What we're talking about 

A brand's visual identity is the impression created by the aesthetic things associated with your business – AKA, its look and feel. That might include your logo, color palette, imagery, graphics, website design, packaging and typography. The sum of all this should be a unique representation of your brand – one that your customers will instinctively associate with you. 

To make sure your identity is consistent across platforms and over time, you'll want to create some guiding principles for visual expression – giving you a standard for how you present your brand and some design rules and systems to stick to. 

Why it's important 

Visuals really matter. For example, an often-cited stat suggests it takes just 0.05 seconds for someone to form an impression about a website. It's a fundamental part of your brand: a compelling, distinctive and consistent visual identity will boost brand awareness and affinity, as well as differentiating you from competitors. With crowded sectors and people having plenty of choice, this is a basic requirement.  

Once you properly define your visual identity, it should remain pretty much the same as your business grows (unless you opt for a rebrand). The importance of that consistency can't be underplayed: a survey from brand templating platform Lucidpress found that 68% of businesses said brand consistency contributed to revenue growth by 10% to 20%. 

Things to note 

It's a big part of your overall brand identity. Visual identity forms part of your brand identity, which includes things like your mission statement, goals, unique proposition and tone of voice. These will all play into one another and it's essential that they're harmonious. How you look should resonate with how you speak and your brand's values.

There are basic rules for best practice. When designing the relevant visual elements, you need to ensure what you land on is i) appropriate for your brand and ii) abides by design best practices. General design principles to follow include: having a primary and secondary typeface (and never using more than three or four typefaces together); ensuring that photography is high-res and consistent; making sure that diagrams are clear and accurate; and not using more than eight to 10 colors in your palette. It might take a little trial and error to work out what works with your audience.  

Your visual elements need to be compatible. The relationship between each of your visual components shouldn't be forgotten – they need to match, complement each other and work coherently together. So, if you use very colorful photography, your typography needs to be in keeping with that; it should either help the photography stand out or support it. This will make it easier to move into new territories and introduce new things as your business grows. 

You may well need external help. As much as you might be able to get moving on your own, you'll benefit immeasurably from working with a creative agency or designer. Finding the right help will require plenty of due diligence, and you'll need to have a clear idea of what you're after.  Cost will obviously depend on your means (and the importance of visuals in your sector), but business news site TechCrunch estimates that logo and visual identity costs for businesses without equity funding can range from $100 to $3,000, with small firms usually spending between $5,000 and $15,000. You can always start by getting a designer to create a minimum viable product and then build in room to grow within the guidelines set for you.

How to hone your visual identity 

1. Understand who you are. Begin by writing up or revisiting the principles that define your brand. As a reminder, that includes your goals, mission, value proposition and tone of voice. How would you describe your business' personality? What's your story? How do you add value to people's lives? Why does your team work there? A good example to follow is home furnishings brand IKEA

2. Assess your current visual identity. Whether you're formulating your style standards for the first time or rebranding, get all of your visual assets in one place and perform a broad audit. Discuss what is and isn't working with your team. Here's a good template with more detail from creative agency ATAK Interactive. 

3. Make them complementary. Clarify the relationship between your brand identity and your visuals. How could your visuals be more consistent with your tone of voice? What imagery would be best for getting your message across? You should emerge with a broad visual direction to explore in more detail. 

4. Think about your audience. Start to refine your ideas by thinking about your target audience. If you don't already have tangible customers to think about, you can construct some personas. Consider things like demographics, disposable income, values, likes and dislikes, passions and pain points, hobbies and the other brands they're into. 

5. Look at what others are doing. Time to get some inspo while simultaneously learning how to stand out from the crowd. Take a deep dive into brands (or wider references) whose visual elements you admire. Assess things like their website, social feeds, packaging and photography, taking note of recurring features, colors and styles. Begin building a visual moodboard of stuff that resonates. Then, look at the competition you have within your industry: you might wish to align somewhat with them, or go in a completely different visual direction. 

6. Flesh out your brief. Based on your research, write down what you're going for and what you need to make it happen. That doesn't mean picking your colors and describing exactly what you want your logo to look like; it means summing up the look you want, who you want to appeal to, wider project objectives and the assets you'll need now and in the future. It might be one or two pages, like this example. Whoever's in charge of the design process will then use it as a guide – you could work collaboratively with them for this stage, too.  

7. Create your suite of visuals. Time to come up with your essentials: your logo, color palette and typeface, as well as some examples of illustration, imagery and other design flourishes. Depending on your resources and reliance on aesthetics, this might be the time you reach out to an external party. If you're doing it in-house though, check out design platforms like Coolors and Canva

8. Chop and change. The first attempt won't be perfect. After you or your designer have come up with a bunch of initial ideas, a period of iteration will follow. Keep going until you've found something that looks great, reflects who you are and meets the specifics of your brief.

9. Set it down in a style guide. Create a document for visual identity standards that everyone in your team can easily access and reference. It needs to include logo, font and color blueprints – as well as rules and examples on how each asset should and shouldn't be used. You might do this yourself, or use an online tool like Frontify

Key takeaways 

• Your visual identity plays a pivotal role in how your brand comes across: it needs to be distinctive, of a high quality and consistent across the board. 

• Formalizing your identity in a style guide will help ensure consistency, but it'll also make life a lot easier for current – and future – employees. 

• You can get quite far on your own, but small businesses often bring in some external expertise to help bring their ideas and vision to life. 

Learn more 

Perspective. Here, three branding experts – Leonard Kim from marketing agency Influence Tree, David Brier from brand strategist DBD International, and Ben Matthews from design software brand Adobe – discuss how to define your visual identity

Example. Check out this brief for UK restaurant brand SpiceBox's redesign. According to the designers, it seeks to ‘strike a balance between communicating its groovy USPs of flavorsome Indian food, and the fact that it's vegan without being holier than thou’. 

Tool. Here's a detailed checklist of everything your visual identity should encompass. This one is also good if you're considering brand and visual identity in tandem. 

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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