There are many factors that make up branding, but for the purposes of this article, when we refer to the word we are talking specifically about a brand's visual identity — the overall first impression of a company as expressed through its logo, color, typography, photography, graphic, and/or illustrations used. An excellent visual system that's aligned with your brand positioning sets your company up for success. Not only does a strong brand identity help differentiate your company from your competition and ensure healthy longevity, but it can even establish trust and loyalty.
Figuring out how much time, effort, and budget to dedicate to your initial visuals is tricky — it's a bit of a Goldilocks situation, you want to get the timing just right. Spending on brand visual design too early during the startup stage will most likely add strain on top of the initial investments you're making to kickstart the company, without offering many immediate returns. On the other hand, investing late means you may be missing out on the benefits a strong visual system brings, which may cost you down the road. This article will help you find a great balance and discover resources that can help you get from 0 to 1 without breaking the bank.
1: Define Brand Fundamentals
Defining a few of the basics is really important to understand what stylistic directions make sense for your brand. It's pretty important to establish and align on these early, as they will make stylistic decisions a lot easier when they invariably come. We recommend you jot down answers to these fundamental questions and keep them in mind as you go through making style choices. Actively ask yourself at each visual choice if it makes sense based on your answers to these fundamental questions:
- What is your company mission? → What is your reason for existing? What difference are you trying to make?
- Who is your target audience? → ASL (Age, Sex, Location). Who is your audience, where are they, and what do they care about?
- How do you want to position your brand? → High volume, low margin brand for the masses? Low volume, high margin premium brand? Do you want to be perceived as a more traditional or modern brand? Do you need to be more conservative or progressive?
- How would you sum up your brand's tone and manner? → Are you a quirky, fun-loving brand with a target audience that would respond well to: Yo, what's up? Or are you a more conservative, traditional brand whose customers expect professionalism: Hello, how are you?
2: Find Inspiration & Direction
Now that you have more clarity around your brand fundamentals, the DNA so-to-speak, search for reference examples to give you an idea of directions that may make sense for your initial visual identity. Here are a few of our go-to favorites for inspiration:
- Pinterest: A great starting point as it has a large database of inspiration. Create and save moodboards to help you organize and share.
- Behance: Dedicated for creative professionals, a search for visual identity brings up comprehensive, stunning brandfolios, logos, and more.
- Dribbble: Another great work showcase of designers and creatives. Browsing further than the first page requires a login.
3: Find Visual Resources
There are hundreds of resources available online, and they vary in quality and price. We have compiled a list of really great (mostly free) options categorized by the main visual identity choices you will need to make related to your logo, color, typography, photography, graphics, and illustrations. Hopefully you will find these resources useful in your quest to get your visual identity set up and rolling.
Often perceived as the most daunting part of the process is creating a logo. It should serve its role as an identifier for your brand — it is not meant to explain what your business does. You want a logo that is recognizable, clear, aligns with your positioning, tone and manner, and is ideally memorable. Believe it or not, when your brand is just getting started and you have relatively low awareness, don't overthink this part. There are many other parts of your overall visual identity that will account for your first impression and are actually more important. Pick something that is pretty good and you think will resonate well with your target audience — you can (and should) always redesign it later when you've gained traction and experience running the business. Here are some great resources to get you going:
- LogoMaster: An AI-driven interface that will ask you a few basic questions, and then generate logos based on your input. For a very small fee you can download a set of logo files that you are happy with.
- Tailor Brands: Another AI-driven platform that will collect some info from you, and then generate logo options. This platform can create additional materials you may need like business cards, social posts, etc.
- BrandCrowd: This platform lets you search a bunch of pre-made logos based on your requirements, and then you can edit, save, and download them.
- Custom-Made: You can send your business info and brand fundamentals directly to a freelancer on Upwork or Fivver to have a custom logo created for your business. This will probably look a bit less out-of-the-box, and could be an affordable option (but not free).
Color is key for establishing a cohesive look and feel for your brand, and its use should reflect the personality of your company. Are you going for a more minimalistic feel? You might want to stick to a neutral palette with an accent color or two. Is your company friendly and brimming with energy? Then you might want to opt for bold and bright colors. There is an entire field of color psychology that shows how people subconsciously respond to color — for example, blue conveys trust, which is why many health or finance companies use it in marketing. Keeping your brand definitions and relevant industry in mind, you can generate a color palette with the following resources:
- ColorSpace: An extremely simple, user friendly, and all around fun color palette generator. All you have to do is enter a color's hex code and with one click 20+ beautiful color palettes are generated. The color palettes range from 3-5 colors and include useful labels.
- Adobe Color: There is a choice between a color wheel or extracting a theme from an image as the starting point. From there, you have fine control of what color harmony rule to apply and specific RGB levels to toggle. This resource involves a bit more of a learning curve than ColorSpace, though you arguably have greater creative control over the end result.
- Coolors: Tons of colors and color palette ideas. Search by key terms to find premade palettes you can modify.
- Material.io: Here, there is the choice of picking a color from one of the palettes or entering a custom color. A primary palette is automatically generated from the selected color, and you have an option to create a secondary palette for accent colors as well. The great thing about this site is that you are also able to check the accessibility of your chosen colors, which is imperative for a user friendly and inclusive website.
- uiGradients: A handpicked collection of beautiful color gradients for designers and developers.
All of your company's copy will be displayed through your chosen typeface(s), so it's hard to overstate its importance. We recommend determining a maximum of two different typefaces to start off: one for headings and titles, another for body text. Another option is to use one typeface and increase the size and weight of it to create visual hierarchy. It might be a little overwhelming to jump straight into browsing one of the font databases linked below. Instead, by going into the search knowing what style of typeface you want will help narrow options down considerably. The two most common styles are serif and sans serif. Serif types convey a sense of tradition, respectability, and elegance. Sans serif types are modern and clean, these styles are best for web use because of their readability. Other styles include script and decorative typefaces — while these will certainly add a unique look, these are best limited to main headings and logos.
- Google Fonts: A huge database of polished fonts ready to download and use on the web. This is an excellent resource that will take you far, for free.
- Adobe Fonts: Directly compatible with Adobe's suite of products, this is the perfect place to find a massive database of font faces.
- Typewolf: A curated site full of beautiful font pairings taken from real websites and publications.
- Dafant.com: An archive of freely downloadable fonts. Browse by alphabetical listing, by style, by author or by popularity.
- Fonts.com: A mix of free and paid fonts, nicely curated, and large database.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Photos make everything more engaging — our eyes are automatically drawn to images. Just as with colors or tone of voice, you want the photos that are being used to be cohesive. This doesn't necessarily mean that all the photos need to have a certain hue or be black and white, though those are certainly options for guaranteeing consistency. Cohesion can also be achieved through utilizing photos that have a similar feel and/or that adhere to a certain theme. If you aren't a photography aficionado yourself, here are some handy places where you can find great images for free.
- Unsplash: The internet’s source of freely-usable images. Powered by creators everywhere.
- Burst: Free, high-resolution stock photos for websites and commercial use.
- 500px: Free and inexpensive high-resolution photography.
- Pexels: Another great high-quality stock photography resource that also has video!
- StockSnap.io: Beautiful free photos. High quality and high resolution stock images free from all copyright restrictions.
Pro Tip: if you don't want to be limited in your search by the lighting or editing style, you can create a filter (a certain way of editing photos) that you apply to all images, which is a hack for ensuring consistency.
3.5: Graphics & Illustrations
Graphics and illustrations are a great alternative to photos. They provide the same hook to viewers and are sometimes better at conveying more abstract ideas. There are many styles to choose from, ranging from flat illustrations to 3D. Choosing consistent images might be a little easier, as oftentimes using the work from the same artist, or sticking to a style of illustration, pretty much guarantees consistency. Some illustration sets also allow customization of colors used, which means greater overall cohesion with the rest of the brand.
- Drawkit.io: A fantastic resource for free illustrations, animations and icons, with a variety of different themes and styles to choose from.
- Icons8: Similar to Drawkit but with 3D design options as well.
- IRA Design: A limited amount of styles compared to Drawkit and Icons8, but with color customizability.
- Freepik: Lots of free vector-based illustrations and art.
- Vecteezy: Free downloadable vector art, stock photos & videos.
4: Taking it Further
You can do a lot on your own, and on-the-cheap. It will of course take a bit of time and effort, but it definitely can be done. When the time is right, after your business model has proven the market and you've acquired initial customers, you may need to rethink and retune your brand visual system to be more well-positioned for your growth. Things you will likely need once you begin to 'do it proper' are:
- Branding Guideline: A small rulebook containing all of your style choices and brand information in one place.
- Corporate Collateral: Templates for commonly used marketing materials including business cards, letterhead, presentations, etc.
- Media & Social Templates: Design templates you can use to easily make on-brand social and media content.
- Corporate Website: The official on-brand home base where most marketing leads will land.
There are many resources to help you do it right, which require hiring professionals. Here are a few:
- Upwork: Engage the largest network of trusted independent professionals to unlock the full potential of your business. This is a great place to find freelancers because the platform helps you see their ratings and previous work history.
- Fivver: Similar to Upwork, this platform allows you to find freelancers by category and skillsets you require.
- Toptal: Toptal is an exclusive network of the top freelance software developers, designers, finance experts, product managers, and project managers in the world. They aren't cheap, but you will truly find the best freelancers here because they have all passed a very rigorous vetting process.
- Agencies: Simply do a Google search for great branding and marketing agencies, read their reviews, and send them a brief. Really good agencies will ask you lots of questions, will listen intently, and should care about helping you achieve your goals. Interview them, be careful, and talk to more than one at once. Prices and quality will vary, but there are a lot of great agencies that can take the burden off of you and your team.
5. Final Thoughts
Getting set up with your initial brand look and feel doesn't need to be perfect. Do it to the best of your ability, and make running adjustments as you prove the market, grow, and acquire additional funding and support — fake it 'till you make it! If you have any questions about the branding process, we would love to speak to you. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.