What exactly is graphic design?
Graphic design is the art of skillfully combining the use of text, imagery, color, and flow in such a way as to visually communicate ideas, feelings, concepts, and meaning. At its core, graphic design is a process of visual communication. A designer's arsenal may include typography, color, photos, and illustrations, but it is the combination and layout of them that accomplishes the end goal: to evoke a new understanding, perception, or desire of a given concept.
What's the difference between branding, identity, and a logo?
Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they stand for different, related layers of the same thing: the overall image that a company presents to the world across its various platforms and mediums of communication with its partners, customers, and even its employees. That image can be thought of as the face the company shows to the world.
A brand is the overall perception of a company. As customers interact with your business, what they see, hear, feel, and experience in the course of that interaction all contribute to that perception. Perhaps it even starts before they interact with your business — what's your reputation like?
Market research suggests it takes nearly a dozen positive interactions to make up for a single negative customer experience*. It is critical that every single visual and tangible interaction evokes feelings of positivity: competence, loyalty, quality, etc. All of these will contribute to building consumer confidence in your brand, and building customer attraction to your business or product.
By contrast, every interaction also has the power to confuse, annoy, or even put off the customer if it is sloppy, inconsistent, or sending mixed messages about you or what you offer.
As you can see, it goes far beyond customer service.
Branding is the effort to control this perception through engaging all the customer's senses. A strong brand has a personality, a story, and a point-of-view. Nailing that down as accurately as possible and then remaining consistent is key to effectively communicating to customers what you're all about.
Many different tools may be employed to develop the brand, and one of them is the brand's identity.
Identity is all the visual elements of the brand. This includes the logo, colors, fonts, business cards, letterhead, website, advertisements, signage, and social media. The brand's identity is a big part of how you can control the customer's perception of your company. It is also called an identity system.
A logo is a mark that a company uses to identify itself. The best logos are easily recognizable and, over time, familiar to the eye. It is often the first impression a customer receives of your brand, and therefore incredibly important.
A logo can just be an image (a pictorial or abstract mark), an image and text (a combination mark), or just text (a wordmark or lettermark). Often, a company will have both a combination mark and a pictorial mark which drops the text, and their usage depends on the occasion.
Why do I need it?
Picture a customer who interacts with your brand for the very first time. Let's say he or she is browsing online where you advertise your products. They notice your logo, and this is the very first time their eyes come across your brand and identity — the very first chance for you to capture their attention. The only trouble is, your logo is messy, unreadable, or sends mixed messages. Through unskillful use of color and type choice, it bespeaks a heavy metal band when in fact you sell smoothies. Or perhaps it just looks like every other outdated, boring logo that took 10 minutes to make with zero research into the business behind it.
Any of these can be confusing and off-putting, and the potential customer's gaze moves on to the next thing on the page. Often without even knowing, they've already made a subconscious decision: "this isn't for me".
I often joke that I can tell how good a restaurant is based on their logo. If they're not taking their business seriously enough to invest in good design, that approach will likely seep into other aspects of their business (and invariably, the food). These days, people are inundated with visual messaging, and standing out with an attractive, effective identity gives you a big edge. In fact, one could argue it is the single biggest factor that can elevate you above the competition and put you in front of your customer's eyes in a world where everyone is competing for that first chance to grab your attention.
If you're in an industry where how your brand or products look can increase your revenue, such as food and beverage, any other design service (fashion, interior, hair), health, or finance, it is crucial to make sure your identity and graphic design is not only strong but also not outdated.
Imaginary Case Study
Let's pretend there's a fictional company named Lola's Cupcakes. Lola needs a logo for her business, which will be a small retail shop where she bakes and sells cupcakes. She makes a point to use organic ingredients where possible, and thus her cupcakes are priced a bit higher than average.
BAD: A designer with no training will see "cupcake", take their name and run with it. She might end up with something like this:
This doesn't work well for several reasons. One, it's hard to read. It's not the typeface's fault; it would work great in a big headline in the right situation. Two, it makes her company look sloppy. Would you want to buy something edible from them? No, me neither. Just imagine her kitchen! Three, there's no finesse; the uniform thickness of the frosting line doesn't jive with the thick and thin lines of the typeface. The words look like they've been typed out and forgotten about. Overall, it looks like something from a '90s small town strip mall. Sorry, but I get heated about bad logos.
GOOD: A skilled designer will first begin by sending the client a questionnaire to understand why they started this business, what their objectives and values are, as well as what aesthetics they like and don't like. Armed with that knowledge, they'll take a look at their competition so that they can place them in the industry while still making them stand out. They'll then create a few mood boards (visual directions) for the clients to choose from. This will guarantee they won't end up with a logo they hate. Once a mood board is locked down, a designer will come up with some rough logo concepts that work within that direction. The client picks their favorite, and the designer refines it until everyone's thrilled. This process is definitely more involved than placing some text and imagery together and calling it a logo!
Through my imaginary research I learned that Lola is Scandinavian by heritage, and also a fan of the Scandinavian modern aesthetic. Her brand's values are: simplicity, purity, friendliness, and playfulness. She started the business out of a love for baking, a skill she learned from her grandma, and she doesn't want a logo that's overly feminine or fussy. Here's a potential option:
Why this works: This logo uses two different typefaces to create visual interest. Lola's name is prominent, as the brand is largely about her and she's what differentiates her company from other cupcake companies. "Cupcakes" is still bold enough to be legible from far away, and the fact that it's amply tracked out prevents the logo from feeling cluttered or busy. Lastly, the "Lola" typeface is playful and friendly (two of the brand values) while the clean lines of both typefaces keep things simple and clear. All this and we haven't even introduced color yet! If I saw this logo with cupcakes on my mind, I'd be happy to grab a baker's dozen from her.