A strong brand identity is not crafted solely by the designer. Instead, a brand should be the result of a symbiotic relationship between the designer and the client. 

I’ve seen it happen a couple different times where an agency or designer is told, “You’re the expert; you handle it. You tell me what this needs to be.” If you’re familiar with how clients work, this of course is a trap and is most definitely not how you should operate. Anytime someone tells me to use my judgement on major directional components of their business it usually means they don’t feel like putting in the effort or feel confident enough to guide the project where it needs to go. Instead of striving to learn the tools to successfully reach their marketing objectives, they’d rather assume they’ll be happy with what you’ll produce. 

I’ve also been in situations where I don’t receive actual feedback until the end of a project. Although they’ve been saying “no, it’s fine” the whole time, they suddenly have strong feelings about how off-base the designer’s work is.

 More often than not you’ll get into situations where you have to refine things/edit unendingly. I’m going to talk about a few steps you can take to avoid that.

Extract from the client/stakeholder
My approach to building out brands is to find ways to extract from the mind of the client/stakeholder, whomever it is, exactly what they’re thinking. Although they might not have a direct opinion because they don’t know the language or how to describe their thoughts/opinions on the mood of the brand, they do have some fairly distinct ideas onto what things they like or what they respond well to — the mood of their business, what they want to do, or who their clientele are.

Early in the process, interview your client to find out as much as you can about who their customers are. If you can understand things like how these people are going to think or where they read their news and what kind of writing style they like – all of that will help with the next step.

Mood Board

The first step of any branding project is to create a mood board or some other kind of collaborative ideation method for your client. I prefer mood boards because it’s a fun craft idea and an excellent way to engage with your client to kickoff the project. This tactile approach to ideation allows them to visualize what is the right feeling for the brand and can be used as a guiding principle in the design process.

Spending the time to have your client go through and pick what they like and don’t like gives them ownership in the process and — dare I say — encourages them to have fun. The time you invest in creating a mood board on paper will do nothing but help you in the end. When you come back to them with designs that seem to fit within that mood board they are going to be a lot less likely to surprise them with an “out there” design and have them assume you don’t know what the hell you are doing.

Assuming they were very involved with the mood board selection, they should come out of that meeting thinking like they created something and your efforts as a designer really are to translate their design decisions into a proper brand and logo. Whatever you are doing, whether it is color combinations, typography, or photography, they should feel strongly that they had a hand in helping create the brand and are going to be a lot less likely to push back really hard on some of your design decisions. You can even take a risk and get really out there: if it’s a risky design and fits within their mood board, they are more likely to accept that.

With that being said, there are some problems with this approach. If you don’t have enough images or design pieces to choose from when you initially create the mood board, you’re pre-selecting out multiple design styles, so make sure if you go about that method that you have plenty of magazines fitting within that genre or type of customer. Also, make sure not to do a lot of the work for your client. It’s easy to suggest, “This is a really great font.” Or, “What do you think of this image?”

Instead you should encourage them to choose what they like and put it on the board. Save your judgement for later when you are working on the mood board and are able to select out things you don’t like. If you don’t like certain typefaces you can gently put it behind some other stuff or filter it out once your client is able to look at more content/magazines. That can help with creating a cohesive image and will prevent you from having to worry as much about telling them what design is terrible and what’s good.

Mood Board Essentials

Supplies you’ll need for a mood board exercise

  • Poster board
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Several magazines relevant to your client’s industry
  • Marker or pen
  • Remember to photograph the mood board for your records! 
  • I also recommend recording audio of the exercise for reference later on in the design process