Staying on top of the visual branding game with a limited budget

By Jennifer Borton, iStock Senior Illustration Manager

Previously published in My Business

We are taught as children not to judge a book by its cover. However, that lesson doesn’t necessarily apply to business, and customers will often judge a company by how their brand looks. Therefore, it is crucial to create a visual identity for your brand that is appealing to customers and communicates the right messages.

Visual identity plays a key role in the branding strategy of any business, regardless of size or industry. As the visual expression of a brand, it may encompass many design elements such as shape, color, imagery, typography and composition. A consistent style should be identifiable across all visual communications, from print collateral to digital media. Today, to be taken seriously, you need a clean web presence, supported by professional stationery and collateral to help reinforce your visual identity. Once established, this strong identity helps to define your company, set it apart from the competition and encourage brand loyalty.

Invest your visual brand with the importance that you afforded your business plan.

Designing your visual brand

While it is important to think visually, it is essential that you are very clear about the key messages that you are trying to communicate before you start designing.

Invest your visual brand with the same importance that you afforded your business plan. Write a strategy that clearly outlines your ideas and what you want to achieve. Look through your content and pick out the key concepts and themes that appear throughout. Using these ideas as 'keywords,' begin searching for design elements and imagery that reflect them. Bear in mind that imagery should serve as visual breaks for your content that will help the viewer comprehend what's written.

Keep it simple

While it ultimately depends on the brand, a cardinal rule of design is that typically, simple is best. A clean, smart illustration will communicate an idea quickly and from a distance. A picture can say a thousand words, so the images you choose will speak volumes about your brand.

Select imagery that has a unique element, something that will stand out and make your brand memorable, and always match your visual style. So, if you're using an illustration, check to see what else the artist has produced and consider how these visuals could be incorporated into other parts of your site or print collateral. This will give your communications visual cohesion and may even give the impression that you have had your imagery custom created.

Know your competition

Don’t forget to check out your competition. What are they doing well and what could they improve upon? What other brands (even outside your space) do you admire and why? Are there ways you can emulate what they've done well without being a copycat?

Professional creative tools

Many small businesses don’t have the resources to hire design firms or professional photographers to create their content, and instead tend to coordinate this themselves. Creating a cohesive visual identity does not need to be complicated or expensive. You might already be familiar with stock image companies like iStock as a place to go for photos – perhaps stock is already part of your business. What you might not know is that it’s also a great place to go for illustrations, including files that can be used as backgrounds, borders or design components of printed materials.

Once you have committed to a look and feel, draft a set of guidelines to help ensure that your brand maintains consistency as it grows and evolves. These guidelines should describe your company values and spirit, tone of voice, typography style, photographic or illustrative style, color palette, layouts and so on. Setting these guidelines up front and implementing them across all visual communications will help you avoid ending up with an amateur-looking site or company brochure, that doesn't properly reflect the brand.

As time goes by though, how do you evaluate whether the materials you have are in need of a facelift? Ask yourself: Has it been a long time since you’ve considered your presentation? Do you find yourself scrambling to put something together every time a prospect asks for information? Has your industry changed since your business was established? Is there a lot of competition, and how do competing businesses’ materials compare to yours?

Key trends

We have been inundated with advertising in so many forms and for so long now that audiences can see through messages that are false, cheesy or insincere. Due in part to the influx of reality-based television, there has been a trend toward reflecting real people and situations in marketing collateral.

Imagery that captures an authentic moment, a slice of life, is instantly relatable, enabling the viewer to identify with the message being communicated.

In recent travels to Australia, I noticed that the country has a particularly illustration-rich culture, with illustrative mediums ranging from 3D renders to vectors found across advertisements, invitations, flyers and other marketing materials. This is not surprising, as the endless adaptability of vectors continue to make them prime choices for backgrounds, textures and overlays, navigation elements, banners and decorations. What is changing is the way illustrations are used, and the styles that are evolving and growing popular. Reflecting the trend towards authenticity and back-to-basics sites like Pinterest and SMB marketplace Etsy, people are creating and utilizing old-fashioned styles – moving away from heavily computer-generated illustrations.

Here are some key illustration trends to inspire and help get the ball rolling when you create the visual identity and collateral for your brand:

  • Hand drawn style: The hand-made look is not a new trend, but it will definitely stay strong for the time being. Designers continue to explore the textures of chalk, paint, pen and ink, sketchy lines and brushstrokes on paper backgrounds.
  • Organic techniques: The arts and crafts craze is reflected in the growing number of illustrators mixing their tools and techniques – adapting technologies to bring their crafty style onto the screen, rather than having the tools dictate what they can and can't do.
  • Print inspired: One particular off-shoot of all this cross-discipline cross-pollination is the trend towards print-inspired graphics. High contrast wood block-inspired slabs of color are paired with rich textures indicative of the pre-digital print era.
  • Vintage charm: A versatile trend incorporating pretty patterns, lace and a retro feel.
  • Greater detail: As resolutions increase, from the new monitor on your desktop to the screen on your mobile device – designers are taking advantage of the extra pixels.
  • Hero vector: We're seeing more and more illustrations front and center, not simply overlaying and supporting other imagery.

Whatever style you choose for your visual brand, make sure that you keep it honest and consistent. The visuals you use need to reflect the key touch points of your brand or you risk creating a disconnect between your brand promise and experience, and undermining customer confidence in your business.

Your brand is a reflection of your business, so stay true your company’s core values and what it stands for.

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