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.
When doing design work, it's important to get feedback. However, the kind of feedback you get will make all the difference. Without beating around the bush, getting feedback that is entirely subjective is gonna end poorly, especially if you're trying to be different. The key is to be objective.
For example, when designing logos for clients, a client will often ask someone close to them: "which one do you like?"
Chances are, the respondent won't like any of them (for irrelevant reasons) or they mask the truth out of fear for hurting someone else's feelings. Either way, the feedback to this question is shit. Always.
Instead you have to think about the goals you are looking to achieve, such as aligning something like a logo to your brand. The best way to do this is what I like to call the binary method. If you know what you want someone to feel when they look at your company, then you can also define the opposite. If you want someone to feel edgy, modern, and sleek (you should define these in your own words, mind you) then the opposite of your goal would be to have them feel safe, nostalgic, and rough.
At this point you can ask, "does this feel more modern or nostalgic?"
Following up with "what makes you feel that way?" since the reasons might be extremely personal. Granted, a logo needs to be contextualized with other branded elements to get feedback on something like its alignment to the brand.
This goes far with getting valuable feedback that you can actual improve from and makes subjectivity less prevalent. Regardless of what design project you're working on, knowing what your goal is and the ability to articulate the opposite gives you framework for getting concrete answers.
Building a brand is about connecting people to a company at an emotional level. What do people connect with? Other people and their stories. No matter how lame and uneventful you believe your journey to have been, your story as a founder, entrepreneur, and business person is exciting to someone else who has never lived it. Every detail is a new experience for them.
For example, I've lived in San Diego my whole life. Naturally, the beach and amazing weather don't surprise or excite me anymore because I've seen them so much. But to someone who lives in Canada who has never seen a wave, felt sand between their toes, or spent an entire day playing beach volleyball, it's completely foreign and interesting to them.
Set aside your products for a second and think about your story. Where are you from? Where are you now? What does that say about you? Lastly, how can you embed that story into your brand?
The brand of a startup is almost always a mirror of the founder. If you want to build a stellar brand, you must know yourself first.