Visual Brand Identity: How to Balance Consistency and Creativity
Picture a blank white screen.
A small blue dot appears in the middle.
Then a red one right next to it.
Next, you see a yellow dot forming a small row with the other two.
Finally, a green dot completes the set.
Feels familiar yet?
A blue, red, yellow, and green dots on a blank white screen are enough to prompt viewers to think of a tech giant Google:
How does a simple design solution like this manage to be both creative and consistent?
Let's think about some of the possible ways you can make your visual brand identity both creative and consistent.
1. Clearly define consistent elements
People love riddles because they balance positive reinforcement and challenge to form an engaging task.
Riddles work because they provide just enough clues for the audience to be able to figure out what the right answer is.
Treat your brand's core identity like a type of riddle for your target audience – a selection of key images, symbols, colours and fonts that help your audience immediately identify your brand as a source of any piece of content you are putting out there.
These core elements of your visual brand identity need to be a sort of skeleton for your marketing that isn't changing.
The rest – get your creativity in.
Check out this fun post from social media management platform Buffer – they are making a clever reference to their logo with a stack of delicious pancakes:
2. Drop the matchy-matchy
Let's face it, the only acceptable way to overuse your logo these days is to do it ironically.
Use your visual brand elements sparingly and avoid the matchy-matchy effect of using too many matched elements, like your logo design, brand colours, fonts, typical design elements all at once.
Just one look at this snapshot of Starbucks' Facebook photo feed proves that when it comes to making your brand presence known, contrast works best.
3. Lean on colour
As I wrote previously in my piece about selecting your brand colours, colour plays a crucial role in helping us classify objects within seconds.
Smaller elements of a design, like fonts or shapes, take more time for your audience to process, but the dominant colour scheme stands out the most.
It signals whether your brand is fun and carefree or serious and reliable, it also helps differentiate your brand from competitors.
A colour scheme of a brand is a memorable element of its visual identity and should stay consistent.
It can bring together unrelated elements and help your audience identify your brand without you ever having to introduce yourself.
4. Make small updates all the time
Even the most conservative brands, like banks and hospitals, benefit from a little variety and unpredictability.
Add fun and excitement to your visual brand identity by making slight changes in non-essential design items, like receipts, price tags, shopping bags or marketing collateral.
After all, the same colour scheme – font – core shapes combination can often be interpreted in design in at least two or three different ways.
Change things up once in a while by rethinking how you use your logo, key colour scheme and fonts.
Don't make global changes in the brand style more often than once in 2 or 3 years to avoid coming off as the eternal phoenix rising from the ashes of an unsuccessful marketing campaign and trying to find its footing when it comes to applying its brand book IRL.
5. Test it
Assuming you've been doing your marketing research and getting positive feedback for your visual brand identity, don't just come up with ideas based on your data and your team's inspiration and run with them.
Create mockups and test them with focus groups and small groups of relevant consumers to make sure your future creative experiment will actually pay off when launched full-scale.
Say, you've designed an ad for Facebook – create a duplicate page and see what subtle changes you can make to your design to make it stand out, e.g. changing up the colours, text size or using a different tagline (Crello online image editor has this option).
Save both options and run them using Facebook Ads Manager split test tool.
You can do the same with email campaigns as well.
6. Personalise your visual elements to your users
Personalised marketing is becoming one of the most significant trends in the industry.
One statistic shows that emails with personalised subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened.
In design, this is reflected by a variety of preset user-pics – Google, Github, even Virgin America developed a set of multi-coloured monsters and aliens to signify booked seats.
These designs are reflective of the more general visual brand identity of each company.
They can be a play on the brand's colours or an extension of the brand's other core visual elements.
“Slack is a good example of design personalisation,” says my colleague, Crello's Product Designer Alexey Galyzin.
“They generate a variation of their own logo, consisting of four colourful lines, as a stand-in profile pic for each user. The designs are creative and not immediately identifiable as the Slack logo, but they keep the image in people's subconscious,” he explains.
A social media post is a disposable marketing format, so visual identity experiments will most likely be taken in stride.
When creating your content for any such medium, try using off-brand font or colours or unexpected formats, like animation.
Take calculated risks with your posts by styling your feeds to follow the latest social trends, reflect a season of the year or match a big cultural event like Super Bowl.
You can also try engaging in a trend or a challenge if it fits your brand identity and you can actually serve up excellent suitable content!
8. Get with the times
Speaking of trends, be on the lookout for the most prominent design trends and make sure none of your designs becomes outdated or obsolete.
Let the new technological or social developments be reflected in your visual brand identity.
Check out Pantone colour of the year, 99designs Trends blog section, Awwwards, It's Nice That and Digital Arts to keep yourself up to date with all the industry trends and adjust your visual presence accordingly.
Don't just make sure your visual brand identity reflects the times, but your evolving business as well – every company experiences gradual changes over time, so remember to look back and update your visual brand identity to stay in line with your business.
9. Keep things organised
Keep a library of all your visuals, even discarded or old styles, and organise them by time periods to help you navigate your visual presence in your audience's minds over time.
This will also help with the consistency of your visual identity as your team expands and evolves over time.
Good organisation also helps to avoid unplanned gradual change in the secondary brand colours when a new designer takes over a project or a seasonal design spills over into your regular theme.
Your discarded design ideas can also prove to be useful when you revisit them at a later date – maybe yesterday's backup plan will be your tomorrow's Christmas marketing concept!
10. Retain core visual brand elements even through reinvention
Brands that have been around for a while know it all too well – logos grow outdated fast.
One of the best ways to redesign a logo is keeping its core colours and modernising the shapes, making it more reflective of your brand identity along the way.
Unless your visual brand identity is being updated due to an acquisition (when the new identity often has to reflect the new owner and go well with their logos and colours), make sure you transfer some of the most memorable elements of your visual identity to your new brand book.
Achieving the perfect balance between the consistency of visual brand identity and creative expression throughout your campaigns can be a tricky endeavour, so we hope you'll be able to put some of the above tips to use.
To finish off our discussion, let's turn back to Google for one final piece of advice.
The brand's designers are working hard on keeping the company's visual identity dynamic, up to date and comfortable for the users, that's why they refined the brand's logo to meet those needs, as well as become more scalable.
“We started by distilling the essence of our brand down to its core – four colours on a clean white background – and built it back up,” explained Alex Cook, Jonathan Jarvis, and Jonathan Lee in Evolving the Google Identity.
“With the cutting room floor littered with hundreds of hours of design work, we set out with a few directions that excited us,” they share.
So as you can see, when it comes down to it, to balance the consistency of your visual brand identity with a creative approach to your marketing campaigns you need to find the very core of your and build it back up in a new, creative way.