Whether you’re branding your business or branding yourself, you need to start with the basics: what you do, why you do it, how you do it and why people should care. After you’ve established the basis of your brand, you’ll need to bring that brand in front of your customers—using your visual identity.
Developing your what, why, how and messaging tends to be more intuitive, since most entrepreneurs already know why they’re in business. However, translating those brand ideals into branding ideas isn’t always as easy.
Finding the right colors, fonts and imagery can mean the difference between being instantly recognizable and instantly forgettable. As much as you might think that a blue background and a certain font represent your brand, your customers might not feel the same way.
So how do you build a visual identity that reflects your brand?
The Three Main Brand Elements of Visual Identity
To start, let’s break down what makes up visual identity. At the most basic level, visual identity is made up of three core elements:
While each has its own impact, these components also work together to create more complex brand assets. Where you might be most familiar with seeing all three act in unison is a logo, which uses a brand’s colors, fonts and imagery simultaneously. Websites, emails, business cards and other branding materials also leverage these basic brand elements.
Going Beyond Your Branding Gut
A strong visual identity draws customers in, while also supporting your brand attributes, so the brand they see is the one they get. Over time, your brand image lends a sense of familiarity when used consistently—creating the kind of brand recognition most businesses can only dream about.
But for many business owners, their personal bias prevents them from effectively translating their ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘so what’ into a compelling visual identity. To create an identity that communicates the right message for your brand, you need to look beyond your personal preferences, to see the perceptions your customers have about various visual components.
To help you go beyond your gut, we’ve pulled together some common associations of popular colors, fonts and images for you to use as you build your brand’s visual identity.
Choosing Colors for Your Visual Identity
Color is the first aspect of your visual brand identity customers will see. Considering that almost 85% of people say color accounts for more than half of their reasoning when choosing a product, it’s fair to say that color matters.
To get your color wheels turning, here are a few key results from a survey of over 2000 entrepreneurs worldwide and their color perceptions:
- Passion (11%)
- Love (10%)
- Power (7%)
- Anger (5%)
- Blood (5%)
- Danger (5%)
Red is associated with powerful feelings. Whether those emotions are more positive (like passion and love) or more negative (like anger and danger), red makes a statement. For brands looking to make a strong impression and draw a strong reaction, red can be the right choice.
- Water/sea/ocean (13%)
- Calm (12%)
- Ocean (6%)
- Cool (6%)
- Sky (6%)
- Peace (5%)
- Sad/sadness (3%)
Unlike red, blue has a much more muted emotional profile. Feelings of calm and peace, along with associations with peaceful environments, make blue a color of tranquility. If your brand is looking to communicate calm and trust, there are plenty of shades of blue to do so with.
- Nature (17%)
- Grass (6%)
- Life (5%)
- Fresh (4%)
- Growth (3%)
- Health (2%)
Another calm color, green is grounded in nature. Associations with growth and renewal, both of the earth and of the body, make green a healing color. If your brand focuses on the environment or health, green is a good color to consider for your visual identity.
- Sun/sunshine (13%)
- Happy/happiness (9%)
- Bright/brightness (6%)
- Warm (3%)
- Earth/earthy (2%)
- Light (2%)
Yellow is unabashedly joyful, associated with sunshine, happiness and brightness. As the cheeriest color in this list, it can play a powerful role in bringing joy into your business. A word of warning though, this color isn’t the easiest on the eyes, but can add a great pop of color in your brand assets.
Whatever colors you choose for your brand’s visual identity, it pays to go beyond personal preference. A little research can make all the difference between your brand colors supporting your brand and undermining it.
Finding a Font for Your Visual Identity
While symbols, colors and shapes can become associated with a brand, only your font directly communicates your company name. But finding the right font for your wordmark logo and other branding materials shouldn’t come down to chance. Your font needs to send the right message—beyond just spelling out your brand’s name.
Beyond the brand recognition that comes from using your brand’s fonts consistently, different fonts conjure different emotional and historical associations. Depending on the brand attributes you want to enforce in your visual identity, some fonts will be better choices than others.
Before we can talk fonts, we need to clear up a few terms that are usually said in the same breath: typefaces and fonts.
A typeface is a collection of one or more fonts, all grouped together based on certain design features.
Fonts, on the other hand, are contained within typeface families and can differ based on size, style, weight, italicization, slant and other features.
Choosing a font that fits your brand
As you start to look for a font for your logo, you’ll want to narrow down your search to a typeface or two. Some of the most common typefaces you’ll encounter are Serif, Sans-Serif and Script.
Serif typefaces are set apart by, well, serifs—a key anatomical feature of many fonts. Seen as a “classic” choice, fonts within this typeface are usually regarded as professional, making them a good fit for industries like newspapers or publishing.
While Serif typefaces are defined by their serifs, Sans-Serif typefaces are defined by their lack of serifs. Sans-Serif fonts have a clean, simple look, which helps to make them more readable across different digital mediums. That streamlined look also makes this typeface a popular choice for forward-thinking businesses.
To add a personal touch to your logo font, try Script typefaces. These typefaces mimic human handwriting, using complex twists and curls. Often seen as romantic and elegant, script typefaces work well for boutique brands. The downside of this typeface is readability, since those decorative details make it harder to see the letters themselves.
Before you run out and pick a font from the typeface that best suits your desired brand associations, consider how many of your competitors might have done the same for their visual identities. If you love a font, but it looks too close to a competitor’s, it might be time to consider another.
Adding Imagery to Your Visual Identity
Now that we’re dealt with your colors and fonts, let’s look at the final component of your visual identity, imagery. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to break imagery into two categories: shapes and images.
Starting with shapes, we’ll be sticking with the basic shapes you might want to use or combine in your logo or other branding materials.
Lacking the rounded edges of more organic shapes, squares tend to be associated with human engineering. Bricks, buildings and cities all spring to mind as structures built from squares. If you’re looking to give off a strong, secure, professional impression of your brand, you might want to start at square one.
Soft, rounded and organic, circles offer a very different impression of your brand than squares. In a brand’s visual identity, circles convey unity and stability, while also conjuring up images of the sun, moon and earth, connecting them with the natural world and natural order.
Triangles offer a more intriguing option, with a host of often contradictory associations. Depending on context and direction, this shape is associated with everything from stability, to masculinity, to femininity, to power, to mystery.
With these three basic shapes as your building blocks, you can begin to construct an idea of what imagery would support your brand traits in your brand assets.
There are too many kinds of images for us to cover them all, but here are a few important takeaways before you pick up your pencil or start sifting through stock photography.
Illustrations vs. Photography
Illustrations tend to be more playful and youthful, as they’re usually associated with the comics and cartoons people enjoyed as kids. Photography can vary greatly in mood, but the use of real-world subjects usually makes it more serious than its illustrative counterparts.
Posed vs. Candid
Posed photography can convey very specific messages because these images were purposefully shot to communicate one action, emotion or experience. This same specificity can, unfortunately, also make posed photos feel phony. Candid photography might not communicate concepts as directly, but it can communicate emotions with a sense of authenticity.
Whether you’re looking at triangles, squares, illustrations, posed photography or candid photography, there’s no one right choice for every brand. You can only find the right choice of imagery for your brand’s visual identity.
Visual Identity vs. Experience
While we can talk about typical associations for colors, fonts and images all we want, these will ultimately vary from person to person. The only way to know for sure whether your customers see your colors, fonts, images and symbols the same way you do is by more in-depth research. Asking a few would-be customers, or even friends and family, can help you avoid creating a visual identity that misses the mark.
Building a visual identity that translates your brand means understanding the language your customers are already using, to communicate with them more closely. So, focus on who your brand is for, and you’ll be able to generate a brand image that’s truly worth a thousand words.