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Tell me if this sounds at all familiar to you. You’ve decided on the perfect designer or agency for your upcoming marketing campaign. The scope and pricing were negotiated. A kick-off meeting was organized and all of the requirements or goals were uncovered and documented in a brief. The latest brand standards manual was passed along including all of the corporate logo files. And after 3 weeks of anticipation, the day of the big reveal arrives and the concepts are proudly unveiled by a passionate design team.

Except…there’s a problem.

One of the concepts looks eerily familiar. Everything about it from the typeface used, to the color palette, to the shape of the visual identity elements closely resembles a campaign from 15 years ago that everyone internally hated and was happy to finally get rid of once and for all.

Another idea just doesn’t fit in with the sales materials and new app that customers are also used to seeing as part of their daily interaction with the company.

That leaves one idea that might be workable, but the group just isn’t digging it for some reason they just can’t put their collective finger on during the meeting. It’s just a little…blah, in some way and the designers seem to also be the least confident and excited about this concept. They obviously were banking on you liking one of the other two.

What happened?

Did you leave some key piece of information out? Did they misinterpret something? Maybe you just selected the wrong team?

Or maybe, a critical step in the all-too-often overlooked and under-appreciated research phase was missed altogether.

Enter: The Internal Audit. Whether you’re developing a new brand identity, redesigning a corporate website or overhauling your marketing materials, it’s critical to know what other communications materials and branded assets look like before beginning.

Explore all categories including brand identity, marketing and sales, corporate communications, websites and digital, environment and retail.

An experienced designer or design team will request a complete archive of your company’s communications materials and interpret their findings into a strategy for how to mesh with an existing look or evolve it into a new direction that makes sense for your audience. They might also uncover a legacy component that can be brought back to life in a new medium or context.

It can seem like a huge undertaking, but once this necessary bit of design research is conducted for the first time, it can be leveraged and referenced as needed for future work.

Here’s how to pull it off.

Gather Marketing and Design Materials Together

Depending on the size and age of your organization, this step might be relatively simple or more involved. Hopefully, someone before you thought ahead and at least carved out a centralized storage location, but don’t forget to ask employees and outside vendors for samples if there are gaps.

It’s a good idea to establish a system of filing and tagging ahead of time to keep things organized. Some possible methods are:

  • Chronological: Create a file or box for each decade or era and include all materials produced and used.
  • Type: Group materials by use. For example: Digital Media, Brand Identity, Sales & Marketing, etc.
  • Effectiveness: What materials proved to be the most, moderately and least successful relative to their intended use.

Whatever approach you take, think about whether a digital or physical archive makes the most sense given the types of materials in possession. There are pros and cons for each, but searchability, reproduction, distribution, and visual accuracy are all considerations that can factor into the final decision.

Take Inventory

Congratulations! You’ve hunted down every piece of communication dating back to your company’s founding and managed to earn the nickname “Honey Badger” for your ability to nicely annoy those around you into complying with your repeated requests for samples. Now what?

Grab your clipboard and some paper clips because it’s inventory time! (Or launch Excel and dust off your keyboard). Create a master list or database for the entire archive and tag each piece with a printed label, or enter meta information in the case of a digital archive. It’s typical to include:

  • Identification number
  • Title or name of the piece
  • Date created
  • Designer
  • Owner/client
  • Relevant links
  • Related pieces
  • Category
  • Audience
  • Comments

If you do go digital, there are many software solutions that will let you organize and tag images and files of different media types. Adobe Bridge is one such product that is nearly universal in the creative industry.

Using IPTC metadata in the program, users can describe and categorize photos, videos, PDFs and other file types using similar fields to the list above, and more. There is also labeling by color, ranking by star (0-5) and grouping into “stacks” which are similar to folders. Bridge also renders thumbnail images for nearly every visual media type which makes browsing much easier than using Windows Explorer or Mac OS Finder alone.

Adobe Bridge is a popular digital tool for categorizing and organizing different types of media in one platform.

If you’re looking for a more universal and simpler solution, Microsoft Word or PowerPoint will support creating a simple template with an inserted image of the piece and corresponding list of properties. Just create a unique file for each piece, so they can be grouped within folders as needed. As long as the tagging information within each file is editable text, users can still use Windows’ or Mac OS’s searching capabilities to find relevant pieces.

Evaluate Each Item

The Inventory stage is a quantitative exercise and is focussed on organization and describing each item in the archive based on its inherent properties. With evaluation, we’re concerned more with the subjective aspects of each piece individually and themes and patterns that are evident within subsets and groupings.

While generally a qualitative undertaking, the evaluation process should still be performed in a systematic way by recording information using a consistent set of criteria. Possibilities include the piece’s:

  • Adherence to brand standards: How well were the brand guidelines followed in the creation of the piece? Is it still in compliance?
  • Degree of success relative to objectives: You may know the original objectives, or they may need to be inferred. Are there documented results available, or would the project owner have some insight?
  • Functional performance: If the piece has a function beyond marketing or communication, in the case of a tool or wayfinding system, how well does it work? Is it confusing or does it facilitate action?
  • Sustainability: Was the piece produced in a way that accounted for its environmental and social impact? Could it be updated in the next round of reproduction?
  • Originality: Is the item novel or memorable in some way? Does it stand out in the context in which it’s viewed or used?
  • Opportunities for improvement: What could have been done to make it more successful? Is there any aspect that could be leveraged in future work?
  • Level of importance: Was this a minor internal communication, or was it a highly visible campaign that was active for years?
  • Overall quality (high, medium, low): Based on the above factors, what’s the subjective level of quality?

Over the course of conducting the evaluation and spending time with the body of work, stories should start to emerge. Write these down as they inevitably arise. They will be the basis for presenting your findings in the documentation stage.

Document Your Findings and Make Recommendations

This is essentially a distillation of everything that’s been done up to this point. Few people will actually have the time to sort through the entire archive, so it’s your job to highlight the relevant work and draw conclusions that are valuable to the current project. Depending on your audience, this can be done as either a document or slide presentation, although slides allow you to control the progression of the story a little better.

Process Overview

Using a single slide or series of slides, explain the approach that was taken in terms of what types of materials were gathered and the overall quantity. People should understand the depth and breadth of the research that is behind your findings. It’s not necessarily obvious. This will lend a sense of credibility and context to the rest of your presentation.

Highlight Key Observations

What trends, good and bad, did you pick up on through the audit process? Where are there inconsistencies or gaps? Think about the experience of your brand from multiple points of view; as a customer, shareholder, employee, and competitor. Where are the touchpoints strong, and where are they weak or completely lacking?

Some example statements could be:

  • Corporate colors reproduce inconsistently across different media and don’t match screen representations.
  • Websites and online applications aren’t optimized for mobile use.
  • Brand architecture is unclear due to a lack of a universal approach to logo and trademark design.
  • Sales materials appear dated and don’t match their online counterparts.
  • 2 of 3 Core Values are being communicated well, but the “Innovation” message is lacking.

Observations can be presented as a handful of bullet points, or as a series of slides with a corresponding visual example. You can highlight specific pieces, or compile individual parts from several pieces together. You can show the evolution of a prominent item over time which is particularly enlightening in the case of logos or trademarks.

If there are quantitative findings that are useful, graphs and charts can be more compelling than raw data. How visual this needs to be depends on your audience and their level of familiarity with the body of work. Often, demonstrating your findings by showing real examples can make the point more dramatically than language alone.

Make High-Level Recommendations

Your recommendations are basically solutions to the observations made previously. It may be necessary to present your solutions in a phased approach that accounts for the constraints of budgets and resource availability.

Since you won’t have finished products in terms of design to illustrate your points, examples from other companies can be used to show what you’re thinking. If you’re trying to represent an underlying structure or propose a new system, simple diagrams are often better than photos or screen captures since irrelevant details can be removed, and intangible concepts can be represented visually.

Some examples of recommendation statements could be:

  • Create more robust brand guidelines that spell out numerical values for colors and clearly define how colors should be used creatively.
  • Over the next 2 years, redesign each online destination to include a mobile responsive site structure that will present a user-friendly experience regardless of device type.
  • Design a clear hierarchy and design approach across corporate, extension and product identities that makes intuitive sense to our customers and shareholders.
  • Redesign sales materials as websites are developed to establish consistency of style, tone, and messaging structure.
  • Better communicate the Core Value of “Innovation” by developing new case studies and refreshing brand identity to include all 3 values.

The goal is to create a vision of the end state of the brand, so it’s not enough to point out what’s wrong with the current system. A cohesive and compelling “picture” needs to be painted so that stakeholders can see the potential. In all likelihood, the current state is the result of an uncoordinated and piecemeal approach to communication over years if not decades. This is an opportunity to undo all of that chaos and propose a new way forward.

The design audit process is not only about seeing how the next undertaking fits into the larger body, but also an exploration of how all the pieces could work together better. Everything is on the table. Are there materials that should be redesigned altogether? Could a new communication device replace or augment an outdated and clunky resource that’s currently in use?

Design audits can and should uncover a world of possibilities for improvement. Technology, business practices and audiences’ tastes are constantly evolving and keeping up is necessary to every company that intends to grow. It’s marketers’ and designers’ jobs to identify opportunities and guide decision-makers along the way.

There are as many different ways to conduct a design audit as there are companies who hire design consultants. What research techniques have you used that really helped in your efforts?