In the past I used to treat design work like my previous art process: unrefined — waiting for a feeling. I know that sounds insanely stressful, and it was because I’m not Michelangelo chipping away at a block of marble. Instead of staring at a blank canvas waiting for it to speak to me I forced myself into a better routine. As a result I became more efficient and capable at crafting thoughtful brands through research based design choices for both rebrands and new branding engagements.
This process starts with the gathering of research and ideas, then transitions to the distillation of those ideas to insights for the final result — a strong brand identity achieved by putting the work in.
While Skookum is not a branding or marketing agency, we do in some cases work on brand assets -- and have the opportunity to take the research and work we’ve done for a company’s brand identity to effectively extend it across a client's entire system/portfolio for a cohesive end-to-end experience.
Gathering data about the business, product, service, industry, and users is crucial early in the process. This information will serve as your jumping off point and will provide paths from which to explore and iterate. Think of it like collecting all of the materials you need to build a building. If you try to find materials as you go your building won’t be as strong. Within this period of the process there are a few core tasks I like to follow:
Step 1: Get to Know the Business
Plan some time to get to know your client’s business and their goals. Open up some discussion with questions like:
- Walk us through your product or service’s life cycle — could you highlight your customer touch points?
- How would you describe your consumers? Who is your brand speaking to?
- How would you describe your business’s personality? What adjectives would you use?
- Who do you consider your competition? What do you think they are doing well and vise versa?
- What are your business goals: short and long-term? Analysis tools like SWOT and PEST analysis come in handy here especially with larger groups and multiple stakeholders.
- Are there any previous or existing branding material that needs to be considered?
Make sure you talk to all stakeholders that will be apart of the decision making process with this project. Patrice is tired of being left out.
Step 2: Learn About the Competition
(Caption: These are made up brands to showcase the categories I look for in my competitive research.)
Get to know the design decisions and strategy of the competition. Try to figure out what the motivations are. Such as:
- Who are they and what’s their demographic?
- What’s happening in this space?
- What is their audience responding to?
Collect research around these companies by looking at their online presence, reviews, audience and company size, user behaviors, and more. Some industries will have research papers providing compelling information. You’ll begin to identify common themes or potential problems to avoid in your branding strategy.
Step 3: Write it All Out
(Caption: There are tons of word activities out there to help explore themes-this is just an example.)
Write out key words the client has brought up and common themes or patterns that the previous research reveals. List out these words, symbols, and sketches and begin exploring their meaning. I like circling some that hold the most weight and hitting the thesaurus. Continue writing out anything that relates to these themes. Finally, when you have a solid mess, start rearranging these words into groups and title them with a descriptive word that summarizes it. Play with juxtaposing elements together to create new connections. You’ll start identifying some interesting visual relationships.
Step 4: Find Inspiration
At this point I like to explore creative spaces that inspire and seem to visually convey the relationships I’ve highlighted in the research above. This could mean walking around your city and taking note of patterns, while trying to not look like a complete tourist in your hometown. It could also mean browsing your favorite design sites to see what’s currently inspiring others. This helps me begin visualizing ideas and thinking about the research in a new light.
Step 5: Sketch & Iterate Every Idea
Use this time to apply your learnings. Go crazy here by exploring every route you possibly can. Experiment with different materials even sticks and ink. I’m not joking- just the process of putting marks on paper will get you past that stuck feeling we all get looking at a blank page. Don’t worry about making everything look perfect, just try to get all of your ideas out of your head and on something.
(Caption: This is an example of the types of sketches used to explore ideas-don’t just do four pages of sketches.)
Once I’ve gathered and generated a pile of research and sketches it’s time to break it down and pull out the most important aspects.
Step 6: Refine Promising Sketches
Take a few of the ideas you believe are getting closer and begin refining them. Work on the line quality and color combinations in your favorite application like Sketch or Adobe Illustrator. If you use another application I won’t judge you. Identify what’s working and what’s not by circling back to the business goals and research. The strongest ideas will be the one’s you can defend every aspect of.
(Caption: This is just a fraction of the refining work expected for a brand project.)
Step 7: Test the Designs
Take your refined marks and put them in the space they’ll most likely live in. Get a feel for the sizing and ask yourself if it’ll scale. Also, have someone outside of the project look at them - someone that won’t have the same biases you and your stakeholders have on the project. That additional perspective may shed light on things you’re unable to see after engaging in this work for an amount of time. Or make you see things in a logo you wish you hadn’t - sorry Airbnb.
Step 8: Present the Work
Every client is unique. Understanding how decisions are made within their organization or team will help you determine the most effective way to present your work. For example, you could be working with an individual who has decision autonomy over design/brand asset choices -- or alternatively with groups where consensus or approval to proceed is required at each step. Either way, knowing this (and discussing it) in advance will help you determine the right approach.
Additionally, given you're dealing with visual material that is more open to interpretation, be sure to use your research and findings to support your design direction, decisions and to ensure your client has a clear understanding of how you’ve arrived at the point you're at.
Evidence-based findings also help align client/designer and teams so they stay focused on the design goals and help reduce personal bias or vague comments such as, “I think we should make it sexier" or "maybe it just needs some more pizazz.”
By bringing your client along for the ride in the way that best suits their needs, the final presentation won’t be a complete surprise. Below are some more helpful tips when presenting:
- Practice ahead of time. Run through your deck and your talking points to make sure everything flows nicely.
- When presenting, speak in your client’s language. Make sure they understand the terms you’re using.
- Restate the purpose of the project and be sure to address their business goals.
- Show the client how your work maps to these goals and how it aligns with the research.
- Demonstrate how you incorporate feedback.
- Don’t overwhelm the client with too many options; stick with your best design(s). That way you can keep the feedback focused.
- Help them see what you see — showcase the brand in the environments it will mostly likely exist in.
- Use your research to support your choices and help use that as a tool for feedback.
- Be courteous.
Step 9: Package it Up
I like to hand off a brand identity package that acts as a marketing tool kit. It includes the final logo as a transparent png and pdf in the color, black, and white versions. Additionally, it includes photos or graphics representing the logo in different spaces.
Finally, I’ll pull together identity guidelines that showcase the proper usage of the logo. It will include the color combinations, patterns, clear space, asset do’s and dont’s, and typography. It will also provide advice on photography and graphic usage and will summarize the brand’s essence and research. Occasionally, clients like to include some additional marketing collateral like a presentation template, letterhead, etc. that reflect the new or updated brand identity. This too, is included in their tool kit.
Branding is a long journey with some bumpy roads and dead ends, however once you and your client get to the finish line you’ll appreciate the research and hard work you did ahead of time.