Four high impact brand visuals for online business (and no, your logo isn't one).
When it comes to branding in 2019 and beyond, visuals are playing a bigger part than ever.
We've reached a point where online business has been around for a while - it’s no longer this weird niche thing that no one knows about. It’s become quite a popular option for aspiring business owners, and it’s also something that just about anyone with a skill and a computer can try.
Because it’s something that people can get started without too much help, often on the side while they’re still going to their regular 9-5, a lot of people are just bootstrapping their way through. If you’re not familiar with bootstrapping, in terms of online business and for solopreneurs in particular, it’s essentially starting your business with the resources you already have. Which usually means doing a lot of the work yourself, DIY-ing loads and scrimping and saving where possible.
As a result of that - and you can see very obvious examples of this in places like Instagram and Pinterest - two things tend to happen:
1. Everyone using the same pre-made template set from Canva or Creative Market etc.
You only have to watch through a round of Instagram Stories to see that certain influencers and businesses are definitely using the same design sets for their content.
Why is that bad?
When everyone is using the same or very similar pre-made designs (and this doesn’t just happen with social media templates - it’s also happening with logos, stock photos, etc), you muddy people’s ability to recognise your business over someone else’s. The whole point of building a personal brand is for people to recognise and enjoy you for you - which isn’t super effective when they’re recognising you for someone else.
Ever had a moment where you’ve been watching a bunch of IG stories in a row, and you suddenly realise you’re not watching who you thought you were - because you’ve seen that same kind of layout before? Or land on someone’s site and think, I saw that photo on Sally’s site! What’s happening in that moment is that you’re thinking about someone else when you should be thinking about the person you’re actively searching for.
As a business owner, having your audience thinking of other people when they consume your content or land on your site is super detrimental to your ability to turn them into customers or clients, especially if you and that person are doing similar work.
2. The DIY / Bootstrapping approach also makes it really obvious as to who has put more time, effort and resources into their brand and who hasn’t.
If you take a look at Pinterest this difference becomes pretty obvious.
Why is that bad?
The effect of this one can be a little more subtle on your potential customers or clients, but can still be important, especially if your target audience includes creative types. Visuals help us to establish what kind of experience people can expect to have with us (I’ve written an entire guide on visuals and how they impact your business here if you’d like to know more).
When you have something that is well designed - that is, something that is structured strategically, looks stylish, and pays attention to detail - people are likely to make the assumption that you, as a business owner, put the same kind of time and care into the products or services that you offer.
(Side note - obviously this assumption is not always correct. There are some people out there who throw all their money at expensive design while offering up garbage, but if you’re reading this I’ll operate under the assumption that you’re out here doing your best in good faith and you want to build on that)
Back to the point - when you have something that is designed poorly - where the visual balance is off, the image is too busy, where things aren’t aligned correctly, or any of the elements feel clunky or dated - it gives people the opportunity to infer that your products or services might be the same way. That might not necessarily be true - your product or service is probably awesome - but it does put a barrier in place for that potential audience member that might not have been there otherwise.
When we ask people to buy into our business we’re asking them to take a leap of faith. To trust that we’re professionals. If we don’t put the time and care into our own materials, that ask can become a big one.
Those two main reasons are why I think it’s important now more than ever to be investing where you can into custom design and branding that is strategically created with you and your business in mind.
So let’s talk about four of the essential branded visuals that will make the most impact in helping you stand out over your competition for online business in 2019 and beyond.
And they might surprise you!
Having gone through design school, business school and after working with clients in online business for 3 years, I’m certain that if I were to ask:
“What do you think you need design help with first?” or “What’s the most essential visual for your brand?” almost everyone would say “A logo!” without hesitation.
In design school, the importance of logos for businesses was definitely oversold to us (probably because a good logo is one of the most difficult things to design, so they wanted us to get a lot of practice in). During my business studies I had an awesome teacher and mentor who helped me understand that while logos have their place - and are incredibly important to established mega-corporations like Apple or Nike - they’re not at the top of the list for the average small business.
If we go back to the idea that branding is the experience your audience, customers and clients have with you as a business, a visual identity is just one part. And a logo is just one element of a brand’s visual identity. On the impact scale of branded visuals for online businesses or solopreneurs, logos are a lot lower on the list than most people would probably think.
But there are four places that I think make a much bigger impact.
These are the places I would definitely consider putting some time and resources behind if you’re looking to establish and grow your business.
Photography isn’t strictly a service that I personally offer, however photography was a part of my design education and while I’m not usually behind the camera, for some branding clients I do assist in collating a library of branded stock photos.
The thing about photos, is that if you’re going to use them, they have to do a couple of things:
1. Make an impact on your audience - that is, catch their eye and draw them in
2. Tell or help to tell a story about your business and why your work matters
3. Be unique enough to set your brand and business apart in your industry
For those reasons, it’s important to remember that photos can play a huge role in the success or failure of your visuals. Choosing + sourcing photos mindfully can make all the difference, especially if they’re a major part of your brand’s visual identity.
So how do you choose the right photography for your online business?
Your first port of call and best option for ensuring that you have quality, custom photography for your brand is to hire a photographer that can take some photos of you and your work - maybe even you doing your work.
I know not all of us have room in our budgets for brand photography, however if it’s possible for you I’d highly recommend it. If it’s a bit of a stretch, maybe there’s a way you could arrange a trade of your services with a photographer for their services.
If it’s definitely not affordable for you right now, please don’t try to get free or discounted work out of your local photographer unless they’re offering. They have incredible skills and deserve to be compensated fairly for their work.
Luckily for you, there are other options. You could always:
1. Learn to DIY your photos.
I know I warned earlier in this article about the dangers of DIY - that’s why this option might take a lot more time in trial and error. This might be an easier option for you if you have some experience with photography already. If not, maybe you’d like to try some some classes on YouTube (I love Jessica Whitaker’s tutorials!), Skillshare (click here to get 2 months of premium for free - I’ll also get a free month if you sign up) or through excellent blog posts like this one from Studio Bicyclette for femtrepreneur.co.
2. Create your own stock photo library.
I also warned about the dangers of using readily available / affordable / free visual resources from popular sources earlier on, so a word of warning about stock. We’re lucky that many photographers these days offer their work for free. However, you run the risk (especially when the photos are free) that each time you find a new photo on Unsplash that you think is perfect for your business. Chances are, hundreds of other people who are likely to be in the same or a similar industry to you have found that same photo and are using it too.
To avoid this, I’d recommend putting some money aside to help purchase some stock photos to supplement any free finds. People are less likely to invest money if they’re in a season of bootstrapping, so you limit the chances of running into competition using the same photography.
Stock photography has traditionally been expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are some awesome affordable options out there, including sites like Stocksy, and stock photo membership sites like HerCreativeStudio, HauteStock or Moyo Studio.
To ensure that the stock photos you choose all fit together cohesively to represent your brand, I recommend pulling all your potential photos together into a folder. You can do this within your stock site (some sites offer this feature), on Pinterest (in a private board) or just by making a folder on your computer and saving all your images there. Before using any, go through the folder and cull any that don’t contribute to your brand story, clash with your color palette or you know you’ve seen loads of people using.
For an in depth guide on choosing stock photos, this article by Station Seven is an awesome place to start.
My last photography tip is to pay attention to Image Treatment - that is, how you might choose to edit and display the photos in terms of colour, size, filters, etc. If you’re working with a photographer, they’ll generally take care of this for you during the editing process. If you’re working with stock, this can be a handy tool to help pull different images from different sources together nicely. If you’d like to know more about Image Treatment, I’ve written about it and included some examples in my brand visuals guide - click here to read that.
2. Pattern Design.
Custom patterns can be an awesome visual resource, especially if photography isn’t your thing. They provide an awesome alternative to photos for banner images, social media graphics, and other branded items that your audience, customers or clients interact with. Having another option over photography gives you more flexibility in the way you create for your website, content and products / services.
Patterns are also something that generally don’t come standard with pre-made template kits, and can be hard to pair with existing pre-made designs. For this reason, patterns that appear to fit in specifically with a brand is usually a sign that a business has had some professional design work done, and this can really set you apart from other online businesses who are relying on stock photos and their own DIY design work.
Custom pattern design is something that I offer for all my Signature Branding clients, and over the years together with my clients I’ve created some patterns that have helped to set their brands apart from the competition.
Image: Patterns and their applications from some of my Signature Branding client projects.
If working directly with a designer isn’t in the budget, depending on your brand’s personality and aesthetics, you might have some luck with pre-made designs on CreativeMarket, but without sounding like a broken record, you run the same risks of using the same design as someone else and diluting your visuals with patterns that don’t speak for your business specifically.
3. Icon Design / Illustrations
Icons and Illustrations are awesome visual tools because they can help explain ideas and instructions in one graphic. They can be as simple or as detailed as you like, and once again offer up an alternative (or compliment) to photography that helps to tell your audience that you pay attention to the details of your visual identity.
I’m not an illustrator (I’ll recommend some of my favourite illustrators in a bit) but I do offer icon design for my Signature Branding clients, and spend a lot of time creating icons that represent specific pieces of my client’s businesses and are a perfect match with the rest of their colors, shapes and textures that already exist within the rest of their brand.
Image: Icons and their applications from some of my Signature Branding client projects.
Pre-made icons can be readily found online, but there are a couple of common problems that pop up when using them:
1. Free resource saturation.
We’ve heard this one before - the same sites are recommended all the time in online business circles, so once again, we’re all using the same resources while trying to build unique brands.
2. Standardised design.
The vast majority of premade or free icon packs are very simplistic and standard in appearance - aka boring. They have to be, because they’re designed to cater to the needs of thousands of different businesses. So unless you’ve found the perfect icon pack and designed the entire rest of your brand around it (can’t say I’d recommend that 😂) you’ll usually find something that will work to help you illustrate a concept, but nothing more.
A stock icon will help you demonstrate a point, but a custom one will illustrate that point AND tell your audience that you’re detail oriented and thorough enough to be unique all the way down to icons.
3. Creative Commons Attribution.
If you’re thinking ‘What the hell is that???’, let me explain. The final issue with premade icons is a super important one from a design and a legal perspective. Many icons, especially the kind from sites like FlatIcon, require an attribution link if you’re using the free version. This attribution and link back to the original designer is a requirement under the Creative Commons license that allows you to use the design. Without it, you’re effectively breaking copyright law.
Having to include a link on your home page or sales page attributing back to a site for an icon can break the flow of the page, distract your potential customer or client, and is also another one of those subtle messages that can lead to first time viewers / readers forming the view that you’re not investing in your own brand, so maybe they shouldn’t either.
Now I’m definitely not saying that it’s a requirement to invest money as a resource into your business if you don’t have it. Instead, use what you have access to in the most effective way. If using a free icon with an attribution link is more likely to distract your reader than help you make a point, maybe just leave it out until custom icons are something within your reach.
Illustrations can be used in the same way as icons, or for fun extras like an illustrated portrait of you instead of a headshot, an alternative to photos for banner images on your site, a fun way to display your product, and in a whole host of other ways. The illustrator or artist you choose for your brand will likely depend on the style of drawing that they do, so it’s important to find someone that fits in with your brand’s style and aesthetic. To get you started, some of my favourite illustrators are Bonnie from Studio Bon, Abbie Paulhus, and Bianca Cash.
4. Essential Collateral
While the last three essential visuals have for the most part been visual elements that you can use to create other things, Collateral is one of the common places that all of those things begin to come together and really start doing work.
Collateral pieces are generally all of the touchpoints for your business that your audience customers and clients see, but can sometimes be internal. Common collateral pieces for online businesses include:
Instagram Feed + Stories graphics templates
Pinterest / Blog Post graphic templates
PDF document template + style guide
Slide deck theme
Social Media headers
Business + Thank You cards
Coupons + Gift Certificates
There are more, but we could be here forever if I listed every option available to man. A lot of these items don’t have to be designed with visuals in mind, but including thoughtful, branded visuals can really ramp up their effectiveness.
For example, you could deliver an unstyled google doc as a content upgrade or course workbook. But that definitely doesn’t scream “I am a professional who cares about your experience and put time and effort into this” to your customers or clients - especially if it’s something they’ve paid you for. A .pdf styled with your brand color palette and fonts (and maybe some of those photos, patterns and icons we talked about) will bring your content to life and let your reader know that you’re serious + professional about what you do, and that you care about the experience with you being interesting and engaging for them.
Having guidelines or templates in place for your collateral allow you to create new pieces quickly, and ensure that each design is consistent with your brand and with each other.
If you’re currently operating without a set of templates or guidelines in place for the collateral you use on the regular, the first step to fixing that is figuring out which pieces are most important for your business. These will usually be the items that your audience often interact with, and they should be first in line when it comes to getting them sorted out.
For example, if you rely heavily on Pinterest for traffic and lead generation, your blog + Pinterest graphics should be at the top of your list. It’s critical that they are well designed and consistent so that they catch the eye of people scrolling through their feeds, and allow people to begin to recognise which pins belong to you.
When it comes to actually getting them sorted, the best time to do them is when you’re working with a designer on your branding as a whole. Many brand designers (including myself) offer collateral design within their branding packages, or as an a la carte add on. This way you ensure that your collateral is consistent with the rest of your branding. If you’ve already had branding done, it’s worth checking in with the designer who did it to see if they’d mind working with you on extra collateral.
If you’re not able to work with a designer, you’ve got some familiar options:
1. Learn to DIY
2. Purchase Premade
If you’re looking to DIY, there might be a bit of a learning curve in terms of how to use certain programs to achieve the look you want. Like we talked about at the beginning of the article - poor DIY might get you by for a while, but it ends up getting lost next to good design when you’re ready to grow. If you have to DIY, it’s always worth spending some time learning how.
To get you started, I have a free guide to branded templates that you can grab for free. You’ll learn about 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.
Here are a couple of other resources to help you familiarise yourself with software and methods of creating collateral. Some are paid, and some are free!
I’m not affiliated or receiving anything from any of the above links - I just think they’re useful learning resources!
If you’re looking to purchase pre-made designs, Creative Market is usually the place to look. Creative Market is super popular, and it’s where a lot of those templates you see the same people using over and over come from, so to help find something a bit more unique, I’d recommend going a few pages deeper than the first set of results, and clicking through to the shop of a Designer you like to see if they’ve got anything similar that might not necessarily be showing up as a recommended or popular item.
So, those are the four!
It’s definitely important to choose what’s right for your business, and prioritise for where you’re at in your business journey. So maybe you don’t need all four right now. I would start with the things that are likely to make the biggest difference for where you’re at and work from there.
As more and more online businesses come onto the scene, it’s important to have visuals that set you apart from the rest, so you can hook people in and keep them coming back for more.
If you’d like to read more about brand visuals, I have an ultimate guide that you can click here to read.
And if you’re interested in working with me on Signature Brand design, you can click here to read all about it.
If you’ve got any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to help you out!
See you in the next one!