By Jo Wdowiak
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What is a Visual Identity

A visual identity refers to a set of visuals that are used by a company, service, organisation, product, event or even a person in order to be recognised. These ‘set of visuals’ can be a wide range of things but many people automatically associate the concept of a visual identity with a logo design. Traditionally at least, a logo is a great starting point. Historically logo design and visual identity would often be interchangeable and mean much the same thing.

Why do you need a Visual Identity?

If you need to make and maintain consistent contact with an audience then you need a visual language (i.e a visual identity) to be identified and memorable.

Let’s take the example used in Martin Lorenz’s book ‘Flexible Visual Systems’. ‘A small family business makes shoes and sells them in their own shop.’ They are the only shoemakers in town and the family just need to communicate that they sell shoes. ‘The only means of communication they need is a sign with a shoe in front of their shop so everyone knows where to buy shoes’. In this instance, identifying the shop using an image/ logo of the product is a simple and successful visual identity. It does what it needs to do, which is to drive customers through the door to buy shoes.

As soon as a competitor arrives on the scene, ‘Another family business that also makes and sells shoes opens a shop on the same street’, everything changes. The first family no longer offer a unique product and are going to have to work harder to secure customers. If the two shops continue to sell the same products they will need to extend their visual identity to represent more than just the product itself. They will need to consider what differentiates them from their competitor so that they can continue to be easily identified and remembered.

On top of this the shoe shops might also choose to increase visibility to beyond the shop frontage. Posters and adverts would extend communication. ‘They could even hire well-liked public figures to wear their shoes’.

What is clear from this example is that the communication process becomes much more complex very easily. And as soon as the communication process becomes more complex the visual identity needs to comprise of more than just a logo.

What does a Visual Identity comprise of?

In addition to a logo, a brand’s visual identity might include a colour palette, typography, imagery, illustration style and graphics. When combined, the aim of these elements is to create a unique brand aesthetic – one that customers recognise and associate with what is on offer.

As well as ensuring a brand can be identified, the role of a visual identity is to create consistency across all channels of communication. As demonstrated through the shoe shop example, channels of communication can be extensive. From a shop front and signage, carrier bags and shoe boxes to posters, adverts in magazines, merchandise and websites. A brand will need to maintain consistency where ever and how ever they appear so that they are still instantly recognisable.

What are the contemporary challenges of Visual Identity?

If we stay with the shoemakers for a final example, in order to survive they have had to ‘realise that they communicate with different people, in different places, at different times and with different interests’. Each shop’s visual identity now needs to communicate effectively across a varied and wide range of platforms and outcomes. Undoubtedly they will require a set of visuals. And to accompany those visuals they will need design rules or guidelines to maintain consistency wherever their identity appears.

Creating a visual identity that communicates successfully in today’s landscape is a very different challenge to that faced by designers even 30 years ago. The digital age demands far more from our visual identities than a static logo and fixed guidelines could ever provide.

In a world of ever-changing digital platforms and social media trends, even the way we interact with our brands has shifted substantially. A visual identity needs to adapt and respond to its surroundings far more fluidly. And it needs to be more flexible than ever before in order to be effective. Martin Lorenz goes as far as to argue that flexible systems, not logos, are the future. A concept I’ll explore further in my next blog post.

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