What does your brand look like? Is it recognizable—in any medium? Or does it change its appearance and present a confusing array of visual styles?
Most organizations understand the strategic importance of a consistent visual style... but fall short on implementation, especially when there are multiple in-house or agency creative teams.
Add in new products, new sub-brands, time-sensitive promotions, changing management, decentralized business units, acquisitions and mergers, and the typical result is a tangled mess of visual styles—all purportedly representing the same company.
No wonder customers are confused. Or, worse, unimpressed.
A prescription for this all-too-common malady is a carefully designed visual system.
The Elements of Visual System
Before we cover the benefits of a visual system, a definition is in order. At its most basic, a visual system establishes standards for each of the following: logo, typography, color, imagery, layouts, and formats.
Logo: Specifications for size, placement, horizontal and vertical configurations, clear-space requirements, color use, and tagline and address lockups
Yes, there are a myriad details here, but all these specifications are critically important—whether your logo is a wordmark (e.g., Boston Scientific), a symbol (e.g., the Nike swoosh), or a combination mark (e.g., Caribou Coffee).
Most companies take care to police their logo and understand the importance of maintaining its integrity.
Typography: Guidelines on specific font styles and weights for all digital and print communications
Most organizations specify precisely which fonts are to represent their brand—on their Web site and blogs, in their marketing literature, in PowerPoint presentations, in investor and employee communications.
To the untrained eye, typography is sometimes invisible, but it's an essential aspect of your brand.
Color: Primary, secondary, and tertiary palettes for use in all materials
Imagery: The styles and colors that define your brand
Will you use photography, illustration, or both? Will the style be abstract, realistic, or metaphorical? Will you use full color, monochromatic tones, or black and white? A comprehensive visual system specifies image standards.
Layouts: A wide variety of templates that establish a hierarchy of information for headlines, subheads, sidebars, and body copy
Layouts also specify how imagery and secondary graphic elements should be used.
Formats: Acceptable standards and grids (square, rectangle, horizontal, vertical) that build familiarity and continuity for readers—no matter what the medium.
The Benefits of a Visual System
Once you've taken the time to put these visual building blocks in place, you'll benefit in four key ways.
1. You maintain brand consistency
It's obvious: If you don't establish a system to control the visual appearance—in short, the personality—of your brand, it's likely that many of your communications will be inconsistent or off-brand. "It just doesn't look like us," is a typical response to off-brand pieces, which may use inappropriate imagery, too many typefaces, or odd colors that don't align with your chosen palette.
By establishing clear guidelines for these visual aspects of your brand, you ensure that your audience will recognize you—in every context.
Think of a leading brand, like Apple or Starbucks. Part of what you're picturing in your mind's eye is a distinct visual style: clearly defined and scrupulously managed, regardless of the medium.
2. You eliminate a "culture of reaction"
To those who use them, visual systems are marvelous tools—providing, at once, both structure and flexibility (a proven catalyst for creativity). Visual systems also alleviate a "culture of reaction," where everyone charges ahead to meet the latest deadline without any visual context.
It's important to note that the purpose of a visual system is not to make all your communications appear the result of a cookie-cutter approach, but to create a comfortably coherent look.
3. You produce quality creative—faster
When you're facing a deadline, you don't want to find yourself bogged down in discussions about color, typography, logo placement, and the like, when you should be spending your time on creative concepts and marketing strategies.
With Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, and Quark templates, a visual system enables you to create on-target, on-brand marketing materials in far less time than it takes when everything has to be created from scratch.
4. You make a long-term brand investment
Make no mistake: Visual systems take time to develop. But they are a smart, strategic investment in your brand. If you're working without one, it may feel strange to codify what you already do intuitively. But stepping back to establish standards will help align your brand and your various business units.
Plus, establishing visual standards means your brand's appearance will not be dependent on one particular person's design talent, or subject to another person's whims.
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So, where does your wonderful new visual system reside? Best-case scenario: in a brand-center Web site, accessible to all employees and agencies, and easily updatable.
Many visual systems exist instead as PDFs, and though having a PDF is certainly preferable to having nothing at all... a brand-center Web site centralizes visual guidelines, doesn't have to be emailed back and forth, and can't as easily be ignored.
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