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Signage, stationary and forms, oh my! Businesses can easily create enough visual material to fill up an ark. There’s a logo, of course, and everything it gets applied to, such as: brochures, catalogs, websites, print and e-newsletters, Facebook pages, ads, uniforms, vehicle graphics, and more.
When a company is successful, it grows and expands. As it moves from infancy to adulthood, its visual armaments grow as well. One location becomes three, then twenty and so on. Each one brings with it more of everything. More signs. More stationery. More forms. This can avalanche out of control. Hopefully, someone is keeping an eye on things. But, that’s often not quite the case.
Enter the design audit. “Audit” might be a word that puts the fear of the taxman into you, but don’t sweat it. This kind of audit is a good thing. And it's an opportunity for freelance designers to expand their service offering.
What is a Design Audit?
A design audit is nothing more than a peek and perusal of all the visual materials used by a company, along with its core message to its customers, clients, vendors and other audiences. Okay, it should be a bit more than a peek and perusal; that’s what this article is all about.
A design audit is an analysis of all the visual elements used by a company. Beyond its visuals, also central to an audit is the company’s core message, sometimes called a slogan, value or branding statement. You can think of a design audit as something like psychotherapy – a type of headshrinking, but for a business. Without a process in place to monitor a business audiences' touch points they run the very real risk of projecting an unfocused personality.
A design audit reviews visual style and message with a concern for uniformity.
A company's visuals are indispensable. They play a key part in how a company's audience and market view it's brand. The public sees the face of the company as the logo and the clothes as its visual style. Quality customer service, ethical decisions, and other business issues work together with visual style to create a corporate identity.
While big businesses need design audits, so do small business. Successful companies, of any size, need to strategically align their business culture with their brand. It's essential that companies manage their materials and message, so they control their identity, which is crucial in a competitive marketplace.
A design audit reviews visual style and message with a concern for uniformity. What does the overall identity look like? Are the design, color palette and typography consistent throughout all materials? What do the visuals communicate and are they reliably on target? Is the level of design and production quality where it should be? Does everything make sense or is it jumbled and confusing?
When a company's brand fragments, there is an opportunity here for freelance designers to provide a much needed service. Let's look deeper into this problem.
So, What is the Problem?
As companies expand, they often find the need to have materials created and printed in remote locations, rather than its main location. The next thing you know, a company has 15 or 20 versions of its letterhead and business card. It's similar for other design elements. For the owner of a small business a mistake often occurs, though at a smaller scale. They may have business cards reprinted with the wrong font or not carefully apply colors consistently across their marketing materials.
Is this a problem? Definitely. When visual style is lost, so is branding, positioning, as well as mindshare and sales. Clients will get nervous if things keep changing. As this problem slides downward, they may not recognize the business as its brand cohesion slips.
An effective brand needs a consistent visual style. When you go into a Starbucks in Seattle, it looks the same as one in New York. The colors are consistent and the typestyles are the same (within the confines of its, signage, menus, etc). That’s comforting to people.
Research suggests that we humans communicate very little by spoken word -- about ten percent. Most communication is made through body language, which accounts for roughly sixty percent. The rest is made up of our posture, clothing and such. For a company, it’s the same. What they say with words can often amount to little. What usually sticks in the customers’ minds is its logo, colors, sounds and sometimes even aromas.
If one part of the company has one message, while another is communicating something else, you're left with discord. It's the same if visuals don't match the message, or if visuals aren't consistent. Companies create anxiety in their target market when they stray from their message and drift from their dependable visual style.
Design Audit Deliverables
How does a design audit begin? It's starts by gathering all the visual and brand elements a company creates. Then the designer, writer, or marketing consultant (often all three) study these and an analysis report is created.
The reports, along with the materials, are then presented to the client’s management. Many businesses are shocked when they see the visual elements together, as one fragmented, Frankenstein-like monster.
The point is to document it all and never, ever, under any circumstances, stray from it.
After all these inconsistencies are out in the open, it's time to structure a plan to ensure that the company, its visuals and its message are presented in harmony.
You should place this harmonious style plan into a Standards Manual. This document shows how a company's logo is designed and how to use it in different contexts. The manual documents the brand's color system with exact RGB and Pantone colors. It gives specifics about the typefaces to use and often much more.
A Standards Manual can be just a few of pages for a small company or a large volume for a multinational. The size of the document depends on how large the company is and the number of variations in the style application involved. And frankly, it can depend a lot on money. A large company will need to show literature; stationery; website; Facebook; signage applications; uniforms; vehicle applications and several others. A small business may only need to show its logo, colors, stationary and a few forms. The point is to document it all and never, ever, under any circumstances, stray from it.
And, yes, when logo redesign time rolls around the process starts all over again.
Design Audit Opportunity
So, now that we know about design audits, what’s the benefit for the freelancer? It gives you one more service, a valuable one at that, to sell or use as a promotional tool. Many designers, both graphic and web, offer audits as a stand-alone service. As a matter of fact, larger firms and consultancies provide them as stand-alones, can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars, and take months to conduct them. Implementing changes, developing a Standards Manual and fixing what was found are usually extra. Do I hear a “cha-ching"?
The freelancer who offers design or communication materials audits can quickly move up the ranks from being a provider of hands on a keyboard to that of a highly valued consultant –- a partner, in many ways, with their client. That is, naturally, if they do them well and provide sensible recommendations.
As a freelancer, you might not realistically land a multinational in need of an audit to the tune of a half million or more. But, one never knows. Freelance teams can be as effective, if not more so, than an expensive -- and sometimes sluggish -- consultancy group. Nonetheless, odds are, you can find a few small and medium-sized businesses whose visual identity and message are in chaos. It just takes a bit of looking around.
If you’re a designer, you might consider teaming up with a writer and vice versa. The designer handles the visuals. The writer handles the words. Both work together to craft a sound strategy and set of recommendations for the client. You both make money and the client saves itself from potentially losing sales and share of mind. Plus, when it’s all over and done well, the client will likely enjoy a stronger market position.
Another approach is to use a limited audit as a complimentary promotional tool. Sure, you’ll need to invest some time, but you also would for any other marketing tool. For example, how much time is social media sucking up? Or, designing that promo brochure that never seems quite finished? An audit for a small company of, say, fewer than ten employees, could probably be knocked out in an hour or two, once you have the process down.
At the complete of a design audit, your client will have a set of standards in hand, they will be armed with a consistent identity, and be able to meet the market with a stronger brand. You'll be in an ideal position to work with them. Having a strong standards manual will save you time and aggravation when you prepare additional designs for that client in the future.