If you’re at the visual identity stage of your branding (or rebranding), there are many things to think about. What are you trying to communicate through your visual identity? What do you need to include? How do you make sure it’s applied the right way? It can feel a bit intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.
Here, we’ll walk you through the things you need to include in your visual identity and the things you might want to consider adding, plus a free checklist and our best tips to make designing it a bit easier.
Before You Start
Know that all of the components we mention here are for a detailed visual identity, ideal for brands that create a wide variety of content (e.g., interactives, video, motion graphics, etc.). Naturally, different brands have different needs (say, a lean startup vs. a global corporation), so it’s important to think about your needs now and how your brand might evolve as you go forward.
We like to think of a visual identity like buying a car. You might order the top-line model with the powerful engine, sunroof, and leather seats. You might just need a basic model to get around town. Or you might upgrade that basic model with a bike rack and stereo system for your weekend adventures.
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all template. It’s really about assessing your specific needs. So, with that said, let’s talk about what makes a good visual identity—no matter what it includes.
What Makes a Good Visual Identity?
A strong visual identity isn’t pretty; it’s purposeful, helping you communicate who you are, no matter the medium. More specifically, 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.
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.
Know that things can get a bit chaotic, depending on how many people are involved in your visual identity design. Know who needs to approve each element of the identity, and 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, depending on the space you play in and the type of content you create, you can customize your visual identity according to your needs. However, there are some core basics that all brands need:
Beyond that, you’ll want to consider:
- Data visualization
- Interactive elements
- Video and motion
- Web design
Designing these elements well is crucial to your brand’s success, but it takes care and intent to do it successfully.
While it might seem tempting to farm different elements out to different designers to work on concurrently, it’s important to tackle each item individually, as they should all work cohesively together. (For example, your typography should complement the shape of your logo, while your illustration style will likely influence your iconography.)
Tips to Design your Visual Identity
We’ve helped many brands bring their visual identities to life, and we’ve learned something from each one—including the big pitfalls to avoid and the little things that can make a huge difference in your final outcome. Here’s how we suggest you tackle each element as efficiently and effectively as possible.
We’ve also created this handy checklist to get you through the process from start to finish.
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.
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.
To find out how to get through the process with less stress, check out our step-by-step guide to design a logo you love, and find out what logo mistakes to avoid. You can also get some good inspiration from these 15 brands with a great visual identity.
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. However, 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 the 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.
For more on the science of color and how to select the right palette, see our guide to find the right colors for your brand.
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, as 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 legibility test recommended by lettering artist Jessica Hische.
To find out where to find typefaces, how to choose them, and more, see our guide to choose the right typography for your brand.
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 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.
To learn more about the role of images in storytelling, see Fabrik Brand’s guide to brand photography.
Developing a unique illustration style is a smart way to visually brand your content, but you don’t want to go overboard. Don’t mix styles or over-illustrate, and make sure you have sign-off on design styles.
You want to choose a style that is clear, distinct, and on brand. Also, when it comes to character illustration, 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.
To figure out how to illustrate your brand, follow Smashing Magazine‘s tips for drawing a strong visual identity.
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 understandable.
- 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.
Iconography is part art, part science, so you want to make sure things are as clear as possible. For more tips, see Design Systems’ complete guide to iconography.
Not every brand needs data visualization guidelines, but as data becomes more pervasive, it’s wise to create them, as 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 in a brand. Thus, 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.
Example: The HP 20/20 white paper features stylized data visualization in the brand’s signature colors, creating a cohesive feel overall.
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 check out these 25 tips to improve your data visualizations.
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.
Find out how to create compelling motion graphics in 4 steps, and see our interactive guide to brand video.
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.
- 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.
Jesse Hausler’s guide to web accessibility issues is a great resource to help you design functional UX for everybody.
Don’t Forget Your Brand Style Guide
To make sure it your visual identity is 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 every time.
If you haven’t created one before or your current one needs an update, find out how to build a brand style guide that people will actually use. You can also take a look at Column Five’s brand guidelines for inspiration.
How to Complete Your Brand
A visual identity is only one aspect of a full brand identity. Make sure your team is equipped with the tools they need to communicate who you are, what you do, and why people should choose your brand by building a comprehensive brand identity.
- Identify your Brand Heart. Start with our free Brand Heart workbook, and see our complete guide to build a brand strategy to build a strong brand from the ground up.
- Find your personality and voice. Start with these 5 tips to find your brand personality, and use our free questionnaire to find your brand voice.
- Articulate your brand messaging. Fill out your brand messaging framework to identify your tagline, value prop, and messaging pillars, and follow our tips to write compelling messaging that converts.
- Tell your brand story effectively. Your brand identity is a tool to help you tell your brand story in creative ways. Follow our tips to brainstorm strong brand story ideas, and check out our guide to create high-quality content.
But if you get stuck, don’t be afraid to bring in expert help. Find out how to choose the right creative agency for you. And if you need help with any part of your brand strategy, feel free to hit us up.