What is a Visual Identity System?
A Visual Identity System (VIS) is more than a fancy name for a logo. It includes all of the visual assets that your brand utilizes. The logo is the highest element and primary focus of your visual brand, but is sustained by all of the other elements. A VIS takes into account all of the circumstances where your brand must show up and show off. It delivers the superstructure to present your messaging in the best light. It’s what governs everything else you create. Without all the elements of the system, your brand won’t stand up when you need it to.
A well developed VIS includes:
- Logo signatures—the way the logo looks with locations, cities, or other company-specific data
- Product logos
- Color palette
- Patterns and treatments
- Type system
- Templates for documents and website pages
- Photography and illustration styles
The Internet and an expanding marketplace ushered in the need for the VIS. Think back. Do you remember a time when there were two or three pasta sauces to choose from? Now, there’s half an aisle of sauces of every flavor combination and color. When there are multiple brands competing in the same space for the same customer, you must be readily identifiable.
The same concept that is true for pasta sauce is true for your company. The Internet has created multiple choices. Where there used to be one service provider in your market, your target customers can now find all of the service providers—big or small, excellent or poor, local or foreign. Your customer has a choice. This market transformation has necessitated the consolidated articulation of your brand. Not only do you want your target customers to know who you are, you want to communicate that you are the trusted brand and the trusted source of knowledge and information that solves their problems.
The Psychology Behind Visuals
Psychologist Richard Gregory observed the way we view objects and visual messages around us and the associations we make in our brains. He called it the Top Down Processing Theory which comes in to play when observing a brand. He believes that about 90% of the information our eyes receive and absorb is lost by the time it reaches the brain. Therefore, the brain has to guess at what was seen and bases those guesses on past information.
So, an initial introduction to your brand will cause your target to think of other things in the world similar to your logo, but over time, you will narrow the relationship between learning and perception.
By using a VIS, you close the gap. When every piece of content, page on your website, piece of direct mail, and the trade show booth all reinforce the same look, your target audience begins to associate the solution to their problem with your brand. They learn to trust you. Your look—colors, fonts, and more—becomes synonymous with solution.
Three Essential Functions of Your VIS
Designers often use an analogy when talking about a company’s VIS. They will say, “Your visual identity system is like the car you drive.”
I don’t like this analogy very much. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter what car you drive; it matters who you are. However, the analogy works because judgements are often made of others based on the car they drive. If someone drives a dirty clunker to a meeting with a client, they might get written off. In the same way, your target customers may make judgements about you and your products based on your VIS. Your goal is to make the pathway to trusting you easy, flat, and straight. Don’t create a barrier to getting to know you with a poorly formed or outdated VIS. Give them a chance to get to know who you are.
A solid VIS will:
You are telling your story online, with your trade show graphics and collaterals, with your print resources, and more. What you communicate visually tells the world who you are.
If a company is constantly changing its appearance, no one will know what it is or what it does. A consistent look and feel builds comfort and trust. You know what to expect. The brand appears grounded and stable. Over time, the company builds reputation and exposure increases. The cohesive nature of the brand pulls target customers to the company again and again.
Some companies lose trust by using a generic logo that only costs a few hundred dollars. Their brands get lost in a sea of others and their target customers end up playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?”
The Top Down Processing Theory means that every visual interaction with your brand fires the synapses in the brains of your target customers. They are building associations in their minds and storing emotional and factual data about you. Be careful about how you build those associations. Communicate the way you would like to be perceived.
Give You Some Control
You only have so much control over what people think and feel about your company. With nearly 60% of the decision making process occurring before a customer talks to anyone at a company, you cannot control where customers go, what they do, or how they interact with your brand; you can only control how you look and feel.
Three Examples of Visual Identity Systems in B2B Tech
IBM is an established, venerable company with an original logo created by one of the greatest designers of modern brands, Paul Rand. However, IBM didn’t have a VIS then. It didn’t need one. The market demands on a brand were microscopic compared to today. So, as IBM has grown, expanded, and diversified, its brand has become fractured. The company had so many different people creating so many different pieces. All of its branding materials are years old. Its reach and breadth are huge. Attempts to superimpose a VIS upon them have patched some of the holes. It’s really difficult to keep all of that battened down from a visual identity perspective. Check out some of these efforts here, here, and here.
In today’s marketplace, it is essential to establish your VIS early to develop trust and consistency in the marketplace so you have a foundation to grow upon.
Slack is a great example of a B2B tech company that has invested in a VIS. Its B2B revenue model targets businesses installing Slack’s peer-to-peer communication system throughout their enterprises. Perhaps its customer interface taught the company a thing or two about how important strong visuals are.
360 View provides growth solutions for community banks and credit unions. The financial space is covered in shades of green. When 360 View became a Golden Spiral client, it had grown dramatically and its brand and logo didn’t fit who it was anymore. We went through our extensive branding and positioning process to create a new logo and VIS for the company. This included changing its primary color to orange, which was adopted throughout all of the company’s marketing materials. 360 View’s first trade show proved that the bold color was influential; the brand made a huge impact and stood out dramatically. Company leadership quickly adapted the new color everywhere, including office art and decor.
Take a look at some of Golden Spiral’s other B2B tech logo transformations.
How Much Does a VIS Actually Cost?
In the movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” mega bookstore mogul Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) visits The Shop Around the Corner with two children. The kids enjoy story time and exploring the quirky kids’ bookstore while Joe spies on the competition. At one point, he asks bookstore employee George (Steve Zahn) about some hardcover editions.
George Pappas: The, uh, illustrations are hand tipped.
Joe Fox: And that's why it costs so much?
George Pappas: No, that's why it's WORTH so much.
Your VIS is worth so much to you because it is yours alone. Yes, it may cost thousands of dollars. Each VIS comes with its own price tag depending on dozens of factors. Many times, the price tag of a new VIS includes the groundbreaking work of developing a company’s positioning language from the ground up. New companies or companies that have grown dramatically need to conduct this foundational work. If you have a good grip on your mission, vision, values, and buyer’s journey, you can build on your existing foundation.
A cohesive VIS that does everything it’s supposed to do cannot be picked up off the shelf or crowdsourced online. It needs to be carefully crafted around your mission, vision, values, and value proposition. There are so many pieces you will need to generate to communicate your complex concepts. The VIS has to be strong enough to support all that work.
Take for instance the choice of a color scheme. You are not just choosing a color for your logo that looks good. You are choosing an entire spectrum of colors to be used throughout your ecosystem. If you have a graphic user interface (GUI) for your app, SaaS, or product, you will more than likely be using colors to indicate the statuses, preferences, or settings. This color palette needs to grow out of the entire VIS so that everything works together seamlessly.
Not only do you have to differentiate yourself from your competition with your color scheme, you must guide your users through your solution in a cohesive way. At Golden Spiral, we consider as many ways users will see and interact with a brand on a given day or throughout a given year.
You need your VIS to be memorable and identifiable, and to support your business concepts and your technology.
The first look at your VIS comes through a mood board, a collage of existing elements that we gather, but do not create. These images come from anywhere and everywhere and most often have nothing to do with the current brand. With this collage, we begin to hone in on the practical and emotional building blocks that will inform the creation of the style tile. What problems will the visual expression of the brand encounter? Every brand is different, so every mood board is different. When every challenge the brand or product addresses has been identified, we move to logo design. After the logo is complete, we apply it to the problems identified in the mood board. The result is the style tile.
The style tile is designed to help everyone in the organization know how to visually communicate a brand message. It’s a one-page, at-a-glance representation of the new VIS. It’s not comprehensive but becomes a quick reference. The style tile provides context for actually utilizing this system. Working together, companies and designers quickly see which situations don’t work and give clear direction to next steps. After each problem has been addressed, the result is a Brand Guide.
A company’s brand guide is designed to serve most in your company. There will be templates built on the VIS to be used over and over. When in doubt, a team member can refer to the style tile. But designers may need to look deeper. The brand guide is a detailed description and justification for every brand decision made in the VIS. It includes instructions on how to use each element so you ensure consistency and retain brand integrity.
Deploying Your VIS
We put our own VIS into practice every day. Every employee takes personal responsibility to protect our brand. While performing quality assurance checks before launching our “Complete SEO Guide for B2B Tech Marketing," many on staff found places where we were off brand. Kyoko, a designer, noticed the font was wrong in the call to action. Peter, our COO, noticed that the color being used for one graphic wasn’t on brand. Mark, our marketing manager, needed a stock photograph and had to find one that fit our VIS. There were hundreds of other decisions made that allowed the entire piece—online and downloadable—to look and feel like our brand.
This type of companywide adoption doesn’t happen by accident. Key stakeholders must be committed to the new look and feel. They must promote the transformative use of the VIS. When we unveil a new VIS for a client, we also help them announce it, celebrate it, and deploy it throughout their company so they can all collaborate to bring about the new look and feel everywhere. Adopting a VIS throughout your organization helps everyone feel like a part of the team and empowers them to live out the brand in their roles every day.
The expertise, intentionality, and strategic acumen you want applied to your VIS will ultimately determine the cost of your visual identity system.
A cohesive visual identity system reinforces who your company is and what your company does. Your investment in a comprehensive VIS will deliver ROI every day—first in the mindshare of your target audience and then in new business as you earn trust and demonstrate your authority over time.
The First Thing to Do After Reading This Article
When was the last time you looked through your website with visuals in mind? Click through from your homepage and go at least 20 clicks deep. Are you seeing consistent color, font, and image usage? Does your site feel cohesive? If you can, gather a number of trade show or sales collaterals and lay them side by side on a large table. Do they look and feel like they come from the same place?
If you'd like an objective point of view, schedule a strategic consultation with us for a no-obligation evaluation of your visuals.