Designing a brand identity for your business is a fun and creative process, but the pressure to create a design that both represents the values of your business and has commercial appeal can feel like a tall order.
Following a structured plan of action will help you avoid brain-drain and keep your ideas moving forward. Here I share my essential nine-step guide to approaching a brand design project, which will help your business identity feel unique, developed and super-professional.
When designing a brand, the number of tasks to be done (Logo! Website! Stationery!) can feel overwhelming. Breaking the process down into manageable chunks will allow you to balance creative and administrative jobs, which leads to making real progress.
Before we break down the process in this article, first have a look at our new course, Designing and Building a Brand. In it, you’ll learn how to create visual brands from scratch and develop your brand designs into professional, comprehensive brand identities.
Now let's dive into these nine steps to developing a new brand identity design for your business.
1. Do Your Research
No business exists in a vacuum, that’s obvious. But it’s amazing how many business owners completely forget this when they embark on a brand design project. Many will dive into design ideas straightaway, neglecting the fact that their brand will inevitably exist in a competitive market.
To avoid looking like your brand was designed by an alien or, worse, to avoid mistakenly mimicking an existing design (see the unfortunate Tokyo 2020 logo debate as an extreme example), you need to do some research into your competitors’ brands.
If you’re a freelance creative, take a look at the way local design firms and ad agencies present themselves online and at their offices. Designing a brand for a product? Google the sector and switch to images to get a sense of what’s considered appropriate (read: sellable) for brands in the industry. Pinterest is a brilliant resource for researching which brands in a particular sector are considered to be at the top of their game design-wise.
Take a notepad and jot down some of the most common traits shared by the brands you’re researching. Researching cosmetics? Look out for common colors or font styles used across a number of skincare and makeup brands (Clue: you'll soon find yourself in a sea of pastel colors and Vogue-esque serifs). Coffee? Keep your eyes peeled for the sorts of graphics used (Hint: rarely photography, and almost always vintage).
This rough list will be your anchor to the wider commercial market as you delve into designing your own brand. When you’ve completed the design process, return to this list. Does your design have any of the features listed? If not, it might be a sign that your brand will be too unconventional to do well in a competitive market.
2. Know Your Niche
You’ve looked up the competition and dissected how they approach their own brand designs. Now you need to file this knowledge to the back of your brain and focus on the goal for your brand.
The tricky part? How can you ensure that your brand fits into the right market sector, and in some ways looks relevant against competitor brands, but also make sure your brand is not only unique but also superior to these competitors?
Imagine staring at a Van Gogh painting for hours, and then being told to paint something like it but different and even better. Not an easy feat right?
Now that you’ve put your list of competitor brand research together, you can put this to one side for now. Don’t worry—you won’t forget what the competitor brands looked like now that you’ve spent the time researching them. What is important is that you feel in a position to create a brand design that feels fresh and unique. A design that references your positioning against these competitor brands without copying them.
You need to focus now on your USP (Unique Selling Point). What makes your business’ offering completely different to that of your competitors? Say you’re designing a brand for a small photo agency. You’ve looked up local photographers and seen what they offer. You wouldn’t start a business without knowing you can exploit the market in some way that’s different to others. Perhaps you offer unique portrait photography or superior post-editing services. This is your USP and this needs to be referenced in your brand design.
Struggling to define your USP? Knowing the values of your brand can help you feel more confident about what your business is actually offering to customers:
3. Put Pencil to Paper
When a consumer comes into contact with a brand for a first time, the first visual thing they are likely to encounter is the brand’s logo. What’s the first thing you see on a store’s sign? Yup, the logo. What’s plastered on the side of your morning coffee cup? You guessed it.
Unless you’re encountering a product blindly—say for example you try out a product a friend has already bought without first knowing its brand—it’s nearly impossible to interact with a product without first seeing the logo of the company that manufactures it.
For most brands, their logo is a condensed interpretation of everything the brand stands for. You can interpret a lot of information about a business from their logo alone. They might have opted for a serif font to look more formal or posh, whereas a script font might make a brand feel more casual and crafts-oriented. Color psychology might be at play too—orange feels optimistic and good-value, blue calming and technological. Bringing in a metallic tone like gold or copper can up the luxury factor and make a brand feel more aspirational.
Because a logo is not only the first port of call for customers to your brand, but also a visual summary of everything you want your brand to be, the logo is a natural starting point for creating your brand identity design.
To begin creating a logo you need to step away from the computer for now. Pick up a pen or pencil, and a large sketchpad. Start by drafting quick doodles that represent basic ideas.
Aim for some ideas that have a symbolic emphasis (more image-based) and others that play around with the type-style of the business’ name. Don’t dwell on any single idea for long; a couple of minutes for each will be sufficient. Annotate each idea with quick text notes to remind yourself later of any ideas you have about color, style or possible ways to improve the concept.
When you’ve filled up the page, set it aside and move onto the next page. Aim to fill up 2-3 large pages with lots of different, interesting ideas. Don’t worry if you feel some ideas are weaker than others, you never know which sketch will be a springboard for an amazing idea.
When you’re done, step away from your sketchpad and have a little break, either for a coffee break or overnight. When you come back to your work you’ll be able to see your ideas in a new light with a fresh mind.
4. Narrow Down to Three Logo Concepts
Refine, then seek outside opinion. Value the brainstorming process and avoid committing emotionally to one idea too early.
When you come back to your logo sketches feeling refreshed, take a critical look at your designs. Which sketches appear immediately stronger than others? Are some of your symbolic concepts too complex for an outsider to understand instantly? Identify the three designs which have the most potential—perhaps they have a stronger thematic idea or simply a stronger visual style—and refine them further in different sketches, allowing each idea a page of its own.
At this stage it’s much better to avoid dwelling on only one idea. Even if you feel that one idea of the three is strongest, you need to keep your options open at this stage. Once you have your refined sketches, seek outside opinion. Grab a few friends, family members or colleagues and ask them to take a look the three designs. You may find that they prefer a design that’s not your personal favorite, but don’t be disheartened. This will ensure that your brand has commercial appeal and isn’t based on your personal taste alone.
Narrow down the sketches to your strongest design, based on others’ as well as your own opinions. Make a copy of the sketch in black ink, using the opportunity to refine the design further. This is also a great exercise for judging whether you make the design more minimal and silhouetted.
All logos need to work equally well in simple black and white as they do in full color. Then you’re ready to transfer your logo design to the computer for vectorising. Scan the black ink sketch using a scanner if you have one, or use a camera or phone to take a high-res picture.
Still not sure about your logo designs? Don’t panic! A logo template is a great starting point for creating a professional-looking logo design. Check out this article for our pick of some of the best:
5. Think About Color
Once you’ve uploaded your black-and-white sketch to your computer it’s time to vectorize it! You can use your scanned design as a template for creating the final vector logo.
Place the original design on a locked layer in your programme of choice (such as Adobe Illustrator or CorelDRAW) and build your vector on top of this, using the image as a tracing aid. Although it’s not ideal, if you’re lacking in confidence with vector software there are ways of ‘cheating’—try out the Image Trace function (Window > Image Trace) in Adobe Illustrator.
You can see how Roberlan Borges vectorized the logo for the in-house Design and Illustration team, ‘Team Awesome’ in this tutorial:
- Team Awesome: From Hand-Lettered Logotype to Vector in Adobe IllustratorRoberlan Borges29 May 2015
Now’s the time to start experimenting with color too. Think back to your market research—were there any colors that cropped up frequently in your brand’s sector? You can also tap into the principles of color psychology. Try switching up the color of your logo and judge how this changes the overall effect. How does a partiular color make you feel? Does this emotional pull fit with what your trying to achieve with your brand?
If, for example, a gold color makes this gym logo feel luxurious it might be sending out the wrong message if your gym’s USP is to offer cheap joining fees to customers. In that case, a more calming, efficient-looking blue would be a better choice.
You should also take into account the effects of long-term color associations with particular brands and products. For example, crisp packet colors in the UK almost always mimic the long-established brand colors of crisp company Walker’s. This color coding is so engrained with customers that it’s been shown that changing the color of food packaging can change how a consumer perceives the taste of the product.
6. Expand Your Brand: Type
Once you’ve vectorized your logo and decided on a suitable color you’re ready to start expanding your brand. One of the key ways of defining the personality of your brand is to choose typefaces that have some of the characteristics you’d like to give your brand identity.
Most brands adopt two ‘brand typefaces’, one for headers and slogans, and another for body text. Some larger brands might commission a custom font which is completely unique to them, but most businesses will simply adopt fonts they feel suit their brand.
Here are a number of brand guidelines to find out what some popular tech company's use. Adobe uses the fonts Clean and Minion for their brand identity, pointing out where each is to be used in there marketing assets:
Browse a broad range of fonts to get some ideas about what might suit your own brand identity design.
Uppercase sans serifs feel confident and modern. Replacing a rounded style for a more sharp, graphic look can make a brand feel more assertive and masculine.
Script typefaces are popular with brands looking to appear more informal. The vintage-inspired look of scripts taps into the market trend for craft styles.
This makes it a great match for brands looking to appear less corporate and more independent.
Try teaming your logo with a sample piece of text set in different fonts. Make print-outs of a few options and compare them. What personality traits does each style of typeface bring to your brand? Can you identify a best fit, which both complements your logo design and has the right personality for it?
7. Expand Your Brand: Photography & Graphics
A brand identity isn’t made up of a logo and type alone. Continue to expand your brand by thinking about other visual elements like photography and graphics. While your logo, colors and typefaces might remain constant on your stationery, marketing and website, the images you use to communicate particular messages, like special deals, ads or product-specific packaging, will inevitably vary.
Variation, however, is the enemy of a strong brand identity design. When you’re using different images you need to ensure that there remains an element of consistency among them. This can be as simple as saying you’ll only use one style of photo to advertise your brand. Let’s say you’re designing a brand identity for a food business. One of your brand rules could be that you will only use overhead shots.
You can be as simple or complex with your image rules as you like. This is the sort of practice that becomes essential to a brand’s survival as a business grows and more employees are enlisted with using the brand every day.
Let’s say you’re designing a brand to be used by a lifestyle company with multiple offices. You might want to make a few more rules regarding images so that all the marketing output looks consistent and in tune with your overall vision for the brand. You could say that all images have to be photos of people, but not only that, they also have to be black-and-white portraits and have the person looking face-on to the camera. So these three photos will tick the box:
...but this one breaks your rules as the man isn’t facing the camera. It looks like the odd one out, which breaks the consistency of your branding.
8. Apply Your Brand
You’ve got a logo and fonts sorted out, and set down your rules for using images. Now it’s time to start applying your brand to print and digital media.
Prioritise the media that your business uses on a daily basis to communicate with customers—if you work remotely this might mean it’s best to prioritise your website, and don’t forget to add your logo to your email signature too. If you attend a lot of networking events or conferences, a branded business card will put you in good stead.
Here we share our pick of the best business card templates which you can easily adapt to your own brand by switching up the logo, color and type:
Even though snail-mail might be unfashionable these days, it’s really important to extend your brand to print stationery as well. When you want to introduce yourself to potential new clients the best impression you can give is to have a branded letterhead (and an envelope too, if you have the time).
To get you started, here’s our selection of stationery template packs, which do all the hard work for you, and are quick and easy to customize:
If your business has a number of employees or offices you should also look into creating a brand guidelines manual. This will be a document for showing staff and contractors the correct way to apply your branding to anything they might need to—from smaller-scale items like stationery, flyers and marketing materials to larger-scale interpretations of how the company is publicly represented, such as office design, advertising and website design.
9. Review Your Brand
You’ve finished your brand identity design, congratulations! Now what?
Well it may seem like the last thing you want to do, but you need to keep your mind open to reviewing your brand now that it’s in use.
The first part of this is research-based. Take notice of how customers respond to the brand. This might be easier to do if you have a physical store, and you also have a great opportunity for conducting surveys about your brand in person.
If your business is based online, you might want to use email lists to conduct surveys (use discounts and offers as an incentive for giving feedback) or analyse sales performance in the weeks and months after launching your new brand look. If your sales are improving, that’s a strong sign your brand is performing well. If your sales are remaining the same as before, or worse, depleting, this might be a sign that your brand isn’t being well-received.
If your brand isn’t quite working, you shouldn’t feel disheartened. This is really common as businesses try to find their visual identity and unique place in the market. What’s more important is how you react.
Now is the time to consider reviewing your brand, and either tweaking elements of the existing identity (changing simple elements like color can have a huge impact on how a brand performs) or creating a new identity from scratch. Return to the market research stage and see if there’s anything you could have missed. Could you be more thorough with your industry research? Could you seek more outside advice about your logo designs?
Designing a brand identity isn’t a precise science, but with a methodical, measured approach, you can take a really good shot at creating something that connects with people on an emotional and commercial level.
Your Essential Brand Identity Checklist
Creating a new brand identity design for your business can be a challenge, but it’s a rewarding and creative challenge if you have the right steps in place. This is your ‘cut-out and keep’ checklist for creating any new brand identity. This nine-step process will put you in good stead for tackling any branding project:
- Do your research—look into the brand identities of competitors in your sector
- Know your niche—understand your USP (‘unique selling point’) within the sector
- Put pen to paper—start with the logo and draft a range of symbolic and type-based ideas
- Narrow down to three logo concepts, before selecting a final design to refine
- Think about color—look into the psychology of color to choose the best color fit for your logo
- Expand your brand with type—choose two brand typefaces for headers and body text
- Expand your brand with images—define the rules for using photos and graphics in your marketing materials
- Apply your brand across print and digital media, such as websites, letterheads and business cards
- Review your brand—assess whether your brand works, and consider reviewing it if it doesn’t perform well
Explore the process of designing and building successful brands in more detail with this new course on designing and building a brand: