.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen the Spatial logo. If somehow you’ve found your way here without seeing it, here it is again
Logos are awesome because, when they are done well, they become packed full of rich symbolism and meaning, yet remain a simple visual form. Ours is the word “spatial” with a blank line through it, and if you’ve listened to our pitch at TechStars Demo Day, you know why. It represents the invisible layer of social data that we tap into to work our magic. Mind blown, right?
Behind every logo, though, is a vision and narrative that shapes every part of the brand. And that’s where we spent a lot of time digging. A few months ago, our vision was inextricably linked to maps. So much so, that our two most popular phrases were Reinventing maps and Navigate like a local. Everything we built was tied to data appearing on maps in some way. And, hey, it worked so far. But we knew there was so much more our data could do. The problem was that we had not done the deep thinking to bring the vision to our brand.
As a result, our visual identity and website no longer represented us well. The colors were an ambiguous grayscale with accents of bright salmon. The typography was good ol’ (but generic) Georgia. And, of course, the messaging was all map related. Unfortunately, users were leaving the site more confused and there was a lack of cohesiveness to our brand.
Back when we were obsessed with maps. Note: this screenshot was taken after some of our new branding was implemented (i.e. dark blue)So that was pretty much what we started out with. And after taking inventory of our current branding, goals for the rebrand were set.
- Pivot away from being purely a maps-related company, and write down a clear vision based on our new direction as a data company.
- Create a cohesive visual style that accurately captures our personality and mission.
- Redesign our website and drive traffic to produce more leads and expand our reach.
The Rebrand (and why we love Gandalf)
Now it was time to think about what our story would be.
Typically, stories involve many characters. And so, a good question to ask when you’re working on your brand is, “If (your company) was a person, what would they be like?” This is an awesome question because it gets you thinking on a human level. As Simon Sinek is famously quoted for saying, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Humans long for deeper meaning in things, and that includes your brand. If you’re brand is cold and shallow, no one is going to want to stick around.
This question naturally leads to other interesting questions. For example, we started asking things like: What would Spatial wear? How would Spatial talk? Is Spatial loud and outgoing or more soft spoken? What kind of activities and hobbies does Spatial have? By doing this, you (literally) flesh out the different aspects of your brand so each element forms a unified identity (remember the culture-shaping power of stories).
This brings us to Gandalf. Lyden, founder, CEO, and resident Tolkien Nerd, once mentioned how he saw Spatial being the modern version of Gandalf. While the original Gandalf wielded actual magic, we now wield a new kind of magic — data. It immediately resonated with the team (probably because we’re all nerds 🤓), and the richness of the metaphor gave us a lot to run with.
And so, the question we would constantly circle back to was: What would Gandalf do? If it didn’t sound like something he would say or do, we were probably getting off track. Using Gandalf as our metaphorical measuring stick, we were able to start making more informed decisions, especially when it came time to think about visual assets and styling.
But, let’s back up and talk about our new vision first, since that is where everything else flows from.
Vision & Values
Lyden and Will (CTO), being the founders, had the best insight into this. What they described was a two part vision:
- To empower everyone to have total spatial awareness
- To personalize the world
This was the insight before we started rebranding. However, we realized these two insights are simply a result of a dramatic shift Spatial has been able to tap into. For the first time, humans are generating loads of rich, emotional and unstructured data. We are creating the world’s first dynamic map of human experiences, emotions, desires, and curiosities — the human layer.
In order to achieve that vision, we knew we had to build a different values-based company. A culture of truth, love, and relentlessness would get us there, but we needed to be concrete about what each means.
After refining our vision and fleshing out our values, we began to think through our voice and visual style. This is where having Gandalf as our guide helped us the most. After working through multiple concepts, here’s what we came up with:
Typography was trickier. We weren’t about to start writing in Quenya on our website (but that would be pretty sweet). No, as a data startup we were looking for a modern feel, but not something cold. We needed to communicate wisdom and intelligence but also feel human.
First we chose Museo. It was certainly modern enough and its softly curved serifs make it look inviting. However, after further reflection, we decided to go with Museo Sans to retain a more modern, minimal look.
One experiment that found its way into our brand is the Spatial logomark. To clarify, a logomark is a symbol or drawing that represents a company without the actual name of the business (Think of the Apple logo or the golden arches). A logotype includes the name but the type is designed in a unique way to set it apart (Coca-Cola for example).
Our logotype remained the same apart from applying the new color palette since we still think it is a very effective symbol. The logomark is a new addition. The mark is a blend of three concepts: a compass, a circular dataset, and a fingerprint, representing our vision of building the human layer, and how we do that (lots and lots of data).
The mono-line style of the logomark was also carried into our iconography and illustration, creating a family of design elements working together. Thankfully, the mark and icons we’re well received by the rest of the team, and soon we we’re putting them on stickers and business cards. We even got new t-shirts 🤘.
Lastly, it was exciting to watch all of these pieces come together during our website redesign!
A few screenshots from the rebranded site.The Journey Continues…
It’s easy to fall into a perfectionistic mindset when rebranding because you feel like you have to get everything right on the first try. However, I’m starting see that it’s natural for brands to evolve over time. Your business (especially a startup) is going to change and grow, and you should reflect those changes in your branding. So give yourself some creative freedom to make tweaks and enhancements based on real customer feedback. You’ll be more flexible and data-driven if you do.
To illustrate, here are some things that we are still working through:
- Our logomark and logotype. They don’t share a similar visual style and so they look strange when sitting next to each other in a logo lockup. How will we tweak them so they work well together? Do we need to discard one for now? Do they always exist separately?
- Clear, consistent messaging. It’s way better but could still be more explicit. This will give internal and external clarity on our products and vision and help us create great content.
- Product branding. How do we incorporate our brand across all our products? Should they have their own unique style or share the same one?
Finally, I’ll leave you with our key takeaways that we learned along the way:
- Be vision-driven. Everything flows from it so don’t move on until you’ve found it. Once you do find it, circle back to often.
- Write it out first. Before you start worrying about color and typography, write out the story of your brand. This includes the company’s vision, values, brand attributes, and personality.
- Explore multiple visual styles. When it comes time to pick between concepts, you’ll feel more confident than if you stuck with the same idea throughout the whole process.
- Have a good feedback loop. Have frequent critiques with all stakeholders so you catch issues quickly and stay aligned as a team.
- Have fun and celebrate wins!
Thanks for reading and I hope this inspires you in your own branding projects!
Interested in what we do? Click here to learn more about Spatial.