Ask yourself these questions:
1. Do the look and feel of your products communicate what’s best about your brand?
2. Do your products look like they all share the same brand?
3. Would I recognize the brand of your products if I took the logos off?
If you answered yes to all three, then your products have a “Visual Brand Language.” If you didn’t, well…pay attention.
A Visual Brand Language, or VBL, is a framework for product design used to create a cohesive product family. With an effective and consistent VBL, the look and feel of your products will communicate what’s great about your brand in the most direct way possible. Your customers will recognize your products. Your design team will also be able to innovate more efficiently, because they’ll be armed with a set of Signature Design Elements and Principles—tools to design the next product for your brand (more on that below).
The foundation of any VBL is the brand. An effective visual language uses form, material, color, texture, product behavior, and even light and sound. When applied consistently across a branded product line, the effect is a unified family of products that continually delivers on your brand promise. Are your products practical, rugged, robust? Refined, elegant, and sophisticated? More important, do they look and feel that way?
Nine Straightforward Steps for Creating a VBL for Your Brand
Before you can express your brand in the design of your products, you have to get your brand’s house in order. First, articulate why the brand exists and the customers it serves. Map out a position that doesn’t imitate your competitors, but instead stands out distinctively among them.
1. Understand Your Brand (and the Other Guy’s)
A strong and consistent VBL is only as good as the brand it represents, so work with your marketing team to revisit the core components of your brand. There are several critical elements that define a strong brand. Here are a few of the most important for developing your VBL, paraphrased from Our Definition of Brand and Why by Jamey Boiter:
a. Brand Pillars: 3-4 compelling truths about the brand, attributes that communicate your brand’s core beliefs, culture, and values.
b. Brand Personality: If your brand had a voice, what would it sound like? What would it be like to hang out with your brand, maybe have a beer?
c. Brand Positioning: How you strategically differentiate your brand’s image from your competitors for a particular target audience.
d. Brand Identity: Your name, logo / mark and associated system.
If you’ve already done the work to build a strong brand, then you are on the right track. If you want to read more about the fundamentals of a good brand, check out Jamey’s blog.
Pay attention to your competitors’ brand positions, then take note of what makes your voice unique and distinctive within your category. It’s great to study the competitors’ products and literature, but even more important to hear it from the users themselves.
Use “Voice of Customer” research to listen to customers describe the qualities of your brand, and the brands with which you compete.
2. Get to Know Your End User or Customer
Do you know who uses your products? Really know them? Gather the research you have on your end users and plan additional research to fill in the gaps if needed. With quantitative research, you can describe your users in terms of age, gender, geography, cultural background, and income. With research like user sessions and user shadowing, you can get to know them while they are shopping for and using your product. For more ideas to learn about your end users, check out Monty’s blog “10 Paths to Empathy with Your End User”.
When we are designing a VBL for our clients at BOLTGROUP, we often develop this end-user research into 3-4 “personas,” or representative characters that embody the various user types. Each persona is fleshed out with a list of aspirations, lifestyle, favorite activities, and brands. Personas are one of several tools we use to acquaint our creative team with the end users of the products. By putting our designers inside the heads of the users, they are ready to develop a visual language users will love.
3. Identify the Key Attributes You Want Your Products to Communicate
Now you know who you are (your brand) and who you are talking to (your end users). So what do you want to say? This is your chance to build an emotional connection with your end users. Starting from the Brand Pillars and other brand attributes from Step 1, craft a list of attributes that describe what is great about your products and what they mean to your end users. Add to the list words or phrases that capture the tone, style, and attitude of the products, inspired by the Brand Personality. It will be the design team’s job to carve these VBL Attributes into a three-dimensional, multi-sensory visual language.
4. Create Your Signature Design Elements and Design Principles
Armed with a well-defined brand, a laser focus on your end user, and a bold statement ready to declare to the marketplace, it’s time for your creative team to develop the Signature Design Elements. These are the forms, shapes, features, and treatments that can be applied across your product line to maintain a consistent visual language. (Think of the clear bubble window on the sole of Nike Air shoes.) Starting with form, consider the overall silhouette and “stance” of your products. Then design the common details, material transitions, vents, and whatever elements are common to your product category.
Depending on the type of products you make, you may want to design the following elements of your Visual Brand Language:
- Industrial design of overall form and/or silhouette
- User interface points (handles, buttons, controls, touchpoints)
- Graphical User Interface (UI) design elements
- Logo and brand treatments
- Color palette
- Sound, light, texture, material
- Material transitions, reveals, fasteners
- The sound and feel of moving or removable parts
The Signature Design Elements are the visible, audible, or tangible aspects of your design language. It is also important to consider the less tangible qualities that will define your user’s product experience. These are your Design Principles: intangible qualities that result in a positive user experience and make your products unique (think safe, innovative, easy to use). The Design Principles should also consider the life cycle of your products, from cradle to grave.