The Aesthetics of Trust: What It Takes to Break Through the Clutter

By Mitch Baranowski, co-founder of BBMG. This article originally appeared on

trustmarks_box You would think, with some 400+ trustmarks vying for consumer attention, that most would dedicate a modicum of time and attention to the actual design of the trustmark. You know, so it stands out from the crowd. So it projects trustworthy attributes. So it’s scalable, legible and all those other things prized by designers.

But that hardly seems the case. No points for originality here. With but a few exceptions, the sea of trustmarks is a mess, a pea soup of poorly conceived (and poorly explained) seals and certifications.

Why is that?

Tough to hazard a guess, really, but experience says it’s probably due to (a) not having the expertise at hand, (b) not having the budget at hand or (c) not making it enough of a priority, the certification team arriving somewhat exhausted to the finish line after spending months putting the standards in question together, with little time and patience for the iterative process that great design requires.

To say “trust me,” a well-designed mark usually goes through several rounds of revision. In the end, it takes a simple form that is bold, memorable. It doesn’t try to communicate too much. Its forms and counterforms, words and symbols, colors and line qualities work harmoniously to create a unified impression that, at its best, is strong, meaningful and elegant. Easily read from a distance. Easily reproducible. Clearly connoting a quality, a tone, a certain je ne sais quoi, that fits the task at hand.

In 2009, BBMG showed 13 representative trustmarks to 2,000 U.S. consumers. The top three symbols — Energy Star, Recyclable and USDA Organic — are all federally sponsored and have benefited greatly from prominence and exposure, two factors that seem to go a long way toward cultivating trust, regardless of aesthetics or even the actual standards behind the mark.

Design-wise, none of these marks truly raises the bar but they do offer some lessons. First, each is contained in shape: square (Energy Star), triangle (Recyclable) and circle (USDA Organic). Each employs a simple, bold color palette. And each leverages a visual metaphor: Energy Star’s scripty type conjures notions of Thomas Edison’s incandescent adventures, while the star symbolizes efficacy and quality. The universal recycling symbol, created by a 23-year-old contest winner in 1970, boasts three chasing arrows that form a Mobius loop, clearly reminding us that a product’s lifecycle does matter. The ever-more-present USDA Organic label smartly connotes the verdant fields tilled by our country’s industrious farmers, although the rendered quality here is more officious and lab-like, less nostalgic and pastoral.

In addition to frequent, prominent and consistent usage, what’s a purveyor of trustmarks to do? To help you break through the clutter and avoid common pitfalls, here are seven prescriptive recommendations, in no real order of priority:

  • Claim ownership. If you’re going to go through the time and trouble of establishing and promoting certification standards, you deserve credit. Acronyms need help. The LEED trustmark is clearly brought to you by the U.S. Green Building Council.
  • Design for the long haul. Reducing a complex idea to its visual essence takes time and expertise. But it’s done every day. Give designers clear direction (and space) to create symbols that are durable, functional and beautiful. Most people will only know the certifications through the symbol; it’s important.
  • Go for one clear idea. It’s amazing how many trustmarks say…nothing at all…or way too much. It’s laughable to consider Fruit Loops a smart choice for breakfast, but at least the Smart Choices mark sends a clear message.
  • Break the box on color. How many green logos can there be? Or blue, for that matter? Blue is often considered the safest color. Energy Star earns points for breaking out with a brighter blue.
  • Get metaphoric. How might we move beyond the obvious — checkmarks, light bulbs, the scales of justice — without compromising legibility? Whatever metaphor you land on, make sure it has a clear connection to the standards at hand. Does that leaping bunny connote cruelty-free on its own? Does the Vitruvian-esque figure in the Fair Trade label capture empowering farmers and farm workers?
  • Think avatar. Long before Second Life, avatars have advanced logo design: Elsie the Cow, Elmer the Bull, the Energizer Bunny. The Rainforest Alliance frog is often brought to life to support awareness-raising campaigns. How might your trustmark feature a character that can give the program real personality?
  • Connect the dots for us. At the end of the day, make sure the mark on the front of the package is clearly connected to a communications platform on the back-end: how easy is it to find out what’s behind the mark, how the standards were created, how they are upheld and how it makes a difference in our lives today? Consumers care more than you think. And, given our research, so-called “box turning” conscious consumers will go to great lengths to learn the ins and outs of your program.

Thanks to my BBMG colleagues Scott Ketchum, Molly Conley and Rachel Lichte for contributing their thoughts to this post.

Mitch Baranowski is co-founder of BBMG, a nationally recognized branding and marketing agency dedicated to creating innovative brands that engage and inspire today’s increasingly conscious consumers.

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