The Better Guide to Design Strategy

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Vanessa Wolfe on September 27, 2022

Despite what you might want to believe, we humans are incredibly visual creatures. It’s why chefs wipe the edges of their plates before they go to your table and why grocery stores create those big arches out of soft drink boxes in honor of the Super Bowl.

Because at the end of the day, what we see matters. A lot.

That’s why your design strategy is so important. It significantly influences the customer experience and can even give you a competitive advantage in the market. How? By influencing the way people perceive your brand.

We’re going to dive into how design complements brand strategy (specifically brand positioning) with our Design Team Leader, Vanessa Wolfe. To kick things off, our resident expert on brand strategy, Frank Rocchio, interviewed her on this very topic. Throughout this blog, we’ll expand on the topics Frank and Vanessa discussed, including:

  • How brand positioning affects the design process
  • Design elements that impact perception
  • Positioning elements that influence design decisions
  • Plus some of Vanessa’s pro tips

Design Strategy and Brand Positioning

We’ve discussed brand positioning in other blogs, but for those of you who haven’t read them yet, here’s a crash course:

  • Brand positioning is how you present your business in the marketplace. It’s your unique balance of differentiation, relevance and sustainability that helps to curate a certain perception of your brand. It works hand-in-hand with your brand identity to inform not only what you communicate, but also how you communicate.

It’s essential to have a clear understanding of your brand positioning because it will inform all communication and marketing from your brand, including design.

“It serves as a guidepost for every design decision that we make,” Vanessa says. “From your business name to your logo to your color scheme, it all needs to align with and support how you want your brand to be perceived by your ideal client.”

Curating this perception is delicate work. It takes significant research and thought in the beginning stages of design to ensure you convey your message effectively.

Vanessa says her team starts the design process by creating a list of adjectives that describe the brand persona. These act as the measuring stick throughout the process — every design should tie back to those words. Designers can use this method to create mood boards, inform typography choices and help them develop a color palette.

Designers are also encouraged to include user research throughout this initial phase. Vanessa mentions that deciphering the customer’s needs and preferences is one of the most important steps in strategic design. It gives her team an idea of what visual designs are most appealing to a business’s ideal clients.

To determine these preferences, the team goes straight to the competition. “Looking at competitors and what they’re doing really helps us zero in on what the target audience is looking for and what they’re used to seeing,” she explains. “It helps us create visual points of differentiation that support the brand positioning.”

Design Elements that Impact Perception

Those “visual points of differentiation” can refer to any number of design elements — colors, fonts, copy, web design, etc. Vanessa describes these collectively as “the whole package.” She notes that each element can complement a brand strategy in different ways.

For example, imagine you’re walking into a Trader Joe’s. Their business strategy is all about being that corner-market grocery store where you can find everything you need, plus a few speciality items. Everything from their store design to their country western font helps you feel like you’ve just stepped into the old-time family grocery store.

However, there’s another important element to their strategy that many people overlook: color. The stores themselves are usually varying shades of a neutral beige with neutral tables and display equipment. Boring right? Wrong!

“The neutral background in Trader Joe’s helps the product packaging and marketing signs stand out. It gives space for product colors to pop more than in a store with lots of colored tables and decor,” Vanessa says.

All of these aspects of Trader Joe’s contribute to people’s perception of the store. It creates that perception of a small store (even though it’s a national chain) that has everything you need on a quick grocery run. Plus, it makes things easy to find because every product design stands out on the shelf. So you might not even have to skim brand names; you’ll spot your favorite brand’s colors from a mile away.

It’s important to remember that as effective as the right design elements are at creating a positive perception of your brand, the wrong design elements are even better at creating a negative perception.

“You have to make sure your colors and fonts are targeted at the audience you’re trying to reach,” Vanessa reminds us. “If they don’t align with what that person likes or is looking for, they’ll assume your product isn’t for them. You really have to dial in your design thinking to focus on what your ideal client wants — not just what stakeholders want to see — if you want successful brand designs.”

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Designing for Your Ideal Client

So how do you gather and collate the information needed to design for your ideal client? Vanessa lists three ways.

Understand the Service You Provide

At the end of the day, it’s all about how you can help your customers and why/when they choose your service or product. Your brand positioning statement should provide this information.

There are a few questions you can ask yourself and your team to better understand your service offering:

  • What problem do you solve for your customers?
  • When do your customers start seeking out your solution? (A.k.a. – do they even know they have a problem?)
  • Why should they choose your solution over competitors’?

For example, if you want to be perceived as the leader in customer service, then your design needs to prioritize the user experience. Implement UX design principles on your website, use a font that’s easy to read and choose colors that help foster trust and positivity. All of these design elements will communicate your commitment to making things easy for your customers.

Convey How You Can Improve Their Lives

Great marketing shows prospective customers how your business will improve their lives. It clearly communicates the problem you solve for and how things will be so much better with you in their life. You can use subtle design techniques to support your messaging in this area.

“You can use a combination of colors and typography to highlight a certain aspect on the page,” Vanessa says. Designers use techniques like bolded or large fonts and highlighting certain parts of the design to draw your eye to the most important elements on a page.

She also recommends adding clear visuals to your design like pictures of happy people frolicking through a field of wildflowers. (Okay, it doesn’t have to be that happy.) The goal of these images is to build a sense of connection with the user. You can use photos, illustrations, icons or anything else that helps the customer understand your message.

Assert Your Differentiation

“This is the most important aspect of any brand design,” Vanessa says. “You don’t want to just copy a successful business’s design. You need to stand out from the crowd to get noticed.”

There are a number of different ways design strategists can approach differentiation: colors, design theme, arranging copy, choosing images, fonts and formatting, the list goes on. With any combination of these items, you can highlight what sets your business apart from others and build a sense of trust with your audience.

“It’s all about figuring out where your uniqueness is and how you’re going to communicate that to the world,” Vanessa adds. “Find that special thing about your business and really drive it home to make yourself just a little different while still matching your customers’ expectations.”

Vanessa’s Design Tips

In addition to these recommendations, Vanessa has some tips on aligning your brand design with your business strategy. The first is to identify your who, what and why:

  • Who you’re targeting
  • What their needs are
  • Why they should believe you’re the solution

To accomplish this, Vanessa suggests performing a little user research. “Lots of companies think they know what customers want but, in reality, it might be totally different than what they’re thinking. Without research, it’s hard to back up your strategic decisions these days. So take the time to dig a little deeper and be positive that you’re going in the right direction with your designs.”

Lastly, Vanessa stresses that every design decision should stem from your brand positioning. It’s critical to ensure your entire team understands and agrees on your positioning before moving forward with any design decisions. This will help streamline projects, avoid confusion and ensure consistency throughout your marketing efforts.

Design With Your Clients in Mind

Good design requires strategic thinking. If you want to help your brand stand out and influence perception, then you need to create a design strategy that supports your brand positioning.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Finding your brand positioning and discovering how to differentiate yourself in the market takes time. We want to help you get a jump start. Check out our blog on brand differentiation to learn how you can set yourself apart from your competitors so you know where to focus your design efforts.

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Vanessa Wolfe
Vanessa Wolfe
Vanessa is an Art Director with 13 years of experience in Graphic Design and 2 years of experience in managerial creative positions. Assists in the management of campaigns and leads the visual style for our clients. She loves to make awesome stuff…from brand identity to publications to packaging!

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