If you’re in the middle of a rebrand or creating a fresh visual identity from scratch, there are many things to think about. What do you include? Who should design it? How do you oversee its application? It’s a fun challenge—that can also feel super intimidating. Don’t worry. If you don’t know where to start or feel overwhelmed by the process, you’re in the right place.
While different brands have different needs when it comes to a visual identity (say, a lean startup vs. a global corporation), it’s always smart to start with the basics. Here, we’ll cover what you need to include in your visual identity, along with a free checklist and our best tips to make it as effective as possible.
First, What Makes a Good Visual Identity?
A strong visual identity isn’t pretty; it’s purposeful. As you go through the process of designing, remember that you aren’t just designing for today. You’re designing for your brand’s future. A good visual identity is:
- Flexible: It should be able to grow with your brand, whether you’re branching out into new products, services, or even new industries.
- Comprehensive: You want to equip your brand designers (and any content creators) with the tools they need to properly do their job.
- Intuitive: It should be intuitively designed and well constructed so that each element complements the other.
- Accurate: A visual identity is a tool to communicate your brand essence: your personality, values, etc.
Note: Depending how many people are involved in your visual identity design, the process can feel a bit frustrating. If you’re embarking on a visual identity, we find it’s best to create a reasonable timeline (with built-in approval stages) to make sure everyone is on the same page throughout the process.
What to Include In Your Visual Identity
Again, every brand is different. But a basic, comprehensive visual identity will include the following:
- Fonts and typography
- Data visualization
- Interactive elements
- Video and motion
- Web design
Designing these elements well is crucial to your brand’s success, and it takes care and intent to do it successfully. (We know this firsthand, as we’ve created many identities and learned a lot along the way.) To help you avoid some of our own mistakes, here are some of our best tips, plus a few scientific tidbits, to help you up your game at every stage of the visual identity process.
A good logo is a visual mark that reflects both what you do and who you are. There’s no one way to design one, but research has shown that different shapes can influence how people perceive your brand. This is important to consider, depending on the message you’re trying to communicate.
Circular or organic shapes are associated with:
Geometric shapes are associated with:
No matter your design, it should be clear and simple enough to identify at lower resolution or in smaller sizes, such as a Favicon or profile pic on social media. (For more guidance, check out our step-by-step process for logo design.)
Example: We created a new visual identity for the Expanded Special Project for Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases (ESPEN), a WHO organization on a mission to eliminate five specific tropical diseases. To bring their mission to life, we created a symbolic logo that features a rendering of the African continent, made of five bars: one for each disease they’re battling.
Color is a highly emotional element of branding, but it’s a bit tricky. You can’t directly influence someone’s perception through color, because the response can be subjective. But there are some important things to keep in mind.
1) Limit your palette. You want to offer enough options for designers to play with but not enough to overwhelm. Stick with:
- 1 main color
- 2 primary colors
- 3-5 complementary colors
- 2 accent colors
2) Keep colors appropriate: A 2006 Cardiff Business School study found that people react more positively to products branded with appropriate colors. For example, consider:
- Functional colors: gray, black, blue, green
- Social-sensory colors: red, yellow, pink, purple
Tl;dr: You probably shouldn’t use hot pink for a new life-saving medical device.
3) Consider gain vs. prevention. Does your brand’s product or service enhance someone’s life, or prevent something bad from happening to them? A 2009 study by University of British Columbia found that people responded more to ads for a prevention-focused product that used the color red, and gain-focused ads that used the color blue. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s worthwhile to consider.
Example: The Visage visual identity includes a bright and bold color palette to reflect the brand’s personality.
Fonts & Typography
We think of branding like building a house. You start with your foundation, then build from there. If you think of your logo and colors as a foundation, typography is simply the natural extension of the language. For that reason, your typography should be influenced by the shape and style of your logo. You always want a complementary and cohesive look. Some helpful tips:
1) Limit your selection. Use 2-3, including a primary brand typeface, then secondary typefaces.
2) Consider size. Consider the application (e.g., print vs. web), and make sure it is always legible. (FYI, a 2012 study from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin found that larger font sizes can foster a stronger emotional connection.)
3) Test for legibility. When deciding between fonts, try the “Il1 rule” legibility test, as recommended by lettering artist Jessica Hische.
Your job is to design a system that makes content easier to consume and, therefore, creates a good brand experience. That means creating an effective flow of content, including headers, subheaders, body copy, images, blurbs, etc.
Example: Along with colors, the Visage visual identity provides specific direction for typographic hierarchy and layout.
Photography is more important than ever, now that so much of your brand story is communicated through images. If you’re using people-centric imagery, be cognizant of your viewer and how imagery reflects upon your brand (e.g., diversity and gender). A good visual identity will dictate how to select and treat photography.
A note on stock photography: People love to harangue brands for the using it. While it is a widespread problem, you can still create a unique design treatment that turns a bland stock image into a photograph that tells your brand story. Just make sure you clearly lay out the dos and don’t for things like filters, design treatments, resolution, etc.
Example: Visage provides direction for photo treatments, specifying the color, text, and photo quality.
Developing a unique illustration style is a smart way to visually brand your content, but you can’t go overboard. You want something that is clear, distinct, and on-brand. Just don’t mix styles or over-illustrate, and make sure you have sign-off on design styles. Again, when it comes to character illustration, you want to be cognizant of how you’re depicting people, characters, or products.
Example: Our Popcorn Project interactive site for Girl’s Inc. uses animation and illustration to communicate the brand’s personality.
Iconography is a visual shorthand to communicate info quickly and simply. That said, the goal of iconography is clarity and understanding—not to show off your artistry.
- Use a consistent style. Don’t mix and match illustration styles.
- Make them intuitive. You want to avoid your basic clip art icons. But don’t get too creative with the symbolism. Run them by someone else to make sure they’re relevant.
- Keep the style simple. Icons are meant to be simple visual cues to enhance comprehension. Remember, too, that they may be rendered at a small size. You don’t want them to become indecipherable.
Like all imagery, consider how cultural interpretations might affect things, too.
Example: The packaging for Trezo d’Haiti coffee includes iconography that is clear, simple, and on-brand.
Not every brand needs data visualization guidelines, but as data becomes more pervasive, it’s wise to create them. Design can significantly affect a reader’s understanding of data. Great design enhances data comprehension and makes it easier for the reader to consume. Bad design skews or misrepresents data and erodes trust. When designing data visualization guidelines, make sure to follow best practices.
- Avoid chart junk. If it doesn’t help enhance comprehension, it doesn’t need to be there.
- Order intuitively. Little things, like ordering pie chart segments from largest to smallest or labeling a bar chart in alphabetical order, go a long way toward comprehension.
- Avoid 3D charts. They skew data.
If you’re not familiar with designing data, find out how to design the most common charts and graphs with our Data Visualization 101 guide. And for more tips, check out these 25 tips to improve your data visualizations.
Example: The HP 20/20 white paper features stylized data visualization in the brand’s signature colors, creating a cohesive feel overall.
Video & Motion Graphics
Your brand may experiment with video in many different ways: explainer videos, tutorials, commercials, behind-the-scenes videos, social content, etc. Each use case may require something different, so make sure you provide clear directions for each. And don’t forget things like animated elements for motion graphics.
Example: We teamed up with Visa to reinvent their explainer videos, using mixed media and a modern treatment to align with the brand’s mission.
Web Design & Interactivity
Good web design is good UX, in many different ways. Some things to keep in mind:
Consider accessibility. Diverse users may have different needs, especially when it comes to disabilities like deafness or blindness. Online accessibility is important to account for. (See this great guide to web accessibility issues for more info.)
Design for mobile. People are using more devices than ever. You want to deliver a seamless experience without sacrificing design.
Example: We created both an animated and a static logo for The Cove, an innovative startup hub off UCI’s campus. The animated version was used to add life and personality to the organization’s website online presence, while the static version was used for print applications.
Your Visual Identity Checklist
If you’re ready to dive into design, use this free checklist to remember what to include.
Don’t Forget Your Brand Style Guide
A visual identity is only one aspect of a full brand identity. But it is a crucial component. To make sure it is being applied correctly, you need a comprehensive brand style guide that shows your team (and any outsiders you might be collaborating with) how to create on-brand content, no matter what it is.
If you haven’t done one before or need an update, find out how to build a brand style guide that people will actually use. And if you’re short on designers, feel free to hit us up.