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What is a visual identity system?

As a business owner when you are starting a new brand, here's what an obvious to-do list can look like: you need a product or service, a name for your brand, a logo & a website. While these are solid foundations to build your brand, these are just the beginning of a never ending road to building your brand.


Every time your customer interacts with your brand, you have an opportunity to build your brand's perception. In the creative community, we refer to these interaction points as: customer touch-points. Here are a few examples of customer touch-points: social media posts, testimonials, phone systems, point of sale, billing, emailers, customer care etc.


Building a brand is usually a process of improving your product & the experience of these customer touch-points. The experience of some of these touch points could be improved by a variety of tactics such as: coaching your team (eg. how do you respond when a client calls/walks into your store), or through automation (eg. sending a welcome email when a new customer leaves their email ID on your website) or through artificial intelligence (eg. integrating a chatbot that can respond to your customers 24x7). Some of these touch-points can also be improved through graphic design & by building a visual identity system.


At this point, you might ask: "But I just need a logo, Arun. Why do I need a visual identity system?" The answer is simple: you will never use your logo as a stand alone unit (apart from the favicon on your browser, or simple stationary like pen & pencils). Your logo needs to look strong when paired with other elements of your brand.


Let's look at the example of Coca-Cola. Unless you live under a rock, you probably have an image of their logo in your mind as you read this. At the same time, it's safe to assume that their logo isn't the only thing you associate with their brand. The red colour, the red wave and the bottle itself are building blocks of their identity. You can immediately recognise the brand even without the logo:

Coca Cola Wave
Here's something interesting: The red wave doesn't really have anything to do with a black carbonated drink.

Let's look at another example:


Cadbury Design
Even without the logo, you instantly recognise this brand. This is the power of simple imagery.

This is what a good visual identity system does: It helps build stronger brands that are immediately recognisable.


A good visual identity system can also give you an edge over your competition. A consistent visual identity can help your brand appear credible & of good quality. Especially in such a fast moving world where every brand needs to push out content regularly to stay relevant, the need for a visual identity system and the need to look consistent is more crucial than ever.


So how do you go about building one?


To create a good visual identity system, you need to sit down and understand the bigger picture. Understand the whats, whys and hows of your business. The attempt here is to find a story that's unique to your brand and see how that could be translated through design.


The ingredients you need for a visual identity system are simple: the logo, the colour palette, the typography, patterns & branded assets. But the real magic happens when you mix these in interesting ways to get a truly unique combination that can work well on multiple brand touch-points.


To make a list of all your customer touch-points it's a good idea to create user personas. Understanding how & where a customer interacts with your brand can help you populate this list. Once you have this list, you are at a good place to start exploring.


As you start exploring, keep asking this question: If this looks good on print, does it look good & consistent on digital? If it looks good on digital does it work well in motion? The more touch-points your visual identity can adapt to without losing the integrity of the identity is what will build a strong visual identity for your brand.


Once you reach a place where your design system works well on multiple touch-points, here's when you need to focus on these two questions:

  1. Will this start looking stale after a few uses? Is it too trendy, will it age well?

  2. Will other other stakeholders be excited to use this system?

These two questions are important because this is what will make sure you don't need to undergo another re-brand.


The first question is important because you need to understand that you will be using this identity for at least the next one year (if not more). Can this design system look fresh even after 365 uses?


The second question is equally crucial to answer. As a designer or as a business owner, you might want to quickly wrap up the project and move on with your life. But your logo and visual identity system will be used by multiple stakeholders over time. Will they feel the need to break out of your system? If the answer is yes, then you have a problem. You need to leave the design system open enough for other collaborators to adapt and invent within without breaking the system. This is why it's usually a good idea to have the same designer/agency work on the first few (if not more) collaterals that are produced for the brand. This will help you understand the trajectory of the design language better. Another way to solve for the second problem is by having stakeholders who will use the system to be a part of your exploration process, the more inclusive they feel, the less they will resist change.


Here are some case studies that demonstrate the usage of a design system:

  1. Fedo

  2. The Art Tribe

  3. GAC


And this gets us to the end of this blog post, I hope you found it helpful. As a business owner, I hope this helps you define a better brief when you approach a graphic designer/agency. Or if you are a designer, I hope this helps you educate your clients on why they need more than a logo to build a stronger brand.

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