Have you ever wanted to have an inside peak into someone else's business, especially if said business is a creative studio? I've often had clients tell me that there seems to be a bit of magic behind the branding process, something that "just works" but they don't know how to describe it. Today I want to walk you through my entire process from start to finish, so that you can see exactly what it looks like when I work with a new brand!
About two years ago I made an off-hand remark that I wish I could design and produce an annual publication showing all of the design trends that inspired and influenced our clients from that year. On average, we work with roughly 36 - 50 small business owners each year, and around this time we start to see some distinct patterns emerge in the inspiration. In the branding world, trends are typically seen as a negative quality to a brand and something to avoid. However, it’s not the trend that’s bad, but the misuse of the style - especially when there’s not a purpose behind using it!
So today kicks off our new series on branding where we will showcase and evaluate six different design trends we’ve seen emerge in the past 9 months and talk about what it means about the online marketplace. I wanted to start by sharing our process so that you can see the thought and intention that goes behind each one of our branding projects - we’re not just blindly following trends, but really looking for the heart of the business and the story that needs to be told.
Five years ago, I started freelancing because I wanted to work on projects that meant something to me. About a year into freelancing, I began taking on more branding projects because I enjoyed getting to collaborate and learn from other small business owners. Over the past four years, my design team has grown, and we have built over 140 small brands, each with a distinct story to tell. Nearly every one of those brands followed the five step process that I’ll be sharing with you today.
How We Brand
The first part of the process begins with the client. We’ve created a questionnaire that helps us get to know who our client is and what kind of story they are trying to tell their audience. The questions within the discovery questionnaire act as conversation starters for the creative direction meeting and give us a glimpse of where we can dig deeper.
Tips for taking your client through discovery:
Be respectful of your client’s time and edit down your questionnaire to the most important questions.
Remember that the discovery is also an opportunity to get to know your client, not just their business. Add some fun questions at the end to get a sense of their personality. (My favorite question is to describe themselves as a vacation destination!)
If you want to request visual inspiration, be sure to give an example of what that might be. For instance, I have a sample Pinterest board to give clients an idea of the type of pins I’m looking for.
Once you’ve received your client’s discovery materials, set up a time to chat on the phone so that you can ask questions, discuss their answers, and come up with a plan. The creative direction meeting has always been an opportunity for me to set the tone that our project will be a collaborative effort, and requires that we both come to the table with ideas and good creative energy.
Tips for a successful creative strategy meeting:
Start the meeting on time. Your client has likely set aside time during their busy day to focus on this meeting, so have your laptop in front of you and eliminate distractions.
Be sure to end the meeting around an hour. Even if there are still some areas of the project to discuss, it’s important to take a break and process the information and progress you’ve made.
Send notes after your meeting. I like to summarize some of the action items we’ve discussed, write out any design direction we’ve established, create a mood board based on their visual inspiration, and write a brand message, or mission statement. I compile these notes in a pretty PDF and send it to the client a few days after our meeting.
Once the creative direction has been established, I spend a week creating three distinct logo concepts. I keep the mood board and creative direction in front of me while I sketch, do additional research, and mockup designs. Even if the designs come together rather quickly, I always wait a week before sending them to the client. It helps to give myself a day or two to sleep on the designs before presenting them. Often, I’ll notice things that need to change at the last minute!
Tips for creating initial designs (or any creative work!):
Give yourself about 40% more time than you think you’ll need. Creative blocks are a real thing!
When in doubt, change your location or sleep on it. When you force yourself to make something work, it often comes out feeling stale and uninspired.
Get a second opinion. I often rely on my team for honest feedback, but I’ve also had friends in the past to tell me whether or not they like a design or why. It helps with the selection process!
Do more than you think you’ll need. I like to design many logos and then in the end pick the 3 strongest options. I also tend to create one or two secondary logos to test the flexibility of the design and show the client how it might build in the next step.
When presenting designs to clients, remember to explain your thought process. This helps a client to understand the meaning behind the design instead of just relying on personal bias and taste. It also helps them to give more informed and specific feedback during the revision phase.
Once a logo concept has been selected, I create the Brand Style Guide PDF. This contains the original brand message, mood board, and creative direction; as well as the chosen primary logo (often with a few initial revisions!) I then create 1-2 secondary logos (stacked, horizontal, in a circle, etc.) and a logo mark or monogram to use as their profile on social media. Once I’m happy with the logo designs, I create a complimenting pattern or series of illustrations that the client can use on their website and packaging materials. This helps extend the brand experience to other aspects of their client or customer process. I select 12 color swatches (6 will be chosen as final!) and list the fonts used in the logo, as well as how they would break down on web: headings, body text, subheadings, quotes, etc.
Tips for finalizing a design or creative project:
Think about the actual implementation of the design. Every scenario matters in creating a timeline brand!
Go back and look at your client’s inspiration again. See if there are other elements that stand out to you that can be incorporated in the pattern or color palette.
Remember that above all else, the PDF you send to your client must be useful, so think about how other creatives or members of their team will interpret your directions. Add additional notes for how you intend for the design to be used.
This can often be the most important part of the project, and definitely will affect how your client feels about the end result. We like to reiterate that our process is collaborative, and revisions are a way to get involved with the creative process. However, there is a fine line between collaboratively working to edit and refine a design, and pointlessly asking for more work just to see options. This is why we limit our projects to just two rounds of revisions. Any more than that, and you end up on an endless chase for perfection.
Tips for taking a client through revisions:
Remind your client how many revisions they have at the beginning of the process. Also let them know what can be revised, and what can’t (for instance, you wouldn’t want to revise the mood board at the end of the project!)
Think of revisions as a way to extend quality customer service. No client wants to feel like an inconvenience or a moron. Treat every request with kindness and dose of generosity.
The way you act during the revision process is often what turns a client into a loyal customer and solid referral. Not only are you finalizing a project with that person, you’re securing their recommendation for future work.
Stay true to your boundaries. If the scope only allows for a certain number of revisions, stick to it but offer to make more at an hourly rate.
Tips for biz owners
don’t brand before you’re ready
I feel that many business owners go through the branding process before they are ready. You don’t need a refined brand to start a business. Often, getting started is what will help you understand who your market really is and what makes you stand out from the competition.
Have an advisory board
It’s really important to have a few (2-3) trusted friends to go through the process with you. Whether it’s a significant other, business partner, best friend, or parent, having the support from those who know and love you will help you to identify which design is best suited to your personality and your dreams for your business.
Don’t get blinded by the competition
The worst thing you can do is keep looking at your competitors during the branding process. You’ll inevitably get scared of branching out, and end up settling for a brand that looks like a safe alternative to everything else. Take a glimpse at your competitors long enough to share with your designer, and then put your blinders on for the rest of the project! Trust who you’ve hired.
Understand that building a brand is a journey
Going through the branding process doesn’t mean you’ll just cross “branding” off your list. Building your brand is as much of a journey as building your business. It will change and evolve over time, just like your business plan! Don’t consider it a bad thing.
Realize that designing your brand is important, but not the most important.
Remember that there’s more to your online business than your brand, or your brand design. It’s just as important to work on the business behind the brand. The last thing you want to do is create a brand that promises something you can’t deliver. While your designer works on your brand, it’s a great time to work on the processes within your business to guarantee a great experience for your customers and clients!