Skip to content

Determining Brand Design Strategy

To stand apart and capture the audience’s attention, brands cannot solely rely on subjective preferences regarding design. Instead, design depends on brand strategy and approaching decisions from an analytical, researched perspective that intentionally aims to distinguish brands from the deluge of others that consumers interact with constantly.

The visual identity through which your brand presents itself holds tremendous importance and is simply too crucial for gut decisions and “I like it” to determine design and how it activates your strategy.

Brand strategy and design go hand in hand.

The experiences brands create and deliver must be unified across every element and touchpoint. That cohesion is essential to building relationships with consumers via recognizable, resonant and repeatable engagements. And a brand’s visual identity provides the design language—or structure—to not only facilitate that recognition but also to create visual impact derived from the elements that guide the expression of the brand’s look, sound and feel. We refer to these elements as the brand’s attributes.

Thus, brand strategy and design are intrinsically intertwined—guiding decision-making processes and shaping how the brand presents itself.

Strategy’s influence on design

Whether or not you already have a brand strategy formalized, take a moment to think about your company. What are its values and attributes? What do customers associate with your brand and the experiences it offers? Or, what do you want them to associate with your brand?

These essential strategic aspects must be displayed or incorporated as part of the brand’s visual identity to help create and reinforce those associations whenever consumers engage with it. This might involve symbolism via specific elements or other design characteristics and motifs that represent brand attributes—the elements that guide the expression of a brand’s look, sound and feel—and develop a consistent visual identity.

For example, a database company that guarantees data integrity and resiliency may include an elephant in their logo because of the animal’s association with memory and the common phrase that they “never forget.” Conversely, a goldfish would elicit negative associations for that brand, because that animal is associated  with short memory skills.

Similarly, a brand that wants consumers to consider reliability its foremost trait needs an approachable, trustworthy and reassuring visual identity. There’s a reason the banking industry isn’t usually represented by wild or avant-garde designs.

Design’s influence on strategy

Design’s influence on brand strategy predominantly relates to leveraging existing brand equities, eliminating poorly performing design elements or uncovering new potential opportunities for your visual identity to stand out.

To start, any brand design evaluation should consider what elements people instantly recognize and their effectiveness at conveying desired brand attributes. We call this brand equity. The effort and investment made to increase recognition and familiarity among consumers shouldn’t be analyzed lightly (unless associations with that visual identity impede growth). Therefore, when it comes to designs that consumers already associate with other brands—particularly competitors—brand equity should be looked at in terms of the investment that taking ownership involves. 

Does your company consider it a wise decision to challenge another brand over specific design elements and commit the resources required to do so? In some cases it might be worth it. But, for instance, it’s unlikely that a tractor company would choose to stake a new claim on a green and yellow trade dress and go head-to-head with John Deere to defend it.

Most importantly—especially for discovering opportunities—these considerations and strategic decisions depend on the broader brand design landscape you’re competing against for attention—or the “brandscape.”

Understanding the “brandscape”—opportunity and inspiration

Brand design is a systemic process that involves developing a comprehensive understanding of the business strategy behind any brand, gathering consumer insights and broadly exploring the competitive landscape,  identifying potential areas of growth and developing competitive advantages to scale in the long or short term.

Hence, brand design isn’t formed or activated in a vacuum. And your audience doesn’t exist in a vacuum either. Rather, there’s an entire physical and digital world inundated with brands that must be extensively researched and factored into design decisions. It’s what we call a “brandscape,” and by understanding it, brands can search for opportunities and find inspiration to create an authentic and differentiated brand identity. 

For example, a fitness tracker mobile app isn’t only competing against other fitness apps regarding its icon—that design is competing against all mobile apps for more attention (e.g., on users’ smartphones or within an app store). Ultimately, your brand engages in constant competition against every other brand for attention, and that competition heavily influences the relationship between your brand strategy and design.

Brandscape perspectives

There are numerous perspectives you can adopt when considering the broader design brandscape—or ways to evaluate other brands’ designs and make decisions about your own accordingly. And when evaluating brand design, considering the brandscape should be among the first steps taken.

For example, you could create a color wheel and see where competitors and relevant brands typically group themselves. Alternatively, you could create a framework, categorizing brands’ logos and design motifs by revealed patterns, such as the following styles used for logos:

  • Monograms
  • Literal representations
  • Wordmarks
  • Integrated (with a key design element)
  • Abstract icons
  • Characters and mascots

Looking both internally and externally

Using the brandscape to the fullest requires balancing internal and external viewpoints. As mentioned above, the core attributes you want consumers to associate with your brand should be incorporated into your brand design. And, looking externally, you need to ensure that the design elements you choose take advantage of discovered opportunities and the “white space” where other brands are absent.

However, looking externally also provides inspiration based on what other brands have accomplished with their design. How do other brands meaningfully and uniformly represent their attributes through their design? How do other brands successfully activate those designs?

Applying brandscape insights

Using the brandscape insights you’ve uncovered, you’ll need to create a visual identity system—which should be thought of as a design toolkit or “design territory.” This enables your brand to uniformly activate the design across all engagements and touchpoints to ensure your audience has those recognizable, resonant and repeatable experiences.

For example, your brand may need a visual identity system to create design alternates and variations depending on the specific circumstances (e.g., sub-brands, mobile app icons, products that carry their own branding). The variant designs help keep experiences fresh and offer brands a way to further distinguish different activations without losing the connection to the brand and its primary associations.

This process involves the following steps:

  1. Revisit strategy- and research-determined brand attributes the design should embody.
  2. Evaluate your current design to note misalignments with those attributes, including:
    • What is your brand’s current visual expression?
    • How does that relate to opportunities or congestion in the brandscape?
    • How will your design toolkit (i.e., the assets and guidance provided to professionals) drive asset functionality, adaptability and ownability?
  3. Remedy any strategy and design misalignments with the creation of your visual toolkit.
    • Be sure to keep realistic expectations regarding activation (e.g., a more expressive visual identity system will require more resources and design personnel to maintain activations over time).
  4. Activate the new design to begin fostering consumer recognition. However, be sure to consider your broader strategy regarding design activations—it might make sense to hold off on certain activations at particular times, such as immediately following a product launch, so as to not confuse consumers.

The science of design and the art of activating strategy

Design without strategy becomes a matter of subjective preference that doesn’t carry purpose behind it. And activating strategy without the right visual identity system jeopardizes your brand’s recognition, resonance and repetition among consumers.

Successful brands understand that these two disciplines are inextricably linked, and base their design decisions on extensive research, the existing brandscape and the brand strategy. 

We use cookies. By using our site you agree to our Cookies Policy.