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8 Tips to Crush Your Next Branding Project

Written by in Creative
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Branding is arguably one of the most difficult things you could ask any designer to do. It may not seem like it but it requires a designer to literally manifest something that will represent an entire brand from absolutely nothing. Literally nothing. A blank piece of paper to a blank illustrator canvas or even a blank word doc. We start on one side with absolutely nothing, and come out on the other side with some sort of glyph, wordmark, color expression, typographic approach, extendable art direction, brand articulation, and a slew of other things essential to setting the tone for a brand moving forward.

Branding is way different than designing a website, a custom package, a print ad, whatever it may be. Sometimes designers can hide behind really nice fonts, moody unsplash images, or some cool grunge brushes they downloaded on deviant art (I may be dating myself here). Take some pretty average artwork, and throw it into a slick device mock-up and viola, you have created something that may have little to no concept at all, that not only looks impressive but it also catches the eye and gets you a bunch of “likes.” Trust me, I get it. We’ve all done it. We all do it. You’re only as good as your presentation. Check out dribbble if you don’t believe me. That stuff is plastered everywhere.

For some reason branding can be a huge mental battle. Maybe it’s the predefined expectation that “it’s just a logo” or that you’re supposed to “hack something together,” maybe a little bit of the fact that a client’s sister went to school for graphic design once whose logos got sent over as inspiration in your briefing.

Regardless of the why and how subjective creating a brand can be, I never came to terms with how much of a mental struggle it really can be until I watched one of our freshly green designers start a complete rebrand for a pretty high profile client. Compound that with the fact he was tag teaming efforts with our CEO. No pressure kid… ready?!?! GO! The kid had nothing to worry about since he’s a complete design savage who’s well beyond his years. However, I saw a little bit of myself in his continuous “oh shit moments” and waves of anxiety that continued to crash against his desk until he had 3-4 solid concepts that everyone was confident in. It happens to us all. And for some reason we believe there is this unwritten rule book somewhere that states we designers can’t express the fact that we have no ideas, or don’t even know where to start, or better yet, maybe even have a little bit of a creative block. We clam up, fight or flight tends to kick in, and next thing you know we come out on the other side completely successful with some pretty kick ass ideas, with no recollection of how we ended up delivering amazing work in the end. It happens to us EVERY TIME. I sat with this designer and tried to coach him into  “trusting the process.” It sounds so cliché, but it’s true. Knowing you’re the visionary that can deliver some kick ass thinking is very different from FEELING that you’re the one who can deliver some kick ass thinking.

Over the course of my career I’ve branded, rebranded, and designed more logos than I can even recall. Over the last year or so I’ve had a concentrated dose of pretty in-depth branding work hit my plate, one project after another. Everything from global brands, large corporate health companies, to smaller local business start-ups. To be honest, I felt like I had run out of ideas. I felt like I had made just about every shape, used just about every font, and I was forced to be more observant of my overall process. I felt like I needed to devise some systematic approach to it because just as I was wrapping up one brand, I was jumping into the exploration of another. I needed to make my presentations to clients as easy on the soul as possible. I was feeling vulnerable from working on such subjective deliverables. I found myself constantly asking… “how do I take the subjectivity out of it?”

So…where am I going with this? I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. I tweaked my model for how I approach brand development, and it’s proven successful for me, the clients I’ve worked on, and honestly the overall mental experience of a branding project.

 

Here’s 8 Tips to Crush Your Next Branding Presentation

 

1. Set aside time for discovery.

Every designer is probably rolling their eyes right now. “What do you mean I have to learn about the brand…” Yup. In fact, learn as much as you can. Trust me, you don’t want to be the designer presenting a bunch of predictable logo options comprised of brick to forehead icons and funky dafont.com typefaces. Ouch. Was that a burn? Maybe.

No, really, learn everything you can about the business. Ask questions. How do they operate? What are their clients like? What’s the service like? What’s the audience like? Average income of audience? What are the competitors? Who do these brands aspire to be like? Why the name? Can I change the name? What’s the biggest point of difference? I could ramble off enough questions for you to bounce from this page before you get to tip #8. Do your own competitive analysis. Work with your strategy team to understand an area of opportunity.

My point… the more research you do, the more intelligent you sound. But, most importantly, you’ll have more fuel when conceptualizing brand directions. This will also help when it comes time to present your thinking and exploration. You’ll speak the same language as the CEO sitting at the head of the table.

2. Get out of your own head.

This isn’t a dig. It’s instinctual. We default to the things we know, or the things we’ve experienced. Get outside. Look at random sources of inspiration. Experiment with some creative exercises, examples such as quick word associations, “100mph thinking”, “Intergalactic Thinking”. There’s a ton. Find one that gets your mind away from its default position.  

The phrase “Intergalactic Thinking” was coined by Tom Monahan in his book The Do It Yourself Lobotomy: Open Your Mind to Greater Thinking. If you haven’t read it, check it out. It’s full of cool ideation hacks and exercises to get you to think differently, fast. There’s an abundance of information on the internet like this, but something about intergalactic thinking stuck with me. It’s really a brainstorm facilitation technique but it applies when trying to think through different conceptual territories and or solutions to problems for brands. It gets our minds outside of our own galaxies of our everyday knowledge, experiences, and biases. Ok, that sounds really lofty. Let’s get more practical, maybe something easier to understand.

Ask: Rebrand a UK-based device repair company named IMEND.

I can tell you right off the bat, majority of the designers are going to go back to their desks and start designing logos with iphones or some sort of mobile device iconography. Who wouldn’t? It’s so obvious. It’s the low-hanging fruit. Why not reach for it? Until… you do a google search and realize ALL THE DEVICE REPAIR COMPANIES ARE DOING THE SAME THING. And there’s a reason for that. It’s the obvious approach.

Time for some “intergalactic thinking.” Pick a random topic. It could literally be anything. For the purposes of this let’s say something obscure like the circus. Wait, what?!?! A circus? Yes, a circus. Now…in one minute or two let’s begin to ramble things off that we would associate with a circus.

  • Clowns
  • Big Shoes
  • Humor
  • Animals
  • Circus Tents
  • Juggling
  • Skill
  • Technique
  • Rings
  • Trapeze
  • Trust
  • Animals
  • Comes to my town
  • Bright Colors

Ok. Next step. Let’s try to associate these things we just listed with business problems or unique approaches. Wait?!?! Really?! Yes.

  • Clowns and Humor: How about a brand tonality that’s a little more geeky and quirky? Less in your face about your broken device and throwing salt in the wound and more lighthearted. Let’s embrace the fact they’re geeky technicians.
  • Circus Tents: What’s an iconic representation that we can create that people would think of as THE DESTINATION? Making people think this is the place I go to get my device repaired.
  • Juggling, Trapeze, Skill: Let’s tell the story that they’re experts, and highly trained. Not your average joes. They can do what most people can’t. All with speed and efficiency. Superior to the rest.
  • Bright Colors: If all the competitors are using some variation of purple and turquoise, let’s suggest really bright colors like a hot magenta or an electric green or yellow. No one else is doing it.

I can keep going on and on and on. But as you can see, I’ve gotten to some pretty unique ideas just by throwing out something that was completely unrelated, in this case a circus. If I did this a few more times, each with different topics…my mind is now in an entirely different galaxy of thinking. Pretty cool huh?

3. Doodle with the fattest marker you can find (less commonly referred to as a “rapid prototyping device”).

You’re all asking, but what if I can’t draw? It’s ok. You don’t have to be able to. What sketching forces you to do, is START WITH AN INTENT. No fancy typeface. No free downloadable icon sets. None of the frills. Just an idea. Most importantly, your own idea.

But why a fat marker? Because this forces you to lose any of the extraneous details a logo shouldn’t ever have. The little details that can’t be embroidered. The little details that fill with ink when printed on black. Catch my drift? Push yourself to have a brain dump on paper. The easier you make it for yourself at this point, the easier and more focused your exploration will be. One of my all-time favorite quotes is, “A computer is a lite-brite for bad fu*king ideas.” You can thank these guys for that gem.

 

I won’t make the case that every logo concept ever thought of needs to have started as a sketch. I don’t think that’s realistic. But the point I’m trying to make is that it’s an easier way to get to a more unique place FASTER without the extra STUFF like tools, swatches, layers, etc. Just pure imagination, baby. When you go into execution mode with an intent, your boss and even your clients’ wallets will thank you. It’s pretty inexpensive to jot a bunch of ideas down on paper versus spending half a day executing that one mediocre logo option in illustrator only for your creative director to say, “Eh, I’m not feelin’ it.” If you can ideate more concepts than your creative director kills…then you’re not scrambling minutes before the meeting trying to come up with another half-baked idea.

4. Use a grid.

Not one of those afterthought grids you see all over dribbble. I mean start with a real grid. When you’re designing with a grid something magical happens. Icons, letter forms, and anything you create tends to work in perfect harmony. Much like when you’re designing a website or a print ad with a grid. Things are aligned and even asymmetry still has a certain balance to it. It’s hard to recreate that same balance after the fact. Plus, it holds you more accountable when it comes to consistency. You don’t have random thicknesses in stroke or letterforms that aren’t relative to each other, etc.

Now for the pro tip. Logo grids make for an awesome visual to present to your clients. It makes the creation of a logo come across as more authentic, custom, and something unique to a client’s business. No client will pick up on the fact you rounded your letter forms 2px. But if you show them a grid, it tells a story full of precision and intention. Bottom line…it’s more impressive and works as a visual indicator that every pixel has a purpose.

5. Design on a black background.

Now this may seem a bit counter-intuitive since it’s literally the exact opposite of what everyone else does. How many times have you created that pixel-perfect logo only to find out that as soon as you scale it down you can’t recognize what is going on and all those little areas of negative space begin to fill in visually?!?!?! And to be honest, the majority of designers roll with it anyway.

Working with a black background (at least at some point in the design) safeguards you from having to add px strokes and extra spacing to those final expanded/merged shapes and letter forms minutes before your meeting. That sucks doesn’t it? So, let’s never do that again. Your logo will always work on a white background with enough contrast. So, why start there? Take a stab on a dark background. All those fancy transparency layering effects you see all over the internet…those are cute, but have you seen those embroidered on a shirt? Cut as a large vinyl decal for an office wall? Nope. This little trick forces you to do some things that set both you and your client up for success down the road.

6. Iterate. Refine. Finalize.

This is probably the most obvious one of the bunch. But here is your opportunity to put your feelings aside and question whether or not it works. Does it make the cut for your presentation or not? If so, now is your time to see how it works in smaller applications, on dark backgrounds, with just the wording, just the icon? When you shrink it in size does everything need a bit more spacing? Ask yourself all these questions. The more of them you answer the more prepared you’ll be when it’s time to send this baby out into the wild. Don’t be the designer that 6 months later the client emails requesting a single color version of their logo on a dark background…only to find out when you do it, it doesn’t work. This is the part of the process where it’s your responsibility to make sure your concepts stand up to just about everything.

If there is one concept you cannot stand… DO NOT SHOW IT. THE CLIENT WILL PICK IT EVERY SINGLE TIME. You’re better off going in with one less concept than showing the one you don’t like.

As for the amount of logos you show, that’s up to you. There are a few things at play. You want to find the right balance of delivering just enough that your customers are happy, and also not delivering too much that next thing you know you’re being asked to merge concepts one through twelve. It happens. Believe me. More often than I care to admit. Three is usually a good number. It’s a confident number. The lower the number, the more cocky you are in that you’ve found the perfect solution right out of the gate. And good for you if you have. The higher the number, the less confident you seem in finding the perfect solution to meet your client’s needs. Find the right balance. It’s different from project to project and client to client.

7. Visualize the process.

This is often misperceived as being solely a dog and pony show. But when you do it right, it’s more than that. It’s the construction of a strong narrative. That fancy notebook you have with all those doodles… show it. Export that timelapse out of “Procreate” on your iPad pro. Snap some photos of you and another designer throwing down on the project together. Include some of your inspiration, and how you landed conceptually where you did. Sky is the limit. The more of the process you show, the more convincing the story is. If you sell me on the sheer amount of work that went into your thinking, I’m more inclined to believe in your methodology and your approach. I’m guaranteed to feel that it’s a knowledgeable approach that is right for my business. It’s much easier to look past a really solid concept if the leg work and elbow grease don’t come across. Also, the process helps your clients understand what they’re paying for, and that what you’ve provided is unique to their needs.

8. Contextualize.

Show how your brand concept works in actual application. No more of the solid black logo on a white background exported as an 8.5×11” PDF. We designers may understand the value of that approach, however, the non-creative minds and more literal beings that you may be presenting to will certainly be underwhelmed.

This is arguably one of the most important parts of the process. Show your concept in various applications for a few reasons.

  1. It makes for a more visually interesting presentation, helping you to create peak moments in your body of work.
  2. It further solidifies your concepts and tells a more convincing story.
  3. It makes the work feel real. If it feels real, your clients will feel like it’s their own.

I’ve had more customers choose a logo because of the way it was used on a business card or the masthead of their website as opposed to some introduction write-up that led into a stark “tada” reveal slide with my all black logo centered on the screen. Trust me, it works. And you should bake it into your process.

Conclusion…

These 8 tips are really meant to help take the subjectivity out of your branding presentations. They’ll keep you from getting sucked into the swirl of “what ifs”. Your concepts will come across as more convincing tried-and-true solutions. This approach forces you to address the WHY behind why the solution works. Your solutions are not only more informed, but intentional, unique, and polished. When you come across as the expert who has thought through as many avenues as possible, your clients are more likely to take your recommendation.

Be their partner, not their order taker.

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