This brand guide is from Ladder’s former Director of Design, Natalie Lazo. In it she shares her experiences building brands and growing businesses with iteration-focused, research-driven design principles, giving advice along the way to help you develop and refine your brand.
Building a business is hard.
Building a brand that’s memorable and conveys what your team can do for others is even harder.
When I joined Ladder exactly a year ago, I came on as their first designer. From the very start, I knew it would be one cool sip from the fire hydrant each day at about 130 MPH. It took me three days from first contact with the co-founders to being in the office working, but being freshly out of Startup Institute, I knew what I signed up for. Now a year later, I’m looking at leading the design charge and managing my own team to provide creative assistance to our clients.
Being responsible for all external AND internal design choices is a lot to handle. From managing client expectations and guidelines to developing Ladder’s design style. Throughout the process, I’ve learned a lot about how to build memorable brands, having worked on both Ladder and the many startups and enterprises that come to us for help.
I’ve tried to condense all of my nuggets of wisdom below in a brief branding guide to help you shape the choices behind your shiny new brand.
Click the CTA below to download Ladder’s business branding template, which you can use for your own branding efforts.
Let’s start with my over-arching theme:
Do Your Research
Speaking as a classically-trained artist with graphic design experience under my belt, transitioning into the world of conversion-oriented design is something I continually improve on day by day.
Moving from the bells-and-whistles world of fine art was hard – I quickly learned that users much prefer to press the big red button in the middle of the page over the elegantly-crafted masterpiece that requires too much visual digestion.
Trial and error aside, I kick off almost every morning with a quick readthrough of the latest design newsletters that come into my inbox – Hacker Newsletter, Designmodo, eWebDesign Newsletter to name a few – and absorbing as much relevant information as I can.
One of the most important shifts in my process has been living, breathing, and eating rapid iteration in an agile work environment, something I learned through reading the many stories in these newsletters.
Rapid iteration gives designers and brand-builders a tough skin to the world of criticism – something that’s stayed consistent through my artist life to now. I am a firm believer that no design is ever fully complete without few versions and iterations.
By talking to the marketing strategists I work so closely with, I’m offered a more linear perspective to each social media ad, landing page, and branded presentation deck I create. This gives me a great jumping off point to tackle the design head-on while striking a balance between aesthetic and functionality.
That’s something that you need to do as well when you’re going through the process of building your company’s brand. In the same way that I use the research I conduct into our clients’ existing brands, their competitors’, and the most effective conversion-oriented web design trends in their industry, so should you do your research to feed your company’s creative process.
For this it’s important to have a solid grasp of the elements and principles of design, as well as color psychology (here’s a handy chart if you’re interested!) to inform your design and branding choices.
As a starting point, here are a few questions you should always ask yourself:
- Do my brand colors convey a specific emotion?
- Does it match up with the brand vision?
- Does the logo / logotype translate well on the web and print?
Refining the Ladder Brand
When I started at Ladder, our brand colors had been established, as was our logotype; it was up to me to figure out the rest. From choosing alternative web fonts and blog layouts to establishing icon and presentation templates, the journey to where we are now has been exhilarating. We’ve streamlined our design to focus on efficiency in look and feel – only the most important details stay in the graphic, with sharp lines and bold colors against usually plain backgrounds.
Now, we’ve started implementing brand guidelines not only internally, but also offering a template PDF to clients who are in need of organizing their brand. It’s a neatly-packaged 10-page baseline sheet that I’ve included below.
It outlines the importance of consistency with your brand identity and also provokes serious thought into making written statements behind the biggest design decisions you take. Feel free to use it to kickstart your company’s brand-building efforts!
Owning Your Design Choices
Each and every choice you make as a brand-builder will always be in the spotlight. This is where owning your designs come into play. As I said before, rapid iteration in an agile environment is key – designs can always be improved upon. For us, those improved designs usually serve as tests to continually raise a client’s ROI. For you, they can serve as a way to better reach your audience, put extra force behind your copy and messaging, and increase conversions.
Some of the best design advice I’ve received came from a 60-year old woman who I consider my third grandmother, in a card she gave me post-college-graduation: “When you design something, release your creations one by one, then move on to the next.” While very New Age of her, truer words have never been spoken.
I’ve heard horror stories of designers who hit their worst rut because of a design choice that the Cruel World (TM) rips them to shreds over and they obsess over it. Or worse, it’s direct feedback from clients who try donning the Designer Hat, only to tell you to “make it better” and leave it there for you to lose sleep over.
I know I’m not alone in this feeling of frustration. More often than not, an asset shipped to the client will be brought back for tweaks and iterations before going live. Designers that work for agencies get it all the time, and it’s fine to have to go through edits. Everyone working in marketing does it, from the blog writer to the copywriter to the designer and beyond.
But if you’re convinced in the specific design choice you made, I find that it can all be negotiated (mostly!) with this key point:
Do your research until you’re sure you’re the smartest person in the room.
This advice comes with a word of caution, of course. There’s always a new morsel of wisdom to be devoured on the vast realm of design we live in. Design trends change regularly and no matter how many gold stars you have, there is no way that you know everything.
Healthy criticism and knowing how to take it is an integral part of growing as a creative.
However, it’s a different story when you become the go-to gal for design help at a company. Being so new to the game and stepping into that responsibility took a lot of preparation on a personal end, which is why owning your decisions is such a crucial part of this process. If you’re a founder of a company without a dedicated team of design consultants, it becomes a similar situation.
No matter your level of experience, there will always be someone who questions your creative process and the choices you make. You should always be prepared to back up your decisions with research, facts, and data beyond “It just looked right, you know?”
It took me a while to erase the phrase “fake it ‘till you make it” from my vocabulary. You never have to “fake” any research-driven decisions! Resources like the Unbounce blog and HubSpot are invaluable in situations like this, serving as first-hand accounts at how design choices can and WILL affect conversion rates.
While you should always consider the choices and wishes of the client you’re working with, they should be as flexible as you are and have the ability to greenlight a design choice that wasn’t exactly what they mocked up. Having research to back up your work makes that flexibility a no-brainer for them.
And if all else fails, a good ol’ A/B test is always valid. (Don’t ever let someone tell you it isn’t!)
In only a year, I’ve seen Ladder expand from a ten-person team to more than double its size, and counting. The responsibilities and tasks I complete on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis have also changed drastically over that time.
Wearing multiple hats as a designer and being flexible with tasks will gradually turn into delegating briefs and teaching the Ladder brand guidelines to others for maximum efficiency.
While I will still have ownership of the brand and oversee any and all materials that reflect the Ladder message, seeing a team directly take on the aforementioned guidance (and more) will be a new experience – one that will add an exciting chapter to my career as a designer.
From Startup Institute’s design track to now, I can be sure of two things: Life in the world of startups and design moves fast, and there’s always something new and exciting to be learned.
It’s important to stay hungry for that knowledge and share it with others. Always questioning your work and asking “why” to your own designs prepares you for 75% (or more!) of any questions a client could ask you – have that arsenal ready. No matter the program you use, whether you swear by the Creative Cloud or prefer to do some quick and dirty wireframes in Sketch, always back up your decisions and stick by them.
Every individual in the realm of design has something different to bring to the table. In the world of creative marketing tests, that snap decision can become the difference between a 2% conversion rate and a 20% conversion rate.
After all, you never know when the inspiration hits until you’ve delved to the land of no return, AKA page 2 of a Google search result.
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