4 essential elements of designing your brand’s visual identity

Written by Adam

July 1, 2020

brand visual identity

They say, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and ‘beauty is on the inside’. But truth be told, we’re all attracted to things by the way they look. In this article, we look at why visual identity is an essential part of your brand and explore the 4 key elements you need to master.

Why visual identity matters

Our worlds are constructs of our eyes. Vision is deeply entwined with our neural networks and the way we process information. That’s why signs and symbols are an essential part of everyday life, why we say a single picture can tell a thousand words and why we get hot under the collar for one brand when another leaves us cold. 

The beauty of beauty is that it’s different for everyone. Whether it’s the things we create, the clothes we wear, the piercings and body artwork we choose or choose not to have—we’re all compelled to express our own version of beauty. And we each prescribe to a certain tribe.

I call my tribe ‘tech-outdoorsy’ (picture the Garmin watch, Patagonia cap, trail running trainers and plain black T-shirt). It’s boring, I know. My partner is modern bohemian. All hippy patterns cut through with style. I love that about her.

It’s little wonder that brands with a strong visual identity belong to a tribe of loyal, loving customers.

Let me elaborate…

“Design is the silent ambassador of your brand.”

—Paul Rand, Art Director and Brand Designer

For the love of the craft

I like craft beer and consider myself to be something of a connoisseur. I get a sense of pride when ordering cans at my local alehouse and I’m happy to splash five or ten pounds apiece. Deep down, I know the taste and ALC units don’t equate to the cash. What I’m really paying for is the can, not what’s inside.

I love Magic Rock for their funky illustrations and neon colours on black. I love Northern Monk for the landscaped labels that peel off to reveal more cool content on the other side (because they know your nails can’t resist). I’m a sucker for Beavertown’s alien sketches with enough detail to fill the silences between gulps, and I can’t get enough of Cloudwater’s radiant colour palettes and logo.

Yes, I’m a product of our consumerist society. That’s just who I am. But here’s the thing:

Who we are > is how we express ourselves > is what we consume.

As a marketer, turn that thought on its head…

What we sell > is how our consumers express themselves > is who they are.

Making sure your visual identity looks the part with your tribe is key. There are four elements to consider. The first is the logo.

1) Logo (AKA trademark)

Take everything you’ve learnt about your brand, pour it through a fine sieve, leave it to settle… come back a week later and boil it right down until it’s just a few lines or dots. That’s your logo. Like your business’ name, it’s the ultimate distillation of your brand.

Here, your entire visual identity stems, from the colour palette to the weight of typographical lines, the form of shapes and the illustrative theme. You’ll want to get it right.

Start by mind-mapping words that relate to your brand name and values. Use a word-association game to get as many ideas as you can. Then, when you’ve made your list, let the doodling begin.

Fun fact: ‘logo’ is short for logotype, a trademark made from a custom-lettered word [logos is Greek for word]. However, it is now synonymous with ‘trademark’, whether that’s a logotype, symbol or monogram.

Get your designers around you and start sketching as many ideas as you can. We’re not looking for masterpieces here, just ideas. Give your team an hour of creative frenzy and see what they’ve come up with. 

Ask each creative to present their idea and discuss as a team which elements you like and how they can be improved. At the end of this process, a few ideas should stand out. Now’s the time to hand them over to a professional logo designer and let them work their magic. Demand brilliance and lots of it with numerous iterations. This isn’t the time for mediocrity.

According to branding mastermind, Paul Rand, “The only mandate in logo design is that they be distinctive, memorable and clear.”

As the visionary designer behind the logos of IBM, UPS, Enron, Inc., and Westinghouse, what he says goes. But for the modern marketer-creative, you should probably add scalability (from large format print to 10px wide mobile display) to that list.

2) The science of colour

The next element of your visual identity is colour. Every colour elicits a different response. This isn’t just an emotional response, it can be a physical trigger too. Just seeing the colour red can quicken the pulse and put you on edge. Whereas blue will dilate the pupils and set you at ease. 

The colour of your brand is synonymous with your brand character. Here’s a brief overview.

Red evokes a passionate and visceral response. It’s energetic, provocative and attention-grabbing.

Purple is sophisticated and mysterious. Think Queen Elizabeth II meets Dynamo. It’s elegant aesthetics work with high-end products.

Blue is the #1 choice for big brands (33% of the top 100). Its serenity is reminiscent of the sky and the ocean. It’s also associated with trust, security, and confidence.

Green means calmness, safety, and freshness. It’s a top choice for health and environmental brands and comes with an inbuilt feeling of oneness.

Yellow is raw positivity: sunbeams and flower petals. It evokes eternal hope and optimism and pops with a creative buzz.

Orange is creative and cheerful and has playfulness in spades. It likes to be different and because of that it stands out from the crowd. 

Brown is earthly simplicity with grounded strength. It brings comfort with a classical, trustworthy approach. 

Black oozes sophistication and sexiness, but it’s powerful and godlike too. It works with luxury products and has a timeless class.

White is the colour of simplicity, purity, and cleanliness. Perfect for the health and childcare sectors, but classy too. 

Choosing the colour palette

The first thing to remember is to keep it simple. Sure you love the full spectrum—who doesn’t?—but to create a memorable, well-defined visual identity, you need to pick some favourites. Take a moment to think about some of the biggest brands in the world (Coca-Cola, Facebook, Apple) each of them is renowned for either a single colour or a two-colour combination.

Think about what your brand’s purpose is. Think about being different. And think about what your customers would say. Amazingly, some studies have reported that upwards of 80% of consumers say that colour is their primary reason for buying a specific product, so choose well.

There’s a science to colour, so when thinking about your palette, bear these four options in mind.

Monochromatic colours

These use just one main hue with a couple of shades for variation. This is great for brands that are looking for simplicity but it can limit creativity. Facebook is an example of a brand that focuses on blue, so much so that it can be recognised by a specific Pantone alone.

Analogous colours

These colours sit next to each other on the colour wheel, like red and orange, or blue and green. Because of this, they convey similar emotions. They can also be used to blend colours together across a gradient, like how Instagram sweeps from yellow, through orange, red, purple and blue.

Complementary colours

Complementary colours sit opposite each other on the colour wheel. This gives them a contrast that pops against each other and naturally looks great. Firefox has this nailed with the orange fox wrapped around the blue globe.

Triadic colours

These draw shades from various sections of the colour wheel. This is dangerous territory as it often leads to colour overload. Still, some sizable companies have pulled it off (Windows, Google, anyone?) A triadic palette denotes a range of services or capabilities.

Colour selection is a science. There are some great tools out to help. Try out the colour scheme generator at Coolors to build a palette that works.

Once you have identified your which colours to use in your visual identity, you’ll need to add a couple of complementary shades. These are used as background colours and accents in your marketing materials and offer an alternative shade when it’s needed. Make sure to add a couple of neutral tones to the mix too.

Once done, reference them by CMYK (print code), RGB (digital code) and hex (web design) for future use. 

An ode to typography

The third element of your visual identity is typography. Like colour, this is a constant that will be used throughout all your marketing materials. It plays a vital role in design.

Fun fact: the term ‘typeface refers to the style of lettering you choose. For example, Helvetica or Arial. The term ‘font’ is used to denote a particular size, weight and style of a typeface. For example Arial 12pt, bold, italic

Different font types mean different things to different people. Think of it as the voice of your brand. Some voices are soft, others are loud, some are elegant, others are harsh, some traditional, some modern. You want your voice to chime with your target audience.

The two main types of fonts are ‘serif’—which have a small line or stroke on the letters—and sans-serif which don’t. Serif fonts are traditional, classy and easy to read in print. Sans-serif fonts are modern, casual and display more clearly on screens.

Finding fonts

There are three places to find your perfect font. Open-source fonts are free and quick to download from the internet. They’re also great because they tend to be web-friendly (especially if they’re a Google Font). This ensures consistency across both digital and print platforms. What’s not great about them is that they’re commonplace and undistinctive.

Primary fonts are those which you have to pay for. There is a huge range of primary fonts available on the web which will give your brand an elevated level of sophistication. But you have to pay before you download them and they’re often not cheap. These are less likely to be web-friendly which could slow your website down or just not display at all.

Then there are custom fonts. For the show-offs, these fonts are specially designed for a business. Custom fonts can be very expensive and aren’t likely to work on your website. On the other hand, they can be very cool and will be completely unique to you.

“The beauty of type lies in its utility; prettiness without readability serves neither the author nor the reader.”

James Felici, author and typographer

Whichever method you choose, make sure your typefaces are flexible for all types of media and have a comprehensive range of styles (bold, italic, black, etc.)

One typeface isn’t enough. You should be looking for two or three when building your brand. These should be categorised as:

  • Primary: your default typeface
  • Secondary: used to compliment your primary
  • Tertiary: used for little flourishes and accents

Make sure you identify which of these will be used for headers, sub-headers, body copy and pull quotes and packaging.

Visual identity and body artwork 

And now for the visual identity icing on the cake: the artwork.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just decoration for your website and marketing materials. Your artwork should be used to reinforce the brand theme and present information in clear and compelling ways. How you use them must be consistent with your overall brand identity.

Photographic style

Photography plays a prominent part in many a marketer’s toolkit. But how will you choose to use it? 

Make sure that the style, theme and treatment of photographs are consistent across your brand. Choose timeless monochrome or eye-popping full-colour saturation; choose mood-enhancing colour overlays or grainy, urban realism. Get up-close and personal or snap the full panoramic picture. Every decision you make will add another layer to your brand identity. 

But there are a number of challenges. Finding the perfect images isn’t easy. Sure, you can choose stock images (free or paid) but they can make your brand look unoriginal, inauthentic and uninspired. 

Then there’s the problem of consistency. Often, you’ll be limited to a single photographer’s collection when searching for a similar style. That could mean you end up using the same tired images over and over again. Treating images in-house or taking your own can help.

Illustrations and Icons

A modern and stylish alternative is graphic design illustration. Illustrations are great because you are only limited by your imagination. As long as you have the necessary skills or resources, you can bring any image to life (all in brand-perfect colours and style). 

There’s a bottomless well of incredible talent and inspiration on Pinterest. I love getting lost in that labyrinth of ingenuity—all those little known Picassos—and I love coming across a new style or the latest trend. Illustration, when it’s done well by a proper graphic designer who understands your company, can elevate your brand to all new highs. 

It needn’t be done in isolation of photography either. Those that combine the two in stylish collages add another dimension to their brands. 

Another graphic element you may choose to adopt is icons. These can help you to identify specific services or benefits in a quick and visually pleasing way. 

*Try out Iconfinder, a search engine for vector icons in SVG, PNG, CSH and AI formats.

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