Be Your Own Designer: Building Your Company’s Brand on a Budget
One of the first, and perhaps most exciting, things about starting a new company or project is building your brand.
It doesn’t matter what you’re offering — if you’re presenting something to the public or investors, your brand image can make or break your ability to generate sales or be taken seriously.
My book, The Remote Work Era, is all about helping women take advantage of the shift toward remote career and business opportunities in the 2020s. A big part of this new business landscape is the ability to start businesses with significantly less overhead than was ever before possible, opening up doors for women, minorities, and people in emerging economies to become successful entrepreneurs online.
Last month I blogged about the best business and project management tools for online companies, and along this vein, I was inspired to discuss the best strategies and tools for DIY branding and design work, which empower entrepreneurs to be their own designer — at least until they can afford to work with a pro.
This is where I’ll add my big disclaimer: if you’re not a designer, and can afford one, always hire a professional. The benefits include saved time, effort, and frustration (designing things can be frustrating as heck), as well as a trained eye using the best tools, custom illustrations that you can trademark later, a more unique brand identity, creative concepts you may have never considered, and a discernable difference in quality. If you’re in the market, my company Sea Foam has a great creative team with packages that encompass everything from design, branding, development, and editorial.
Now, to the good stuff. When developing your brand, one of the first things to consider is who your company is and what you want to represent — i.e., your brand identity. If you don’t have a real vision behind your brand, you don’t have anything.
As expressed beautifully by Derric Haynie at Rebrandly:
So you’ve got a logo…
Maybe even a slogan…
But that doesn’t mean you’ve got a brand.
Before you start designing anything, I recommend going through the brand identity guide and exercises on Rebrandly’s site, linked above. It will take you through a series of important questions to consider, including:
- Brand Vision — Where do you see your business going? What are your goals? How is your business going to have an impact?
- Purpose — What is the fundamental purpose behind your business that inspires everyone in and outside of the organization to do what they do — and love doing it?
- Company Core Values — What principles are going to shape your company’s culture and support your brand vision?
- Personality and Voice — How do you present yourself? Do you have a sense of humor or are you honest to a fault? Are you a casual brand or a “suit and tie” mentality?
- Brand Expressions — How does your brand come to life across the broad spectrum of media? What type of content are you going to be known for? How are your customers going to experience your brand?
Consider each question and answer as best you can — it’s not a test, no one needs to see it but you. No matter how big or small your company or project, thinking about these questions is vital.
The Chief Outsider also has a list of ten brand questions that are a bit less abstract, if that’s more your cup of tea:
- Who are my customers?
- What customers do I want to have?
- Who are my competitors?
- What is my competitors’ brand position?
- What problem does my company solve? Does anybody care?
- What is my value proposition? Is it distinctive? Is it relevant to my customers?
- When people think about my company or product, what are the feelings and associations I want them to have? Are they unique? Can we “own” them?
- What are the functional benefits that we deliver to our customers?
- What are the emotional benefits that only we deliver to our customers?
- What kind of personality will my brand have?
Also, I know The Golden Circle TED Talk gets shared a lot, but it has stuck firmly in my mind since I first watched it in 2015 and it would be remiss of me not to share it for anyone thinking about their brand, sales strategy, finding investment, or basically anything related to their business. It is a classic for a reason. If you haven’t seen it, get ready to feel inspired.
Before designing, a key element to any brand is deciding on a color palette. Strong and intuitive use of color communicates professionalism to anyone who engages with your brand. The colors you pick will also need to be consistent across all your assets — website, social media, infographics, pitch decks, PDFs, everything.
As shared by Lauren Hooker on the Elle & Co. blog:
“Research has confirmed that 60% of people will decide whether or not they’re attracted to a message based on color alone. How you use color also affects the visibility of your brand and reinforces brand recognition by up to 80%.”
Lauren’s blog offers a great deep-dive into “color psychology,” i.e. what feelings or messages different colors can evoke.
My company, Sea Foam Media & Technology, relies on blues and greens in our color palette (obviously), and it’s interesting to see what she says about each:
“Some common associations with blue include authority, calmness, confidence, dignity, loyalty, success, security, serenity, and trustworthiness…
Some common associations with green include freshness, harmony, health, eco-friendliness, healing, inexperience, money, and nature.”
She also explains how to find color inspiration and how to choose your “dominant” and “accent” colors, and how to use both light and dark tones to create contrast in your palette.
“One of the largest mistakes I see among inexperienced brand designers is the use of a color palette that lacks contrast.
A strong palette includes a balanced mix of light, medium, and dark tones, regardless of whether it uses a monochromatic, analogous, or complementary color scheme.”
That’s my TLDR — but go read Lauren’s post for yourself!
Now, for finding the right tools.
One fun, free color palette generator is Coolors.co! I love this tool — it will randomly generate a palette of five colors for you, and when you see something that speaks to your brand identity you can adjust the colors and contrast to make it uniquely you.
Once you have your brand colors nailed down, you can add them to your overall style guide.
A brand style guide is a document that outlines elements like your color palette, fonts and typography, iconography, tagline, a vision or mission statement, and overall “mood” that reflects your brand identity. Getting started, it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
Depending on your company, you can also expand your style guide with things like content guidelines — i.e., British English versus American English, approved call to action statements, different types of social media content to share, and more. But for now, we’re focused on design.
Having a style guide will not only help you stay consistent with your brand assets and voice but will be useful for members of your team and any freelancers you may work with in the future. While researching and writing this post, I actually realized I need to refine and update my own company’s style guide!
Style Guide Examples
For more examples, you can see ContentHarmony’s list of 36 Great Brand Guidelines Examples.
When it’s within budget, you can always hire a designer to help you with a brand style refresh, but it should remain consistent with your original brand elements so as not to confuse your audience. So keep in mind that whatever you’re picking as your brand style now should be taken into careful consideration, with feedback from friends and colleagues, because you’ll be stuck with some variation of it unless you rebrand your company or project entirely.
Creating Your Own Logo
Let’s pause for a second on this one. Creating your own logo, as a non-designer, is a contentious subject. There are lots of inexpensive tools out there that provide beautiful logo templates and royalty-free icons and images that you can use to make a starter logo for your company. However, it’s not always advisable, as using generic assets instead of custom illustrations may prevent you from trademarking it later. Plus, if you’re not going to customize the crap out of the logo template you choose, you risk your brand looking like everyone else’s — and your brand identity fading into the background as a result.
Personally, when it was time to get a logo for my company, I opted to work with a professional designer who I trusted, who created a custom illustration for me based on my vision. However, I have recently been releasing a series of smaller projects and being on a tight budget I tried my hand at a template-based logo tool. And after some time dedicated to getting it right, the results were pretty decent.
When using a template-based tool, you’ll want to customize it as much as possible to create a unique brand identity and convey professionalism. Also, practice on a few logo templates and generate some options before deciding on one. I also suggest not relying too much on the stock iconography that is available. Use it tastefully, and modify it when you see fit — I rotated the “nodes” icon I chose, above.
Logo Making Tools
Here are some of the best logo generating tools on the market:
- Canva: The most popular tool for DIY logos, Canva offers a suite of templates and drag-and-drop tools for logos, business cards, flyers, and more. It’s marketed toward non-designers and experts alike, although I personally don’t know any professional designers who use it. They offer both free and premium (paid) templates.
- Logo Maker Shop: I personally used Logo Maker Shop for the DLT.dev logo (as a placeholder for a few months until we get a professional logo designed) as well as for a few other projects. I played with it for a few hours before deciding on a logo and really enjoyed experimenting and customizing the beautiful templates offered. They also have a great selection of iconography and backgrounds. It’s a mobile/tablet app, and free to use for three days, and $10/mo afterward.
Designing Your Own Website
Designing your own website is perhaps the most reasonable thing to DIY. With so many template-based and drag-and-drop website tools out there, it’s become more of the norm to do it yourself rather than hiring a professional website designer. However, if you don’t have the best eye for design, a good feel for it, or the time to invest, it’s never a bad idea to get a professional to help out.
For those who want to go the DIY route, here are some of my favorite tools, and some recommended by friends and colleagues:
- Squarespace: This one is kind of a given, and I actually wrote about it in my previous blog post. Squarespace offers a lot of nice templates to choose from that can be customized to create sleek professional websites, portfolio pages, and blogs. That said, it tends to be expensive, and I’ve sometimes found it frustrating getting the customizations just right. However, it has served me well for my main business site, seafoam.media, although I’m keen to try newer website design offerings as well…
- WebFlow: This was introduced to me recently by a colleague who used it to build several impressive landing pages. It claims to provide “the power to design, build, and launch responsive websites visually while writing clean, semantic code for you” and users can get started with free templates. It also has a great CMS similar to Medium for creating beautiful blogs. My colleague used it to create his site RideWithSurf.com, which he reports took him about 16 hours end-to-end, and that “learning was cake” with its visual builder. Personally, I can’t wait to try it. Here is a great video that demonstrates its power:
- Figma: Figma is another design tool that allows you to build responsive website designs. You can export them as HTML/CSS or use their easy hosting tool. It is free to use for teams of up to two people and also offers premium options. While Figma seems a lot like WebFlow, it is specifically geared for design collaboration amongst teams and with clients, and beyond websites, you can also use it for designing, prototyping, and testing UI for apps. Because it is a browser-based software that is so versatile and collaborative, it’s been called the “Google Drive of design tools.” Before you get started, check out a few tutorials to set yourself up for success:
Decks, Infographics, Social Assets, and More…
Finally, I’d like to get to what inspired me to create this post — creating slide decks for new projects, as well as infographics for my company, Sea Foam.
Slide deck presentations are necessary when presenting new ideas to investors. While you can put together decent decks in Powerpoint or Google Slides, a sleek, high-end presentation can increase your ability to be taken seriously and earn funding.
When I was searching for a slide deck builder tool with royalty-free images to use, I came across Visme:
Visme is extremely versatile in that you can use it to create pretty much any design asset with ease — their primary categories are Presentations, Infographics, Documents, Printables, Web Graphics, Social Graphics, and they also offer a blank canvas.
For my slide deck, I worked off a variety of their slide templates as well as templates for charts and graphs to visualize the numbers and business opportunity. I also loved exploring their vast library of royalty-free images and icons, which made the presentation come to life.
I also love using Visme for infographics. Infographics are a very powerful marketing and brand-building tool for any company because they allow you to express information and ideas visually and are very shareable.
Here’s an example of an infographic I made using Visme — it took about 4–5 hours to perfect and was admittedly a bit frustrating for me trying to get it right, but I’m happy with the final product and I’m sure subsequent attempts will be easier:
I highly recommend outlining your infographic content on paper before getting started on the design, if you care about your sanity (and a good result).
Again, when designing something using a Visme template you’ll want to customize it as much as possible. It should also match the brand colors, fonts, and other styles you laid out in your style guide. The great thing is that it is versatile enough to design things that feel uniquely yours.
You can start by using Visme’s free templates to try it out, though you’ll probably want to upgrade to their $15/mo option to get the most out of it (that’s the plan I’m currently on).
While Visme is my design tool of choice right now, there are lots of browser-based design tools on the market with similar offerings. These include:
- Canva: Yes, Canva again! As I mentioned, not only do they offer logo templates but have options for decks, business cards, and more.
- Venngage: Venngage is a versatile infographic builder tool that is free to get started with their basic templates.
- SlidesCarnival: SlidesCarnival isn’t design software itself but is a marketplace for slide deck/presentation themes that can be used with Google Slides, Powerpoint, and Canva. Used with Google Slides, these templates are a great free option for entrepreneurs on a tight budget.
The Remote Work Era and the move toward remote work and business are opening up doors for entrepreneurs all over the world. This shift in the workforce is particularly impactful for women and disenfranchised groups who historically have not had the capital necessary to start their own businesses. With the ability to start remote, online businesses, overhead costs are reduced dramatically, allowing entrepreneurs to start businesses on the side of their full-time jobs or simply get started without the need for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in start-up capital.
Of course, every business needs to think about its brand, as this can make or break success. This is why these design tools and strategies are so powerful for new business owners who don’t need to pay thousands to get their project off on the right foot. When your business has grown, you should be ready to invest in a pro — if you’re looking for an agency to help, don’t hesitate to get in touch with my team at Sea Foam Media & Technology.
Rhiannon Payne, based in San Francisco, is the founder of Sea Foam Media & Tech, an agency working with tech startups to help them tell their stories, build their products, gain investment, and scale.
She is specifically interested in distributed team building and the changing workforce of the 2020s. Her book, The Remote Work Era, will explore these changes with a focus on new opportunities for women to go remote and start their own businesses online.