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CREATIVE

The Visual Identity Process

For most designers, getting the opportunity to create a brand identity from scratch is a coveted prize that offers boundless potential to flex their creative muscles, generate a lot of cohesive work, and walk away with a product that will support their client for years to come. In the first part of our series on branding we looked at the foundations for effectively building a brand from the ground up. Creating a strong visual identity is a huge part of branding, requiring the most time and labor of any part of the process. This is what gives customers emotional connection and top-of-mind awareness to the brand.

As the “face” of the brand, the visual identity gives most customers their first impression of who you are and what you’re about. It is how you are presenting your business to the market. It has to meet current needs and rapidly evolve to meet future needs of both your customers and you.

The visual identity process demands extensive research, creative strategy, design competence, project management, patience, and flexibility. It is so vital and difficult to nail that most companies hire branding agencies that specialize in custom identities to take on the task. For those that can’t afford that option, have enough capable designers to keep it in house, or just want to start practicing the exercise, we will lay out our process in detail and walk through it. Every designer and team has their own methods they find successful so if you can’t quite make these exact steps work you can tweak them and add in what works for you. This is just our framework.

At Decent Labs we work quickly and collaboratively to create iterative deliverables every week. Our typical visual identity project takes between 8–10 weeks before we have final deliverables for our clients and product teams. Every project will be different but part of maintaining a good process is keeping how you begin and finish a new project.

Discovery Phase

We start every project with two things: A brand identity questionnaire and a team discovery call. The questionnaire gets the client thinking strategically about their brand and covers some of the other foundations we mentioned in our previous notes on branding. We collect basic but essential information about the client and once they have filled that out we jump on a call with their team to get further information and clarification.

This is the time for everyone to become acquainted, gather information, understand if you’re even a good fit for each other. Building good rapport and a baseline of trust early on is very important moving forward. It is crucial that everyone is satisfied with the information collected here before proceeding. If you want to build your own questionnaire but are not sure what questions to ask, take a look at our form for a place to start.

Research

The questionnaire is filled and the discovery call ended with virtual high fives all around, so you’re ready to get designing right? Not quite. Put away the pencils and tablets for now. Before the elements for the visual identity are defined, a proper understanding of where the brand sits on the market and how it will be perceived is necessary to get immersed in the project.

This is the time to clarify the brand’s vision, goals and values, survey the competitive landscape, understand the target audience, build customer personas. The more information you gather, the more evident a strong strategy and visual approach becomes. Always remember, your goal is to appeal to your target audience, not your personal preference.

Design Brief & Mood Boards

We build our mood boards out in Milanote.

After collecting sufficient information, placing it in context and leveraging it into an actionable strategy is the next step in this process. That’s where the design brief comes in. The brief acts as the reference point throughout the entirety of the process. This is where you cover the information gathered from the questionnaire and the research conducted, concretely define the scope of the work, define the target audience, and most importantly, propose a creative strategy.

We often build mood boards to present alongside our design briefs to add more visual weight to the design brief. Mood boards are an excellent visual brainstorming tool to utilize early on in a project to form an idea of a potential visual direction. Depending on the scope and details of the project we could end up with anywhere from one to several directions to present.

Throughout the project we always refer back to the approved brief and mood boards to ensure we’re staying within scope and on the right path. To reinforce the vision with clients we always point to where in the design brief or mood board the deliverable we are presenting is relevant.

Sketching / Brainstorming

A few pages of many sketches and mind maps.

Finally, it’s time to get to the fun part. At this point you should be pretty immersed in the context of this project so your ideas should be bursting at the seams, ready to be realized however possible. Thus begins the logo design process. Time to get sketching.

We often take longer than just a week, sometimes two, to complete this portion of the process. The visual brain dump of concepts and ideas is a very exhaustive process and it is ill-advised to move forward until every possible idea has been explored. You could end up with pages of sketches and thoughts. Do whatever works for you to find the ideas and get them on paper. Even if you have twenty bad ideas, they might inspire one great idea.

Once you are confident everything has been thoroughly explored, begin eliminating the bad ideas and funneling the good. Narrow it down to a range of the best 6–12 options and redraw any as needed so they possess a similar visual style and weight. The idea here is to funnel concepts down further at each progressive step in the identity process until only 1, the most optimal choice, remains. During our presentation, we ask clients to select 4–6 options to move forward to the next step.

Digital Logo Roughs

Collect any feedback and necessary iterations and build out high fidelity digital roughs of each remaining concept. These do not have to be pixel perfect but need to successfully represent what the final image will look like. We work in black and white here and take the time during our presentation to educate our clients why: Focusing on color too early distracts the viewer from focusing on whether the form of the logo is even clear and effective. Present the logo in black on a light background and white on a dark background. Explore its versatility early on. This will do wonders in knowing if you have an effective solution before you commit.

Finalized Logo

After going through the digital roughs we have our clients select one direction to proceed as the final look. Be prepared to iterate a few times here. So far you have chosen a direction, not a final, perfect design. In this final stage of the logo design process the artwork is made pixel perfect and tested in a variety of potential use cases. Remember, your mission is to ensure you’re meeting the objectives and goals set at the beginning of the branding process.

Color & Typography

With the final black and white logo set in place it is time to start fleshing out the other core components of the brand. The next step in the visual identity process involves building out color palettes as well as font pairings. We call this the “brand framework”, consisting of: logo, color palette, typography. Our clients often get excited about this step of the process because they finally start to get an idea of what their finished brand will look like.

Most people will have a color idea in their head at the very beginning of the project so taking note of that and contextualizing it in the brand’s market is important. Knowing how the competition in a market presents itself really creates a competitive edge by exposing room to be different. Again, cover everything that would be a strong direction.

Funnel your choices down to 3–6 options and select your best direction from those. We combine all of these elements with some early exploration of branded graphics and compositions to present everything in context. The client gets to see the logo they just helped create in action, and again, see their brand come to life. Create mockups, compositions, social media graphics, whatever you need to properly support your decisions here and present everything in the most realistic way possible.

Brand Guidelines

If you have carefully thought through every step made so far, and did as much exploration as possible along the way, the last step of the visual identity process will be a smooth ride. The last part of this journey involves taking everything that has been created thus far and clearly laying out all usage guidelines for the various brand assets (logo, color, fonts, etc) in a brand identity guideline. Be as thorough and long-winded as possible in presenting this work. A successful guideline will allow anyone who has never even seen your brand before quickly understand how to design in its style without infringing on any standards you have worked hard to develop and maintain.

Final Delivery

Congrats, you’re done! Well, almost. Export out any logo and graphic assets, package everything into a folder. Get it in the hands of whoever needs it and celebrate this moment. Let me take this chance to remind you that the visual identity process is only one piece of a complete brand and the next task is to properly leverage these new digs to create a memorable brand experience and leave a lasting impression in customers’ minds. Whether you’re developing your brand from scratch or re-evaluating how it needs to adapt to meet new goals, following these steps will ensure you achieve the best work possible.

Stay Plugged In

If you need help bringing the visual identity for your brand to life or want to refresh your image, stop by our website and let’s get building. We will continue to explore branding as well as a range of other topics like product design and crypto insights and share our take with you.

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Nicolaus Sherrill

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