The question is: is your visual identity helping or hurting your business? Let’s clear up a few misconceptions and get to the reasons why design affects your bottom line.
Do you need award-winning, professional design in order to build a successful brand? Well, it sure doesn’t hurt, but no.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the role design plays in business. Most people think of it as picking out trendy fonts and cool colors and pushing buttons around in the Adobe Creative Suite. In actuality, design is a business tool — it either helps you make money or it has failed its job — and professional designers who approach their craft in this way are much more than decorators, they’re business problem solvers.
I would never tell a business owner they need to spend a lot of money hiring a designer in order to build their brand. I know a lot of businesses get started as a weekend hustle, on a shoestring budget, and it’s just not a luxury they can afford yet.
Design costs don’t need to be a factor holding you back — there are plenty of ways to DIY or purchase a low-cost solution and get going with it. The most important thing about your business will always be that there’s a need in the market and that you provide a great solution.
But let’s talk about branding. Because while I’m sympathetic to the plight of the startup business hustler — if your design is misaligned with your brand promise; if it’s treated as an afterthought (or if you think it’s not important and so you just do “whatever”) — it has the power to devalue your offer in the mind of the customer and undermine your credibility.
And that means it can cost your business in real ways.
Why you need branding
If you think you don’t need it, if you’re pushing it to the side — “I’ll work on that later” — or if you just don’t think it’s that important, remember this:
- If you feel invisible, it’s branding that gets you noticed.
- If you have competition, it’s branding that helps you stand out.
- If your customers aren’t seeing how great you are, it’s branding that shows them.
- How will you bust through all the noise and endless options people have online and become the best choice for your dream customer? Branding.
But what is branding? A simple way to think about it is: communicating to customers what it’ll feel like when they work with you.
And how do you communicate that? You use words, of course. But impressions are influenced by more than what you write and what you say; in fact, the very first impressions will happen within a matter of milliseconds.
Think about a time when you’ve visited a website that spoke to you the second you landed on it:
“Oh cool! This seems really dynamic and fun!”
“Oooooh. This is so warm and inviting…”
Or how about…
“Holy hell, 1997 called and they want their website back.” 😬
Design says something about you way before your words have a chance to catch up.
This is the power of design, and you may think it doesn’t affect you, but I would argue that it’s as important — if not moreso — for small businesses to pay attention to details like good design than large organizations with more resources. It’s competitive out there, it’s noisy, and getting people’s attention is a monumental task. Every competitive edge you have makes a difference.
The way to get your business noticed by the right people is by using good words and good design. That’s it; boom. *Drops the mic*
Your brand promise informs your design, not the other way around
Creating a brand promise requires answering some big, tough questions that can create stuck points, so a lot of business owners start out in the middle of the process somewhere — picking out fonts and colors and designing a business card before they ever get really clear about their business goals and the heart & soul of their brand message.
Having a pretty business card feels nice — like you’re legit in the world — but it isn’t a business.
If you start creating design assets before getting clear about who you are, what you stand for, who you serve and what makes your company different… then you’re missing the whole point. That’s not branding, that’s decorating, and not only that, it’s backward.
Your design choices should be made only after you’ve answered all the tough questions: What makes you uniquely you? How do you want your customers to feel? What is the emotional experience like when somebody works with you? What are your super powers?
Your visual brand identity is then created with a deep understanding of your customer, your goals, and the message you need to convey.
Without that information? Any design you create is just stabbing in the dark and hoping it works out.
You can hire a designer and still get it wrong
Even if you hire a designer to help, a lot can go wrong.
If you’re not clear about your business, they’re only going to be able to decorate your weak brand foundation. It may look pretty, and you may love it, but it may still be misaligned for the customer.
A good designer can help you get clear about your brand direction; but three problems I notice happening all. the. time:
- Good designers who understand brand strategy are usually more expensive, and clients don’t understand the difference in price — they can get it cheaper somewhere else! But, what they don’t consider (or maybe don’t know) is that “getting graphics made” is only the deliverable. The real value is in the process of working with a good designer. They can help you tell the whole story, know the “reasons why” design choices were made, and give you a playbook for how you’ll communicate the heart and soul of your business. Anything else is just “getting graphics at the graphics store,” and often largely dependent on the clients’ personal taste. (Results may vary.)
- Design clients like what they like, and don’t want to be bothered listening to a designer, or following and being engaged in a process. Designers won’t argue with you, they’ll do their best to please you so they can get paid.
- The person you hired isn’t really a designer. Pretty much everybody these days is a designer, ever notice that? Making graphics doesn’t make someone a designer, a better term would be “graphics technician.” A designer’s job is to solve problems visually, and if they’re not asking you about your problems or digging deep to really understand what your brand is about (or helping you figure it out if you haven’t gotten clear about it yet), you’ve just hired somebody to push the buttons on the software you don’t know how to push yourself.
It’s a big ol’ mess really.
How getting design wrong costs you
Look, I don’t want to beat around the bush. If your visuals are amateurish and poorly-designed, it’s going to take a LOT of extra work on your part for people to take you seriously.
I look at smart, talented, hard-working people trying to get noticed online all day every day (I’m an observer, it’s a hobby)… I visit their websites (I’m curious like that) to check out their design game, and a lot of the time, well… it’s a problem.
If your visuals do not align with the reality of how great you are, that first impression is blown to bits, and you may not get a second chance. Getting that second chance (or third, or fourth…), well, that takes time, energy, money … wouldn’t it make your life easier to just make a great first impression in the first place?
Key takeaway: Design can help you establish credibility on the first impression (research backs this up).
This is a very simple concept and yet it always amazes me how many smart people get it wrong: if you want to stand out from your competition and get noticed, your design needs to be different.
Different! As in, NOT THE SAME!
If you’re blending in with everybody else, by definition: you. will. not. stand. out.
But here’s what happens: you see what your competition is doing, or what somebody else is doing, and you think, “I’ll just make my brand look like that, done!”
Being relevant in your industry and on-trend is fine, but copying what everybody else is doing is the opposite of branding. Nobody’s going to see you, yo!
Another thing that happens is people use templates and off-the-shelf designs to save on costs, but if you’re using the same stuff everyone else is – no matter how lovely it may look – it will not be distinctive and memorable in the mind of your customer.
Whenever I go to Pinterest, everyone’s pins look like one big blob to me, like they’re all coming from the same person. It’s those few entrepreneurs who were careful about and invested in their branding that really stand out. Those are the ones I trust, remember, and visit time and time again. I have no doubt it’s the same experience for you too.
The consequence? Again, you have to work harder to become memorable. More time, more money, more days waking up to the sound of crickets — wondering why nobody’s paying attention, because you’re awesome, dammit! We can’t see you in the blob my friend. 🙁
Key takeaway: Branding makes you visible but you have to be telling your own visual story, not the one everyone else is telling too.
The reason why we want design that is unique to us is so people can put us back into context when they see something from us a second time, “Oh yeah, her! Her stuff is good, I’ll click on this link.”
And when you’re marketing your business online, you need to “touch” potential customers multiple times — 7, 10, 15 times! — in order for them to really begin to know and trust you and consider buying from you. If your design is so generic that nobody ever remembers who you are, you’re making this process exponentially more difficult for yourself.
Key takeaway: Visual branding shortens the process of becoming remembered by your dream customer.
Design is a reflection of you, it gives customers an idea of what it’s like to work with you before they know you
I see these design crimes EVERY DAY:
— Sloppy designs (Next! I don’t want to work with somebody who’s sloppy)
— Tacky (Not really looking to hire a tacky person)
— Amateur (I’ll keep shopping around for a pro, thanks anyway)
— Copycats (Who are you again?)
— Inconsistent (You seem like you need to sort some things out, I’ll leave you to that.)
These first impressions happen in less than one second (that’s also from research).
That is not to say your design needs to appeal to everyone
Not everyone is going to like it. That’s okay, you don’t want to attract everyone, just your dream customers. But you don’t want to put your dream customers off by being sloppy, tacky, inconsistent, amateur or copying what everyone else is doing.
So, how do you to fix your brand?
Creating a strong personal brand requires you get to the heart and soul of who you are and how you want your customers to feel when they work with you. Branding is all about emotion.
Answering “who you are” is a big, tough, soul-searching question that can get you stuck. It’s hard because it should be soul-searching, branding is all about emotion.
I want to leave you with two final thoughts:
Design is not art, it’s a business tool. Think of it more like your accounting software than the pottery you make on the weekend. In other words, don’t become too personally attached to it. Remember, it’s a tool. It’s not as subjective as people think it is (it works or it doesn’t) and it’s not a reflection of who you are as a human being (that’s art). If design isn’t helping you make more money, you need new design. The key is finding a happy medium between making choices that reflect who you are, and choices that will inform your dream customers what they can expect to feel when they work with you. So it isn’t entirely about personal taste, it’s about creating visuals that will help you communicate that heart & soul of your biz.
If you’re copying what others are doing, it could be that you’re afraid to be yourself. But remember: your single greatest competitive advantage is that there’s only one you. Somebody out there in the world needs you and they need to see you. There’s no better way to brand your business than by telling your unique story and playing to your personal strengths. You don’t have to be anybody other than exactly who you are.