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What brands come to mind when you hear the word computer? Or sneaker? Or coffee? Have you ever wondered why some companies, or products, or campaigns are so memorable, while others just seem to blend in or are just completely overlooked?

It may seem like it’s just magic or luck, but nine times out of ten it’s because there is a well thought out strategy behind that brand’s visual appearance or identity.

It’s not just about looking cool or pretty either. It starts by looking at the competitive landscape—who else is vying for the attention of your audience—and figuring out where there are gaps or opportunities to do something a little different…and better than everyone else. And then sticking to it for a period of time.

It can seem a little daunting at first, but thankfully just like most large undertakings, it can be broken down into smaller components. Specifically, five, that can be adjusted and refined to create something unique and “sticky” in the minds of the people you’re trying to reach. They are:

  1. Your logo
  2. Your color palette
  3. The typefaces you use
  4. How you approach photography
  5. And the style of supporting graphic elements

Let’s dive in a little deeper!

1.) Start with Your Logo…It’s Your Face

The most essential and obvious function of a logo is to provide for your customers or audience, a way to identify your business or initiative. So, the most basic logo is just a typed or hand-written representation of your name.

This would be sufficient to an extent until your competition types or writes their name and begins to promote themselves to the same audience. Or until someone with the same business name as yours opens up in a completely different market. All of a sudden, there is confusion in the minds of your customers. And confusion is the enemy of action.

The need for a logo is obviously more complicated than this, but at a basic level, it’s a solution to this root problem. Just like there are different aspects to brand identity, you can break a logo down into smaller characteristics to consider.

Types of Logos

In terms of differentiating from your competition, a good identity designer will typically start by looking at who you say your competition is, and who they appear to be from an outsider’s perspective. What types of logos are they using? Wordmarks? Lettermarks? Combination Marks? Symbols or Icons? Is everyone doing the same thing, leaving an opening to use a different type of mark?

Examples of Wordmarks, using only (or mainly) type as the mark.
Lettermarks use initials or a specific letter to identify the brand.
Symbol or Icon based logos don’t rely as heavily on typography but focus more on a distinct image or shape.
Combination Marks are more conceptual and integrate a shape or graphic with the name.

The Logo’s Content

Next, you could consider the “content” of your logo. If you need to use a symbol or combination mark in order to visually describe some aspect of your business in a codified way, is there an opportunity to communicate a different core value or feature of your business? Could you be more conceptual in what you’re communicating if everyone else is being literal? What can you “say” through your logo graphic that would be distinct and unique in the minds of your customers.

How Shape Plays Into the Design

You really wouldn’t need a designer if it were just a matter of picking a type of logo, and then adding a piece of clip art that describes some aspect of what you do. Aside from probably failing to meet some of the other requirements of a successful logo, it would likely not be very pleasing to look at.

A good designer will consider how the use of different kinds of fundamental shapes can help distinguish you in the field. Does a circle or square make sense given your needs? Or should more abstract or complex forms be explored? What is the overall shape of your logo when all of its components are combined? How does that work when blown up to the size of a billboard? Or shrunk down to the size of an app icon?

Aside from color, shape is arguably the most identifiable aspect of your logo. It’s more quickly interpreted than your actual business name or anything you say explicitly.

2.) Own a Color (or Two or Three)

Color is often talked about in very basic terms outside of the world of art and design. As children, we all have favorite colors, and it’s rare to get beyond the primaries and secondaries (How many kids do you know who site “seafoam” or “robin’s egg” as their choice?).

And yet, the world of color is very complex. There are hues, tints, and shades of every color you can think of. Colors can mean different things to different people…and in different cultures. In China, for instance, white symbolizes death as opposed to black.

Color has different meanings in different contexts. Red can mean “love” or “stop” depending on where it’s seen. It can be mind-boggling, and we haven’t even begun to talk about color combinations and what they mean.

Thankfully, as with many things, simple approaches tend to be best. In most cases, you can isolate one core color to “own”, and build a palette of colors that coordinate with that color.

IBM’s color palette focuses primary on the blue, but also includes a broad range of specifically defined secondary colors to allow for creating consistently branded communications

A qualified visual identity designer should survey your competition and what colors they are using to look for opportunities.

Perhaps your space is in a very conservative field like financial services or law, and straying outside of blue is considered too unprofessional. There may be a slightly different hue available that is just interesting enough to make you stand apart. Or perhaps you can bring in a secondary color as a compliment since all of the others are strictly stuck in one corner of the color wheel. Or maybe, professionalism can be communicated using some other aspect of your visual identity, putting color back on the table to be explored.

In any case, the trick is to be very clear about what your color is, down to the numbers. Whenever it’s used, it should be used consistently, by everyone. Each transgression is a weak link in the chain of memorability. Over time, recognition will be built in the market, and people will think of you even when they see your color somewhere else.

3.) Use Typography as Your Visual Voice

How does your company sound when it talks. Is it whispering? Shouting? Singing? Growling? Does it speak the Queen’s English? Or use street slang? Is it condescending? Or comforting and reassuring? How great would it be if you could actually convey your message using the voice of your audience’s community? This is possible in some formats such as video or in-person, but much of the time, your message is being read on a screen or on paper?

While not the most obvious aspect to consider, the typography you use can say a lot about the personality of your brand. Broadly speaking, serif typefaces tend to be more traditional and convey a sense of establishment and seriousness. Sans serifs are more modern and can be perceived as approachable and innovative. For most corporate or professional purposes these two classifications will provide an adequate range of options from which to choose.

Helvetica is a well-known sans serif typeface, and possibly the most ubiquitous one of all time.

For more personality in your “voice”, you can look to the display faces. Scripts, Handwritten, Blackletter, etc. Often with display faces, you don’t get the versatility of the more robust serif and sans serif face families. But if you need something with teeth, or something playful and fun, thinking outside the box can be the way to go.

A designer can take stock of all of your unique needs and propose something practical that will reinforce your identity. It’s no good to have something really distinctive if it doesn’t contain the functionality and range you need to apply it consistently. Just like with color, repetition and upholding the design standards over time is just as important as making a good selection at the outset.

4.) Consider Your Photography: DIY, Stock or Custom?

Depending on the nature of your brand, the reality is that at some point you’re likely going to need to depict some aspect of it visually in the form of photography and/or video. Representing your products, services, culture, processes, and experiences visually is a necessity in today’s competitive image-driven media landscape.

Tip: iPhone pics might be ok in the context of your social media accounts, but for the rest of your visuals, it’s important to have a plan to create high-quality visual content in the form of photos.

Photography is highly engaging and can capture attention and draw people in, and keep them there once they’ve taken the initial step to find out more about you. Conversely, sloppy or amateurish photography can turn people away just as fast.

In most cases, DIY photography should only be used if there is an explicit strategy that justifies its use. In reality, most DIY-styled photography that’s used successfully in the market is captured professionally and is as highly art directed as more professional looking imagery. Successfully looking casual is as hard if not harder than looking professional in most cases.

Stock photography is now ubiquitous. At one point, 20-30 years ago before we were all over-inundated with visual content and messaging, purchasing some high-quality stock images for a few thousand dollars was enough to set you apart from all of the others who were not making the effort to consider their image in any way.

Uploading a stock photo to Google Image Search can demonstrate it’s overuse and lack of originality.

Today, this approach looks generic and disingenuous…because the bar has been lowered and access to cheap stock photography has been opened up to everyone with a computer and a credit card.

Your approach to photography is now an important asset and means of differentiation. A commitment to quality alone can set you apart, but going one step further and considering style, tone and composition can take you the extra mile.

A good identity designer will look at a range of different types of lighting styles, photography techniques and conceptual approaches that fit with your strategic objectives. Often times, it’s a matter of establishing a relationship with the right photographer and communicating your strategy and goals to them, so that they can work their magic and represent you in the best light.

5.) Don’t Overlook Graphic Style

So, you’ve developed a unique logo design, selected a color or set of colors that you can “own”, adopted the use of a new corporate typeface and have a plan for how to capture and represent your brand using images. All set, right?

Not so fast. What about the icons that will be used online in your digital experiences? Or the background for your slide presentations? Or the infographics that describe your product development process? Or the graphs and charts that go into your corporate responsibility report? What good is it to set standards for how your brand will look if you’re just going to use clipart or default Powerpoint charts for your graphic content?

A big part of differentiating is providing a consistently high-quality experience for your audience. A good designer can audit your communications materials and identify a common set of situations in which you’re using graphic elements to communicate. Or where you could be using them. They can develop an approach to these cases that are extensions and reinforcements of your logo, color palette, typeface(s) and photography direction.

The recent Wolff Olins rebrand of Uber includes an icon set based on the new typeface and even utilizes a layout grid which is derived from the previous logo.

It will ultimately boil down to what foundational elements like lines, shapes, patterns, and effects look like in the context of your brand. Paying attention to these building blocks and knowing how to develop visual communications in your own unique way will ultimately make or break the entire endeavor. “The devil is in the details” is never more applicable than it is here.

The Holy Grail of Design: Use all 5!

If you haven’t picked up on the subtext of this article by now, it’s totally fine. I’m a skimmer myself. Let me connect all of the dots for you just to be clear. Using any one of the five steps above will definitely help in your efforts to establish a recognizable brand, but the real power comes from implementing all of them at once.

Branding is about seamlessness…from end to end. Putting in the time to research your competitive landscape, and think about your positioning strategically will ultimately determine the success of your efforts. That…and working with a competent visual identity design consultant.