If you’ve never done it before, building a design brand from scratch can be tricky. It’s easy to critique the look and feel of other brands (or their redesign) but it’s much harder to build the brand yourself.
Remember, a brand is more than what people see, it’s what they think and feel. It has to be applicable in almost any scenario and it has to flexible enough to accommodate your growth.
There’s definitely a lot you’ll need to account for, but don’t over think things, it’s easy to get bogged down with a checklist of ‘musts’ and never make any real progress.
When we went from working in a design studio, to setting up our own studio, as fun and as exciting as it was, it was a real struggle to get our branding right - we had to do a lot of learning and we made a few mistakes along the way too.
But that’s the thing, we never expected to make any mistakes. The irony is, that even though we’ve been working with and building brands (big and small) for years, it’s something that’s much harder to do for yourself. After all, as a designer, you’re your own worst critic.
So, here’s our advice on how to create your design brand from scratch and what you should be thinking about.
Before you do anything, think of a name.
Naming your brand is the first (and maybe the most) important step.
What you don’t want to do first, is create a myriad of assets that have no relation to what you may or may not call your brand. As great as this is for the creative process, it focuses your valuable time and energy away from your one goal (deciding on a name).
When you’re naming your brand, start with a map of what it is you’re doing (or want to do) and what you want the brand to mean to you. At this stage, no one knows about your brand and an easy mistake to make, is naming the brand around the thoughts of others.
After all, it’s an extension of you, you have to work with it, grow with it and love it. Make sure it’s a name that you’re happy with. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks at this stage, as long as it works for you, you can let your work and values speak for the brand in the future. Be awesome at what you do (and genuine) and that’ll give context to any name under the sun.
When you’re looking for inspiration think of words you like, words to do with the industry or go crazy and make something up.
Create a list of potential ideas and see if any of them stick, use tools like LeanDomainSearch to see if a .com domain is available or NameCheap for a similar top level domain. Don’t dwell too much on your extension, it really doesn’t matter at all.
A technique we’ve gone back to (time and time again) for naming brands, is to take a word we’re interested in, then a use thesaurus to find synonyms for that word. We tend to keep doing that, until we find something we love or have an awesome idea.
Thinking of names is a creative process, so get as wild as you need to. Don’t worry if you end up running into designer’s block, this handy little article will give you a hand getting around it.
Once you’ve got a name, which hopefully wasn’t too hard, you can move on to the next step.
Logos & Wordmarks
If you’re not a graphic or brand designer, then you might feel this step is a bit of challenge. Remember, there’s plenty of logos and wordmarks out there that aren’t perfect and ultimately, your business will evolve over time, so your branding can too. Remember why you started your business and (if you can) let your brand reflect that, your brand is an extension of you.
That’s why we find that there’s always an element of fun in doing your branding. After all, It’s personal, so it might work better for you to keep things closer to home. Alternatively, if you’ve got a budget available, then feel free to hire a pro for this part.
When it comes to logos and wordmarks, sometimes there’s a perception that you can only have ‘either or’ - ignore this, you’re welcome to do both.
It’s also important to know that your name doesn’t need to dictate the direction of your branding, but it can definitely help. If your name has a strong association or synergy with objects or people, then look at this as a bonus, not a limitation.
Let’s use the name Kingdom as an example here. There’s plenty of words that we can associate a kingdom with - castles, crowns, swords, knights, horses...the list goes on. You could potentially choose any of these associations as a logo.
If your name doesn’t have any strong associations, or it’s a totally made up word, then you might want to try a logo or wordmark that’s a little quirky, crazy and unrelated to anything. As long as it’s not offensive and it works for you, do it.
Whether you’ve decided on a logo, wordmark or both, once that’s sorted, you’ll have something you can show and tell to those around you - something that feels real.
Templates & Assets
When we’d finished with the core of our branding, we created templates for getting started guides, invoices, proposals and the instances we needed to showcase our work. We’re client facing, so we had to make sure that everything we did, looked great.
Not only did this help us out with our overall art direction, it ultimately added a lot of value to our brand and business. We now had a library of resources we could use to win projects, close deals and delight our clients.
It might seem like a tough and time-consuming process, but getting templates and assets together before your brand faces the big wide world is important. The reality is, you won’t have time to come back to this stuff later down the line, you’ll be too busy and something will get in the way, so make sure to get it done now.
A simple way to get started is by making a short list of the templates/ assets your brand will need most. Next, remove anything from that list that you’re not going to send or show people. Finally, order that list by what’ll add the most value to your brand and business, then do those first.
Don’t cut corners and skip this part, you’ll regret it when you’re scrambling for time to put it all together, while getting a million other things done.
Finish With a Style Guide
Don’t confuse a style guide with brand guidelines. Brand guidelines are those giant documents, cemented in stone and really difficult to change. You’ll find these in big organisations with years of visual identity and brand equity in place. It makes sense for these brands to have set guidelines because people are resistant to change.
A style guide is a much lighter document, that evolves as you do. It’s flexible and easily updated, containing simple information on the fonts you’re using, colours, basic styles and the rest of the simple stuff.
Creating a style guide is also a good exercise for consolidating all the design work you’ve done so far. You’ll quickly find out where there’s inconsistencies in your branding that you can rectify. Once your style guide is done, you’ve done it - you’ve created a design brand from scratch. Make sure you take sometime to have a break, congratulate yourself for your hard work and plan your next steps.
There’s a long road ahead, but if you’ve got this far, you’ll definitely enjoy it.
Go get ‘em.
This is a guest post by Cassius Kiani, partner at Mikleo, a research and design studio based in Manchester, UK.
Mikleo have worked with clever corporates and super startups - designing apps, websites and anything in between. When they’re not designing, they spend their time writing about research, design, thoughts and feelings.
You can follow Cassius on Twitter here.