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Expert Advice: Identity Design

Friday January 4th, 2013

by Amanda Friend

There’s an ongoing battle at my parent’s house. The culprit: pasta sauce. Here’s the scoop. My father is a thrifty shopper. He isn’t swayed by packaging or marketing when it comes to groceries. The generic sauce’s quality doesn’t concern him. According to Dad, the store brand tastes just as good as the kind advertized on TV.

Not so, says my mother. Mom prefers the name brand pasta sauce. Nothing too fancy, but she’ll shell out a dollar or two more at the register. She enjoys their taste, and the fancier label doesn’t hurt either. Simply put, my mother likes quality goods, and is willing to pay more for them.

So, what’s really going on here, and how does it relate to photography? I won’t weigh in on the pasta sauce debate—I’m sure you have your own opinion. The big take away for me is that your brand determines what types of clients you’ll attract. Reread those first two paragraphs, and replace the words “pasta sauce” with “photography.” Who would you rather be hired by?

If you want an edge attracting quality clients, you need a solid graphic identity. As a photographer, your brand is made up of your photographic and graphic identities. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume your portfolio (photographic identity) is in good shape, and will focus on improving your graphic identity.

What is a graphic identity?

The term graphic identity describes all the visual elements that help communicate to the world who you are and what you do. They’re the typefaces, colors, illustrations and design that support your photographs, and give structure and personality to your marketing materials. It starts with a logo and branches out into your stationery, website, print portfolio, promotional mailers and more. A great graphic identity stands the test of time and is flexible enough that you can use it over the years with only minor updates.

Here are a couple examples of successful identities used across a variety of materials/platforms:

Mike Tittel’s business cards, leave behinds and print mailers.

Peter Baker’s website, portfolio, business cards, blog and more.

How do I know if I need a new graphic identity?

Does your logo consist of your name spelled out in Helvetica? Then you might be ready for a make-over. Beyond that, there isn’t one right answer to this question. Some photographers start focusing on different specialties and realize their old identity won’t fit with their new work. Others target new clients, and want their brand to attract them. Some haven’t updated their brand in years, and want a fresh look.

If you’re considering updating an existing identity, don’t be afraid to ask for an outside opinion. When you’re close to your work, it makes it hard to be objective. Ask someone in the field, as opposed to a family member. You want to work with someone who deals with this stuff for a living and will give you a real, objective opinion.

Where do I start?

I’d recommend hiring a professional designer to tackle your new visual identity. A designer’s experience is an invaluable asset. They not only will have more resources available (like a larger typeface library for example), but will probably consider design options/ideas you wouldn’t think of on your own. If you have an existing brand, they can think of inventive ways to update it, should you want to keep some elements the same.

That being said, if you’re going to tackle this yourself, start with some good ol’ fashioned research. The subject? You. Yes, you should research yourself. It might sound silly, but it pays off. Lots of factors can influence your brand, so write them down before you open up Illustrator (or more likely Photoshop in this case). If you change you mind later on and still need an identity, you can pass along your research to your designer.

Here are some questions I’ll ask photographers when creating new identities:

Who are your current clients? What new clients are you trying to appeal to?

Important questions. Your visual identity isn’t just a form of personal expression—it’s a tool to help you get hired. It should appeal to your clients. Now, by this, I don’t mean that you should pander. Nor do I mean that your identity can’t have any personal flourishes. But there is a difference between what appeals to you personally and how you present yourself professionally. You might like an industrial look, but if you want to shoot lifestyle, your logo shouldn’t include steel bolts and gritty textures. There would be a disconnect.

One example of good connection with clients/style: Matt Dutile’s business cards. Matt is predominantly a travel photographer, and his luggage tag business cards express this nicely.

Matt Dutile’s business cards.

What type of photography makes up the core of your work? Is there a type of photography you’d like to shoot more of?
Use your work as a compass to guide you. I wouldn’t create a delicate, ornate brand for an action adventure photographer. When designing, I often keep sample photos on hand so I can compare how a logo or colors work with the photographer’s images.

Some photographers shoot a few different specialties that would benefit from being shown on separate websites or in separate portfolios. In cases like this, consider creating a new brand for each portfolio. Some elements can carry over to each to establish a connection between the two.

Pretend you currently had no brand at all. What important aspects would you want your brand to convey clients?
Keep you list pertinent, but concise. A simple message will translate better than a complicated one. Some things, like a level of professionalism, are given. Beyond that, what else do you want clients to know about you?

Are their any brands, whether they be a another photographers or a company’s, that you particularly like?  Think less about the visual design and more about the message behind each brand.
Branding is a visual language, and one person’s “sophisticated” could be another person “simple”.  Here’s a reference board I sometimes send to photographers:


These photographer logos provide a range of styles, and I would consider them all well executed.  I’ll ask clients to let me know how they feel about each of these. I find out what they like and dislike, but I also find out what each of these logos express to them.

Complete this exercise so you can help define the look you’re searching for. Don’t be afraid to check out companies unrelated to photography for this either—inspiration can be found in strange places. Maybe enlist the help of a friend to gather example logos. They might find something you wouldn’t have considered on your own.

Who is your competition?
Alright, I confess: I don’t usually ask photographers this, but I do handle this research on my own. It’s a good thing to review before you get to work. It helps me see what others are doing, which forces me to be more innovative. Also, there’s less risk of accidentally copying someone. I wouldn’t define a brand solely one what your competition is doing, but I definitely recommend seeing what’s out there.

Design Tips

You’ve done your research, and you’re ready to execute. Grab a cup of coffee or two, and heed this advice:

  • Sketch. You’ll find better ideas faster by sketching with a pencil and paper, or by playing around with lots of rough drafts on the computer.
  • Location, location, location. Where will you use your logo? There’s your portfolio,  your print promotions and your email campaigns. But where else? Are you an avid tweeter, and need a killer avatar? Make sure you know everywhere your brand/logo will appear before getting started, so all of your needs are covered.
  • Start in black and white. When you’re ready to mock-up your logo ideas, hold off on color until you finalize the logo form. Your logo should look well executed without the assistance of color (though color can enhance its appearance).
  • Use appropriate typefaces. This relates to knowing your work and your audience well. You might need to purchase new font licenses to find the perfect match. Try FontFont, H&FJ, or House Industries for typefaces with flair.
  • … and don’t stretch them, ever! You wouldn’t stretch the proportions of your photos, so don’t stretch the letters of another artist.
  • Pick colors that complement your work. Your color choices should enhance your brand and help you stand out. Again, think about all the places where you’ll be using your identity.
  • Execution above all. Spend extra time refining your work to make it top quality. Pay attention to small details like proportion, kerning (adjusting the space between letters), and scalability. Better to put time in now rather than after you’ve spend $1,000 on printing.

Additional Takeaways

Rules are made to broken. Yes, I am willing to put this in the section after dos and don’ts. The truth is that brands are complex. Sometimes, something that wouldn’t work for 99% of other photographers will work for you, or vice versa. The key is to know when a concept clicks, or if it’s too forced.

Branch out. A little variety within your collateral will go a long way. You can use the same layout for your emailer and postcard, but you’ll keep client interest longer with subtle variations throughout your brand. Ideally, your collateral will look like it belongs together without being exactly the same.

Oooh, shiny! If you have it in your budget, consider using different print techniques to distinguish your collateral. There’s foil stamping, die cutting, spot varnishes, and letter press to name a few (and for the look no one has, try printing your business cards with thermo-sensitive ink). Even selecting a heavier paper stock for your business cards can change the tone of your identity.

Don’t design in a vacuum. Take breaks. Look at your work with fresh eyes. Ask someone for feedback. Think about it, and then go watch a movie and come back later. Your work benefits when you’re in a good state of mind.

You can read about Wonderful Machine’s design services on our consulting page.

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