Creating a visual identity for you brand can change your business, and here's how to do it.
Visuals and Imagery are one of the biggest tools in your branding toolbox.
If you’ve searched for information on branding or brand visuals before, you might have seen them referred to as a ‘brand identity’, or a ‘visual identity’. In some cases, the term ‘branding’ is used to refer specifically to brand visuals. I like to make the distinction between ‘branding’ as a whole, and brand visuals or visual identities because, as we’ve talked about before on the blog, visuals are just one of four key tools you can use to help build a brand for your business and make connections with your audience. Thinking of branding as only visuals can actually make those visuals less successful.
If you’re just getting started with branding and you’re a solopreneur or are running a small business with a small team, I’d recommend you take a quick peek at that post before continuing. It’ll give you a better understanding of branding as a whole, and the best approach for small, online businesses. If you’ve already read it and wanna know more about visuals, great - read on!
So what are brand visuals?
Brand visuals include all of the the shapes, colours, symbols, and photographs that you use to represent your business. If you’re looking at it, but you’re not reading it, it’s probably a visual! Visuals can give people a certain impression of your business, depending on what you choose to show.
Today we’re taking a deep dive on visuals, looking at:
What brand visuals are are / what they include.
Why they’re important for your business, and how they influence the relationship you’re building with your audience.
The best resources to help you create your core group of visual elements, and why you need them.
BONUS: The Brand Template Handbook - a guide to using templates for your online business - what they are, how to create them in a few common programs, and a checklist of templates you should be using regularly in your business to help keep your brand consistent and save you time when creating new items.
If you’d like to grab the bonus guide on templates, get it by hitting the button below.
So if we can build a brand with our vision, values and voice, why are visuals so important?
Well friend, it comes down to how awesome our brains are. Our brains are champions at interpreting visual information. If science is not your thing, you might wanna look away now. Or if you just wanna know what kind of visuals you should have for your online business, skip this section. But if you’d like to know why visuals are so powerful, here’s why:
Images are quicker.
Our brains can figure out the meaning of visuals, fast. In fact, scientists from MIT recently figured out that our brains can figure out the information in an image in less than 100 milliseconds; sometimes as fast as just 13 milliseconds. If you can’t even comprehend how fast that is, me either. But in those critical milliseconds, our brains assess things like orientation, shape and colour. Then, our brains help assign meaning to the image by comparing it with other, similar things we’ve seen or experienced. All of this in less than a second.
That’s why when we see pink, we might think of it as a feminine colour, if that’s been our experience with it in the past. Or why we instantly assume someone is happy if we see a picture of them smiling. Or why we assign different feelings to different fonts. For example:
This example is called a serif font, because of the little tails the letters have. Take a moment to look at it and note what it makes you think of.
Here’s another example of a font. This one is called sans-serif, because it’s sans little tails. Again, give it a look and note how you feel.
Common answers for the serif font include descriptions like classic, old fashioned and high end. Whereas the sans-serif example usually gets labelled as modern, simple, or minimalistic. Take a look an Tiffany’s website, vs Apple’s site to get an idea of fonts as visuals and the vibe they give off in real life.
If we apply this to someone looking at your business’s visuals on social media or what happens when they land on your website, it’s important to realise that you about about 7 seconds (or less!) to convince your viewer that you’re exactly what they need. You could ignore visuals and just tell them all the ways you can help them and the reasons they should pick you. And they could read it all, but that uses up precious time.
But if we choose to be strategic with our visuals and the story we want them to tell, that person viewing your website has an awesome brain that can pull a whole lot of meaning out of them in less than a second.
We retain visual information better.
One of the major goals of branding is for people to remember your business - to think of you as a resource, and remember you when they, or someone they know, needs help with a problem you can solve. And once again, science tells us that visuals are a key component of helping people not just understand, but remember you.
A number of studies have shown that our brains are far better at retaining visual information than written or verbal information. If you wanna get geeky with me, this journal about visual learning states that our brains are essentially image processors - not word processors like our old friend microsoft word or our newer pal google docs. Our brains are more like Pinterest or Google Images. And according to our brains, images provide more concrete information, whereas words are far more abstract.
We even store them in different places - visuals are committed to our long term memory banks, but words get sent to short term. That’s why you could read an entire book on a subject and not remember a whole lot, but if you saw a documentary on the same topic, you might find it easier to retain and digest that information.
So by paying attention to the visuals you create for your business, you can help create a deeper and longer lasting connection with your audience.
Helps craft a consistent story.
Like I talked about in my previous post, your vision, values, voice and visuals all come together to create a story or an experience that helps you build a relationship with your audience. And if one or more of those parts are out of whack, your experience won’t be consistent enough for that relationship to grow. So if you’ve chosen visuals that don’t back up the story you’re trying to tell, you’re only making it harder to reach your audience and make that connection.
So what visuals do you need to take care of to ensure that your brand experience is consistent?
Almost everything we use every day in our businesses have some sort of visual element to them. And sometimes, we could seriously improve our brand by paying attention to these visuals.
To help you create branded visuals and keep things consistent, I recommend creating a set of core visual elements that you will use. You might have heard of this before - it’s commonly called a brand board, or a style guide. It’s an image or document that records the visuals related to your brand and information on how they are to be used. Brand boards usually include:
A colour palette
Photography and Image treatment
Patterns, Icons, Illustrations and other misc. Elements.
If you’d like to work with a designer on this stuff, here’s a post I wrote about finding the right designer for you. If you’d like to have a go at it yourself, here are the most important visual elements you should have for your brand, and some of my best tips on creating or finding them.
Pre-work: Mood Boards.
A mood board is more like your homework for creating a brand board or style guide, so it’s not something you usually include in those final guidelines, but it can make or break how successful your end result is. A mood board is a set of images that represent the kind of vibe you’re going for with your brand visuals.
I’ve written an entire post dedicated to mood boards. It’s the first thing I do when designing for a client. It’s something you can refer back to and see if the font you’ve chosen, the pattern you’d like to buy or the logo you’ve created fit the theme for your brand. I’ve even got a video tutorial on how to make your own, plus a free template for you to use included in the post, so check that one out if you’re looking to make your own.
Logos are first on the list because they’re obvious, but I’ll let you in on a secret - they’re not as important as people pretend they are.
Logos are hugely important to businesses like Apple, Nike, or Coca Cola. They’re mega corporations, and a part of their goal is to be instantly recognised, world wide. I’ve spoken before about how giant, corporate businesses have different structures, intentions and goals than most solopreneur or small online business, and how the approach to branding changes when those things do.
In online business, it’s probably not your goal for a massive percentage of the people on earth to recognise your logo. It’s important that your logo is legible, and that it fits in with the rest of your brand. As your business grows, you can upgrade your logo to something custom created for you by a designer. But if you’re just starting out, don’t let a logo stop you from doing the work.
It’s fairly simple to design one yourself that will get you going in the very beginning. You can use Photoshop or Illustrator if you’re familiar with them, otherwise, Canva will do the job. Make it your name / business name, keep it simple, choose a font that matches with the vibe of your brand, and make sure you can read the font you’ve chosen clearly. If you’d like to buy a pre-made option, there are plenty available in brand kits created by designers, or on Creative Market.
Fonts are a unique kind of visual because they represent written words. But like we talked about earlier, different styles of fonts can give off different meanings, separate from the words they’re presenting. For your brand, it’s important to pick fonts and stick with them, otherwise you compromise on the consistency you’re trying to develop.
As a general rule, you should use no more than 2-3 fonts to keep your designs from feeling cluttered - more than 3 can start to look messy. If you’d like to know more about choosing fonts, I’ve got a load of cool resources pinned to this board.
Colours are hugely important in helping people understand your brand experience and self identify whether or not you’re the right person to help them with their needs. I know it can be tempting to use your favourite colours in your branding, but be careful - if your favourite colour contradicts the message you’re building, you could be derailing your brand experience. So it’s important to choose colours that both you and your audience resonate with.
When putting your brand colours together, I recommend starting out with between 3-5. You can definitely use more, but understanding how to use them without looking messy or too busy becomes more complicated.
Here’s an awesome article by Canva that might help you understand the meaning of colours, and how to choose colours that will work with your brand. If you want to go super in depth about colour, what the science says, and how to choose brand colours based on your vision + the impact colour can have on your audience this article from CustomLogoCases is for you. And if you need help putting a palette together, try searching for colour palettes on Pinterest. This tool from Adobe is also an awesome help.
Photography + Image Treatment.
If you’re going to use photography in your branding, it needs to be high quality, and tell a consistent story. One of the best ways to do this is have a branded shoot done by a photographer.
I know that hiring out photography can be expensive if you’re just starting out, so your other options are to learn how to do it yourself, or use stock images. If you’ve got the gear (a DSLR or decent phone camera, editing software) and have the time to learn, you might like to try a DIY brand photoshoot. This amazing post from Femtrepreneur.co can help you plan and shoot your own branded images.
If you’re not up to testing your photography skills, you might want to use stock photo libraries. Gone are the days where stock photos meant uncomfortable looking people holding bananas or pretending to work. There are some awesome places to get both free and paid images for your business that are high quality, and beautiful. I recommend stocksy.com for paid images, but I definitely love unsplash.com for free stock photos.
To help you build a consistent library, I recommend signing up for an account and liking or creating a collection of the images you find that you think will suit your brand. Before downloading them, have a look over your collection and remove anything you think stands out from the rest.
Tip: If you see an image on Unsplash that you like, make sure to check the page of the photographer - they usually have tons more images just like it that haven’t shown up in the search.
It’s also important to think about how you’re going to treat the image - that is, how you might edit it. You might choose to use the same filter for all your Instagram photos. You might like for all of the photos on your site to have a high contrast, or for the colours to pop. Some brands choose to edit their photos in such a way that means they have more flexibility when it comes to choosing stock photos, such as making them black and white, or covering them with a gradient.
Again - consistency is key here, so whether you choose to edit your photos a little, a lot, or leave them as is, try to make sure you keep it consistent across your site and social media platforms.
Optional: Patterns, Icons, Illustrations and other misc visual elements.
These are all visual elements that can compliment your core visuals nicely, but can be tricker to create yourself or pair pre-made options with your existing visuals. So if you’re not completely confident in your choices, it’s totally fine to pass on them until you’ve got the budget to hire someone to help you.
Patterns are are a great option to bring some variety into your designs. They help break up blocks of colour and can be used interchangeably with photos to create some diversity in your visual identity. For example, we these patterns that I created for Indigo Colton on her website alongside her brand images to insert her brand colours into her site in a visually interesting way.
Icons are a simplified illustration of an object - usually one that represents an object or an action. A page with writing might represent a document, and an envelope might represent email. If you’d like to use icons, start by compiling a list of the common objects and phrases you use in your business and see if you can simplify them down into one, small visual. Icons can be a fun way to indicate what a page, paragraph or sentence of copy might be about before the viewer actually reads anything. Here is an example of using icons to represent different offers available, from Nesha Woolery’s site.
Illustrations can be an awesome way to bring a really unique aspect to your brand, but they’re usually not something people choose to DIY - unless you’ve got some drawing skills! Watercolour, botanic, animal and food illustrations are pretty popular right now, but I’d definitely advise against using illustrations that don’t have a specific connection with your business. Just because they’re beautiful, doesn’t mean you need them!
So what do you do once you’ve decided on your core visuals?
Now, it’s time to use them to create stuff - websites, products and services, and collateral. Collateral items are the bits and pieces that you use to convey and support your brand, such as:
Social media graphics
Those are just a few examples, and if you’d like to see the full list of collateral I’ve found to be most relevant to online businesses, I’ve got an awesome guide for you, for free!
The Brand Template Handbook is your guide to all the things you might want to create a branded version of, and includes:
Why templates are awesome and what they can do for your business & brand.
A list of collateral items you should have templates for in your online business.
How to create templates for common items in the relevant programs.
Hit the button below to grab the Brand Template Handbook!
That’s a wrap on brand visuals!
They’re a large part of branding, and can be the most daunting part if you don’t have an art or design background. Bu they don’t have to be difficult, and hopefully using the resources I’ve provided in this post, you’ll be able to put together a brand good enough to get you started.
You should never let visuals get in the way of building your business - you can always upgrade or re-brand later on, by yourself or with the help of a brand designer. So don’t fret! Get something simple going, and focus on building those relationships with your audience.
If there’s anything I haven’t covered, or if you’ve got a question about visuals, feel free to let me know in the comments or drop me an email. And if you know anybody who might like this article, I'd love if you could share it with them.
See you in the next one,