Strategy as a Foundation for design

Your brand strategy is (or should be) an articulation of your business strategy. It's also the brief for designers to know the goals for the design they've been asked to create.

Your brand strategy is a declaration of focus. A brief; the tighter the better. Your brand design is the visual and tonal way you communicate your value proposition. In this article, we'll review the four essential tools you'll wanna create that will allow you to launch a brand that's loved by your customers, and more importantly, creates the right memory structures in their minds.

Brand design isn't just art. It's an emotional and psychological trigger for a belief system.

When your audience interacts with an element of your brand design, whether that be a name, logo, headline, physical space, ad, whatever! ...What will be their immediate response? Visual response happens in three stages.

  • Visceral: This is the immediate reaction to seeing something. It starts with context, what does this mean? And ends with emotion, how do I feel about this?
  • Behavioral. This is what someone does with what they've encountered. If they see your logo, do they feel trust and act, knowing that they trust the brand? If they see an ad, do they feel motivated and act knowing they have decided to purchase your product? This is where thought turns to action.
  • Reflective. This is how someone has changed after experiencing the brand. Do they think and act consistently different than how they acted before? Do they advocate for the brand? Imagine being able to change the hearts and minds of people through a brand. It's rare, but it happens. And only when the brand values align with the personal values of the audience member. Let's breakdown some of the elements of brand design and discuss their role in communicating brand strategy.    

The Name

Naming is one of the most difficult brand strategy processes. What makes choosing a name so difficult is that people typically think of names they think are good and once they do, they assume theirs is the best. Too often, the choice is left to subjective points of view rather than objective measures that everyone agreed to before selecting a name. This tends to go for design as well. Like design, ultimately, a name needs to be effective. The best way to start a naming process is to establish what is objectively effective. These objective definitions should be based on your value proposition and your values. Ensure that whatever name you choose, it conveys them effectively.

Let's play a game. It involves a scoring chart.

Before we start throwing out names, we have to come up with a set of positive and negative attributes for names. These will be the basis for scoring our names. Within the positive and negative attributes, there are:

  • Must haves - These are the mission critical. The name must have these attributes in order to qualify
  • Non-negotiable - These are attributes that necessarily disqualify a name.
  • The attributes we want but are debatable and can be used to weigh against eachother.

As people on your team put names forward, you score each name. If a name takes any of the non-negotiable boxes on the negative side, they're automatically kicked out. But if they take some debatable boxes on the negative side, you'll have to weigh it against the positive attributes. Everyone must agree to the attribute chart before names are given so that we only get names that at least broadly reach the criteria.

Brainstorm begins.

It's totally up to you and your team to make the decisions based on your own subjective taste. What the chart has done is help you choose from a great set of options. Finally, if midway through the process you find that you and your team are coming up with names that you like, but don't meet the criteria on the scoring chart, revisit the criteria. It's possible you were too strict when developing the scoring criteria. From a design standpoint, a criteria for final consideration between equitable names is a design potential of the name.

Final Consideration.
  • What does the name evoke emotionally?
  • How would that manifest visually?
  • Are there obvious design choices like color or shape that come to mind that either define the brand or put the brand in competition with another brand in the space? A name may be unique but the design potential is not.

The Logo

A logo is often the most memorable element of your brand, but it's also one of the most difficult graphic elements you'll create mostly because of the pressure you'll likely feel to make your logo a physical representation of your entire value proposition. I would encourage you to view it with less pressure.

A logo doesn't need to embody your entire brand, but rather be the shorthand to the way people feel about your brand.

A logo is an implication, not a documentation. Think of it like this. If I say the name of a place like San Francisco, what is your immediate visceral reaction? In your mind, do you see a landmark like the Golden Gate Bridge or perhaps you've had an experience there and something specific comes to mind? What if that experience was a bad experience? What would you think of then? Depending on your experience or preconception about the city, the name evokes an emotion, recalls moments, or provides context. A logo serves a similar purpose. It's meant to serve as shorthand for your brand strategy, your value proposition, and your brand values. At first, a logo is just a visual representation of the company. But once people have an experience with the company, it becomes the shorthand for their experience, one you hope is in line with your brand values.

With the concept of the logo laid out, the designer can waste no time and focus on the questions like

  • Is this logo a representation of the name, the industry, or the business?
  • Or could it be a representation of an idea, value, or emotion?
  • Is the logo a representation of how the company portrays itself or how the audience will perceive the value?
  • Structurally, is it an image, type, or both?
  • Illustrative or photographic?
  • Static or responsive?

 The concept and the strategy are the foundation and enable the creative freedom of the designer.

The Tone

A brand's tone of voice is the way in which you want have a conversation with your customers.

  • Are you a serious brand?
  • Are you a funny brand?
  • Are you a helpful brand?
  • etc.

Your brand strategy will help you zero in on the outline but now you need to make more specific decisions. You can manifest your tone of voice in a variety of ways. Typically, language is used as the primary tool but you can use any communication method to help define the way your brand communicates with other people. The most common example of tone of voice within a brand environment is descriptive words.

  • Warm,
  • confident,
  • bold.
  • etc.

These are all adjectives that describe the way the brand should communicate and could be offered in copy, images, video, sounds or character. When developing your tone of voice, think of what words your brand likes and words it doesn't, phrases it uses and phrases it avoids, images that represent who they are and images that don't quite fit. Every communication a brand has should be filtered through this tone of voice. It's like a character in a movie. If they're a hard and grizzled fisherman or debutante socialite, they would deliver the same message very differently.

Your brand's tone of voice is defining the character of the brand and how those messages are delivered.

Your brand's tone of voice is your brand's filter, the way messages are communicated and it is a part of every interaction your brand has with a customer. Your brand strategy should define this filter but you have to give it the detail needed for anyone working with the company to understand how to communicate with others. This tone of voice will typically be represented in a brand's style guide.

The Style Guide

We have a name, we have a logo, and we know the language and tone we will like to use, now we need a style guide. Just like everything else we have touched on, the style guide will be informed by your brand strategy. Your brand style guide should include the following elements:

  • Logo Specifications
  • approved logo color variations,
  • clear zone -the designated area around the logo that must be free of any other graphics or typography to ensure the logo's integrity and readability.
  • Minimum size of logo and placement.
  • Alternate versions of the logo, like horizontal or vertical orientation.
  • Designated color palette, which typically contain Pantone, CMYK, and RGB colors.
  • Chosen typography with heading sizes and leading sizes.
  • Visual examples of application - Examples of what not to do with the logo or incorrect logo usage, and then tone of voice.

Depending on how ambitious you are or how tight your timeline and budgets are, you may choose to do more or less. This list is just a guideline.

Let's go into a little more detail on what we can add to the style guide

Color Palette

Defining a brand palette will go a long way towards creating a consistent look and feel. Most brands choose four or fewer main colors and don't stray too far from the hues of their logo. It's a good idea to pick one light color for backgrounds, a darker color for text, a neutral hue and also one that pops. In your style guide, show swatches of your brand colors. Make sure to include the information needed to reproduce those colors accurately, wherever your brand message goes.

Click here to read more about detail and thought that goes into color work and preparing your assets for print.

Fonts

Another big part of identity design is font selection. Your brand needs to dictate whether one typeface family will meet all of your needs, or if you want to define multiple brand fonts. A good rule of thumb is to use a different font than the one in your logo, since the contrast will help it standout. No matter how simple or complex your typography scheme is, make sure it's used in all the right ways by explaining the choice and giving clear instructions for use. Make sure your style guide tells the story of the typefaces you're using, how it relates to your brand, and what each one is used for, like headlines, body text, captions, etc. For alignment, make it clear if you want copy to always align right, left, or centered. For spacing, including tracking and kerning ratios to maintain a consistent style when font sizes change.

Images

The imagery section in your style guide will steer everyone in the right direction without adding more approval to-dos. You can approach this in a few different ways. The best practice is to show examples of images that have performed well for your brand. Make sure you address the main ways that your company communicates, whether it's a print catalog or an Instagram account. Don't be afraid to get aspirational. Show examples of images that represent what you hope your audience sees in your brand. One way of helping is creating a mood board, or an elaboration on this would our style panoramas. Collect images that convey the feeling that you want people to get when they interact with your brand.

Conclusion

Your name, logo, tone of voice, and design style are all parts of your bigger brand design. Your brand design is directly informed by your brand strategy, which serves as the brief for anyone who will iterate on it over time as you introduce new products and services. Now don't feel pressure to do all of this on your own, even if you're a designer. It's often helpful to hire a third party who can interpret your brand strategy and show you a variety of options. This approach allows you to choose from great options and focus your energy and creativity on what's right rather than having to carry the load yourself.  

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