Capital Punishment

Written by Jamie Freeman

It’s only a small thing, but it bugs the hell out of me... Our company is called ‘Message’. Our logotype happens to present the word in lower-case text, but that’s just a stylistic choice. It doesn’t alter the fact that in the English language proper nouns are always shown with a capital letter.

There’s a very good reason for this; it makes it easy to read and understand. So when the name appears in the run of text we put a capital on it so that people know it refers to our name, like this: Message is a website design company.

Not everyone follows that route though. Howies, for example - one of my favourite companies - insist on always having their name written in lower-case. howies would prefer that last sentence to have started like this one. Which is silly, because the second version is demonstrably harder to read and just looks like a mistake.

Sentences begin with a capital letter, as do proper nouns. Breaking those universally-understood (by English readers with even a basic level of education) conventions for the sake of an arbitrary branding preference is counter-productive from a usability point of view. It also smacks just a teensy bit of arrogance; the assumption that everyone will bend their usual rules to the brand in question rather than the other way round.

A symbol amongst men...

I think Prince summed up this situation best when, as an act of defiance against excessive record company restrictions on his ability to record, he changed his name to a custom designed symbol that no-one could pronounce. As far as post-modern irony goes I think that may have taken the biscuit. It showed just how important language is; without these words and conventions we find it incredibly hard to communicate even the simplest ideas.

Messing with those conventions is something that carries with it a certain risk, as George Orwell knew very well. And if you thought 1984 was about repressive dictatorships you’re only half right: it’s a book about language, and how control of language is the ultimate in power.

I’m not suggesting Howies, Dunhill, Innocent (sorry folks) and their ilk want to oppress us all, but insistence on these silly little brand foibles is trying to control language, even at a tiny level. The thing is I think it actually diminishes their brand, by reducing the impact of their name within body text, looking like an error, or coming across as arrogant.

Then again, I am really easily annoyed ;-)

It’s extremely interesting to me that a whole bunch of high-profile, modern web-based companies eschew the ‘traditional’ branding practice and stick with the ‘correct’ rule. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, Last.fm, Digg all have lower-case logos, but write their name with a capital letter in regular text passages.

Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

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