Just over two years ago, I left my job as an art director at an ad agency to join my now-partner Chelsea Fagan in building our website, the Financial Diet. Today, we’re a team of five. The TFD brand spreads across more mediums and platforms than we could have ever anticipated, and building it every day has been an incredible personal and professional challenge. Creating a visual brand from scratch is a project many designers take on, and it’s a hefty responsibility as it is. But when that task is intertwined with the role of being an co-founder/entrepreneur at a new company, the challenge is daunting, to say the least. And I’ve spent much of my time walking the fine line that every designer toes: designing something that feels elegant and understated — elevating the user’s experience but never taking center stage — while still creating a brand that is memorable.
While in some ways my experience with TFD is unique — as any big design project is likely to be — I think there are lessons that apply to anyone looking to grow a business’ visual identity into something that is long-lasting and beautiful and in an efficient, thoughtful way. With that said, below are four questions I’ve asked myself during this process, which help unpack how to build a visual brand from zero (without losing your mind!).
Q: How do I put together a functional and beautiful brand that meets our needs while using limited resources?
We’re a totally independent company, and I am the design team of one. Figuring out where and how to allocate my resources has been my biggest and most constant question. But the answer is simple: Bootstrap whenever you can, foster an all-hands-on-deck mentality, and work closely alongside any contractors so you have to outsource as little as possible. For example, I’m constantly using online-learning courses (like animation, lettering, and branding classes on Skillshare and Lynda.com) to expand my fluency in the skills that are most expensive to outsource: animating videos for different social media platforms, executing simple HTML tricks to fix something small on our website, and creating striking and memorable decks for custom pitches.
It’s enormously beneficial to develop my own skill set—the investment pays off over the long-term, and it’s key to the bootstrapped reality of being a small business. When you inevitably must bring someone on for work you cannot complete yourself (in our case, the biggest gap was in web development and ad ops), the more you can learn in advance and work closely with them, the better.
Even if you can’t do something yourself, knowing exactly what the job entails prevents scope creep.
Prep yourself for all projects and simplify any contractor’s understanding by creating and constantly updating a brand book. Even if you’re a design team of one, you should have a comprehensive, detailed brand document that is easy for anyone to understand and ensures all new projects will be completed as efficiently as possible. The more you know about your design identity, the fewer resources you will need to spend getting someone else up to speed or giving yourself a refresher course when starting something new.
Q. How do I decide the value of my time, and how do I allocate it across different design projects?
As many designers have probably experienced, there is a growing expectation in the business world that a good designer should be good at everything, fluent in every medium. And when you’re running your own shop, there is overwhelming pressure to touch every project and detail the company puts out. While there will always be a need to become functional in skills that will quickly eat up resources, a good designer knows her strengths and maximizes them, rather than attempting to do a little bit of everything (badly). The first step was learning to constantly ask myself, “Is this the best use of my time?” That quickly taught me things like “attempting to become a workable food photographer” was much less useful than “making sure every pitch deck we create for clients looks lush and well-designed.”
In the beginning, I was focused on generating a lot of custom design work for content, whether it was infographics, food photography, charts, or collages. I wanted to set our site apart visually, and it felt imperative that I generate as much custom work as possible — even if that custom work was in mediums I hadn’t mastered. I would spend hours perfecting an infographic that would help explain a concept, but then fall behind on other important work that would help drive sales or expand our brand footprint. If I had continued down that path, I would have failed to grow the visual identity beyond the site and mistakenly focused on just one metric (site performance) to measure how design could have an impact. If TFD were to remain viable as a business, I had to do more than beautifully package the content — it was my job to target and focus on the areas where design had the most impact.
After doing a postmortem on a few months of my workflow — combing through what was and wasn’t efficient — I realigned my focus toward top-level design work that we wouldn’t want to outsource, almost all of which fell into my key skill set of graphic design. I began working closely with Chelsea and our sales manager, Annie, to create design-forward pitches (including things like custom ad units and original artwork for clients), worked regularly on site design updates and expansions, and took a step back from appearing in our videos to make them more beautifully and interactively designed. Instead of feeling like I needed to become a one-man show in design terms, I channeled my time into the areas where the work I was already good at could be powerful.
Q. How do I keep a consistent design aesthetic across different platforms/mediums?
When we first started TFD, it was just Chelsea’s personal Tumblr, which could easily be branded with just a banner and logo.
We quickly expanded to a WordPress site, six social platforms, live presentations, a newsletter, an e-shop, a YouTube channel, and now an upcoming print book. The immediate issue, of course, is working within the design constraints of each platform while still creating an immediately recognizable identity.
That means finding key habits you can go back to and that are easy to replicate and easy for the casual reader/viewer to understand. For us, that meant things like using stock photography with a specific look and feel (which I edit myself each time), creating templates for things like custom decks, using consistent fonts, and working within a limited color palette. It also meant picking bold style cues that are easily repeated, such as using a black background with knockout fonts, or having simple iconography that can be repeated for brand shorthand, such as our signature coffee cup. And it meant coming up with routines that save time and energy while keeping consistency — using manipulated stock photography, for example, was a choice we made early on: If you don’t have the resources for original photography, putting all photos through the same processes in Photoshop can achieve a similar effect.
Once you have your consistent design habits, making small manipulations to the style for each platform helps keep it fresh and appropriate for the reader’s expectations. YouTube and Instagram require bolder colors and limited copy, while platforms like Twitter and the newsletter are more pared-down, muted platforms that drive our readers to the site. Each platform gets a unique fingerprint, but all stem from the same key design cues — I think of it like various saturations of the same fundamental color.
Q. How do I evolve the visual brand and think long-term about its ‘legs’?
When developing the initial look and feel of TFD, I wanted something clean and stylized (but not over the top), with a limited color palette and three core fonts. I tend to prefer unfussy, uncomplicated design work that feels timeless and will age well, which is especially important with a brand like ours that must toe the line between being feminine (our audience is about 90 percent women) and fussy (as much women’s-oriented media tends to be). As we grow and expand, I’ve learned that evolving/refreshing the aesthetic is a delicate process that shouldn’t be impulsive. The biggest mistake one can make is to allow insecurity or indecisiveness run rampant and make you design something seemingly random and superfluous.
When launching into a new medium, resist the temptation to use new fonts or colors simply because you associate “new” with “different.”
As frustrating as it can feel in the short term, the more pared-down and deliberate you make each design choice, the better the brand’s identity will look. As a brand grows, some messiness and inconsistency is almost inevitable: There’s no need to help that along by dipping your brush in too many pots along the way.
Most important, documenting every design step you make along the way — and being honest with yourself and your team about where you went wrong or jumped the gun on a project — is the biggest key to streamlining the design and ensuring the identity will remain consistent even as the needs of the brand change. I aspire to create the kind of consistent identity that could be carried on by any designer and that will allow TFD to evolve gracefully, which means being slow and deliberate even when I’m very excited about a new project—which, happily for me, is almost every day.