An Interrogative Essay on Brand Identity Design
Salt is an interrogative and exploratory essay on personal experiences and brand identity design processes. Salt was originally written and published in 2013 while working at Focus Lab. This article is an abridged version of the printed copy. While my personal process has evolved dramatically, the text remains as it was written in 2013. The book is no longer available for sale.
Table of Contents
- Trust and Preparation
- Quality and Value
I want to create a process that excites me as a person.
—Eddie Opara, Partner at Pentagram
I’ve read plenty of books about being a designer to clients (Design Is a Job), showcasing incredible branding work (Designing Brand Identity) and about what design can accomplish (The Shape of Design) but I haven’t come across a narrative that explores the creative process in brand identity design.
On The Name
Salt is “an element that gives flavor or zest”. Salt is “sharp, lively wit”. Salt is “to add zest or liveliness”. Salt is “to add, treat, season, or sprinkle (with salt)”.Salt of the earth. I don’t want to get pretentious or grandiose with the naming but it suits the idea. Salt is practical verbiage to flavor, season and enhance our design with quality and excellence. Let’s salt our process.
Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depends on simplicity.
The goal of this commentary is to excel, striving for excellence. Debbie Millman says people know three things: you know what you know, you know what you don’t know and finally, you don’t know what you don’t know. The more I know about what I don’t know, the more I’ll know about learning how to know. (Whoa.) The difference is the quality of continually seeking design knowledge. This is the distinction between design that excels and compels and design that simply exists. Feel free to reach out and ask questions, or answer them. Be critical. Be salt.
Half the Battle
This is not a golden rulebook or comprehensive visual brand development bible. This is me as the Ikea guy in the instructions. I’m scratching my head; maybe I put all the pieces together in the end. This is a collection of personal observations and experiences. This is my attempt at putting ideas on paper and in the hands of people that will read, relate and respond. I’m writing about a creative process that leads to excellent design. I’m trying to always learn.
Why did I opt to publish this in print? I want to put these ideas in the hands of other creative thinkers to encourage discourse and foster idea sharing. My goal is not an extensive readership, but an involved one. I’d like to turn this into a genuine conversation for the betterment of the industry: for the sake of designers and clients alike; for excellence and quality.
There is not one design process. But with enough practice we can learn to coax our best work by following procedures best suited to us.
Firmalt, Mexico-based multidisciplinary brand design agency offers their process in brief. Note: Concept and Design are the final two of six, only 30% of their listed process. Preparation is key. (This information was noted in 2013 and has since changed on their website.)
We meet and get to know each other
Specify needs & direction
Quote based on client needs
Market research and competition analysis
Applied strategic creativity
Design without research is like getting into a taxi and just saying, drive.
Our process is generally touched by three roles—whether that’s one individual with all responsibility or several team members dividing the workload. These are the lead brand identity designer: responsible for gathering research and designing, as well as presenting ideas to the design team and client; the project manager: keeping up with scope, goals, deliverables and being the primary client contact; and the art director: maintaining quality throughout the design process, assisting in execution and client communication. (To clarify, this process begins after initial client conversations, scope and goals are set and the contract is signed.)
The next spread shows our step-by-step system. Further pages describe our methods and specific actions in greater detail. Let’s make this a conversation.
Project management is key: timeline, scope, contract comprehension, expectations, limitations. Find out the client’s vision, goals for their brand name. This can be informed by a simple questionnaire.
Get on the same page visually and conceptually with the client and the rest of your design team.
Understand. Dig deep. Write a bit, make a word list or mind maps. Be informed. Understand the competition and industrial atmosphere of your client.
Putting ideas and concepts into visual practice; giving form to ideas from the beginning of the process and throughout. Registering thoughts and notes on paper.
This implies iteration on the computer but I don’t believe sketching should end at the beginning of the process. It’s one of those things that benefits the entirety of the creative experience. Also, constantly reference the research, strategy and goals. Don’t leave those assets behind.
Check for Federally registered marks via the USPTO. This is a crucial — and legal — step all designers should integrate into their workflow. Simply make sure your ideas haven’t been realized by another designer earlier this year or a century ago. Finally, consider does it work?
See what your friends think. Everyone is affected by design differently. Receive different points of view, ask people who are uneducated or generally uninformed on the subject/project.
So that your clients know what to expect, define specific delivery dates, meeting days and times and discuses the deliverable to maintain momentum. Get in a cadence of delivering. Present the polished ideas. Don’t send work hoping clients get your ideas. Don’t leave room for misinterpretation. Don’t present too many ideas. There is a paradox of choice — more is less, less is more.
In our business, presentation is everything.
— Sagi Haviv
Take that internal and client feedback and build upon it. Make incredible work.
Write about the final product, justify the result of the process; prepare for the next project with lessons from the previous, even if it’s just one or two sentences.
Before we visualize something, we should start writing about it and distill it down like a fine whiskey.
— Eddie Opara, Pentagram
Deliver final assets
This is defined as an assets folder containing the brand identity system (icons, color swatches, master logo configuration, typography, use cases, etc.). This also includes the instructions for using the brand: a style guide or brand identity guidelines.
There is a maxim in design declaring that in order to break the rules you must first know the rules. In branding, the only rules that are relevant are the rules governing common sense, consistency and creativity.
— Andrew Sabatier
The visual brand identity guide, or style guide, references for clients and future designers the rationale behind design choices and specific graphic elements. Brand guidelines maintain quality and consistency throughout all brand communication in any medium.
Always showcase examples of the brand in action. Never let your client have a document of dry data with no examples of application. Instructions for use and examples of application should always accompany the cogs and gears of the design system.
According to the Suffolk University visual brand guidelines, as an organization they are “building the brand to build awareness, comprehension, participation and support towards a compelling, coherent, embraceable verbal and visual brand system.”
Simple and understated: “The H&R Block Brand Guidelines provide the information necessary to ensure that all of our communications and materials are consistent and reflective of the H&R Block brand.”
4. Trust and Preparation
Trust the process. Everyone is Felix Baumgartner jumping into this process. Bob Ross couldn’t have said it better: Relax, let it flow. Think like water.
When it comes to creating successful brand identities, just beginning the process is a measure of success, in and of itself. Project launch is often unfairly procedurally outweighed by project completion. As designers we hope that our first concept is the last and best. A successful beginning is conversational and combines an understanding of client concerns with targeted research and preparation. There are no standardized rules here, per se, just a bunch of ad lib dialogue mixed with thoughtful preparation.
Houses aren’t built without blueprints. No structure stands without initial planning and preparation. Taking the parallel into account, our design process should first be thought through and arranged accordingly. [Insert Boy Scout’s motto here.]
So, what is the process? What is the goal? What is success after completion? When is it ever complete? Is it ever complete?
Outline of basic systemic process
Discover themes and philosophies in the context of your client and their industry. The more front end understanding there is, the less back end visual obfuscation there will be. Design is a series of decisions. Be informed.
Both internal and external. Internal sources of inspiration are design related: what is the context of design today? Keep up with contemporary design aesthetic and design atmosphere. Know what will work as a design engine. Second, consider the external conditions of culture and existent social climate as design inspiration. Understand how design will work as a psychological mechanism. Be aware of the personal and human aspects of branding.
Explore new visual territories
Use moodboards and sketches to create a position and a visual direction. Set internal standards of design exploration: make it a goal.
Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.
Be a consultant
Clients hire designers for skills and proficiencies in areas where they do not excel. There is extreme value in design. More on that later.
Don’t do it alone
Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Have someone else review the work and discuss it. Say ideas out loud. Accept critique. Ask for it.
Establish checkpoints and a finish line
Get there. Conclude the project. Refine the technicalities.
Debrief yourself on why you made specific decisions throughout the course.
Before jumping into sketches and diving into Illustrator, we need to know the client’s business and their goals with the branding process. We begin with a kickoff meeting to get to know the company and the players, review a questionnaire they’ve previously filled out and share a series of moodboards to discuss and refine visual direction. The questionnaire is always refined to harvest the most value from the fewest questions.
Zwoelf is an independent, multidisciplinary graphic studio in Budapest, Hungary. This is their process.
Good graphic design comes from wide research and proper design process.
Get the project/task known
We put a lot of time and energy in research. We believe that proper basics and starting points are vital issues in design process.
Avoid any design that does not add meaning to the project
We create clean, straightforward designs that communicates our client’s needs and nothing more. We don’t decorate; we communicate.
Superposition of ideas
Sharing ideas within our design team results in better design. We believe in teamwork and in the superposition of ideas.
Perfection in production
A project does not end when we prepare the les for print. We offer full print service management to have control on the quality of the printed matter. We only present and deliver perfectly printed materials.
Preselection for you
We create several mockups and layouts during our design process, but this doesn’t automatically mean that we present all of them to the client. We believe that only flawless concepts can be presented, so we do the preselection and present only one or two concepts (depending on the result of our design process).
We try to limit the brand design process to four rounds, each round with a lifespan of a week, Monday to Friday. The first round generates grayscale ideas in a conversation based on form and concepts. The second round develops some of the initial concepts, pairing typography and introducing color. In a perfect world, consensus on a creative direction is born in the second round. The third round begins to finalize a small set of concepts. These can still be loose but communication should keep everyone on the same page about more than just direction, but speed and momentum. By now, we may be applying context to concepts to help pitch final looks. The fourth round should really be honing the comprehensive brand identity. Color, typography, and collateral concepts should be like concrete drying.
Those four rounds are specific to the branding process. Creating print collateral, or moving the brand to web or mobile, demands more flexibility to finalize the identity within context. A fifth — or, rarely, a sixth — round may be needed to really send home the cohesive visual brand. There are times when things just don’t seem to stick between the designer and client. In that case, there may be a need for additional rounds. That’s completely acceptable.
Designs of purely arbitrary nature cannot be expected to last long.
6. Quality and Value
Any media can easily and unobtrusively become part of a brand identity. As designers we have the responsibility to create the experience as physical, emotional and intellectual components. This leans towards quality of work.
The concept of quality is difficult to define, for it is not merely seen, but somehow intuited in the presence of the work in which it is embodied. Quality has little to do with popular notions of beauty, taste or style; and nothing to do with status, respectability or luxury. It is revealed, rather, in an atmosphere of receptivity, propriety and restraint.
Quality is concerned with the weighing of relationships; the discovery of analogies and contrasts; with proportion and harmony; the juxtaposition of formal and functional elements — with their transformation and enrichment.
Quality is concerned with truth, not deception; with ideas, not techniques; with the enduring, not the ephemeral; with precision, not fussiness; with simplicity, not vacuity; with subtlety, not blatancy; with sensitivity, not sentimentality.
A brand is an entity, living, and breathing. The brand needs reasons for being, purpose for existing, goals in life, a face, a wardrobe. For instance, think of brands in the context of out ts, clothes, attire. Is it appropriate for a Jimmy Buffett style with Hawaiian shirts and flip flops? Or is more appropriate to lean towards Warren Buffett. Quite a different personality.
Consider brands as personalities. There is a need to build brand identities with an imbued personality or they will inherit them from consumer experiences; ascribe personification to brand identities. This idea definitely blurs the line between marketing, advertising, and basic visual brand identity design. However, the idea of instilling personality cannot be separated from visual brand identity creation.
I’ve heard, “Branding is for cows. Stories are for people.” What do you think? It sounds like a marketing ploy. Stories and storytelling are the visual identity experience. Branding is a process that develops the identity. Stories exist within a brand. Together this system is built for people. This system then grows into a valuable concept.
Brand value is the reliability and quality of a product or service perceived by consumers based on brand familiarity or reputation. Building brand identity is more than just familiarizing the public with your logo and slogan. It is reinforcing those messages with positive professional experience each time the company interfaces with the customer and the public. A reputation must be protected. To preserve the integrity and impact of our brand name, it is critical that we establish a cohesive and stable identity.
—Allstate, on brand value
In 2001, Molly Hislop defined branding as “the process of creating a relationship or a connection between a company’s product and emotional perception of the customer for the purpose of generation segregation among competition and building loyalty among customers.” In 2004 and 2008, Jean-Noël Kapferer and Kevin Lane Keller respectively defined it as a fulfillment in customer expectations and consistent customer satisfaction.
A visual brand identity design process is the symbiotic relationship between the designer and the client. There is also a relationship between the one creating the visual identity and, beyond a client, the customers and end users of the design.
Michael Porter says, “The essence of strategy is choosing to perform activities differently than rivals do.” Branding is differentiating. Differentiating is valuable. Branding is valuable. The more excellent the visual brand identity, the more valuable it’s potential.
Image and perception help drive value; without an image there is no perception.
—Scott M. Davis
I say all this to help myself realize the enourmous potential of a creative process in the context of designing visual brand identities. I’m searching for successful methods and philosophies. I’m searching for shared successes. But every creative process is different. Even the ones that start the same iterate uniquely. Even the better processes aren’t the best. No process is perfect or entirely comprehensive.
And so we strive for perfection against inherent improbability. Always improve. If making our best work is our goal — what is the road to get there? True design is the process. The result is a side effect.
Let’s talk salt. What steps in your process work best? What processes have you seen fail? Let’s start a conversation.
When nothing is sure, everything is possible.
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