Crafting a brand identity is fun and it can skyrocket a startup's legitimacy. But it's hard. Especially if you're jumping into it for the first time without a whole lot of experience or direction. So here are some steps that I'll be expanding on later this week. This initial run is an effort to get these thoughts out of my head and on to something tangible.
1. Establish and define the brand
The brand is the gut feeling someone has about an entity. Without defining what this feeling is, it's impossible to craft visuals that are aligned with it. The route to this definition comes from asking a lot of questions, empathizing with who would love this company the most, and precisely detailing the personality of the company. Think of it as creating a movie character. You want to know them intimately.
2. Seek, steal, and repurpose
Visual identities are often relegated to what I call the "design aesthetic." The design aesthetic doesn't have a unique personality to it but has good command over whitespace and simple layouts. While there isn't anything wrong with utilizing those design principles, establishing an emotional connection is contingent upon a humanistic element. Something unique, tasteful, and appropriate. The design aesthetic is a fail-safe for those who do not have a deeper story or who are afraid to be something different. As such, they try to create something on their own and fall into the design aesthetic trap.
What's the antidote? Find inspiration (from a book, a movie, a place, another brand), steal as much as you can, and repurpose the elements for your brand. Something inspiring and impactful already out there, magic happens when you place it in a new context.
3. Establish visual elements
There are foundational elements in every identity build. Namely, color, typography, layout, logo, and subsequent elements like illustration, pattern, photography, iconography, and motion. Once a visual theme has been set, the task is now to apply that theme to these elements so there is a cohesive look to everything. It's been phrased before that any piece of collateral should be recognizable without the brand's logo on it. This is done by aligning and consistently using branded visuals.
4. Flex and be ready to adapt
Change is inevitable. Prepare yourself to move and adapt your visual identity as time progresses. New mediums will arise, styles will change, your company will change, and eventually, your visuals will need to as well. Be prepared to flex, experiment, and change.
In his latest book, Business Made Simple, Donald Miller regales readers with the analogy of a business as an airplane.
The Plane Body is Overhead
It's filled with people and those people weigh down the plane with cost.
The Wings are Products and Services
These are the things that give a company lift and can allow the air to get under it.
The Engines are Sales and Marketing
These propel the company forward and allow for increased velocity. Allowing the plane to take on more overhead and go more places.
The Fuel is Cashflow
Run out of this stuff and you crash.
Here's how design and branding fits in to all of these:
The people who work for you will earn their keep if they are guided by a strong mission. Something that inspires them to get out of bed, go to work, and make shit happen. You enable that to happen when you have a strong emotional value they cling to. That's your brand. Good people are expensive, however their ROI is worth it. Give them a reason to push the company forward with a strong brand.
Products and Services
In software, a poorly designed product will kill a company. Do it right. Make it something your sales people want to sell, rather than being forced to sell it. More importantly, add pieces of delight throughout all of these so that the product becomes irreplaceable to your users. That is design.
Sales and Marketing
Following up on the previous point, a well designed product is one your sales team is encouraged to offer. Make your product appear trustworthy by branding your marketing efforts and getting the word out in an exciting, useful manner. Make it easy for customers to recognize and like you. That is design thinking 101.
If you're running low and need to rally investors to your cause, design a mission for them to get behind. Articulate it uniquely and in a way that is easily understood. Create a deck that is trusted at a glance and represents your company well.
Apply your brand and design the part of your business accordingly so that you can go anywhere.
Selfish ambitions don't really get you anywhere. They cause you to think narrowly about what's good for you and gives you a good pay out (one person), as opposed to thinking about what could give a good payout to others (multiple people). Not only that, but it makes for lame brands, since it's hard to make other feel something if you have not rooted your company in empathy.
There are blatant examples of this when startup founders go into a venture with the purpose of making a bunch of money so they don't have to work anymore. No one is going to hand their money to you so that YOU don't have to work anymore. It seems silly to reiterate that, but sometimes we all need a reminder. It's rare to find a company with a purpose like this that does anything innovative or builds something others find irreplaceable. However, it's not always as easy to spot such self-centered ambition.
Where selfish ambition gets tricky is when it's veiled in altruism. Here are some example: "I see all these big companies that are selfish with their money and do a bad job handling it, I think I could do a better job."
At first glance, it doesn't seem like that big a deal. There are indeed hundreds of big companies that get caught in scams and aren't very generous with their money. But take a look at the example again but with this question in mind: who is the beneficiary?
There's only two subjects in it, large companies and the founder of this startup, so it must be one of them. Sparing you the trouble, if either of these subjects are the beneficiary, then this purpose sucks. Despite the acknowledged problem of large companies' ill-spending, the solution of trusting one person (albeit, a stranger) to do a better job with it is not much better. It's certainly not something that you could rally a team behind, convince investors to buy-in to, and certainly not customers.
Why? Because it's all about the founder. No one is going to buy into that.
It's not all lost though, with a small tweak this could be improved. Let's try this: "I see all these big companies that are selfish with their money and do a bad job handling it, so I'm going to create a company where every employee gets to dedicate a portion of our profit to a charity of their choice."
Now who's the beneficiary? The employees and the charities they choose to support. Shoot, even the founder becomes a beneficiary because they now have recognition for giving others an opportunity to do good. Despite a purpose dedicated to the service of others, the company still grows because other people have bought in and get something in return.
Point being, if you want to grow your startup, make your purpose about other people, not you.