Spencer Davis is one of our Noisy Neighbors, which is a series of guest posts focused on specific skills and ideas to help creatives turn their talents and ideas into a successful career.
Spencer crafts solid visual designs for his clients from typography, to logos, to website construction. He draws inspiration through a myriad of diverse sources from music, to art, to the traveling. He uses this inspiration to continually build upon his portfolio with new and experimental designs. Check out his portfolio and follow him @spencersstudio on instagram.
Imagine a friend who wears the same thing every day. Ripped jeans, leather jacket, and wild hair. You meet for coffee every Saturday morning and today he’s late. You text him and he responds “running late” with no emoji of that man running. Weird. When he arrives, he’s wearing khaki pants, a tucked in polo, and a neat part in his newly-trimmed hair.
He’s abruptly presented to you a drastically different visual identity in 3 different mediums: Value, Message, and Visual:
Value: Your friend hates being late, yet he shows up 15 minutes after you agreed to meet
Message: He always uses a complimentary emoji to ease tension, but left it out this time
Visual: He looks drastically different than usual
You look skeptical, feel estranged, and will likely ask him if everything is okay. Where did your familiar friend go?
The same concept applies to a brand. Whether that be a clothing business, a coffee shop, or a rising artist, if you bring a different visual identity to a customer on any channel, your audience will be confused about who you are or what you stand for.
Key Takeaway: Your visual identity is the personification of your brand into tangible elements and it is crucial that your identity is clear, consistent, and cohesive.
To quickly give an example, I’ve gathered elements of Nike’s visual identity, what I believe to be one of the strongest in our day and presented them below.
The Value of a Strong Visual Identity
Too often I see artists so eager to come to market that they skip a crucial step in marketing themselves – solidifying a visual identity. This results in a disjointed appearance, an inconsistent message, and the inability to create brand loyalty. Below are benefits to investing in your identity.
1. Your identity can speak for you 24/7/365
Our identity doesn’t sleep. And while we may struggle to get our 8 hours each night, even the strongest-willed people can’t represent themselves every hour of every day. A strong identity can speak for you while you work on that new project, are on tour, are busy with a full-time job, or are getting some much-needed rest.
2. Your identity cultivates a loyal audience
A decade ago, product-centric marketing was king. However, with oversaturation in markets and the connected power of the consumer, your audience has the necessary tools to find a brand that shares the same values as they do. This means a college student from Texas can purchase a leather journal online from Israel because it has their favorite Lord of The Rings quote on it. Or an anxiety-ridden teenager from England can connect to the lyrics of heart-filled songs from a Japanese rock group.
Because consumers are active participants in choosing the brands they interact with, they are loyal to those in which they pledge their time and money. The headphones that feed my music, the glasses that gift me with 20/20 vision, and the keyboard I type this with are all 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th generation products in my possession. I own all of these because I’m loyal to the values of each of their identities.
3. Your identity is your first impression
Your visual identity is oftentimes the first impression your users have of you. Your colors, typography, shapes, and imagery all contribute to that critical moment. Before clicking on your artwork, listening to your song, buying your coffee, or watching your video, they’ve likely already had an interaction with your brand that resulted in a first impression.
Below is the logo for the Ritz Carlton hotel chains. It is sophisticated and suggests luxury.
And the Toys ‘R Us logo. It is playful and fun
Now, let’s swap their visual identities.
A playful and fun Ritz Carlton...
...and a sophisticated Toys ‘R Us
Would you pay $400/night at a Ritz Carlton hotel who had this sign above their door? Or would your child want to walk into a Toys ‘R Us when this is the image they see?
4. Your identity can save time and money
The upfront investment in building your visual foundation will save you time and money down the road. If you come to market too quickly with a rushed visual brand and haven’t done the proper research and planning, your identity Aha! moment will come too late in the process and you will either 1) be stuck with an identity you no longer relate to, or 2) spend more time and money re-doing your identity and all of your public profiles, marketing materials, merchandising, etc.
Begin Crafting Your Own Visual Identity
Okay, the visual identity is important, but where do you start?
Tip: Do your research in multiple locations and environments. Do some at home, at the park, at a coffee shop, or even on the bus.
As tempting as it can be, don’t jump straight into your first idea. Take time to explore other options, research your industry, and absorb as much inspiration as you can. This step is crucial in keeping an open mind and letting your creativity explore what it is capable of.
Tip: I keep a sketchpad nearby, so I can write down ideas without interrupting my research.
What to look for:
Know your audience
Know your competition
During your research, you should start to understand what channels your visual identity will take place and what mediums you need to fulfill that channel. Are live shows, album covers, art exposés, websites, or other channels going to be the primary sources of your identity when you get started? Once you know this, you can begin to prioritize what artifacts you need. For example, stage settings for live shows, designs for albums, posters for an art exposé, or logo and branding for websites and events.
Chances are, you will most likely want your identity in every channel but start thinking about where the biggest opportunity is for impact at this moment.
Now it’s time to make sense of that new-found jumble of knowledge, inspiration, and probably anxiety. Creativity can be, but should not be, forced – so if at any time you’re not “feeling it”, it’s okay to take your time. Building an identity from the ground up is a long process.
Keep a mood board to save inspiration that speaks to you. This can include colors, images, typography, scenery, quotes, etc. Revisit this board throughout your process to update and refine your ideas.
When drafting sketches or writing ideas, make yourself come up with X number of drafts. When I’m drafting logos, I force myself to come up with at least 10 rough sketches before refining any of them. If I get stuck, I like to imagine I’m sketching in different time periods (ancient Egyptian, prehistoric, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, etc).
3. Gather Feedback and Test
Exposing your unfinished identity can be nerve-racking. Criticism can be tough to hear, but through the right lenses, it is your most effective tool.
Key Takeaway: Through the right lenses, criticism can be your most effective tool.
Take your ideas to your friends and family. Since they are the people who know you best, they test whether your proposed identity is honest with who you are as a person (or who you want to portray to the public).
Next, take your ideas to the online communities. People online can be critical to the extreme, but also helpful, so your identity can be stress-tested in multiple ways. Pay attention to what sticks with people – is it your story, your colors, your use of lurid imagery, or your erotica persona?
With that feedback, iterate steps 1, 2, and 3 until you’ve found your Aha! moment. Don’t be afraid to completely change directions. It might feel like losing progress, but finding what you’re not, is just as important as finding out who you are.
Key Takeaway: Finding what you’re not, is just as important as finding out who you are.
5. Begin working with a designer
Without having done the proper research and iterations, working with a designer will be much more difficult. Before going to someone for a visual identity strategy, make sure to have a clear idea of who you are, what your identity stands for, and who your audience is. This will empower your designer to craft an identity that most closely represents who you are and the values you stand for. Just think, the Toys ‘R Us or Ritz Carlton logo could have ended up very different without proper direction and planning to start out.
Thanks for reading!