How do you determine what makes a strong visual identity?
Here at High Alpha, we have 3 core values: Move Fast, Dream Big, and Expect More. Sometimes, particularly in the brand identity process, these core values can be in tension with one another. When speed is such a priority, it’s always good to keep some hard and fast guidelines so we know how to measure success on the fly.
Design can sometimes feel subjective, especially early on or in the context of a critique. But by applying some objective criteria, we can work to remove our predispositions and judge the work simply on how it aligns with the strategy and goals of the project.
[Important note: Visual identity is only a small part of what comprises a brand but for the purposes of this post, we are focused solely on it.]
In the opening lines of Thoughts on Design, Paul Rand describes the core design tenets that are persistent in graphic design:
“Graphic design — which fulfills esthetic needs, complies with the laws of form and the exigencies of two-dimensional space; which speaks in semiotics, sans-serifs, and geometrics; is not good design if it is irrelevant.
Graphic design— which is a good gestalt; which is generated by intuition or by computer, by invention or by a system of coordinates— is not good design if it does not cooperate as an instrument in the service of communication.”.PAUL RAND
Notice that the opening lines of each stanza are evoking formal or compositional traits, while the final couplets are touching on something else – effectiveness. The opening lines are about form, but the closers are about function. Based on these lines, Rand’s definition of good design is that it’s relevant and that it communicates.
A logo can be objectively beautiful, it can be symmetrical, scalable, and simple, but if it isn’t strategically communicating the quality of the thing it represents, it isn’t effective. On the flip side, clients often expect the logo to do too much of the heavy lifting. A single icon cannot convey everything about a brand, and it shouldn’t be expected to. Building in too much meaning or symbolism will render it ineffective in application. A Nike swoosh gives no indication that the company makes shoes. It does, however, convey fluidity, motion, and speed. The swoosh is good because it “cooperates as an instrument in the service of communication.” It’s effective both formally and functionally.
So, in the spirit of Rand, can we attempt to apply objective, fundamental design tenets to contemporary brand identity design?
During my MFA at OU, I taught a few typography classes. Telling a student they made 85% on an assignment could feel a bit arbitrary — but with a rubric, I was able to show them a breakdown of categories such as presentation, conceptual strength, craftsmanship, etc. This allowed them to understand exactly where they had lost points and made their grade make sense (You get it, it’s a rubric).
So what would be the criteria for a brand identity design rubric?
I recommend dividing the brand identity up into 6 components:
4. Color palette
6. Visual system
[Sometimes these might not all apply, or some might apply a little differently depending on the specific project, but this is a good place to start]
What makes a good icon?
Simplicity. A strong icon design is simple, but not just for simplicity’s sake. A minimal icon is good for memorability as well as scalability. In 1969 the International Federation of Vexillological Association (FIAV) evolved to dictate the principles of flag design. Their first criteria was that it should be so simple that a child could draw it from memory. I think that applies better to flag design than it does to icon design but it’s a good thought track and speaks to both memorability and simplicity.
I also like to think about a symbol in terms of anchor points. Could there be less? Could we communicate the same message with less visual information? Will it work well on large signage as well as social media, as well as in a favicon?
Meaning. Does the icon tie in conceptually with the product or service and serve to drive the brand narrative forward? Icons don’t have to describe the product, but at the very least, they visually can connect to the mood and spirit of the brand. We can not and should not expect the icon to tell a full story, but it certainly shouldn’t be at odds with the story.
Uniqueness. This is going to sound obvious but an icon should never intentionally be copied from another. However, in a saturated visual landscape, it’s naive to think you could ever create an icon that has no shared characteristics with something that already exists. As long as these icons aren’t intentionally similar, aren’t *too* similar, and aren’t in the same industry, it’s fine (hot take).
Having said all that, creating an original icon that has no common mindshare with another product, is functional, and is conceptually sound is the dream.
[I have written quite extensively on the history of symbols if you’d like to read more.]
What makes a good wordmark?
Cohesion with icon. When selecting a typeface for the wordmark, it is important to keep top of mind how well it will pair with the icon. For a geometric icon, a geometric sans serif typeface usually feels cohesive, but it’s always nice to create something unexpected that works. This is usually a trial and error process, with no way to get around it other than through it. Just experiment, get outside of your comfort zone, and iterate.
Avoiding trends. Using the current hot font you came across on Instagram or Pinterest can be exciting and feel fresh, but often leads to the brand feeling dated much more quickly. This is one of the hard parts of design, being able to discern what is fresh but enduring, versus what is just the trend of the week/year. For better or worse, this is why so many brands just end up defaulting to a very neutral sans serif. I tend to believe it is better to err that direction and use other elements of the brand to lean into trends and personality, but that potentially leads to a phenomenon called “blanding.”
Meaningful. This can be tough, but when possible choose a typeface that further helps brand story, ties in to the overall concept, or at the very least doesn’t detract from it. A construction brand might use a stencil or an angular font alluding to architecture, a boutique wedding company might use an elegant serif, etc.
Technically sound. This is more about proportion and arrangement. How is the letterspacing? Do the letters and the spaces in between have a proper rhythm? Is there a rationale for the spacing between the wordmark and icon? Are the two thoughtfully arranged, locked up, and properly sized? This can get a bit subjective but share with your team or people you trust and see if it’s feeling right.
How do I choose the right brand fonts?
Consider the relationship to brand characteristics. Copywriting is one of the most important components of a brand. Typefaces are the vehicle through which that copy is delivered. Which means that brand typeface selection is a great opportunity to double down on your brand characteristics and quality. Need to convey authority? Consider a modern serif. Want to lean into tech? A sans, maybe paired with a monospaced font. For every decision you make regarding typeface selection (or every element of the brand for that matter), try to tie it in with strategy and the brand qualities you’re trying to convey.
Consider the moment. In contrast to what I said about trends regarding the wordmark, I personally believe in taking risks with typeface selection within the brand. This is because if it feels too trendy in a few years, it’s easy to update more secondary elements of the brand without throwing away the brand equity that has been built by the primary elements of the brand (logo, colors, etc). This is particularly true for digital-first brands.
Readability/accessibility. Think about your audience. Are they older/more conservative? Younger/more experimental? Always factor in considerations like that when making type selections. I consider headline fonts an opportunity to convey personality while body copy needs to be more functional and legible. This is always a push and pull. For many of us designers, we are hesitant to bump up body copy size, but a design that no one can read isn’t “in the service of communication” as Paul Rand said.
Fallbacks/usage. When thinking about where the brand will live/function/be perceived, it’s important to consider fonts and fallbacks. Using a premium font is always preferable in my opinion, but depending on budget/usage concerns, a suitable Google font can sometimes be used instead. If a brand will primarily be experienced through Google slides, but the brand website uses a premium font that doesn’t have a suitable Google font fallback, it can create a disjointed brand experience. This isn’t advice to only use free fonts, just another factor to consider.
4. Color Palette
What makes a strong color palette?
Differentiation. Color is often a great way to set yourself apart from competitors. Industries tend to take on conventional palettes (software=blue, finance=green, etc). Color selection is a chance to ask whether you want to fit that convention or break it. Sometimes you’re an outside player that wants to be perceived as trustworthy, so you could use a more conventional color that is typical of the space. Want to be seen as a disruptor? Break the rules.
Brand Strategy. Color selection is yet another opportunity to look at what you’re trying to communicate, or how you want your viewers to feel when they experience your brand, and make selections that further that narrative. It’s also another lever to pull to get the overall vibe of your brand to align with your brand strategy. Did you use an experimental typeface? Consider reeling the brand back in with a more conservative palette. Is your logo neutral and lacking personality? Leverage color to add visual interest. Back to the push and pull, trial and error, experimentation and iteration, etc.
Accessibility. Make sure there is enough contrast. This is particularly applicable to product design, but it’s always advantageous to consider it from the outset. Building the color palette with a variety of darks and lights that have plenty of contrast can set you up for success.
Flexibility. This relates to the last point, but it’s best to set the brand up to be flexible from the beginning. If the brand is for a company or service that might have a lot of product offerings or sub-brands, it might be good to think about establishing a flexible extended palette from the outset to help differentiate those.
Brand essence. Photography can go a long way in helping a brand to feel more human. It can also help frame the brand for the right target audience. People want to see themselves reflected in the brands they enjoy. Photography can often be leveraged to help “sell a lifestyle” which can be effective for some brands in certain industries. Qualities like “warm, friendly, accessible, and human” are often best conveyed through brand photography and photo selections.
Diversity. Photography also presents an important opportunity to convey diversity. If your brand photos show people who all look the same, you are alienating large swashes of the population and missing out on connections with them. It’s good to take stock of the photos you use and make sure you’re depicting people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages as it relates to your product or service.
Flexibility. There’s a lot more that could be said about this, but in the early stage brands we work on here at High Alpha, photography can sometimes be difficult to nail down, even though it’s a crucial part of a brand. As the brand grows and evolves, a photo style can often become more clear over time.
6. Visual System
A brand is only as good as its application. Thinking about a visual system that integrates with all the other brand elements and builds upon them is the “hook” that a great brand system needs. (This can be a pattern element, an illustration style, a logo extension, etc.)
This is how most people will encounter the brand, all the elements working (hopefully) harmoniously together. So it’s important to establish the visual system as early as possible and test it in a variety of proof-of-concept applications to see how it’s functioning. This system should be flexible enough to work on social media, a homepage, print applications, advertisements, etc. If it works across a full range of touchpoints and form factors, it’s likely something worth holding onto and exploring further.
A brand is like a small ecosystem, a network of connected elements that work well together, and at times, in isolation. While all of the individual elements are important and deserve thoughtful consideration, it’s also important to zoom out and see how the brand is functioning as a whole. Brand identity design is a push and pull. Is the logo more formal? Use colors and type to make the brand more expressive. Is the color palette very playful? Maybe use more elevated and serious typefaces to help convey trust. There are limitless possibilities which can make it feel very daunting, but also exciting.
The worst kind of feedback is vague and lacks actionable critique. Feedback like “the palette feels too playful for this company” or “the wordmark doesn’t quite feel harmonious with the mark” is much more helpful than “something is off.” Using this sort of brand identity rubric (even if it’s only in your head and never written out) can help your team establish some objective criteria to frame the conversation around whether a brand is working or not.