1. Problem Definition
1.1. The Brief
The brand brief is a great tool to gather as much information as possible to help the client figure everything out. For me, the key here is to try to ask honest questions and force the client to do the same with their answers. We want to start a relationship based on confidence and sincerity, so try to be as open as possible.
Below, you will find some of the most common questions that you can perform in order to gather that valuable intel that will benefit and support your final proposal.
1.1.1 Business Story
Who are they? Here we need a bit of background. Some short story about their business and why we are performing this project. It should be easy to get this from them if they are passionate about what they do. They will tell you how they were funded or how they got their first customer. All these pieces of information are really important for us to elaborate on in the future, so make sure to write them down.
1.1.2 Mission, Vision And Values
They probably introduced this info as part of the business story, but some business owners don’t know about mission, vision or the necessity of having strong values. Make sure to ask and process the answer. In any case, it can also be part of our job to help them figure this out.
USPs are unique selling propositions, basically what makes their business unique. I personally like how M&M’s summed it up in a claim: “It melts in your mouth, not in your hand”. This simple sentence gives the company an advantage over the competitors and describes its value to the customer. Your client might not know about the USP because they never “needed it”. Make sure to ask so that we can help to throw some light on that regard too.
1.1.4 Positioning Map and Competitors
This is slightly related to the USPs. Positioning maps are diagrams that illustrate the perception that customers have of the business’ offering based on price, quality, or any other benefits. The elaboration of these maps helps to visualise where the client stands and how other companies relate to it.
Here we cannot accept a generic answer like “everyone interested in buying” or “just people like me”. Some ways of identifying the real target can be:
➡️ Checking the competition
➡️ Analysing their own customer base (if they have one)
➡️ Demographics and psychographics
Do they have partners? Do they collaborate with other brands? Who are they? What are they doing in terms of branding? What’s their position? All these concepts are really important to understand where they stand among the collaborators.
1.1.7 Most Common Applications
Do they have a digital product? Are they furniture makers? The nature of the business can also define the kind of applications they will need to cover. Make sure to ask about those to structure what they might need.
1.1.8 Deliverables And Timeline
Once the brief is finished and all the information from it is absorbed by both parts, it’s really important to do a debrief together to discuss the info already provided and agree on what the deliverables and the deadline are.
2.1. Concept Definition
I like to start the production phase with a clear concept definition. I usually use whiteboards or just simple paper that I hang on the wall. Here’s where all the information we gathered in the briefing starts to make more sense.
In this phase, I also use as a reference the brand personality framework that Jennifer Aaker defined in 1997, where she basically categorises brand personality in five core dimensions.
➡️ Down to earth (Family oriented / Small town)
➡️ Honest (Sincere / Real)
➡️ Wholesome (Original)
➡️ Cheerful (Sentimental / Friendly)
➡️ Daring (Trendy / Exciting)
➡️ Spirited (Cool / Young)
➡️ Imaginative (Unique)
➡️ Up-to-date (Independent / Contemporary)
➡️ Reliable (Hard-working / Secure)
➡️ Intelligent (Technical / Corporate)
➡️ Successful (Leader / Confident)
➡️ Upper Class (Glamourous / Good-looking)
➡️ Charming (Smooth)
➡️ Outdoorsy (Western)
➡️ Tough (Rugged)
These dimensions are constantly evolving, but the concept of how the general public perceives brand values and personality is still the same. It’s really important to keep that in mind and come out of this phase with a strong concept to develop. The stiffness of the outcome will determine the quality of the whole project, so take your time.
2.2. Formal Development
Start basic. In opposition to what the general public think about brand design —a logo sketch in a napkin that is sold for $1,5M— this phase requires more than a logo sketched. Are we developing additional applications? How could they interact with the logo idea? Draw the truck, the building or a basic website. Try to envision how the initial idea could work in different environments, sizes, and what graphical elements could be used to reinforce the concept.
2.2.2 Mood Boarding
Here I really think we (visual designers) need to learn a bit from fashion and interior designers and their mood boarding techniques. I see in their industry a more holistic approach and no fear at all about stepping out of the pure and simplistic use of colours, images, and flat media. I think it’s essential to also add objects, fabrics, video or any other element that adds meaning to the concept you are working with.
2.3. Final Proposal
I do not deliver more than one final proposal. This can be pretty challenging as the client usually wants to have the power of choosing. From my very own perspective, I don’t think that choosing among three, five or ten different options will benefit the quality of the final result and the client themselves. If we followed the previous steps and agreed on everything, this phase will only be about execution. The way to proceed with this one proposal policy is by maintaining active communication during the whole process, so when they see the final work, it all makes sense.
It’s really important to explain the concepts, how we are gonna portrait them, and why we chose those graphical elements to represent the company’s personality.
3.1. The Art Of Pitching
We love to think that a good idea explains itself and it doesn’t need any context if it is powerful enough. This might be true, but even the greatest ideas have never managed to sell themselves (even the first iPhone needed a story wonderfully executed).
The most important thing, in addition to the quality of our work, is the ability to convince others about its value. There’s an Abstract episode on Netflix where the iconic designer Paula Scher shows perfectly how it’s done.
As we have been in touch with the client during the production phase, most of the presentation will not be a surprise. Discussions will take place and compromises will be made, but we need to make sure that the essence of the project is not gone or dismissed by the end of the presentation. How to do that is basically through story-telling and making an allusion to previous agreements.
3.2. Brand Handbook
When talking about the “logo” we need to differentiate 3 different concepts.
➡️ Logotype: which is the textual representation (e.g. the word Airbnb).
➡️ Isotype: which is the iconic part of the brand (e.g. The Bélo symbol)
➡️ Imagotype: which is the conjunction of both, text and symbol.
Those never-ending lessons of technical drawing come into action here. The imagotype should be represented in a proportional way, establishing the relationship among the elements through a measure that complies with the next characteristics:
➡️ Be proportional (X or Y) and not exact (like 10 cm), so it’s easily reproducible at any size.
➡️ Be a representative element of the imagotype (the letter “e” in Skype for example)
➡️ Not too big, not too small.
Safe Area & Minimum Sizing
The safe area must be defined to prevent any other element from interfering with your imagotype. It must be defined complying with the following characteristics:
➡️ Be proportional (X or Y) and not exact (like 10 cm), so it’s easily reproducible at any size. Normally, you use the same measure as the one you used for the construction.
➡️ Make sure to represent in a technical drawing the white space that surrounds the imagotype.
The minimum sizing defines how small we can go without losing legibility or proper representation. It must be defined complying with the following characteristics:
➡️ Use an exact measure in millimetres.
➡️ Point out the more representative option specifying height and width.
➡️ Do not specify several minimum sizes. From the smallest to 5 meters width, all should work.
This section is meant to make the allowed variations more understandable. We might include:
✅ Colour versions
✅ Background combinations
This section is meant to define what is NOT allowed to do.
We might include:
⛔ Not recommended colour versions
⛔ Not recommended backgrounds
⛔ Not recommended distortions
⛔ Not recommended sizes
3.2.2 Colour Palette
Colours represent feelings, and the feelings attached to them change over time, depending on cultural values or from country to country. Colour psychology plays a big role in defining what the colour palette should be, but also the applications needed (e.g. Is your corporate colour reproducible for print? Do you need it to be?). Always keep in mind that too many colours might blurry your intentions and too few might not be enough to represent them.
The primary colour palette must contain exclusively the colours used in your symbol. What might be called corporate colours.
The secondary palette can contain any colour needed that can be used additionally to the primary palette (e.g. In digital product design these could be the exact tones used for errors, warnings and success messages.)
Typography represents the tone and values of the brand just like colour represents a feeling. It is equally important and should be considered one of the main elements of an identity. In most cases, it will be enough to establish a primary and secondary typeface. It’s not recommended, for the sake of the identity, to use more than 2 different typefaces.
The primary typography is usually the one used in the logotype. Unless that’s a custom lettering. In that case, we will define as primary the one used for headings.
The secondary is the alternative typography, mostly used to define paragraphs or any other text style needed.
Here I will quote the book “Why beauty is key to everything” by Alan Moore. I think there’s no better way to explain what a good visual narrative does:
“Great design is when you design for others to feel, to experience with their senses, perhaps even to be pleasantly surprised — a joyful experience. This joyfulness converts always into goodwill, warm memories and, if you are so inclined, cash.“
A narrative is basically the story-telling of the brand personality and the main concept that justifies the existence of it. To spice this up, I like to offer mood boards and photography styling so the client can see how its brand personality translates into visual and how to apply those resources across their communication. If there’s a possibility to collaborate with a marketing team, a voice and tone guideline are also a nice-to-have.
In this phase, a handful of mood boards are elaborated to define the environment that surrounds the visual universe of the brand. The purpose is to help the client to visualise how the numerous applications and identity elements that have been developed — colours, typography, templates, business cards, social ads, and so on — work together.
We might also want to define the photographic style. My suggestion is to always partner with some photographers and offer their work to the client. Maybe we are lucky and this results in a great project for that photographer too. Never, ever, ever use stock if possible (Unsplash included). However, if they want to go in that direction, accept it and offer guidance to minimise the damage. Make sure you convey the idea that photographic identity and generating your own content are as important as any of the elements that sustain their brand.
Voice and Tone
This is closely related to the verbal and textual communication of the brand. Voice and tone refer to the way we speak and the principles we follow to communicate with customers through branded content. The tone is usually divided into formal or informal but the voice says a bit more of what the brand values are. Is the way we talk genuine, plainspoken? Do we have a sense of humour? How do we translate that? It would be really nice if we could also document it in the brand handbook.
3.2.5 Brand assets
These might include different elements depending on the project, and all of them should be documented and properly specified in the brand handbook. The most common ones could be:
➡️ Business cards
➡️ Internal or external signage
➡️ Social ads
➡️ TV / Video templates
➡️ Affiliates templates and guides
➡️ Internal or external merch
➡️ Store window
4. Follow Up
4.1 Art Direction Review
Learning design in the early 2000s — I started in 2008 — gave me and my colleagues a very old school view of how brands should or shouldn’t evolve, which is not bad, as I really think that I have learned from the best designers out there. But as time goes by, things change. I’m a big fan, for example, of Massimo Vignelli’s work. Known for his radical view and his timeless approach to everything, he advocated for things to be designed once and not touched in dozens of years.
In some way, and as sad as it sounds, that approach has expired. One of the pupils of Mr. Vignelli — Michael Bierut — states this perfectly in his book How to use graphic design to sell things…
“Once, a logo was meant to last forever. Some still do, and should. But at a time when organisations must change rapidly to meet new challenges or risk oblivion, what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. A company’s identity must be authentic and consistent, but never frozen in time”
As he says, identity must be consistent, but companies are growing every single day, nothing is permanent anymore and that’s the environment in which we need to excel.
That’s why frequent art direction reviews are 100% needed. Not only to have a certain control about how typography or colour are being used, but also to make the visual language of the brand expand.