What is a brand identity? Is it your logo? Your color palette? Your infographic style? It’s all that—and more.
Branding pro Marty Neumeier defines a brand identity as “the outward expression of a brand, including its trademark, name, communications, and visual appearance.” To us, a brand identity is the sum total of how your brand looks, feels, and speaks to people. (Sometimes that even includes how it sounds, tastes, feels, and even smells.)
Some brands have elevated brand identity to an art (think Apple, LEGO, or Levi’s), while others have made it their entry into the playing field (think Warby Parker or Casper). These brand stars succeed because they know who they are and why they exist—and they use every aspect of their branding to make sure we know it, too. (Brands with weak identities often struggle because they either don’t know who they are or struggle to communicate it well. Not sure if yours is working? Here are 9 signs it’s not.)
If you want your brand to succeed and thrive in the future, you need to build a brand identity that accurately conveys your essence and is flexible enough to evolve with you. But that doesn’t happen overnight. It requires deep thinking, a team with strong communication and design skills, and an intimate understanding of your brand. But it can be done well, with excellent results—as long as you have the right guidance. Luckily, you don’t have to go it alone.
To demystify the process for you, we’ve crafted this step-by-step guide to building a brand identity, focusing specifically on the visual elements of a brand identity. The process can seem intimidating, but we’ve been through it many times with our creative partners (and through our own rebranding), so we know firsthand what mistakes to avoid, and how to make it easier on everyone.
If your brand is in its early stages or preparing to rebrand and not sure where to start, follow these tips to move through the process seamlessly and build a stronger brand identity that sets you up for success. Ready?
Your brand identity is a tool to help you execute your brand strategy. Your strategy is a detailed plan that outlines exactly what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it. Your brand identity, along with your content strategy, helps you communicate in ways that will let you achieve those goals.
As such, before you dive into your brand identity, it’s important to have a fully fleshed out strategy. As we walk through our creative process, we’ll cover some brand strategy elements, but in this post we’ll be mostly focusing on the process of designing your brand identity.
To set yourself up for success, it’s important to complete your strategy and understand your brand’s core values, brand voice, and brand messaging architecture (aka your positioning, value prop, tagline, and brand stories), as your visual design will work in tandem with those elements.
If you don’t have your brand strategy documented (or have never gone through the exercise), follow our stress-free guide to creating a brand strategy, and download our free Brand Strategy Toolkit below.
Once you’ve documented your brand strategy—and gotten sign-off from leadership—you can focus on brand identity.
Step 2: Understand What a Brand Identity Is and What Makes It Great
A logo and a color palette alone do not make a brand identity. When designing your identity, you need to create a comprehensive visual language that can be applied to everything from your website to your packaging. Depending on your brand, your needs may be more expansive, but a basic brand identity includes:
- Design System
- Data visualization
- Interactive elements
- Video and motion
- Web design
That said, just because you design these elements doesn’t mean they’re effective. A strong brand identity needs to work for everyone, both your internal team (e.g., brand ambassadors, content creators) and the people who will interact with it (e.g., customers). As you embark on the design process, make sure your brand identity is:
- Distinct: It stands out among competitors and catches your people’s attention.
- Memorable: It makes a visual impact. (Consider Apple: The logo is so memorable they only include the logo—not their name—on their products.)
- Scalable and flexible: It can grow and evolve with the brand.
- Cohesive: Each piece complements the brand identity.
- Easy to apply: It’s intuitive and clear for designers to use.
Step 3: Do Your Research
When you begin a branding project, you want to approach each phase from a philosophical and highly critical standpoint—inspect, poke, and prod until you get to the core of your brand. Only once you have that intimate knowledge can you translate it into a visual language.
That means doing a fair amount of research before diving into design. Yes, this is hands-down the most laborious stage. But it is crucial to build the foundation upon which your visual language will stand. Here, your goal is to gather as much information as you can about who you’re trying to communicate with, who your competition is, and where your brand currently stands.
First, Create Personas
Your brand identity is the “face” that interacts with the entire world. Whatever you create should accurately communicate who you are. However, one common misconception is that a brand identity is exclusively informed by what your brand wants to present. This isn’t entirely true. It’s also informed by what your brand’s customers want to engage with, or are accustomed to interacting with. If your identity doesn’t resonate with them, it won’t be effective.
This doesn’t necessarily mean your brand’s customers will choose your logo color; it means that you will make more effective design choices once you understand their needs, wants, and values. To understand who you’re trying to reach, try this easy exercise to create personas that represent your different target segments. These personas identify both demographic and psychographic information that gives you insight into who these people are and what drives them.
Beyond your primary audience (customers), you also want to consider how secondary or tertiary groups might perceive your brand (e.g., other brands or potential employees). This information can also influence your design decisions.
Then, Identify Your Competition
Building a brand identity is all about differentiation: making your brand visible, relevant, and unique. However, without a firm understanding of your competitive landscape, it’s easy to blend in. Thus, it’s crucial to understand not just who your competition is but how your brand compares, in perception and presentation.
To get a snapshot of the competition, do a thorough competitive analysis. If you haven’t done one before, here’s a guide to do it. You can also make a copy of this template to help you document everything.
As you move through the process, pay special attention to how your competitors present themselves in terms of common visual elements, trends, industry-specific visual themes, brand personalities, etc.
For example, we once did competitive research for a brand and found that all of their competitors used the exact same four colors. This isn’t uncommon, as many industries tend to gravitate toward the same visual elements (think Netflix and YouTube’s red color), but it revealed a great opportunity to differentiate.
One notable example of this: In 2011, video platform Twitch made a splash with their all-purple branding at a time when their competitors used bold greens and reds. The color instantly became a hallmark of their brand. (BTW, the company was so successful it sold to Amazon for a cool $1 billion in 2014.)
Finally, Take a Look at Your Existing Brand
Whether you’re building your brand identity entirely from scratch or updating a stale identity, you still need a full assessment of:
- The current state of your brand’s identity
- How that brand identity might be crafted or tweaked to align with your goals going forward
The goal is to understand how your brand is perceived, both internally and externally. Getting an honest and accurate reflection is the only way to understand how and where you’re succeeding or how you need to course correct.
This stage requires a fair amount of research, including conversations and surveys with:
For your internal team, you should distribute a brand audit survey. (Here’s how to do one, along with the questions to include.) This survey is a deep dive into every aspect of your brand, from your values and personality to logo and positioning. Again, this is why having a fleshed out brand strategy is so important.
Example: These brand audit survey responses provided valuable insight for our designers.
Once you’ve completed your brand audit survey, you can use that info to inform your creative brief. Things to include in your brief:
- Why are you rebranding?
- Who they are, how this may have changed over the years
- Current customers, ideal new customers
- Brand perception
- Brand goal
- Primary message
- Value proposition
- Success metrics
- Important insights from past experiences
- Relevant references or inspiration
Once you have a comprehensive and intimate understanding of your brand, it’s time to move into design.
Step 4: Build Your Identity
By this time, you have a ton of information to help inform ideation, between your competitive analysis, customer feedback, brand audit survey, and brief. At this stage, you want to take that text-based information and translate it into visual concepts. Luckily, the information you have is often steeped in emotional language about your brand’s personality, goals, and values. Now the challenge is to figure out how to communicate and enhance those sentiments through visuals.
You can tackle this by assembling your team to brainstorm word clouds. The focus is not to free associate words into other words. The goal is to bring those words to life. The associations may be abstract, but it is important to get everything out. For example:
FAST > SWIFT
FAST > CHEETAH > LIGHTNING BOLT > ZEUS
You’ll then select specific elements that elicit the strongest emotional response, trigger additional imagery, and help you build a visual playground to go nuts in.
Example: Our team at work for the ESPEN (Expanded Special Project For Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases) brand identity, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project. .
A brand identity is an intricate design system. Each element influences the other, but it starts with your logo. You can go old-school here and bust out the pencils to free-sketch. As you go through iterations, flesh out logo mark, core shapes, and complementary imagery—all in black and white. As you receive feedback and iterate, you want to make sure that the core imagery is powerful enough to deliver the message on its own, without the enhancement of color. For more tips on logo design, check out our guide to designing a logo you love.
Example: Here you can see many iterations of our logo for UCI Applied Innovation, from the most basic black-and-white sketch to fully rendered images.
And the final result:
Once you have solid visual imagery, you can explore color. Certainly, emotion plays a huge role in color choice. This is also, as previously mentioned, a good chance to differentiate.
A good color palette is clean and flexible, supplying designers enough choices to be creative but not enough to overwhelm. This includes:
- 1 main color
- 2 primary colors
- 3-5 complementary colors
- 2 accent colors
For more on building a powerful visual identity (including what research says about color use), see our best science-based tips to build an unforgettable brand identity.
Example: Color palettes from the Visage brand identity.
Every stage has its own unique challenges, but typography can be tricky in a visual language. Brands often follow trends (serif vs. non-serif) that are hot for a second but can quickly become dated or appear unoriginal. Remember, that your brand identity is a cohesive language.
Therefore, typography should be informed by the shapes of your logo. You’d think it’s a simple choice, but typography is just as emotional as anything else. It needs to communicate the brand persona effectively. Limit the number of font families to 2-3. This generally includes a primary brand typeface, then secondary typeface(s) for specific purposes based on where it will be used, such as a body copy typeface, UI typeface, etc.
For a deeper dive into choosing typography (including whether or not to license fonts), see our guide to choosing the best typography for your brand.
Example: Typography guidelines from the Visage brand identity.
This is often a weak point in visual languages. Brands think that because they have their logo, color, and fonts they can slap them together any which way. Since brand identity is all about introducing yourself to people, it’s important to make it an enjoyable experience. In information design, that means providing a truly consistent and cohesive presentation.
The goal is to design an intuitive hierarchy and layout that makes it easy to navigate visual communication. Consider the proper order of content, including headers, subheaders, body copy, images, blurbs, etc.
Example: Hierarchy guidelines from the Avalere Health brand identity.
Consider the type of imagery you’ll use, as well as the visual treatments. Include guidance on filters, treatments, sizing, etc.
Example: Photo guidelines from the Visage brand identity.
When it comes to illustration, you need a cohesive and uniform language. Don’t over-illustrate or use clashing styles. Instead, think of how your illustration will be used in conjunction with other visual elements.
Example: Illustrations from the Civ.works brand identity.
Good iconography is influenced not just by the creative visual language but by the applications for the work. It depends on what your product or service is, the industry, and the medium (e.g., web-only vs. UI vs. sales brochures).
Example: Iconography guidelines from the Avalere Health brand identity.
Data should be designed for clarity and comprehension, in addition to aesthetic appeal. Thus, it’s important to design visualizations that adhere to data visualization best practices. If you aren’t familiar with this area, check out this comprehensive guide to designing the most common charts and graphs.
Again, your brand may have unique communication needs, depending on your industry, content, etc. Make sure that your design:
- Interactive elements
- Motion graphics
- Web design
For more, check out our checklist of everything to include in your visual identity, featuring additional tips for designing each element.
Step 5: Build Your Brand Style Guide
The only thing more heartbreaking than a poorly designed brand identity is a beautifully designed identity that is never used or used incorrectly. A brand style guide is the savior here—if it’s crafted the right way.
Include clear, easy-to-follow guidelines for every part of the brand identity, including examples and use-cases. Also include practical detail, denoting as much information as needed to help your designer replicate the brand identity successfully. For more direction, follow our guide to creating a brand style guide people will actually use.
Once completed, make sure guidelines are distributed to the team, stored in an easy-to-access place, and regularly updated.
Example: The Avalere Health style guide.
Keep Your Brand Identity Strong
Designing a successful brand identity takes a lot of work and collaboration. To keep your team on the same page and empower them to do the best job possible, make sure they are:
- Educated: Find out what brand identity mistakes to avoid at every stage.
- Inspired: Check out these 15 examples of brands with an awesome visual identity.
- Equipped: Bookmark these 75 tips, tools, and resources to help your team create a great brand identity.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t have the resources to take on the project yourself, we’d love to chat about how to help you through the struggle.