Building a New Visual Vocabulary

At AWeber, one of our core values is “Learn. Educate. Innovate.” There are many different applications to this principle, but one I’m close to (being a marketing designer) is educational PDFs.

Earlier this year the marketing team identified an opportunity to take a successful educational lead generation PDF and revamp it. Our goal was to rebuild the funnel for this piece to provide even more value to prospects and hopefully convert them to trial. This meant reevaluating every aspect of the current PDF, along with it’s accompanying assets.

The PDF is called, “What to Write in Your Emails”. It’s a guide (and drip email course) with information on various types of emails small businesses and entrepreneurs send, with accompanying Mad-Lib-style content templates.

We decided it would be best to “re-brand” the experience, since the existing one was lacking an expansive visual library.

Old cover on left, new cover on right

For educational campaigns like this, we’ve taken the approach that the styles don’t need to align perfectly to the corporate brand identity. Which meant this was an opportunity to really delight and stand out from our normal SaaS look.

The Approach

When it comes to creating new styles or updating existing ones, I find it very helpful to create a style tile. The intent of a style tile is to give a quick visual of how design elements could interact. The tile should include some or all of the following: color palette, image styles, icons, shapes, lines, interactions, type styles, and more when necessary.

Style tile for the What to Write project

This tile allows a team of designers to quickly visualize the aesthetic and pull assets directly from a source file without having to read anything!

However, a style tile by itself isn’t all that helpful; it needs to be accompanied by written and explicit usage guidelines. This framework allows for flexibility and individual design decisions, but maintains constraints to also keep the campaign cohesive.

Those guidelines should explain how and when certain elements can be used. It should also give designers a better understanding of what to avoid when creating assets. Done well, the style tile and written guidance pairing should set a design team up for success.

What if you don’t have a full design team?
If you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur, these same ideas can apply to you too. Want to create your own style tile? Using a free tool like Canva you can piece together an aesthetic. Here’s what I usually am thinking about as I build one:

  1. What do I want the audience to feel?
  2. What shapes or colors help communicate that feeling?
  3. Are there other elements that could add visual interest? Icons? Sketches? Illustrations? Typefaces?
  4. What kind of imagery will communicate that emotion?
  5. When the campaign comes together, how will each element be cohesive while remaining interesting?
  6. And lastly, can this be simplified?

For this project, I thought through most of those subconsciously, but there were a lot of influences that affected my decisions. Try writing down (or sketching) all of your ideas and figure out which ones piece together best to create a cohesive aesthetic.

The Overall Aesthetic

We wanted readers to feel like the daunting task of figuring out what to write in their emails was less intimidating. The colors, shapes, and drop shadows were my attempt to make the topic feel more fun then scary. Harkening back to a ‘50s/‘60s vibe. Identifying this theme helped me in the moments I got stuck. For instance, the duotone headshot style idea came from another designer, and we confirmed it matched by watching some Saul Bass intro sequences. 
[That small spark lit up an entire micro-product to create duotone images fast → see it here.]

Each element was created with the intent to bring delight, as well as hint at writing in some way — whether through alignment icons, organic handwriting squiggles, or “shadow lines” indicating text blocks.

The best aspect of a system like this is that individual designers are empowered to put together as many — or as few — elements as they deem necessary for the application they are working on. That can clearly be seen by taking a peek at the resulting assets.

The Results

Here is a sampling of elements created by 4 different designers, all pulling from the style tile and guidance created for this project.

This is just a small sample of the total overhaul our team put together. Every team member pushed themselves to make this experience something that will truly benefit and delight subscribers.

Want to learn more about writing better emails?