As a brand designer, I often ponder this question.
It’s a complicated question and, in an effort to make it simpler, branding is commonly portrayed as a quantifiable thing that can be achieved so long as one completes a checklist of branding qualifications.
Visual branding for example, requires a logo (check.) It also requires a consistent color palette and typography (check and check.)
It seems rudimentary (which it is) but at the same time, you can’t really argue its validity. Of course a brand needs a logo and basic markers like signature colors and typography.
But a brand is so much more than this.
Branding is a term thrown around by many and understood by few.
I could quote some intellectual — albeit overused — platitude from a respected publication eloquently recited by an equally respected industry expert (ugh — that word) or influencer (ugh — even worse) on the meaning of “branding.”
But I’m not going to do that.
Instead, I’m going to quote a Natasha Bedingfield song.
Why? For one, it’s a KOTAWesome song! Plus, it will always hold a special place in my heart because it plays during the invigorating final scenes of Morning Glory, the female millennial empowering film I watched with my mom and sister the night I graduated from the University of Southern California. And let’s face it — sometimes the answers to life’s toughest quandaries are best solved by a girl power anthem.
But I digress (get used to it.) I told you I’m going to quote a Natasha Bedingfield song in order to gain insight into the meaning of the term “branding.” More specifically, I’m going to pose a question in reference to the lyrics of one of her songs, “Strip Me.” So here goes:
If you strip me,
Strip it all away
If you strip me,
What would you find
If you strip me,
Strip it all away
I’m still the same
If you strip your visual brand identity of all of its essential elements — logo, color, typography — what would be left? Would you — or the public — be able to recognize it?
Why on Earth would you do that?, you might be wondering. Oh, maybe it’s one of those fun thought exercises, you reassure yourself, to give you deeper insight into your brand. No one would ACTUALLY design branding collateral sans logo, signature colors and typography, you determine.
What kind of kook would attempt to do such a thing? A KOTAW kook that’s who!
But let me back up a bit.
Getting business cards had been on the KOTAW Girl Gang’s wish list for quite some time now. But the type of business cards we coveted — fine, artisan letterpress printing — was a big investment. So instead of settling, we waited. And as the new year rolled around, my mom, sister, and I made a collective decision — the time had come to get the branding collateral of our dreams! And I had the honor of art directing it.
So now KOTAW officially has a brand new life in paper. Thanks to Alissa Bell Press, a Los Angeles based letterpress printing and design studio, the KOTAW Girl Gang is now the proud owner of custom letterpress business cards (and letterhead and envelopes to boot!)
New Medium, New Perspective
As I hinted at above (with the whole kook comment) our newly printed branding collateral does not include the essential elements of our visual brand identity. Yup, you read that correctly. The KOTAW logo, signature colors and typography are nowhere to be found on any of our paper goods. Shocking, I know.
Let me be clear: I don’t necessarily recommend this strategy for designing brand collateral. It’s definitely risky and not for the faint of heart.
But in KOTAW’s case, it was the BEST decision we could have made (more on this later.)
And the creative process certainly gave me greater insight into the heart of brand identity. It helped clarify a few things for me and I’m sharing my thoughts in the hope that it will offer you a similar benefit.
For me, the process was a journey of discovery into the essential difference between two elusive concepts: visual branding and visual storytelling.
Visual Branding is a series of choices.
Visual Storytelling is the meaning behind those choices.
So what choices am I referring to? Great question! I’m referring to design choices that help construct a brand identity.
Brand identity is composed of 3 basic visual components:
- Color Palette
(For the record, brand identities may also include signature marks, accents, design elements, patterns, illustration and textures — but for the purposes of this blog, I’m sticking with the three biggies.)
Our branding collateral was stripped of these 3 visual components. And yet the spirit of our brand is perfectly captured in each and every 2 1/2 square inch piece of letterpress museum board paper.
How is this possible? The answers lies in visual storytelling.
Visual storytelling has the flexibility to create a consistent brand experience without being confined by the conventional standards of visual branding.
I’ll explain more later, but right now, it’s time to unveil our branding collateral! Yay! I’ve made you wait long enough, don’t you think?
But I didn’t just write this blog to show off our pretty paper.
I wanted to share the thought process that went into the design of our branding collateral in the hope that it will inspire you to reexamine the conventions of brand identity and perhaps inspire you to expand your brand’s visual parameters. My goal in writing this blog is to inspire you to seek design with intention rather than convention.
As much as I adore the KOTAW logo, I made the decision not to include it in my design of our business cards. Gasp! Business cards without a logo?! That’s just crazy! Well let me explain.
The most precious quality of the KOTAW logo is not its form, but rather, its artful use of color, shadow and light in order to create a sense of radiance and palpable energy. I knew from a technical standpoint, this character that I treasured so much would be lost in the letterpress printing process.
Unlike laser and inkjet printing which reproduce digital files using an unlimited number of colors, artisan letterpress printing generally doesn’t accommodate the use of more than 4 colors. And I had my heart set on letterpress!
So if I wanted to use the logo on letterpress business cards, I had several options. For instance, I could choose a single color to outline the KOTAW wordmark (the part of the logo that actually spells out KOTAW) or choose to create a blind impression of the entire KOTAW logo.
My mom and I pondered the options while collecting inspiration as we thumbed through stacks and stacks of samples of Alissa’s gorgeous letterpress work during our initial meeting.
Then it hit me! We wouldn’t use the KOTAW logo at all! Instead, we would use an element of the KOTAW logo — the dandelion puffs.
Uh, Oh, Your Logo is a No-Go
When designing a logo, it’s important to think about all of its potential uses. Most singular logos do not accommodate all design and branding collateral situations. For example, the logo that works perfectly on your website header, may not be suitable in other formats. A great way to illustrate this point is to think about the sizing requirements of social media profiles. Most social media account setups call for two images with very different orientations and scales: a profile picture that is small and square; and a banner image that is large and long. We’ve all witnessed those unfortunate social media profiles sporting the profile pic that is abruptly cut off in the most unseemly manner or the dreaded banner image that is blurry or otherwise distorted. Not cute.
And that’s just one example. There are dozens of other possible uses for your logo, all of which demand different orientations, scales and even colors. Examples include email signatures, invoices, media kits, client contracts, watermarks for blog graphics, stationery, notecards, brochures, menu of services cards, promotional postcards, business cards, letterhead, signage, and packaging stickers.
A solution to this dilemma is to design alternate logos inspired by your primary logo.
Having several logo variations that share similar traits with your primary logo provides much-needed versatility to satisfy the unique demands of all branding collateral items.
Because KOTAW’s primary logo is a combination mark logo — a type of logo that combines the spelling of a name with a visual icon — I have a lot of freedom when it comes to designing alternate logos.
Combination mark logos provide the greatest versatility because unlike the 4 other categories of logos (symbols, wordmarks, letter marks and emblems) combination marks can be deconstructed so that their assorted components can be used separately for various design purposes.
Isn’t That Just Dandy?
In KOTAW’s case, I can pluck the dandelion puffs from our logo and use them as a separate design element that distinguishes the KOTAW brand while providing the versatility I crave (I can use one dandelion puff on its own or choose a cluster of them; I can add them to a wordmark; I can change their color; I can put a circle around one and use it as a sub mark — the possibilities are endless!
For our letterpress business cards, I came up with the idea to have the KOTAW dandelion puffs exist as blind impressions gently floating along and across their paper home.
Instead of using the KOTAW wordmark font, we opted for custom brush lettering. I’ve always been drawn to hand lettering, especially gestural script lettering. In fact, I often use a script font as an accent when I design branded graphics for KOTAW blogs and social media posts.
So it wasn’t surprising that I was particularly fond of Alissa’s portfolio of business cards, stationery, notecards and wedding invitations that included her stunning brush lettering work.
What did surprise me though, was when my mom suggested we choose Alissa’s custom brush lettering for our brand collateral project.
And my mom’s reasoning behind her suggestion warmed my heart: She said that brush lettering would honor the original KOTAW logo concept that I hand painted in gouache many moons ago.
The thing I love most about our custom brush lettering is that it conveys the same sense of movement that is captured in the swirls of light and color in the KOTAW logo. Take another glance: the words “Katherine Kotaw” undulate rather than stay affixed to a straight line.
So not only does our custom brush lettering pay homage to the original KOTAW logo concept that I handpainted, it also captures the lively spirit that is synonymous with our brand.
Who Gives a Font?
Fonts do not define your brand. If you think your brand is the only one who pairs Playfair Display with Raleway, or Josephin Sans with Merriweather, for example, you’d be oh-so mistaken. And unless you’re a designer (or Brick Heck from The Middle) you shouldn’t even really notice fonts. It’s like well-applied makeup: the goal is for people to think you look pretty, not think to themselves, hey that foundation sure has great coverage.
The average consumer will not dissect your brand. They won’t notice if you use Bodoni instead of Didot. What they do pay attention to — and care about — is whether or not your brand evokes a consistent mood. Typography has a monumental impact on the mood of your brand. When done well, using a particular font or combination of fonts can help emphasize your brand’s most important characteristic (modern, bold, energetic, sophisticated, tranquil, artistic, free-spirited, trust-worthy, luxurious, fresh, wise, playful, trendy, child-like, cutting-edge — the list goes on and on.)
But it’s not the font itself that matters — it’s the emotion behind the font. So before you can make effective font choices, you must first 1) have a clear understanding of your brand in its entirety, and 2) devote a reasonable amount of time and effort to studying the psychology of fonts.
Our decision to stray from our brand’s regular fonts by opting for custom brush lettering on our business cards and letterhead was not done on a whim. We didn’t choose it simply because we liked it or thought it looked pretty — I think a lot of things are pretty but if they don’t pass my that’s so KOTAW-test, I move on (and maybe tuck the pretty thing away to use for a client in the future.)
When I first started researching letterpress design and looking on Pinterest for inspiration, I immediately fell in love with business cards that included hand painted elements.
I wanted our business cards to be modern and minimal. I didn’t want a ton of text or contact info crammed into such a small space. Instead, I wanted the design to speak for itself.
I quickly determined that our KOTAW business cards would include a clean layout of black lettering and feature a bright pink watercolor dip.
The goal was for the pink watercolor dip to match our signature pink KOTAW web color (#fb1467). But because Alissa hand-mixed the watercolor, it was impossible to get an exact match.
On her first try, Alissa produced a shade that, according to the “scientific” mixology process, was as close to #fb1467 as possible. But I didn’t like the color. It was too dark, too red, too serious. Simply put, it didn’t convey the lively spirit of KOTAW pink. So we ended up using a color that was technically further away from our true web color, but that better represented the boldness and energy that makes our web color meaningful to our brand.
I think of color in terms of shades, not categories. On the most rudimentary level, people associate pink with femininity. But certain shades of other colors that are not typically classified as feminine (green or blue, for example) can in fact be more “feminine” than pink. For instance, mint and periwinkle are certainly more feminine than KOTAW pink, a bold, vibrant, energetic, punch-y shade of electric raspberry. KOTAW pink is strong, not soft.
Visual Branding vs. Visual Storytelling
A lot of branding “experts” preach complete and utter uniformity when it comes to design. These are the kind of people who are obsessed with templates (I’m not a fan — I think my uneasiness stems from the fact that my mom never let me use tracing paper as a kid.) They say things like, in order for your brand to gain recognizability, you have to ONLY use the EXACT same color values in the SAME way EVERY single time — Color A for all headings; Color B for all subheadings; Color C for all body text. Well guess what, sometimes these rules just don’t work. Tweaks may be necessary in order to create an effective, eye-pleasing design, depending on the color and composition of the image you’re adding text to.
For example, let’s say you own a spa and you’re designing a postcard promoting a summer sale on body exfoliation treatments (gotta slough away that rough, bumpy skin for swimsuit season, you know!) and you’re using a photograph of a bikini-clad woman lounging on the beach. In this case, the majority of the photograph’s whitespace is of the sky and the ocean. Now let’s say that your brand’s Color A (your heading color) is a pastel blue. You have 3 options — what do you do?
1) Place the heading in the white space (on top of the sky and ocean) which creates harmony of composition, but uh-oh — the blue text is barely legible because it blends into the blue background.
2) Place the blue heading in a non-whitespace space — any place where there’s no blue so that the text is easy to read. But uh-oh — the composition looks totally awkward and out of whack, seeing as the text is all squished and crammed into a non-whitespace space.
3) Place the text in the whitespace (on top of the sky and the ocean) but (gasp!) use a color other than Color A (aka heading color; aka pastel blue.) Ta-da! By not being so rigid in your branding formula, you now have a graphic with a thoughtful, well-balanced composition AND it’s completely legible.
If you haven’t already guessed, option 3 is the correct choice (I suddenly feel a bit like Amy Elliott Dunne, spinning together one of her tongue-in-cheek quizzes.)
But, you may be wondering, how do you know which color (and shade of color) to use? By thoughtfully choosing shades that align with the overall mood of your brand, that’s how!
When you do this, you don’t lose out on the coveted brand recognizability factor.
Take Benefit Cosmetics, for example. I would argue that Benefit is one of the most easily recognizable brands. And yet what’s interesting is the fact that it’s one of the most diverse brands in terms of design. Benefit’s packaging design is completely varied from one product to the next. Peruse a Benefit counter and you’ll find a hodgepodge of vintage pinup girls, palm trees, leopard print, lace, polka dots, circus stripes and a bouquet-assortment of different flowers gracing the packages of their products. And the colors are just as diverse. Expect to delight in a rainbow of coral, turquoise, fuchsia, grape, candy pink, sunset orange, peach and watermelon shades.
While Benefit’s colors are more varied than a bag of Skittles, they do feature one very important common thread: the mood they evoke. Benefit’s bright, saturated hues promote a sense of high-energy, carefree fun and a don’t take yourself too seriously-attitude. No matter what category of color Benefit uses, the emotional effect of the particular shade the brand chooses is the same.
When designing collateral for your own brand, always remember that it’s not the color itself but the meaning behind the color that counts. Choose hues that align with the overall mood of your brand. And as for consistency? Aim for consistency of meaning above all else.
The Art of Persuasion Begins with a Story
Visual branding (or at least the basic principles of visual branding) is simple. At its foundation, visual branding involves picking and choosing, then being consistent in your presentation of the things you pick and choose.
But without meaning behind the choices you make, your brand is one-dimensional. It becomes nothing more than a set of instructions/blueprint/template/script.
Meaningless choices are creatively limiting. It means your brand has little room to evolve. As a creative person, I am constantly wanting to try new things. I get bored easily. As long as all of my choices have deep meaning behind them and as long as I stay true to KOTAW’s brand story, I have the freedom to stray from the confines of HEX codes and font families — even logos.
This is not simply a selfish act. Yes, it feeds my creative soul, but it also benefits KOTAW because it allows our brand to always stay fresh, relevant and exciting. Visual storytelling allows for greater fluidity than the strict foundation of visual branding. Why is fluidity a good quality to have in a brand? Because fluidity promotes longevity. It means a brand is equipped to adapt and evolve — without confusing its audience.
Brands can still hold that sought-after recognizability factor despite an emancipation from traditional brand identity qualifications by creating a consistent brand experience, a phenomenon that centers around how a brand makes people feel.
In KOTAW’s case, our visuals radiate positive energy and evoke a sense of let’s take on the world, you can do this! excitement and joie de vivre.
Our aesthetic reflects our brand’s core values which is really just a fancy shmancy (slightly annoyingly pretentious) way of saying that our visuals tell the story of who we are, what we do and how we do it.
‘Cuz when it all boils down
At the end of the day
It’s what you do and say
That makes you who you are
I told you Natasha Bedingfield was one smart cookie.
Visual branding helps people recognize your brand — but is brand recognizability enough? You know my thoughts on the subject; now I want to hear yours. Are you OK with being known as “that brand that uses a bunch of orange” or do you aspire for something more? Does your brand design tell a story? If you want help creating a visual brand identity that balances the best of both worlds (recognizability and storytelling) contact me and we’ll chat!
Photos of KOTAW letterpress brand collateral courtesy of Alissa Bell Press.