Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

Designing identities for small companies

Designing identities for small companies
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At smashLAB, a large part of our work is brand related. Have you ever seen the identity systems for UPS, IBM, or ABC? Well, we had absolutely nothing to do with their design. Instead, our clients are primarily small companies. These groups need solid identity systems as much as their larger counterparts and it can be interesting to work with them in their formative stages. Additionally, it’s worth noting that designers must tailor their process to meet the needs of small companies. (Incidentally, the aforementioned systems were all beautifully crafted by Paul Rand.)

Disclaimer: Not enough room

The topic of identity design for small companies is too large for a single post; therefore, this article is limited to a few basics. It reviews the process at three (and a half) stages and addresses some of the ways it differs from working with larger groups.

Early: Probing, thinking, and understanding

Most people do not buy identity systems regularly. This is easy to forget when you design identities daily; however, you might like to remind yourself of this from time to time. With small clients, the designer is often required to provide a substantial amount of counseling to help them through the process.

With any company you must seek to understand how they see themselves and what they aspire to. This takes a few solid meetings comprised of standardized questions and probing. New companies sometimes work from a script and rely on buzz-words to feel more confident. It’s your job to break through that in order to get to less “filtered” discussion.

You may find that some groups have not established a brand strategy, position, or even have a grasp of their organization’s personality (or “culture”). This may seem hard to believe; nevertheless, it’s difficult to see one’s own organization as objectively as a third party might.

This isn’t a bad thing but it does necessitate additional work and consideration. Given that it occurs early enough, taking a step back to address such concerns is rarely cost-prohibitive; furthermore, most clients will appreciate that a well-planned start is better than reworking everything in months to come.

Avoid embarking upon the design process until you have collected and assessed all research and reviewed your findings with the client. At the beginning of the project, there is plenty of time to listen, ask questions and gain an understanding of the organization. Additionally, this is the point where it is best pin down the client’s expectations. They will have moments of indecision later in the process. Establishing targets now lowers the risk of future time and cost overruns.

Middle: Creation and careful analysis

Good research makes a big difference when starting any design project. Even knowing what a client’s competitors are doing can lead to profound insights. Careful examination reduces the likelihood of employing obvious or clichéd approaches. With this knowledge in place, the conceptual stage can begin appropriately.

Identity systems for small companies may seem simple. They are not. An identity is often mistaken as an appealing logo, colour and type system that can be applied uniformly. These are just a few of the considerations.

An identity is the visual representation of a group’s offering and personality. It must convey a value proposition (often in a non-verbal fashion) that resonates with the end client. This system may very well be the only method of differentiating the group from its competitors.

It’s easy to get excited about the award-potential of a project, but such feelings should be suppressed until all of the client’s needs are addressed. A sound identity system has to work in the real world.

Look at your proposed solution and consider its flexibility. Will it feel appropriate if the company grows to ten, a hundred or a thousand people? Will it adapt to meet the requirements of regional, national or even international markets? If they add new divisions, products or services, will this system accommodate such change?

Your client may never know that you think so much about such issues; nevertheless, you can rest well knowing that thinking like this may save them many dollars, and countless headaches, in years to come.

Selling: The stage most likely to be overlooked

By this stage, the excitement of the first meeting often vanishes and often a client’s fear takes over. Accept that clients become unnerved at this stage. They will likely bring your carefully planned solution to their children and neighbors for review and this can throw them even more.

Once again, remind yourself that your client doesn’t buy identity services regularly, and that even if they have done so before, their previous designer likely worked differently from your studio. A good pitch, patience and some well crafted responses will all be required when guiding a client to even the most appropriate solution.

Presenting creative work is challenging, and remains something that most designers dread; nevertheless, it is part of the job. Your client may be banking their life savings on this venture. Recognizing how much they have on the line may help you remain empathetic even when requests seem daunting or out of left field.

Stay open to your client’s concerns and carefully assess which are relevant and which should be swept aside. Address their concerns and present rational explanations for your choices. It may be helpful to reflect on research findings to back-up your insights. If the client found the data relevant earlier, the direction should remain consistent. It is your duty as a designer to lead your client to a wise decision while remaining mindful of their operation’s long-term best interests.

Not managing this part of the project carefully may result in a loss of profitability on the project; worse than that, your client may be left with scattered or incoherent work. Think deliberately, act carefully and be blunt when necessary. A smart client will appreciate your decisiveness and direction once the smoke has cleared.

Completion: Special considerations

Once the client buys in to the concept and visual approach presented, you are through the thick of things; nevertheless, it’s still important to remain focused on the needs of this small company, and address them thoroughly. This means building an identity system they can readily implement while accepting that they may have limited financial resources to work with.

Look at whether the system can later work with such items as the company’s website, ad campaigns, fleet vehicles, signage, and their office space or storefront. You don’t have to execute on these items; however, it is wise to consider how readily the system can be implemented.

In working with a small company – particularly a start-up – you have to remind yourself that they are likely unaware of what they will need as things progress. As such, create a checklist of identity items that could be useful for your client. Perhaps even consider structuring a phased roll-out plan that can balance immediate needs and financial limitations while accommodating future requirements.

Your client will appreciate you providing some basic elements that add professionalism. Clients often find items like presentation folders, mailing labels, Word templates, fax forms, email signatures and note cards useful. You may even consider pricing your services a little higher in order to automatically take care of these items.

Printing budgets can often seem prohibitive to small companies. As such, it is wise to build pieces that work well with one or two colours and can be ganged-up on the press to reduce expenditures. Many printers will help you find ways to accommodate limited budgets.

Closing thoughts

Some may argue that the points above are hardly any different from what would be applied to a larger organization. While this may be true, you will find that small companies rarely have marketing and communications experts at hand to implement such efforts; thus, the designer’s role often expands to meet their needs.

Small clients have a particularly hard time remembering that their brand assets play an important role in their growth. As such, you need to reinforce brand-focused thinking. Encourage them to see their identity as more than a “one-off” project. Their brand must remain central in their operations and decision making; likewise, their identity must be implemented consistently in order to reinforce the organization’s nature.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Jack Yan says:

    I love dealing with some of the smaller organizations sometimes. Sure, the pay is crap. And it is hard to get them to see the project beyond the initial brand strategy and first execution. But it is far easier to cut through the clutter and have a heart-to-heart with the boss. Oftentimes, it is understanding the boss and transferring that personality to the whole organization.

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  3. arjan says:

    also a nice read - especially for your clients:

    http://www.aiga.org/resources/teaser/2/4/8/documents/AIGAfinal-1.pdf

    it'll give the businesses with no marketing department a bit of help, as well as the designers.

  4. Dani Nordin says:

    Excellent, excellent post. As a designer who's beginning to really focus on building brands for smaller companies, I found it very useful - definitely gave me some food for thought.

  5. I’ve found that this handholding of smaller clients also applies to any project that may be the entry point of the relationship, whether they come to you for a catalog, website or other marketing materials.

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  7. Hartym says:

    Very good article, we're actually facing the kind of problems you described, think i should show this to my commercial :)

    Hard work developping with sales guidelines, they have pretty good ideas on how to develop on short term, but they don't have any idea what a flexible and extensive codebase is worth...

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  9. I am on board with your article, and am reminded of something else I read recently. Embrace what you are best at! Designers are typically not sales people. Sales people are not usually designers. These are totally different strength sets. To be successful at both - have two different people doing them. It allows each of you to do precisely what you are talented at... much better results. The new bug is the communication cycle between 3 of you instead of just 2... Client, salesperson, designer gets a little more complicated than just client, designer. Then again, oftentimes messages are more blunt when interpreted by the "middleman". This is what we are doing at http://www.brandyourclinic.com.

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  15. Evan says:

    "This takes a few solid meetings comprised of standardized questions and probing."

    What questions do you usually ask?

  16. Hi Evan,

    We concentrate our questions on anything that will help us understand the client's specific business and messaging challenges. I want to really have a clear idea of what their situation and obstacles look like, so that we can craft something around those needs.

    Cheers!

    Eric

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