Is Dell “sexy?” No. “Affordably luxurious?” If the Dell Blue team does its job

“Dell is not a sexy brand,” says Noel Barnes. If anyone would know, he would. As the associate creative director of Dell’s 60-person in-house creative agency Dell Blue, Barnes helps oversee the company’s visual branding language for photo, video, design, messaging, and marketing.

What Barnes means when he says Dell isn’t “sexy” is really a matter of comparison. Maybe you’ve thought this yourself recently, after taking in Apple’s shiny new gold Macbook. But buried under the lightest dusting of self-deprecation, Barnes makes a good point. Dell isn’t Apple. But it’s not Apple just as much as it’s not Lenovo or Toshiba or Samsung, and when flung into the same stew of hardware-focused tech companies it can be easy to forget that a company like Dell has a rich visual language and strategy all its own.

Dell Blue came into being in 2013, a couple years after Barnes and Dell’s creative director, Tommy Lynn, established the company’s first real brand identity guidelines. This set of visual rules touched on things like typeface (an all-business customization of Museo Sans), color palette (a non-Pantone placid blue, highlighted by white and grey), how to approach the logo (never crop the wordmark!), and the best way to use photography (Barnes prefers authentic-looking customers in marketing material).

It’s the job of the Dell Blue team, which works out of the company’s Round Rock campus near Austin, to implement these guidelines in its visual storytelling. The team handles almost all of the company’s creative and marketing with the exception of one-off projects and broadcast advertisements (they farm those out to partner agencies). The designers are responsible for everything from packaging to website interfaces, to print advertisements, and beyond.

They field a wide variety of briefs, but the joy and frustration of being in-house comes down to the fact that all of the work is essentially for one client. “That’s the tradeoff for coming in-house,” says Barnes. “You have relatively narrow guardrails in terms of how you can create for one brand.” Though, he’s quick to add, it’s not quite as homogeneous as it might appear.

Dell is a massive company with a reach into markets around the world. This means everything the team creates has to resonate equally with customers in Asia, South America, and the United States. “That’s where it gets interesting,” he says. For instance, Dell is perceived as a luxury brand in China, while in the United States it’s often viewed as the affordable, practical option. This presents a unique creative hurdle when you consider the visuals need to communicate both brand perceptions while still maintaining a consistent, simple, and focused message.

“I think we’ve been inspired by seeing how other in-house agencies can work,” says Barnes, referencing companies like Target and Starbucks, “and thinking about how impactful in-house can be. The shift towards an in-house model for these marketing areas creates an opportunity to combine our skills and experience...to improve creative quality and take advantage of efficiencies so we can make a huge impact on the Dell culture and brand perception.”

If you pay attention, you’ll notice that most of Dell’s creative work features people, not just products. Barnes says this is intentional. At its core, Dell is a utilitarian brand. The products have been designed for specific purposes, whether that’s for a scientist in the field or for a small business. It’s Dell Blue’s job to explain, though graphic design, imagery, and words, why a keyboard is designed a certain way or why a computer has vents in the back. “And that,” says Barnes, “is a really fascinating creative challenge.”