Six elements of an effective visual identity
An effective visual identity is one that sends visual signals that reinforce the perceptions that your brand wants to own. For example, if your brand wants to own a perception of trust, blue reinforces that signal; red sends different signals — energy, danger, strength, power, determination, and passion. By being intentional about the use of these elements, all of your communications will reinforce your brand instead of undermining it.
Symbol: You need to make your mark.
Your logo is the indispensable articulation of your brand identity. For a deeper dive on effective logos, see this post, but the short version is that your logo is your brand’s face: the unique and instantly recognizable expression of who you are. It’s the cornerstone for the rest of the building.
Typography: It’s not just what you said, but how you said it.
The type you use says as much about your organization as the words you use — and sometimes more. Designers today have to choose from hundreds of thousands of typefaces that range from crisp and proper faces like Didot to grungy and distressed, like Urban Jungle.
The fonts you use need to accurately communicate the personality of your brand and signal its degree of formality, approachability, history, or sobriety. Typefaces are like human voices: they can be gruff, gravelly, or uncouth. They can be graceful, musical, and light. So make sure the typefaces you choose convey the proper tone.
Finally, be mindful of the application. Have a font family that works well for display: short, visually impactful uses, like video title cards or brochure headlines. Have a different, more legible and restrained family for longer communication, such as brochure body copy or content on your website.
Information System: Where everything falls into place.
In simple terms, an information system is a clearly defined structure for the visual elements of your communication. The information system provides the logic for where elements appear, how big they are, and how much space they have around them. The information system is the framework that provides consistency across innumerable documents created by innumerable people. This consistent, repeatable look-and-feel creates recognition among your messaging, increasing the frequency of impressions. And as I’ve often said, frequency wins.
Color: When it comes to your brand, hue is huge.
Quick: what color is McDonald’s? What color is Lowe’s? What color is Target? Chances are pretty good you said something like, “yellow, blue, and red.” Because theses brands have defined a key color to represent their brand, and they always use it.
Start with the color (or colors) found in your logo and use them consistently and accurately. For example, at DO MORE GOOD, our logo uses PMS 640 for the “MORE” portion, and PSM 8401 for the gray portion. Our communication, from postcards to business cards, to PowerPoint decks, always includes these colors.
Be careful though… if you set all 40 pages of your annual report in the sunshine yellow from your logo, it will not only be illegible, it will likely give readers a massive headache. So it’s helpful to define a few acceptable complementary colors that can be used (sparingly) in conjunction with your primary brand colors.
Finally, when it comes to color, you need to be exacting: no guessing, no eyeballing. Use specific color formulations based on your execution: PMS or CMYK for print, RGBA or hexadecimal for onscreen use. Because there’s no “close enough” when it comes to your brand.
Imagery: Picture people not reading any of your copy.
This is where many, many organizations stumble. The images you use on your website and in your collateral reinforce perceptions of your brand — but they can more easily undermine it. So just as you carefully define acceptable fonts and colors, you need to define acceptable imagery. That includes appropriate subject matter, as well as the photographic or illustrative style. Even more importantly, the images you choose should define your organization — not any organization. How many times have you used a stock photo, and then seen that same photo in another brochure or on another site. While original photography is an expense, it also results in imagery that perfectly expresses your brand and belongs only to you.
Access: Brand knowledge is brand power.
This blog post started with “five elements of visual identity” but I realized that there’s another crucial component of a visual identity: understanding. Most of the improper executions of visual identity are done through ignorance, not malevolence. Or more bluntly: it’s easy to go wrong if you don’t know what’s right. So after you’ve defined the fonts, colors, imagery, and geometric structure that make up your visual identity, share that information. Thorough brand standards are a good thing — but not if they’re sitting on a shelf in a three-ring binder that no one ever opens.
Take the time to explain to your team — and not just your marketing department—what your standards are. Trust me: 60 minutes spent explaining your visual identity system can eliminate days of misspent labor and thousands of misspent dollars.
When you’ve explained the system, make those standards easily available. Put a PDF on a shared drive or on your intranet. Build a web page and have everyone bookmark the link. Do what’s easy, because if you make your visual identity system easy to use, people will more easily execute your standards.
How about your organization — do you have a clearly defined system of fonts, colors, and imagery? How does it simplify the communications process so you can do more faster, and DO MORE GOOD?