You walk into a coffeehouse, stop near the door, and survey your surroundings. To your left there is a bulletin board filled with fliers and business cards, offers for guitar lessons (just tear off a tab), and postcards announcing events, from concerts to local farmers markets. Every inch of the bulletin board is covered. Most inches are covered in more than one layer of paper and at a glance it is clear that many if not most of the items clinging to the bulletin board using staples and a wide variety of push pins are out of date, some by months. Below the bulletin board is a narrow table stacked with various publications of one sort or another, from the weekly city tabloid to apartment listings.

You step further into the coffeehouse, navigating carefully between tables which are placed so close together you have to turn sideways to get passed if one of the many different styles of chair has been pulled out. But the tables are all filled with people and the well-worn leather chairs set against the far wall are all occupied and something smells really good. It’s not the smell of coffee alone, it’s a smell you recognize as hybrid breakfast foods, like sandwiches where all the food is stacked so it can fit on a small plate. There is a line at the counter and what looks like too many employees behind it all appearing very busy. Being behind the counter and being busy are the only things that identify the employees as employees. The walls are covered with a wide variety of artwork accompanied by tags identifying the local artists and the price.

The next morning you walk into a different coffeehouse and have a look around. You notice there is no bulletin board and, other than a wooden rack near the condiment table holding a neat stack of local daily papers, no magazines or apartment books. The tables are all spaced far apart, far enough, apparently, to accommodate a stroller, as more than one table has a stroller next to it. All the chairs match. At the counter there is a neatly organized pastry case and behind it the employees all wear the same apron with a name tag. The line is just as long as at the coffeehouse you visited the previous day and it is moving steadily, though there are fewer employees and they seem a little more relaxed. On one wall there are four large black and white photographs of coffee related scenes framed in blonde wooden frames that match the wood throughout the coffeehouse. All the framed photos are the same size, hang at the same height, are spaced evenly apart, and each has its own light.

Whether they like it or not, whether intentional or not, both of these coffeehouses have a brand. While they cannot necessarily be said to exist at different ends of a scale in terms of style (ideas of style being so subjective), they certainly represent different approaches to, and perhaps awareness of, presentation and perception. If these two coffeehouse represent two different points on a map, you can find coffeehouse that are all over that map.

Their awareness and intent are not the point, and neither is our opinion of the face they present to the world. The point is both coffeehouses described here are presenting a face to world beyond their logo and it should be managed rather than left to happenstance or mood or the ideas of the last store manager.

Coffeehouses are public spaces and a universal experience and easy to imagine as an example. Your roasting business is also presenting a face to the world. It may not be as obvious as a retail space, but it is just as important to manage the visual aspects of your brand identity. Your company makes impressions that are just as clear (and just as likely to trigger expectations) as the coffeehouses described above.

 

The interior of El Rey coffee shop on in New York City.

The Eyes Have It

Eyes might be the window to the soul, but they are also a main port on a sophisticated data input system for a computer designed to excel at pattern recognition, your brain. Sometimes, when we talk about the basics of visual brand identity, it can sound like we’re talking about things nobody will notice. Often, it sounds that way because it is that way. Few people who are not designers are going to notice that your logo always has a certain amount of free space around it no matter where it appears, or that the same fonts are used throughout every single piece and part of your communications, or that everything from your business cards to packaging follows clear and consistent guidelines. And nevertheless, all of these things, and the decisions you make and manage around them, do communicate about who you are and so contribute to the formation of relationships, which are the fundamental building blocks of any business.

Branding can be a long and complicated conversation, but it needn’t be when you’re just beginning to think about managing your visual identity. We are going to focus here on some very simple decisions you can make about managing your visual brand identity, the face of your company.

Note, if you hire a designer to help you with this, they will do all of these things for you and more. But they will still present you with decisions points. We are assuming here that although you might have some help on specifics, you’re going to DIY a lot of it for now. Also, if guidelines and structure aren’t your “style,” THAT is a branding decision and you might want to consider thinking about the intention and boundaries of your freestyle approach. For example, what does “too much structure” look like and how will people know it when they see it? If the answer is “just go with the flow,” THAT is a brand intention!

 

Your Logo Rules

Your logo should come with usage guidelines so others know how they can and cannot use it. Remember: pattern recognition. You want consistency in how your logo appears no matter where it appears. When you sponsor the local 10k run and your horizontal logo has been manipulated to be vertical because the t-shirt designer thought it looked better that way, you are right to be unhappy because that is not your logo. People will not recognize it and, more importantly, that version of your logo is not contributing to the repetition you need for people to begin thinking you are a community focused company …  or whatever your intention.

Some of the things to considers when creating usage guidelines for your logo:

  • What colors can be used (meaning all other colors cannot be used)?
  • What elements of your logo, if any, can stand alone. For example, maybe the graphic element(s) of your logo can be used apart from your word mark, but the word mark should not appear alone?
  • How much empty space must surround your logo (if any)?
  • Can your logo appear as transparent and are there backgrounds over which your logo should to appear (e.g. never put our red logo against a blue background)?
  • Can any of the elements within your logo be changed in size relative to other elements (i.e. can we increase the size of the word mark while not increasing the size the graphic element)?

Color Me Consistent

Once you decide on your colors and define them using universal references (e.g. Pantone, RGB, etc), you want to remain consistent and not start using colors that are not part of your “palette.” You can find many different opinions on the number of colors that should be in your palette but the number, whatever it is, is less important than sticking to your palette once it is established. Generally, there will be three or four “primary” colors and then any number of complimentary “secondary” colors. Secondary colors are the supporting cast and shouldn’t be given staring roles.

Once you decide on your main colors, there are websites that can help you identify additional colors that are complimentary and will not clash with each other or your primary colors.

 

All in The Family

Finally, when it comes to the basics of visual branding, you also want to bring consistency and not too many choices to the fonts you use. Once upon a time it was thought that every brand should have a “serif” font (fonts with the little feet and stuff, like Times Roman) and a “sans serif” font (without the little feet and stuff, like Arial). Things have loosened up a lot and in many cases you might be better of just choosing one font that comes in a complete “family,” which usually means it is available in several versions of thickness and accompanied by a full set of symbols. Arial is a good example that comes in several iterations and is widely available.

At some point, there is a great benefit to having an experienced designer help you with detailed guidelines for font usage, but early on the thing to remember is once you have chosen your font family, use it and stick to it. Remember: pattern recognition. Remember: just because your computer software comes with dozens of fonts out of the box doesn’t mean you have to use all of them. Pick one or two. And again, if you want to use a lot of different fonts, THAT is a branding decision and you should be prepared to address the issue when your employees are using the same font too often.

“We like to mix it up,” you might say. “It’s part of our brand identity. Use more fonts.”

You might even want to write that down somewhere.

Read, “Brand Identity Part 1: Nice Logo, Too Bad About the Coffee.”