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We all want a visual brand identity that captures our dream customers’ attention and makes us feel proud and happy every time we look at it. But it can be daunting to settle on a creative direction when we’re faced with so many choices.
I’ll share a little designer secret with you: there’s no magic to it. Designing a visual identity is a process, and you can do it too!
The first step is always research. It’s important to know what your competitors are doing, what’s appropriate for your industry, and to find out what fonts, stock images, textures, patterns and other design resources are available to help you express your brand’s personality. An inspiration board makes it easy to store everything you gather while you’re doing your research.
An added bonus if you’re working with a designer: having an inspiration board to show them will help you speak in the same “visual language.” Words aren’t always a reliable way of communicating what you envision–one person’s idea of “bold” or “feminine” or “modern” can look very different from another’s. When you’re both looking at visual examples, it helps to clarify and get on the same page without sitting down at the drawing board to throw darts, hoping you hit the mark (which can be costly).
Here’s how you can create your inspiration board using Pinterest:
STEP 1: Define your brand anchors
I use the term “brand anchors” to describe the personality of a brand because it’s a nice little metaphor that helps us get our mind pointed in the right direction.
How it works: you’ll choose 3 adjectives that summarize what your brand stands for and the experience you want to create for your customers. Here are some questions that’ll help you choose adjectives that will resonate with your dream customers:
- What characteristic do you want your business to become known for that your dream customers will value?
- What are the words you would love to hear your customers use to describe you to a friend?
- When your customers give you feedback, what words do they use to describe the experience? (Look for patterns.)
- What is one word that describes the “uniqueness” of the experience of working with you? (Not unique in the whole world, just your little corner of it.)
When I did this exercise in my own business, I landed on the words EMPOWERING, FUN, and PERSONAL.
That’s the experience I want to create for my clients, but I know that it’s the actual experience because my clients have told me so. If you don’t know what your client experience is, ask your clients how they felt about working with you and steal their words! I would never have described my service as “fun,” but that word came up time and time again in testimonials my clients wrote for me. If you haven’t yet launched your business, you can ask co-workers, friends, classmates, and colleagues to describe your strengths and the qualities they appreciate about you.
After you decide on your adjectives, the next step is to “anchor” them in your mind so that everything you create is infused with these qualities. Anchor concepts will help you create consistency, and when you’re consistent–you build awareness, become remembered, and create raving fans who will spread your brand message automatically after your work together is through.
So as you think about color, typography, imagery, your website design and your logo (the building blocks of your visual brand identity), you’ll intentionally look for inspiration that conveys these brand anchor qualities.
But first, a couple of ground rules:
DO NOT: Start start looking at what everyone else is doing before you’ve created your brand anchors
People commonly skip over this most important step and just start looking at pretty things or at what other people are doing. Not only is that incredibly overwhelming, but you’re likely to end up with a knockoff version of someone else’s brand or some Frankenstein version of a few visual themes you’re drawn to. Keep in mind that someone else’s design solution may not fit your problems.
So before you look around at visual inspiration, get clear about the heart and soul of your own business and then look for design inspiration that’s in alignment with that.
Get yourself a strategic direction first and trust the process; filter out everything that doesn’t align with your brand anchors (no matter how lovely it may be).
DO NOT: Focus exclusively on your personal taste and the things you like looking at
You should love looking at your visual brand and it should tell a story about who you are, so personal preferences play a big role. But, be sure to leave room for your customers, too. Again, look for things that reflect who you are that are also in alignment with your brand anchors. Remember, your visual brand’s job is to communicate your customer experience to people who don’t know you yet, not just to look pretty.
Now we’re ready to have some fun!
STEP 2: Set up your inspiration board on Pinterest
Now that you’ve got a few adjectives anchored in your mind, your next step will be to start gathering design inspiration. Pinterest is hands-down the best tool for this because it’s a visual search engine AND a tool for bookmarking images. If you don’t already have an account, sign up for one, and what you’ll want to do is create a secret board.
First, click on your profile by clicking on your avatar up in the top right corner. Then, underneath your profile navigate to your boards. On the left-hand side, click on “create board.”
Now, you’ll create a secret board–give it a name and select the “secret” option. Now, the pins you add to your board will only be visible to you and anyone you invite to be a collaborator on that board.
If you’re working with a designer or a team, or if you want to get feedback from your target audience, you can invite them to collaborate–which means they’ll be able to view your pins and add their own to the board. Open up your new board and locate the avatars to the right of the board title and click on the gray avatar icon. Then, invite your collaborators by entering their name (if they have a Pinterest account) or by email.
STEP 3: Research images and pin them to your board
Now you’re going to begin adding pins to your board. If you have images of your own that you want to upload, you do that by clicking on the red icon in the upper right-hand corner and clicking on “create pin.” There, you’ll have an option to upload images. Once it’s uploaded you’ll be asked to choose which board it goes in, and you’ll choose your new secret board.
Search Keywords That Align With Your Brand Anchors
As an example, say your brand anchors are FEMININE, CHEERFUL, and EARTHY
Now expand those keywords to include synonyms and related terms depending on the TONE or VIBE you want to create. For example friendly, approachable, organic, nurturing…
Then, brainstorm keyword phrases. You can see how other designers have interpreted these adjectives by using phrases like:
- Examples of [adjective] branding
- Examples of [adjective] logo designs
- Award-winning [adjective] design
- [Adjective] typography
- Inspirational [adjective] brands
Try combining more than one of your brand anchor adjectives as you search for images, e.g.: “Examples of feminine and earthy color palettes.”
Your inspiration can be anything! It doesn’t have to be limited to examples of graphic design or branding. Try searching for inspiration outside of your industry–if you’re a writer, try searching for images relating to fashion, interior design or nature photography … there are no rules other than keeping those adjectives anchored in your mind.
Search for examples of:
Graphic design (packaging, branding, collateral materials, etc.)
Pro-tip: Use the Chrome browser extension Full Page Screen Capture to take screen captures of websites you’re inspired by to upload to your secret board.
Places where you’ll find inspirational images
Google images and Pinterest are going to give you a treasure trove of examples, but keep in mind that these are mostly going to be restricted by copyright so you won’t be able to actually use them, they’re just to inspire you.
You can also search stock imagery sites like iStock and Creative Market for images you can purchase, and search free stock photography sites like Unsplash and Pixabay that are free to use for commercial purposes.
Use the search bar on Pinterest and type in your keyword search phrases. To pin images you find inspiring, click on the image and save it to your secret board.
To pin images that are not on Pinterest, you’ll want to install their browser extension for easy pinning.
As you pin your images to your board, you can change the description and include any notes you have about those images (e.g. “purchase from iStock” or “free image from Unsplash”).
During this phase, don’t overthink it, just pin. If something speaks to you, pin it. This is visual brainstorming and anything goes, you’ll worry about editing down in the next step…
STEP 4: Create 1-4 Theme Boards
Once your inspiration board has loads and loads of images, take a step back and see what’s there. You’ll likely see patterns emerging–color themes, font styles, images, textures, patterns.
What you’ll want to do now is begin narrowing things down into themes. In our example FEMININE, EARTHY & FRIENDLY you might sort out all of the warm earth tones with cheerful hand-drawn illustrations, the designs that have a colorful bohemian vibe, and those that have a more modern vibe. (That’s the thing about using adjectives to convey brand qualities–there’s more than one way to go about it!).
For each theme, create a new secret board, then open up each individual image and save them to your new board (they’ll now be pinned to your original board and the new theme board). If there’s one clear theme winner that’s really jumping out at you and makes you feel tingly all over, you only need to create one theme board and you’re done with this step.
But you may see more than one theme emerging that you’re torn between, so create additional boards to sort those images out. Once they’re sorted into individual boards, it’ll be easier for you to make a decision about which direction to go.
But don’t go too crazy — if you need to create more than 3 or 4 boards to sort things out, it might indicate that you’re not yet clear about your brand tone and personality and you might want to go back to STEP #1 and think about it some more. Creating theme boards is about the details (things like colors and fonts and image styles), not the anchor concepts.
The next step in the process is to choose one direction. This is perhaps the hardest part because you’ll have to say “no” to all the other options. So to help you choose your direction, think about how you want your audience to feel when they see your visuals. You might even reach out to some people who fit your description of your ideal customer and invite them to look at your boards and give you feedback.
5. Finalize your brand inspiration board
When you’ve narrowed your direction down to one theme board, you can use this board to further refine your creative direction. Begin rounding things out by researching specific design elements to consider for use in your branding project and pin them to your board.
What’s missing? Make sure you have what you need to:
Create a color palette
Choose appropriate fonts
Find appropriate stock imagery that will fit your theme–photos, textures, and patterns
You can use your final theme board to bookmark all things you need to purchase so it’s all in one handy spot. Then, you (or your designer) can sit down to the drawing board feeling much more clear about the direction your visuals should go.
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.