So often, visual identity is seen as a stamp or symbol of ownership or representation. It is called a “brand” for a reason. (See Glossary below.) It gets etched on metal signs, stitched onto t-shirts, and emblazoned on literally anything we can get our swaggy hands on. Through that dispersed symbolism, it becomes a human identity of sorts. Children wearing their favorite Disney princess shirt. Dad repping his sports team. We are a collection of logos. We are walking NASCARs.
And that is the ultimate goal for many brands: to become so ingrained in a particular lifestyle that it begins to represent the human itself. With that human then becoming a spokesperson of sorts, breathing life into an inanimate design. It’s what a brand strives to build on day one—the day when that life hasn’t made itself known yet.
In design conversations with stakeholders, this often becomes a game of emulation. Let’s be the Nike of the mattress industry or the Uber of window installers. “I want my logo to do that,” we often hear. The issue seems clear: it can’t. A logo mark is a vessel. It is empty until it is filled with meaning and purpose. At first blush, it can only deliver on one task: representation.
Our job as brand designers is to create a representation that can be in flux. A vessel that flexes with the unknowns of the audience, the business and the industry—that bends with the winds of growth. A logo mark will not say it all. It cannot, and it should not. Its job is to be a resilient representation of the future to come.
These are a few focused corridors that your visual identity should aim to address:
Business goals in the form of Aspirations,
Culture as it refers to a walking representation of your company,
And People commonly noted as the target audience you aim to serve.
Your visual identity exploration should closely align with the brand’s strategy—what it promises to deliver, its unique points of differentiation, the innovation pipeline, and the changing world that surrounds us. Pivots happen, and you shouldn’t have to redesign your logo every time they do. The goal is to be identifiable without seeming symbolically narrow.
Stemming directly from brand strategy elements like Mission, Vision and Brand Story, your Company Culture is the lifestyle that your ambassadors (employees) embody. As the first true representatives of a brand, any activation should be representative of these humans. Internal and external audiences alike want to see themselves in the brand, so let them have a voice. Sometimes it’s okay to trade-off a strict visual identity system for a little bit of personality.
The people are arguably the biggest tide-turner in brand identity creation. This is sometimes because target audiences are not given enough consideration in the identity exploration, or because they are given too much. When building your brand strategy, it’s imperative to assess whether the audience will DEFINE the brand or whether they will INFORM it. Are the current audience needs the crux of the entire brand or are those needs supplemental to a larger brand vision? Knowing this critical component will aid in drawing key parameters for the brand identity creation.
#1 – Leave room for change, because it will happen. We see companies, especially startups, looking to rebrand every year or two because of pivots in the business goals or audience focus. This is a sign of weakness in the brand strategy application. Either the strategy was not built to be both future-proofed and focused, or it has not been carried through all facets of the brand’s activation with consistency and vigilance.
#2 – When designing your visual identity, write rules for what the design should accomplish, and carve out areas where it can be flexible for growth. Don’t* try to emulate a particular style or trend because they aren’t inherently timeless.
*Unless that style is a core part of the strategic direction of the visual identity. If you’re doing an 80’s themed bar, we better see some hair spray.
#3 – Art is created to be subjective. Design is created to be objective. Visual Identity is a design with a job to do. When starting a visual identity project, keep in mind that personal preferences are considerations, not commandments. Empower the design team to explore various modes of inspiration and employ the elements that allow that job to be done by the design system—in the most simple format it possibly can.
Brand – The motherlode. An umbrella representation of everything that goes into how internal and external audiences define, display and portray a company or product’s personality.
Visual Identity – The suite of visual and copy elements that bring the brand to life in both designed and written formats.
Logo – The thing. The graphic component that represents the brand in a tactile way. It can be an illustration, typography, a symbol, or a combination of these elements.
Mark (or logo mark) – The shortcut. This is similar to the logo in its usage, but it is often only seen once the audience is familiar with the brand. It is a more succinct version of the logo.