Designing to bridge the pond…comparing US and UK design

* 6 min read
George Bernard Shaw famously said that "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language." We’d like to use our creative license and add ‘design’ - that is "The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common design language."

Design language, very simply put, is the typical, overarching style that guides how elements like color, shape and typography are typically arranged. When comparing U.S. and U.K. design language, the difference is more than extra E’s and U’s and all the Z’s changing to S’s. It’s an overall attitude that runs as deep as the pond is wide.

Less is More vs More is MORE!

Unlike the U.S. where white space is used sparingly, in the U.K., designers typically include more space, to let layouts breathe. That seems like a bit of a paradox since the U.S. is known for iconic wide, open spaces, but nevertheless, American layouts, especially packaging tend to pack in as many features and benefits as possible. Another U.K. example of simplicity is the use of icons that contain a depth of meaning vs layering on multiple languages.

Color (also known as colour...)

U.K. design counterparts tend to use more photo cutouts and tend to be more adventurous with color pairings. Of course, these are generalizations and in fashion or sports, the aesthetic differences are much less obvious. Think Nike and Starbucks whose brand don’t even need words. It does seem that in America, bigger, bolder and more brash is the typical path brands follow to stand out.

Loud vs Softly spoken

In defense of American design, any creative must usually resonate across many more cultures and target audience attitudes. That’s not to say that the U.K. is a homogeneous society, but the U.S. brands have lots more country to cover. In keeping with the desire to cut through all the marketplace noise, Americans are also more accustomed to being shouted at by garish violators proclaiming ‘MORE, FREE and NOW, EVEN BETTER!’ Just visit any cereal aisle, in any US retailer, and the difference will be garishly obvious.

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Maturing gracefully

When compared to the more mature U.K., design in America is also a bit of an adolescent. As a profession, design is just over 100 years old. The U.S. Patent office first recognized the term industrial design in 1913. It wasn’t until the 30’s that design really gained momentum, with the work of design pioneers like Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes. So, perhaps, let’s chalk up some of our boldness to the exploration of a young profession.

Norman Bel

Patriotic vs Nostalgia

Still, design comparisons across the pond go deeper than history or visual aesthetics. There’s also a difference in tone – from British cheekiness to American’s reliance on some common themes. For the U.S. patriotism sells and overt flag waving is accepted, you might even say expected, especially when it comes to car and food brands. Mom, hot dogs and apple pie sells, even if your mum couldn’t boil water or you don’t eat apple pie. American brands also like to throw in a good measure of in-your-face familiarity, perhaps a bit too much information for the British consumers.

On the other side, the British look much more reserved with empathy served up nicely with tea and biscuits vs the US brand of brash, over-the-top commercialism. In the U.K., sentimentality and patriotic proclamations are carefully reserved for special occasions like Royal weddings or the The Great British Bake Off. Consider how the Super Bowl ads often eclipse the importance of the game itself. And don’t forget our obsession with celebrities, selling everything from cradle to grave.

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Features vs Benefits

Design in the U.S. feels like it’s more product orientated than consumer orientated. U.S. design is very often made up of product imagery and call-outs regarding the product’s features, as opposed to the benefits that it brings to the consumer. British design is more emotionally driven (emotion is often the end benefit of buying a particular brand), so the U.K. predominantly creates design that plays on those emotional benefits through the more esoteric use of color, pattern, shape and language.

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United by similar challenges

No matter what side of the pond, there are similar challenges that unite brand builders. Globally, consumers expect brands to be transparent about everything from ingredient sourcing to labor practices and sustainability. In a world where brand builders have injected brand into every interaction, this isn’t that surprising, but it does put all brands under scrutiny. On the other hand, it’s a great opportunity to start thinking about consumers more as people, driven by opinions or causes and less as data points.

All brands have an imperative to build more humanity and emotional connection to rev up the personality, and develop brand experiences more deeply, across all touchpoints. For that, both sides of the pond contribute insight.

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As the marketplace continues to morph, there’s no longer a linear path to purchase. We enter and exit at any and all touchpoints and retailers are much more in charge. This is clearly the case with the strong growth of private brands at U.S. retailers. No longer are they generic-looking, value brands chosen out of financial necessity or seeking to imitate the name brands, but desirable brands in their own right. This increasingly puts the pressure on ‘name brands’ to up their game. Well-established retail brands from the U.K. and continental Europe, continue to provide bountiful inspiration for American retailers and name brands, to keep evolving and pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a brand.

So, instead of looking only at differences, there’s much more potential in borrowing brilliance from both sides of the pond. You can find this multi-continent, U.K. and U.S. collaborative approach to brand design at Parker Williams, the creative arm of Sun Branding Solutions. Whether you have a private brand or compete with one, we craft just the right message for success – open, inventive and practical — with just the right balance of British reserve and American boldness.

Brighter Thinking
Brilliant Design
Brighter TOGETHER

Parker Williams part of Sun Branding Solutions