The Fifth Element of Design

When it comes to design, 1 +1 does not equal 2. There is more to design than meets the eye. Quite literally. Design is about craftsmanship, where most can be learned, some can be earned (through experience), but eventually, it comes down to intuition and proper use of ‘the fifth element’. At the end of the day, the fifth element lives in your subconsciousness.

Why Craft Matters: Design Knowledge.

Being a designer is being a craftsman. It is caring about the details. But it is also hands-on, some more fine-tuning, and a bit of psychiatry. You need to understand the consumer on a broad level but make it appealing to the individual. It’s basically qualified guesswork backed by experience, insights, and analysis. That’s also why a good designer is an experienced designer. Like most professions, it matters how many hours you have put into the craftsmanship, no matter how talented you are.

There Are Five Elements to Design.

Every FMCG design can be broken down into five elements: Logo, Colours, Font, Pictures, and the Fifth Element. It’s inevitable. There is no way around it. Never had a client who wanted to either skip the logo, go with a grey in grey look, use Arial as a font and no background. Perhaps you can get away with letting one of these go, but as a good designer, you have to consider all four. The one you must never skip is the final one; the fifth element.

What is the Fifth Element?

The fifth element is the unique flavour and the most important element. It refers to an additional graphic part that supports all your other graphic elements as a strong, decorative identity marker. It ensures strong visual coherence across all media. The fifth element consists of a uniquely geometric and abstract alphabet and cannot be left out – ever.

Yet, not all brands have it. And to no one’s surprise, they don’t pop out on the shelves. They don’t stand out. They are not popular, and they will never be iconic. The fifth element balances all design elements, and it’s how you can orchestrate a design across all kinds of different media in all sorts of situations.

Examples of the Fifth Element.

The fifth element is often a subconscious element, the thing that makes it all come together and makes it recognisable even without the right context. It’s the Amazon smile, the Coke curve (bottle shaped like a woman’s curve), The Nike swoosh, the Gucci pattern, Arla’s clouds (who appears on every single product).

Eventually, a well-designed brand doesn’t even have to use a logo; the consumer knows what brand is the sender. They’ve seen it so many times it is simply imprinted in their brain. Another, more local, example is the Danish newspaper Politiken. They underline everything with a red line. You don’t notice it. But really, you do… and whenever you see a red underscore, even out of context, the fifth element makes you think about Politiken.

That is the power of the fifth element. That is the power of branding.