The most effective visual identities have the simplest solutions, draw together multiple themes and expressions across a variety of touch points and are derived from a solid strategy undertaken prior to putting pencil to paper.
I have frequently seen instinct rather than strategy lead the design process of a number of other freelance designers and wanted to use this article to highlight my own approach, identify why such a process is used by the big design firms and how it can be applied to smaller freelance projects.
By engaging a client in the process of strategy early on, a linguistic blueprint can be established to guide the design process, avoid superfluous detail and the personal preferences of both the designer or client, identify and avoid ineffective visual market clichés, save time, help to accurately price a project, justify your fee (through a tangible document) and, most importantly, deliver a relevant design solution.
I believe any freelancer who can develop and employ their own proprietary design strategy can match the services and quality of any design agency.
Identifying themes and values
Propositions and values are the definable characteristics or perceptions of a brand experience, something a consumer should expect when they interact with a product or service. A sense of trust when dealing with an on-line bank or the sense of high quality from a premium product. These will often come in the form of buzzwords that won’t individually be brand unique but a combination of these can be resolved to form a distinctive and own-able personality. The designer’s responsibility lies in managing how (language, imagery, experience) and where (logo, stationary, POS, Packaging, on-line) these are communicated.
To identify these, a designer should look for reoccurring language across the brief, through client conversation, research and workshops. These will frequently be different words to describe the same ideas and can be resolved to form key themes.
Themes such as honesty, transparency and accountability can fall under ‘trust’ while authoritative, strong, reliable and integrity can fall under ‘security’. A designer should search for correlations that can be clearly communicated and understood by the demographic.
Value hierarchy and asset architecture
Larger companies will often have multiple products and services and, as such many propositions and values. Developing an underlying strategy that structures these into a manageable hierarchy should help the designer to communicate the most important values in the most communicative way.
A simple set of propositions and values (quality, luxury, exclusivity for example) can often be resolved with a simple logo-type and/or logo-mark, whereas a more multifaceted brand may require patterns, symbols, material choices, print treatments and corporate typefaces to successfully express the depth of a brand’s personality and successfully engage with a consumer.
Placing a brand’s propositions and values into a hierarchy – which adjusted can deliver vastly different visual ideas – will turn a complex project into a series of manageable objectives that can be assigned specific communication methods. For example: the most important propositions and values may well be more appropriately expressed through words, photography or an environmental experience rather than through a particular type choice or structural design.
In some instances, a logo may well be the last asset to be designed.
Diagram A - Combining excessive propositions and values into only two pieces of communication (such as a logo and logo-type) will invariably lead to a confused, complex and potentially contradicting visual expression.
Diagram B - The process of design strategy should strive to understand the most important aspects of a brand and establish a clear hierarchy of propositions and values. Essentially which values are given the most prominence.
Diagram C - Varying the prominence of each proposition or value across different touch points should help to establish a architecture of assets that can deliver a broader experience, one that isn’t reliant on a single key piece of design communication to express a complex brand story.
This process isn’t about splitting propositions and values but about experimenting with the prominence each plays within the context of each touchpoint, changing the ‘volume’ of each one should lead to a diverse but on-brief set of visual ideas.
Assigning visual characteristics
Assigning visual characteristics to each proposition or value should provide the designer with a diverse but relevant tool kit to work from. These visuals may well be perceived as trend based or contrived but typically relied upon because they function well across a broad demographic. PWC’s 2010 re-brand utilised transparencies to deliver a more open and honest proposition as a way to counter the increasing distrust of big corporations and the financial sector. This was combined with an expanding visual device that had an inclusive, community-focused sensibility. Although these two techniques are saturated they effectively communicated the company’s new outlook.
Spending time identifying these traits and assigning these with visual cues can provide the designer with the opportunity to consider the most appropriate methods of communication. For example security may be commonly be communicated through an eagle but this could be executed using photography, sound, illustrative elements, close ups, long shots, animations or textures. Strategy should help to identify new ways of communicating traditional ideas understood by the market.
Techniques and visual cues need not be drawn from the same industry; the cross pollination of ideas from other sectors can result in new and surprising aesthetics while remaining clear to the consumer.
Evernote’s proposition is characterised by an elephant – representing memory – and a simple folded ear is used to visualise documentation. The colour palette is freed from the blue, red and black technological associations of the software industry (as these are communicated through the mark) in favour of a friendlier, accessible and more industry unique green and grey combination.
A creative approach post strategy
Creativity and spontaneity are an essential part of the design process and while this shouldn’t be restricted by strategy it should guide it to the most appropriate solutions and quickly discard others. By altering the prominence each proposition or value has across each touch point and assigning these different visual characteristics (while communicating the same message) a variety of relevant concepts can be built.
Designing in an isolated and incremental fashion, from logo to stationary to website, reduces the opportunity to be truly creative, with each new asset being limited by the one before. Strategy should provide a designer with the opportunity to take a broader non-linear approach to deliver a more creative and holistic result that allows the most communicative and engaging touch points to lead the design process.
For me, creativity is in the understanding and visual exploration of a wider brand experience, not in the clever nor artistic merit of individual assets. I believe this can only be achieved with a decent strategy.
Strategy plays a vital role in developing brand identities within agency environments and should be considered by all designers for each project regardless of its size. It should help clients to understand and distill their values while allowing designers to effectively communicate these with understandable and well thought out visual solutions.
Written by designer Richard Baird