Visual brand design: discover the recipe for a future-proof brand

24 July 2023

Your brand identity is your brand's personality, what you stand for and what you want to achieve. It is what sets you apart from your competitors. Astrid Vanwolleghem, design director at iO Antwerp, developed a seven-step plan for designing its outward reflection: the visual brand identity. "Anyone familiar with that step-by-step plan will understand why strong branding does not happen overnight," says Astrid. Take a walk through the plan and, along the way, get rid of some preconceptions about creating your visual brand identity!


Thinking designers

Astrid Vanwolleghem: "There are quite a few misconceptions about brand design. Top of the list: It's not just some random tinkering. Every element you add to a visual identity stems from the brand strategy."

"Secondly: a design may initially provoke some resistance. Does everyone think it's OK right away? Then it may lack some character and vision. Such an instant pleaser often has a more limited shelf life. And of course, we want to avoid that."

"And three: don't confuse visual identity with creative concepts. Your visual identity is always on, you include it in all your media, while concepts are campaign-related. Besides, a brand's visual identity is often less prominent during the big, concept-driven campaign waves. That's when the dominant creative concept forces the visual identity somewhat to the back burner. Which is fine by me. After all, visual branding is not an end in itself: it should reinforce the message. That is why I advocate thinking designers: the better you understand the content you are designing, the better you can support it."

Strategy before expression

Before diving deeper into the roadmap, let's briefly situate where visual identity sits in the bigger picture of iO's Brand Anatomy Model. In that model, we first distinguish brand strategy from brand expression. While things like purpose, mission, vision, values and market positioning belong to the strategy section, visual identity falls under the expression section.

Astrid Vanwolleghem: "Roughly speaking, the strategic exercise has to be ready before copywriters and designers take care of verbal and visual identity respectively. Even though strategists know that it is best to check their work with the expressionists who must build on it before putting the finishing touches to it. Copywriters and designers are also best pollinated by each other."

The step-by-step plan

Step 1: The perfect briefing

Brand strategy is the most important part of a good briefing for designers, copywriters, and other expressionists. Make sure the brand's purpose, mission, vision, values, market positioning and personality are clear. Market research, competitive analysis, personas, and customer journeys complete the briefing.

Step 2: Mood boards

After the briefing, designers explore different visual directions to give expression to the strategy. They collect inspiring images and mood elements and then sort them into thematic clusters, of which you keep a maximum of the three best. These are your mood boards.

Step 3: Design sprints

Inspired by the themes from the mood boards, the design process continues with the creation of visual brand assets: colours, shapes, typography, motion, logo design and photography. At the same time, copywriters work on the verbal identity. For sound design and any other sensory assets - such as scent - we call on external specialists. Rough versions of the first relevant deliverables - for example, a banner or an advertisement - see the light of day.

Step 4: Basic brand assets

During this step, we weigh the rough drafts against each other. Which approach is the most sparkling? Which direction is the most versatile? And above all: which one best supports the brand? The chosen direction is then further elaborated, and the basic assets are defined.

The designers now create a one-pager with the basic assets: this serves as a starting point for what will later become the style guide. The colours, the logo, the graphics: they are all included. We define all the ingredients of our recipe, but there is still no certainty about how we will prepare the dish.

Step 5: Roll-out

The design team works out the various deliverables. What will the website look like? What about the social content and stationery design, such as notebooks and ballpoint pens? Motion design and merchandising also take shape. For each deliverable, the recipe and ideal mix of ingredients is weighed up again.

Step 6: Style guide

The complete style guide is prepared. It contains all visual and verbal style characteristics, illustrated with concrete examples (prepared in Step 5). Do's and don'ts are also included. Astrid Vanwolleghem: "For me, the style guide is the externalisation of the strategy described in the brand book. But above all, don't lose yourself in terminologies. Brand book, style guide, brand guide: they are often used interchangeably. Fine by me, if everyone involved knows what you mean by it."

Step 7: Everyone on-brand

In what form do we present the style guide? Certainly not as a static pdf, that's passé. A brand portal or another online tool are often better options. The choice of form depends on your target group: who exactly are we making the style guide for? And how do we keep everyone 'on-brand' and therefore up to speed?

However, know that you are never done with your style guide, simply because you’re never done with a visual identity. Make sure that your visual identity that has just been christened evolves favourably and remains sparkling.

Astrid Vanwolleghem: "Visual design is a living matter. The recipe and ingredients vary a little over time and depending on the chef preparing the dish. And what influence will AI, for example, have on your visual identity? You're never done with it, but a strong foundation will get you a long way."

Jan Schuddinck
About the author
Jan Schuddinck
Senior Creative Copywriter - iO

As an experienced conceptual copywriter, Jan is iO’s jack-of-all-copy-trades. From senior-level snappy taglines to ever-lasting elaborate blogs, Jan’s value comes from what he does best: taking in the complex and putting it in words your audience can really get behind.

Stay informed. Subscribe to our newsletter

iO respects your privacy. You can unsubscribe at any time.