12 Sep Create the Context: How to Build An Effective Visual Identity
As branding experts, the number one request we get from prospective clients is — you guessed it — logo design. And while we love logo design enough to create a logo for our own family sigil, our second favorite branding asset to design is visual identity, otherwise known as visual brand systems.
What do we mean by ‘visual identity’?
When we talk about ‘visual identity’ we are referring to the visual manifestation of a brand’s identity — the personality, positioning, and promise of a brand. This typically includes a logo, color palette, typography, and other illustrative assets. These come together to form a kind of ‘brand world’ that represents and communicates intangible characteristics and is the most immediate, impactful and important component in telling a brand’s ‘story’. We know this all sounds a little dense, and even a bit froofy, so let’s break it down a bit more to understand why visual identity is crucial to strong brands, and how to make each component more effective.
There is no way around having an effective visual identity without an equally effective logo mark. The logo is an abbreviation, a visual shortmark, a flag that represents your brand. However, the one most common misconception people have about logos is that it has to communicate everything about the brand. There is no way a singular mark could express the multitudes and dimensions of a brand’s story, and, in fact, that’s one of the important reasons why we design other identity elements to complement, support and contextualize the logo.
In the cast of characters that act out the story of your brand, the logo is simply the main character. It’s your Harry Potter. It’s your Wonder Woman. It’s your Mickey Mouse. It’s the distillation of your brand, plain and simple.
An effective logo will have the following qualities:
Think of some of the most iconic logos of our time — Nike, Apple, heck, the Cross. These are all simple enough a child could draw it. Now, not to say that a logo needs to always be this minimalist or basic, but more to illustrate that our memory and resonance with symbols tend to be with those that are easily identifiable, have excellent versatility for multiple touchpoints and contexts, and can easily be understood; simple shapes and icons fulfill these requisites very well. With simplicity also comes the risk of unoriginality or indistinction, and this is also one of the key reasons why an accompanying visual identity can create further points of differentiation and dimensionality.
As we mentioned, logos are meant to be an abbreviation or shorthand for your brand and making your mark easy to remember allows your brand to be indelible by association. Achieving memorability is a tricky business, as it requires the use of repetition, but also the necessary qualities that make something “sticky”. Think of it almost like a catchy pop song — it may have heavy rotation on Top 40 radio, but will either get stuck in your head and actually look forward to hearing it again, or you’ll soon get so tired of the song, you’ll have an aversion to it.
One of the most effective ways to achieve that kind of stickiness are visual puzzles. Think of the arrow in the FedEx logo, or the “a to z” smile in Amazon. These clever logos use negative space and graphic elements to create logos with little Easter eggs that reward the eye and stay with the viewer.
Another technique towards creating a more memorable logo is evocative imagery. The Starbucks logo uses a mermaid with two tales — an image that evokes mythology and folk tales. Apple is a consumer electronics and computer company yet its iconmark is an fruit with a bite taken out of it — an image of great historical, cultural and biblical connotations of knowledge, education, and creativity.
Context is also important. At the end of the day, a logo is a vessel for meaning and association about your brand. If it can hold that meaning in a way that connects to your story — people will remember it.
A logo should work in a number of proportional contexts and applications, especially in the digital age, where a logo should have the ability to keep its formal integrity at small scale sizes (like app icons, favicons and profile avatars), and still be impactful at larger applications like signage or print. It should also work well in grayscale, monochrome and in other effects depending on your touchpoints.
For most of our clients, the primary logo can get 80–90% of the way in terms of versatility. For that other 10%, we create a library of variants (Sylvie, not Loki) that can work at tiny sizes, for applications with limited printing capabilities, for laser cutting or on dark backgrounds. An extensive, but curated library is extremely useful and more realistically expands the ability of a single mark to represent the brand.
“Remember when logos all had the “.com” at the end of them?
Yeah, that suffix is basically the equivalent of cargo shorts and three button suit jackets from the ’90s.”
Remember when logos all had the “.com” at the end of them? Yeah, that’s the equivalent of cargo shorts and three button suit jackets from the’90s. What defines a trend is not only its currency, but it’s inherent transience, and when we create logos, we look at trends to inform and maybe infuse some relevancy into the design, but not as a defining core element. The best designs remain the same for years, if not decades, and are maybe changed or tweaked cosmetically as time moves on.
Appropriateness for your industry:
Lastly, the best logos work with your audience and industry in mind. A logo for a traditional Italian restaurant is going to look vastly different from a Silicon valley startup. Understanding your stakeholders, and knowing your industry allows you to create a logo that works most effectively in the context of your industry. This is one of the reasons why we always start with a brand strategy. If we aren’t understanding your business inside and out, we can’t design a logo that fits it in an appropriate way. Period.
Alina Wheeler notes in her book Designing Brand Identity that while shape is the first thing your eye notices, not far behind is COLOR. Color can evoke strong emotions and responses, and a properly configured palette can fully maximize how customers feel about your brand. Color also has regional, national and cultural associations that should be considered when choosing your brand colors.
Understanding color theory — the psychology, perception and science of color — allows you to more intentionally convey your brand story through color. For example, red is almost always a very strong, primal color that exudes power, passion, and boldness. It has associations from everything from Superman’s cape to Coca Cola to the Soviet Union, and yet endures as a popular color because every one of those things has one thing in common: you can’t ignore it.
You also have to look at your competitive landscape when thinking about color. If everyone in your industry is blue, try green. If everyone is white, try black.
Understanding the power of color allows you to best augment your core qualities and help you stand out in potent ways.
Coca-Cola and Superman, both iconic uses of the color red.
After form, and after color, there’s content, and the means of reading textual content is linked to typographic practices.
A 2013 study of 45,000 participants done by Errol Morris on the effects of font choice on trust on conclusively found that people increased their trust of a statement if it was typed in Baskerville over several other font choices. Type has a subtle, yet tangible influence on the emotions and perceptions of your audience.
When you are choosing a type, think about your brand’s personality — are you friendly and innocent? Maybe choose an approachable, clean sans serif with a large x-height. Are you a bold, hero-like brand? Maybe you’re using an all-caps condensed type with a heavy weight. Are you an intellectual, serious brand? A trusty, academic serif old-style type might be ideal.
All of these type considerations help support, emphasize and highlight the personality traits of your brand.
Other Visual Elements
After logo, color and typography, you’re left with endless opportunities for creating dimension, richness and distinction through the use of other visual assets. This might mean illustrative assets that make your brand more approachable and imaginative, or it might be a bold geometric pattern that becomes your Burberry plaid, or it could be just sparse white space and thoughtful photography that highlight your minimalist philosophy. Signature elements like these allow the visual identity to become more flexible, surprising and compelling.
Think of them like the supporting characters and backdrop to your main cast. When you watch a movie, the set, the costumes, the music, and special effects — these all help to immerse you in the story and characters. This is what these supporting elements do for your brand.
Dynamic brand systems
A new paradigm of brand methodology has emerged in the past two decades in response to the proliferation of digital communications, and it’s the use of dynamic brand systems. Dynamic brand systems are systems that allow flexibility, change and movement to enter the language of your brand.
We recently did a project for a product photography studio called Harper Point based in Ventura, California. Through our Discovery sessions, we created a positioning based on the brand’s primary superpower: versatility borne out of decades of experience. The logo shape is the consistent element, but it’s been configured into dozens of different textures, shapes, and colors. The subtext here is that Harper Point is a dynamic, Swiss-army knife of a studio that will infuse your products with warmth, genre-defying character, and unexpected personality.
Harper Point’s logo shape (above) is the consistent element, but it’s been configured into dozens of different textures, shapes, and colors.
While the “H” iconmark becomes a kind of placeholder, its inclusion is paramount. Without this shape defining the consistent, unifying structure and system, the entire identity becomes chaotic and without an anchor.
Dynamic brand systems allow a visual identity to flex and change based on audience, touchpoint, and application, but it should always have a core, underlying logic to it that allows the recognizable, signature element to ground it. This is what makes dynamic branding extremely challenging, yet very powerful when done right.
So that’s Visual Identity and a few ideas on how to do it effectively. If you have any further questions, please reach out to us — we’d love to chat!:)
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