“How did life turn into something that needs to be performed, not lived?”
Beat Kaspar Baudenbacher poses this question almost off-handedly in tiny text at the bottom of the page in his new book, Somewhere Yes: The Search for Belonging in a World Shaped by Branding. It’s one of the countless existential quandaries Baudenbacher broaches in his book, as he dissects the practice and concept of branding and its chokehold on our society.
The Swiss-born Baudenbacher is the co-founder of the New York creative agency loyalkaspar, where he currently serves as Chief Creative Officer. After he came to the states in the mid-90s to attend the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, he landed a job in New York and never left. “I was just going to sort of stop by here on my way back to Europe and got stuck,” he told me over a Zoom call from his place in Brooklyn. Now with over two decades of experience in the branding biz, Baudenbacher has authored Somewhere Yes. “I don’t know if this is the end of a journey or the beginning of a journey,” he said. “I’m not quite sure.”
Somewhere Yes is the product of a four-year evolution that started from a presentation Baudenbacher gave at a conference. With the help of a speaking coach, he zeroed in on the central theme of the way we look to branding for a sense of belonging. “The goal was to write my version of a TedTalk: What’s my story in 20 minutes?” he said. “I wrote down the idea of searching for belonging through branding at some point, and my coach latched onto that.”
At its core, Somewhere Yes chronicles Baudenbacher’s exploration of ideas and concepts that he is still working through himself through the very act of writing it. “Is everything around us an illusion? Which version of us—is us? Are we hopelessly, forever f*cked?” His tone is authoritative, but it’s also clear that he’s on an ongoing journey of dissecting these topics. “I don’t want to come across as having all the answers because I’m just grappling with things as much as everybody. But at the same time, I also know that you can’t just have a book full of questions,” he told me. “My thinking has already evolved on some of the ideas in the book since it was ‘finished.’”
Baudenbacher expertly undercuts big-picture ideas about society with a tone that is often humorous. He also gets playful with imagery throughout, like a fake movie poster he designed to accompany an idea about human survival. “If you think about it too hard or go super academic, that’s a very existential page. Can we get along long enough on this planet to continue our existence? But there’s enough dark news out there in this day and age, so the intention was to make it light and tongue-in-cheek.” These fun visuals and the overall witty tone add to the accessibility and approachability of the book, giving readers an entry point into topics that might otherwise be alienating if too theoretically academic or highbrow.
Somewhere Yes doesn’t shy away from addressing the negative side of branding either, and the very real repercussions of branding used for nefarious purposes— far right extremism and Nazi Germany propaganda are two examples that Baudenbacher names. “Branding tends to flatten complexity,” he said. “Ultimately, all of these things and ideas need to get distilled down to a symbol. It’s supposed to communicate so much, so our discourse becomes very superficial. A brand is the ultimate visual soundbite, or a visual Tweet. It’s very difficult to have a discourse around complex topics when we’re all talking on a visual surface level.”
“Somehow, hate and hateful ideas are much easier to condense,” he continued, “like ‘Pro-Life,’ or ‘Make America Great Again’—they’re very simple, branded ideas that completely eliminate all of the complexity underneath. It’s challenging for the more liberal, progressive side to compete with that because solutions to some of these problems are actually very, very, very complex. The trajectory to simplify everything into soundbites, and 140 characters, and symbols, and logos is not helping with some of these more complex conversations that we need to have.”
In many ways, Baudenbacher is reconciling his gradual discovery of these truths with his own career in branding. “It’s challenging,” he told me. “I love design and branding so much, and I believe in its power so tremendously that to me, that outweighs the negative aspects. I try to use those skills and that power more for good. I don’t really know what that means in practice— do policy makers have to have a branding expert on their teams to help shape progressive ideas?”
Baudenbacher maintains his belief that design experts can use their knowledge for good. “There are many places where we should be using the tools of branding,” he said. “What do we want to achieve? How do we want people to feel and act about a specific topic? The transition from ‘Global Warming’ to ‘Climate Crisis’— something much more dire, to me— that’s a branding assignment. Language, and then the visual expression of that, is super important. We can use the power and tools of this discipline to help solve problems that are bigger than just selling more stuff.”
While a book felt like the right way for Baudenbacher to communicate these ideas, he’s the first to clarify that he’s a designer first, and not necessarily a “trained” writer who primarily writes for himself. “I love words, and I’ve always written,” he continued. “I think writing is an under-appreciated part of design, whether it’s writing a presentation, or communicating a story of a brand, or a design approach or whatnot. Writing has always been part of the process.”
With Baudenbacher’s design background in mind, it’s not surprising that Somewhere Yes isn’t your traditional book. In many ways, it defies genre and has a dynamic blend of the written word and original imagery that interplay throughout the book’s uniquely laid-out pages. “I go back and forth between visuals and words,” Baudenbacher explained. “There was an outline and paragraphs, but then I would start combining them with images. Then I’d see the images and go back again— it was a circular thing. I didn’t want this to be a dissertation. I really wanted it to be an engaging combination of visuals and words.”
This distinct structure makes for a singular experience as a reader, aided by Baudenbacher’s accessible writing style. While the ideas he addresses can be lofty and profound, his sentences are concise and clear. His writing isn’t dense or intimidating, neither in diction or layout. Instead of large, daunting blocks of text, ideas are presented in a few lines positioned throughout a given page. The negative space feels just as considered as the words themselves, necessitating a slower pace with which to engage with Baudenbacher’s ruminations. This spatial layout gives readers the literal space to think through these ideas, claims, and questions.
“There’s a multi-hierarchy way of reading it with different layers of communication,” Baudenbacher said on the book’s layout. “The idea was that even if you just read the headlines, you get a rough, kind of sketchy narrative. Then you have the paragraphs that take you a little bit deeper, and then the visuals take you even deeper. Then there’s what I call the ‘color commentary,’ which is the teeny, tiny type at the bottom of the pages. So there are multiple levels to engage with.”
This theme of blending high and low concepts is also extended into various elements of the physical design for Somewhere Yes— even the paper choice. “It’s a pretty low-quality paper, and I actually wanted it to be even crappier paper— a sort of newsprint, but the deep blacks printed all splotchy. I also wanted it to be a softcover and black and white; I didn’t want it to be precious.” This carried over into other aspects of the book’s interior design.
“With some of the design, like the handwritten stuff— the notes and underlines and scribbles— I wanted to make it feel like it’s part of a conversation, or part of a thought process where somebody else has already gone through it and highlighted what they liked,” Baudenbacher explained. “So while some of the topics may be pretty heavy, the way they’re presented on this crappy paper with fun visuals kind of brings those ideas down and balances it out.” In this way, Somewhere Yes practices exactly what it preaches: any decision about the presentation and performance of a topic is a form of branding, including the way this book has been put together. “Even the book itself is sort of a brand,” said Baudenbacher. “It even has a logo on it.”
If you’re eager to keep questioning right alongside Baudenbacher, Somewhere Yes is available for purchase wherever books are sold. “I love the books that I keep picking up, thumbing through, putting down, and then picking up again,” he told me. “Books that get my brain going in a different direction. That’s really what I wanted with this.”