It’s not about your favorite color – moving from brand strategy to visual identity

Cloud on a sunset lit sky, forming shapes of animals
Illustration by Reetta Kotilainen
July 26, 2021

Read time 5 min

The writer Matti Tuominen works as an Art Director at Reaktor’s Helsinki office. He muses the arbitrariness of all meaning-making.

How would you like your upcoming brand to be perceived? It’s challenging to picture something non-existing, however, that’s what we as designers are trained for and help our clients do. But would it be better to stick with verbal means when taking the first steps towards something visual?

In my previous blog on branding, we walked the talk and asked how to make a brand purpose more than just empty words. This time we first scratch the surface of theories of perception and then start bridging the gap from strategy to visual identity.

The utopia of visual language

When proceeding towards visual identity, it’s tempting for designers to rush right into graphic elements: shapes, colors, typefaces, and other identifiers. One might think it makes the decision-making easier because then we can all see the same. But can we really?

The idea of visual perception’s unambiguous nature is nothing new. At the beginning of the 20th century, the modernists of Bauhaus sought after a universal visual language that would be common to all humankind. It was thought to surpass the influence of context, history, and memory in the process of seeing. The visual grammar was supposed to be free from the arbitrariness of verbal language. 

This formalistic idea of direct visual impact had something rather comforting built-in: a common language in a complex world – something clear instead of the ever-growing uncertainty. It was too good to be true.

We see what we want to see

In 1966, the Italian designer Bruno Munari wrote about the phenomena of seeing in his famous book Design as Art. He told a story of how Leonardo Da Vinci saw various characters in the shapes of old walls, William Shakespeare spotted whales and camels in the clouds, but “Simple Simon” saw only walls and clouds. The perception depended on the person watching the sky, their experiences, and knowledge, Munari notes.

Art historian Ernst Gombrich suggested similarly in his book Art and Illusion that our perception is more or less defined by our assumptions: we see what we want to see. That’s why some of us can’t help spotting faces in places.

The ambitious idea of Bauhaus’ pioneers got repealed. Verbal and visual communication turned out to be like-wise all about concepts, interpretation, and unstable meanings.

The following three steps help navigate the ambiguity of the meaning-making process when designing visual identities:

1. Start with verbal

Starting to bridge the gap from strategy to visual identity with verbal means helps the stakeholders align, encourages discussion, and builds a common understanding of the direction.  

Verbal language is not a perfect tool, but it’s still the best we have for the task. Playing with words can be fast, fun, and fortunately rather inclusive. Waiting for us designers to come up with new visual guesses, not so much.

Resorting to design software sets unnecessary constraints and guides the team’s thinking to narrower paths. Premature benchmarking of trends might get everybody stuck with a predictable style when there would be lots of room for the imagination to wander.

First agree verbally as a group on what you want to see.”

If the verbal phase is skipped, the process is in danger of sideslipping into a never-ending loop of people liking or not liking what they see. Verbal branding allows agile iterations, sets the expectations right, and helps to put personal preferences aside. Nobody wants to talk about your favorite color anyways.

Adapting Combrich’s notion of assumptions’ role in perception: first agree verbally as a group on what you want to see.

2. Mind the context

Forming a set of core brand attributes is a common and sound first step. Using simple tools like Brand Deck, semantic scales, or just brainstorming with a clean slate makes exploring “how the future organization x is perceived” participatory and, at best, exciting. 

However, these high-level attributes might not offer a concrete starting point for developing a visual direction for the identity itself. They do indeed help us understand the personality of the brand, but something is still missing.

The next question is, how do these rather abstract core attributes manifest themselves in a visual way. How would you open up the attribute “rebellious” on the particular case at hand? Being rebellious might visually mean something a bit disparate in the context of a university identity compared to one of an avant-garde art festival.

 In the same manner, the attributes can be extended to the tonal (tone of voice) and the operational (how do we get things done) dimensions of the brand, but that’s another story. 

3. Carry the foundation along

The end result of verbal branding exercises should be a shared, agreement-like vocabulary to be used when discussing if the suggested visual identity solutions are “what we want to see” and how well they match everything discussed.

“When in doubt, it’s useful to go back to the attributes for advice.”

It’s pivotal to always carry the verbal foundation along. For designers, the vocabulary works as something to reflect the work-in-progress designs against. When in doubt, it’s useful to go back to the attributes for advice. 

Still at this stage, there’s no rush to jump into high-fidelity visual design. Various tools can still be used for bridging the gap when needed: mood boards, style scapes, or a gut test exercise can lead to a shorter leap.

Coming up with a visual identity direction for a brand is not an exact science, but rather building a synthesis. The unstable nature of meaning-making suggests testing, iteration, and empathy are needed when figuring out how we want the world to perceive the brand.

Learn more:

Design Writing Research by Ellen Lupton, J. Abbott Miller 

Design as Art by Bruno Munari

Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation by E.H. Gombrich

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