Identity: Why You Need More Than a Logo

Identity is the facts – the indisputable reality – of who or what something is. Without getting into an existential discussion, let’s acknowledge that we can’t know what to do with something unless we first know what it is. Identity is foundational to life, to doing business and to branding.

In design terms, an identity is your visual position. It is not your logo. If you have a logo, you have the first item necessary in an identity system, and a long way to go to establish a complete system.

Why isn’t a logo enough?

Identity systems keep your visual position consistent across all platforms and applications. With a solid system in place, you can maintain a cohesion that meets the demands of various media, from printed collateral, internal communications pieces, web sites, email, newsletters, apps, signage, promotions, etc. You don’t want confusion and you don’t want to appear “thrown together”.

You can think of your identity as a wardrobe consisting of a variety of pieces that can be mixed and matched but that all work together. You’re well-dressed and appropriate for any occasion. With a well-coordinated system, no one will ever look at you and exclaim, “I can’t believe they’re wearing THAT!”

Identity is the facts – the indisputable reality – of who or what something is.

What makes up an identity system?

A system needs a variety of components to connect together. The more elements you establish, the more versatile you become, and your brand won’t get lost in confusion or fall apart as it’s pushed out into new markets and platforms. These are the essentials of a viable identity system:

  • Logo or wordmark. A logo is a graphic symbol or icon. A word mark, also known as a logotype, is a typographic setting of your company or product name. Some logos include typography (Walmart), some are entirely typographic (IBM), and others are symbol alone. (Nike). Whatever form a logo takes, it should be intelligently and professionally designed.
  • Lockup variations. Although your logo should be applied consistently, variations are required for different applications. You should have color as well as black and white versions. You may need versions that are horizontal, stacked vertically or that conform to a square. All versions should share the same essential qualities.
  • Primary colors. By primary, I mean hierarchical or base colors, not spectral (red-yellow-blue or cyan-magenta-yellow). A corporate color palette is a defined set of base colors usually derived from the logo. Colors should be designated for printing (CMYK formulas and spot color) and digital (RGB, hexadecimal and HLS) use. Your designer will know what all these letters refer to.
  • Secondary color palettes. These are colors that complement the primary scheme. They can be selected on the basis of voice (bright, elegant, fun) or contrast. The secondary palettes create additional cohesion, expand the color options and support your visual position. Getting back to the wardrobe idea, a person who wears a lot of dark neutrals as their base color will add brighter colors to accent.
  • Type style. Type is as important as color and symbol, and should be confined to a few official fonts that work together in a harmonious blend. Using Comic Sans along with Papyrus, or Arial along with Tahoma, are not good choices. I recommend selecting a serif font and a sans serif that work well together. Again, your designer should have the knowledge to make appropriate choices. To note, your corporate type faces do not need to match the face used in a logotype, but must complement it well. Corporate typefaces should be used consistently on all external and internal communications.
  • Standard typographic treatments. For consistency, your typography should include style guidelines describing how to handle bullet points, pull quotes, headlines, sub-heads, captions, footnotes, etc. Will headlines be set in serif or sans serif? All upper case? What about paragraph breaks and left and right alignments? Will you employ quote marks or italics for titles? Will the names of people be bold or regular?
  • Image style. Your imagery should have a consistent look and feel across the board. Are your people shots engaging with the camera or with each other? Is the background cropped out? Is the color subdued, monochromatic or achromatic? Are images sharpened or soft? Or, will you eschew photos and go with illustration? If so, what style? Line art? Full color realism? Dark, broody tones? Once determined, there should be consistency between print and digital.
  • White space. I’ve discussed the use of white space in my blog. It is as important to your identity as the active elements. White space IS a design element and needs to be considered as carefully as type and image. Do you want a cluttered look or a quiet one? Do you want to fill up white space with active elements or let it do its job of bringing focus to those elements?
  • Library. Develop a complete library of graphic elements. It’s the less-noticed items that complete and substantiate a branding system. A library should include background textures, line styles, icons, buttons, box styles, and more. It’s in dealing with these little things that do-it-yourself-ers fall down, and where a professional designer pulls it all together.

Having a broadly-scoped system will build a solid and versatile identity. The wider your reach, the more likely your identity – and brand – will fall apart if it does not include enough elements.

Do you need a graphic audit?
Is your organization easily identified and consistent from your business card to your blog to your fleet signage? How about doing a graphic audit to determine what’s missing? Let’s get together and get you all put together! -Alvalyn Lundgren. ©2013, 2014

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.