The 7 Creative Phases of Brand Design

Written by on October 26, 2020 in Stuff with 0 Comments

Before we get started, let's begin with a terminology primer; people use the terms “Brand Design,” “Brand Identity,” “Brand Guidelines” interchangeably. Suffice to say, it is confusing, but we will address here what is the approach for the design of a brand.

A brand is not a logo. The most useful definition of brand is what a given group of people think and feel about something. This may very well include a logo and a visual language, but also all kinds of other associations. When you think about Southwest Airlines, you think of a major American airline. It is considered a value airline but for some, it is rather highly regarded. As a brand, the company is associated with humor. The flight crew cracks a lot of jokes. Their stewards and stewardesses wear shorts and tennis shoes. They are often pretty cheerful. (Evidently, their first stewardesses had been former cheerleaders.) You line up for boarding with a very different, maybe more efficient, group process that’s unlike other airlines. They have a blue and rust-colored, rather affordable, plain-wrap looking color palette. For us, a brand is all of it.

Another definition: the word “design” is from “designare” which means out from a plan. So design is essentially planning and generally includes visual aspects. Brand Design, then, is planning for what you'd like a given group of people to think and feel about your offering.

It is simply understanding what a brand is and isn't.

In summary, a brand often refers to a logo but it is one definition that is confusing and limiting.

Safer to think about a brand as being what a given audience thinks and feels about a given entity. Brand identity is the visual language that is associated with your brand but it includes more than visuals, it also includes your messaging and tone. A brand guideline packages up the brand identity, including things like brand voice (which is about language), mission, vision, values, etc.

Phase 1 – Audience Definition

The first phase pinpoints a company's audience(s). In the case of Southwest Airlines, they will have many audiences but there is a certain demographic of people that likes to travel typically in the United States. Maybe they travel to certain places where Southwest flies, they appreciate the value and they are willing to not have a meal or an assigned seat in exchange for a more affordable price. To make it simple and probably obvious, consider that they have business travelers and vacation travelers for starters. They will have all kinds of different audience “segments”. For example, they might have vacation travelers that are families with small children which are different from vacation travelers that are retirees. The company, the employees, any vendors, and partners are also audiences that should be taken into consideration. A company or organization’s internal audience will always have a lot of thoughts about what the brand is, as they bring more to the thought table getting paid to think about the brand design.

Phase 2 – Current Audience Perception

Uncover what your respective audiences think and feel about your company right now. If we were to ask people about Southwest Airlines today, it might simply conjure up memories of when we used to travel before the pandemic grounded everyone. For me, I think of Southwest as being the flight I used to take from Oakland to Albuquerque to meet my mother. I have a lot of positive associations with the airline. It's a fantastic airline that is affordable for me. They let me carry on a bag for free. They offer peanuts and stuff but no food. They don't have charge fees when I change my flight. They're great. (I am aware that for some, they will forever reject it. “Makes me feel like cattle.” Their loss, but I digress.)

There will be things that Southwest Airlines wants to say to its customers to generate business. And there will be things their audiences may not really understand and need to know.  That process of getting clear on those elements is crucial to determining the desired result. What do we want people to think, feel, and DO after they engage with whatever touchpoint we are designing?

Phase 3 – Define Effective Touchpoints

The next thing you do is figure out how we're gonna shape perception. There are all kinds of touchpoints they could use. From radio ads to what appears on the posters in the airport, or on the napkins. Maybe it’s a special page on their website? The way their safety message is conveyed. Language on signage. Snack napkins. Any point you provide something to a customer is an opportunity to refine how you want them to think about you.

Phase 4 – Messaging and Visual Design

When the phone rings for work, this is the stuff people are coming for. They need to present something customer-facing and need it to look good. The fun stuff. The brand stuff. Language, visuals, infographics, which includes fonts and colors, how we will tell the story. We get to work at the drawing board, based on a strategic plan. We are translators of strategy and the aim is to get into the minds of a specific audience and have them think and or feel XYZ. None of the work we do is in a vacuum and can’t be pulled off a rack. Southwest is not the same as Virgin Airways and those differences are what need to be heightened through messaging and design. We will brew up directions and present those to the client. We always recommend that all stakeholders participate in the design process if they can.

Phase 5  – Real World Applications

This gets ideas off the drawing board and stress tests them in real life. You need to do an actual project that passes through all your stakeholders, and their opinions to get the plan out of theory and onto the playing field. It is the time you must decide how much money you will be willing to spend to do something for real. Understand that theoretical design projects are a gigantic waste of money and time, even though they can be a whole lot of fun for everyone involved. It is crucial that you work up a project that's got to actually pass leadership within your organization.

Phase 6 – Brand Guidelines

They come at the end, after project/s have been done, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. If they are done at the start of a new company, they are done out of thin air, based on things that just look nice or create a certain look and feel (i.e. millennial pink, clouds and bird feathers). This is not what you want. Guidelines are really just brand thoughts. Doing a project forces ideas to conform to reality and evolve in ways you could not have predicted. The real world has a way of doing that. So the smart money does them at the end of a “defining project” and they continue to expand over time to include the new brand elements. So if the defining project has been a website, then it would be possible to write the guidelines for a digital website and while some things will carry over,  it does not necessarily mean that it'll translate to other touchpoints.

Phase 7 – Results

How did it work? The real work begins when your material and messaging heads out into the world. You start back at zero and work through it all again. This is what is referred to as brand management. Shaping perception is an ongoing effort. What people think about your business evolves over time depending on all kinds of factors. Your communication will adapt to course correct or hold the line.

If you are doing a brand identity for a startup, then check out my other article focused on what you need to do to build a new audience.



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