The 5 Essentials of Visual Branding

A visual brand impression is made in a matter of seconds. Then audiences seek validation continually, at every point of contact.

To help communicate your brand effectively to your audiences, five key visual elements need to work together to create your cohesive visual “language.”

These essential aspects of visual brand identity are a brand mark, color, typeface, graphics and imagery. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Brand Mark: Your Unique Signifier

You see a swoosh and you know the billboard is from Nike. You see a red target on a commercial and you know the ad is not for an archery camp but for Target, the retail chain. That’s the power of a logo or typographic brand mark (and a large ad budget).

Your brand’s unique signifier — aka your logo or typographic brand mark — is your identity in its simplest form. It should immediately call to mind your organization — and (as importantly) call to heart the distinct emotional appeal at your brand’s core. However simple they appear, logos are painstakingly thought out and strategically designed, refined and revised many, many times in the design process.

Below: EcoSpaces, an elementary education program focused on teaching at the intersection of food, nutrition and sustainability, uses iconic symbols of the pencil and plant; Avenda Health uses the thumbprint referencing genetic attributes and DNA; and the Metropolitan Pavilion uses multiple rectangles to show their flexible space offering for event planning.


Every organization needs a unique signifier and the more people see it, the more they’ll come to automatically associate it with your business. Use it everywhere.  

However, a visual identity isn’t just your one little mark. It is a foundation but only the beginning of your visual identity, the full package that truly breathes life into your brand.

2. Color Palette

Why do opposing teams wear different colors? Why is a suit for a financial job interview suit usually dark and subdued? Why does the construction worker wear day-glo?

As with clothing on a person, the colors of your organization speak volumes. Color can differentiate you from your competitors, showcase your belonging to an industry and trigger a response from your customers — all at the same time.

Below: EcoSpaces, an elementary education program focused on teaching at the intersection of food, nutrition and sustainability, has a primary and secondary color palette inspired by food sources. 

brand guidelines

The right selection of colors —your brand color palette— can carry different connotations and can elicit different emotions.  Some colors are even culturally specific. When choosing your color palette, think carefully what emotions you want to evoke, what audiences you’re addressing and all your needs: website and online social presence; corporate, employee and investor communications; reports, brochures, sales tools and presentations as well as print materials.      

What color is your star and who is the cast? Do the colors in the palette complement each other? Think about the colors in use.

3. Typography

Typography is your brand’s visual voice and tone conveyed through the shape and style of your text.

There are many font choices. Some fonts are tried and true and classic (Garamond’s origins are from 1500s France), and other fonts are trendy or techy. Choose font families that reinforce your brand attributes. Ideally, you’ll use your brand fonts consistently and, in addition to color, the typography will serve as a unifying element to your brand.

Below: Zoetis, an animal health pharmaceutical company, implemented a tight brand system with a distinct typographic voice. The bold condensed sans serif typeface is a strong unifying element across their brand, as evidenced in this small sampling of the brand design usage: digital annual report website, corporate brochure, the company at a glance, and their social responsibility report. 

Note that some fonts might not be available for all applications (such as in presentations), so you should have complementary fallbacks for applications where brand fonts are not available.

4. Imagery

A picture can speak more than 1,000 words when chosen carefully and aligned with the other elements of your brand’s strategy, look and feel. Clean and spare? Then your photographs should be, too. Cozy and homey? Same with your photographs or illustrations.

Whether you create imagery or purchase stock, you should opt for a consistent style or treatment that complements the tone of your other elements.

Below: The photographic approach for United Technologies was developed to reinforce the company’s brand messages. The photographs strategically balance macro views — signifying the global megatrends in the UTC businesses — with warm, personal, lifestyle photography  — which brings the sensibility to a human, customer benefit level.  Employee photographs reinforce the innovation message through heroic points of view.    

brand imagery

When deciding on your photo source, weigh the options carefully. Stock photos are convenient and inexpensive. However, anyone can access them— including your competitors. Sometimes a photoshoot is the most efficient use of resources when you’re building a visual brand identity.

5. Graphic Elements

Each element and aspect of your visual language should create a cohesive system is  spread across your company’s physical and virtual presence. The use of graphic elements— icons, color blocks, chart styles, infographics—can signal and reinforce your brand.

The amount of white space versus content, the size of the images and where the elements are placed on the page grid all work to prioritize the information for the audience by drawing their eyes to different areas of the page.

Choose a few standard options for graphic element treatments. Ideally, these should be visually unifying while also flexible enough to work in a variety of situations and layouts.

Below: Part of Moody’s Analytics’ system of graphic elements.

Your brand’s visual identity will spread — and evolve

In the hands of talented creative directors and designers, the five elements above will create a cohesive visual language that identifies your brand.

As with any language, the rules around using your logos, colors, typefaces and graphics — and how they are to be used together — should be codified. Sharing, maintaining and enforcing these brand guidelines will ensure consistency of usage across all areas of the organization and other stakeholders.

Your brand’s visual language will spread across your company’s physical and virtual presence and will become associated with your organization.

Your visual identity needs regular maintenance. This includes updates to your guidelines. Don’t feel like your visual identity is frozen in time. It’s a living thing, just like your company. With time, with acquisitions, or with a change in focus or philosophy — your brand’s visual identity should evolve. Even 100-year-old brands like Lufthansa refine the elements of their branding to refresh their visual appeal. Adapting your visual identity to changes, while being true to foundational principles will make sure your branding always hits its mark.

For more about aligning your brand values with your visual brand assets, read these insights from someone who’s been through the process. 

Are you thinking about branding your organization? Is it time for a brand refresh? We at IOP would love to chat with you and learn more about your branding goals.