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Five Minute Introduction to Brand Identity Design

Brand identity design has always been difficult for me to get my head around. Words like strategy, brand equity, harmony, mood and tone. Picking colours, pairing fonts, choosing the Creative Direction. These concepts were clear in other contexts (business strategy), tone of voice (copywriting language), but I struggled to see how they all fit together to develop a new brand identity.

Each new project I worked on, I relied on tried but true boring basics. That meant using the same formula; System Fonts, a colour palette with safe neutrals (grey, black and white) and one or two reliable accent colours (blue!). Very limited creative direction, maybe a circle or single line here or there.

In contrast, layout and hierarchy felt easier to learn. These ideas had structure and rhythm I could understand. Draw the eye to the important section of the page, highlight the key behaviour that part of the product encourages.

But I know I can’t rely on the same design style forever. And I don’t want that! I love dynamic, unique creative directions. I just don’t quite know how to get there. So I did some research, lots of Skillshare classes, and even more notes. You can see the full list of Skillshare courses I took at the bottom of this post.

What is a Brand? What is Identity Design

Courtney Eliseo shares a high-level definition of a brand by Seth Godin:

"A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer's decision to choose one product or service over another."

So, restating that in a way I understand, a brand is the experience you expect to receive from a business, service or ’thing’. This can apply to lots of things, but for simplicity sake, I’ll focus on businesses. A Brand is larger than just visual design and encompasses many things you can’t always see or touch.

Courtney Eliseo then goes on to explain “within a brand, you can find the Brand Identity, which is a visual representation of the intangible thoughts, feelings and relationships someone has with a business or product". She goes on to emphasis that she works in brand identity and visual identity, not the larger practice of brand (a larger discipline).

To develop a brand, Identity Designers aim to understand and combine many different aspects of a business. Take in the ingredients of Business Strategy, experience interacting with a business, the products that business sells, the competitive landscape, and the historical brand context, then combine those ingredients to design and create a unified, clear visual representation. That, in turn, becomes the Brand Identity, which tries to represent the visual personality of the business to the world.

What are the Steps of Brand Identity Design

An important thing to note is that there is no one, universal approach to Brand Identity Design. There may be overlapping, similar processes that learn from each other — but from my research, no-one advocates a single, perfect process. They each emphasised figuring out what works for you! So from that, this is the amalgamated process I’ve developed to use in my work.

High Level Brand Identity Design Process

  1. Develop a brand strategy
  2. Research the business, competitors, users and products and gather sources of moodboard inspiration
  3. Choose fonts and colours that match the brand goals and strategy
  4. Develop visual design elements in line with the brand strategy
  5. Deploy the brand identity with a brand toolkit

Brand Strategy

The great mystery! What is brand strategy? Alex Center had a great explanation of this that helped brand strategy finally click for me.

Alex Center defines Brand Strategy as:

  • Why the brand exists
  • What it's goals are
  • Brand purpose
  • Brand mission
  • Brand values

Effectively, Brand Strategy is an extension of overall Business Strategy.

The brand exists because the business exists, which is to solve a particular problem for customers. The goals, purpose, mission and values, etc., all relate to the business strategy and are typically defined in the business plan.

The idea of Brand Strategy being a subset of business strategy made even more sense when I considered companies that I thought had strong brands. This helped me see close ties between companies with a strong business strategy and strong brands. I wrote this explanation for myself to help solidify this idea:

Brand design is understanding the overall business strategy (through company research), then creating a visual identity that matches that strategy. If your business strategy falls flat, it's difficult to develop a memorable brand. The best organisations have a successful business strategy and a matching visual identity that combines to create an effective, memorable and long-lasting brand.

Research

Research is an important step of Brand Identity Design that helps uncover the history of the company, the competitive landscape, the business strategy, customer opinion, relevant design trends, and importantly, things to avoid. Research typically involves gathering a mix of images, running interviews, and understanding business strategy and history.

While some research will focus on other businesses in the same industry, often research focuses on completely different businesses or products. The important thing is to get a range of references which can be used to develop brand moodboards, choose colours, guide typography choices, and business tone of voices. The initial strategy, business input and overall brand identity goals will all influence the strategic direction.

The most important thing to remember, described by Mackey Saturday, “Start Sketching without your references!”. Research gives you inspiration and moodboards, not the solution!

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Brand Expression: Colours and Typography

Now we come to designing the visual expression of the brand. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m at the beginning of my journey when it comes to developing and designing new brand identities! I only just learnt what brand strategy was! As such, I’ll keep to a few simple points I’ve seen repeated time and time again for explaining the steps of choosing colours and typography.

Colours

Typography

  • Alex Center suggests focusing on touchpoints and testing typography options in context. Is the brand going to be shown a lot of packaging? Or is the main audience on Instagram? These use-cases need different font choices.
  • Courtney Eliseo emphasises choosing two different typefaces, with different weights as needed. Often serif heading fonts are paired with sans-serif body fonts, although this depends on the tone and mood of the brand.
  • Learn more about typography from the wonderful Practical Typography, by Matthew Butterick

Visual Design Elements

The fourth step of brand identity design was consistently described in my research but explained with a wide variety of names and explanations. Across my research, these names were used:

The consistent theme was unifying visual elements that add polish and consistency to the brand identity. These could be lines, circles, shapes, whiteboard marker squiggles, icons, patterns, photos, stars, or anything else appropriate to the brand, business and identity. As always, these elements are inspired by the moodboard and work completed up to that stage.

A small example of this is the green circles above the navigation menu on this blog. This element of visual design is also used on the home page, creating a standard visual experience. While this is a very small, hamfisted (self-described!) example, it highlights the concept.

Visual Design Elements are visual design flourishes that help turn a selection of colours and fonts into a unified brand experience. They help you create a consistent style across different design properties, unifying a website, billboard, business card and Instagram profile, into one Brand Identity System.

Deploy, and Bring it all Together

Finally, you've developed a new Brand Identity. You have colours, fonts and visual design elements all informed by your brand strategy, research and moodboard. The last step is to implement the brand. This is an important step, as it let's you show your work in context. Often presented via a slidedeck, brand book, design system and implemented across different design properties, this is the outcome the business hopefully uses for years to come!

What’s next

Developing an understanding of the Brand Identity Design Process has been a great help towards me building confidence in creating original, unique designs that step away from the standards of system-ui fonts and boring startup blue. But, like all design work, I’m aware this is the first step of the journey! I’m looking forward to refining and practising this process, learning more as I go.

Footnotes

  1. Courtney Eliseo: Beyond the Logo: Crafting a Brand Identity
  2. Alex Center: Brand Identity, How to Design Brands People Care About
  3. Mackey Saturday: Logotype Design: Create Brand Marks with Typography
  4. Ilya Lobanov: Beyond a Logo: Design an Overarching Brand Identity System
  5. Su Mathews Hale And Michael D’Esopo: Strategic Design, the Art and Science of Branding
  6. Ueno: What's your design process like?
  7. Ueno: How do you make Design Guidelines?