One of the biggest mistakes that people new to graphic design make – whether they are starting a blog for a small business or overhauling their existing branding – is overthinking it. The best graphic design starts and ends with a simple idea, albeit one that is codified in such a way that it can be used in many different contexts.
Designers refer to this kind of design as a “visual language,” but this might be overselling the complexity of it. A visual language is nothing more or less than a toolbox – a set of elements that you can reach for whenever you need to design a new webpage or brand a new product. It can have dozens of elements, or it can have two.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to build a visual language for your brand, starting at the most basic level and slowly getting more complex.
1. Define a Color Palette
The first and most fundamental step in creating your visual language is choosing the colors you are going to use. For many brands, in fact, their colors have become such an integral part of their graphic design – think about the yellow and red of McDonald’s – that they have almost replaced a logo, and are instantly recognizable.
And while it’s true that the importance of a consistent color scheme is most apparent when designing your logo, most designers are going to need more than just the two or three striking colors of your logo to work with. You’ll need colors not just for striking packaging, but also more subtle shades for your website and long-form copy.
There are plenty of great tools out there that can help you to choose a color palette, but my favorite is Coolers. This online service allows you to quickly generate new palettes and can perform automated steps, like making sure that all of your colors are of the same intensity.
If you already have a logo or mood board, you can create a color pallet image to represent your brand's color scheme. Use Kapwing's eyedropper tool to extract the color hex code from your existing brand asset and add optional text overlays to label the color code.
2. Create a Typographic Hierarchy
In many classes on HTML, one of the first lessons is on the H1 / H2 / H3 typographical hierarchy. This is the way that headings are encoded in HTML, and there is a very good reason why they are defined like this – it allows designers to keep their typographical style consistent across pages and sites. Creating visual consistency across bog posts, for instance, relies on making sure that your headings and paragraph text is similarly consistent.
The second step in creating a visual language for your brand is therefore to think about the fonts you will use. Again, you should define 4 or 5 sizes of font, from headlines to paragraph text, to make sure that you have enough flexibility for the future of your branding.
At Kapwing, we use a Notion page to socialize our brand fonts and colors. We found our fonts on Google Fonts and use them across our landing pages, YouTube thumbnails, and social media assets. We've also uploaded these custom fonts to our shared Kapwing Content Marketing account to ensure they're accessible to the whole team.
3. Use Grids
You might pride yourself on thinking out of the box, but here’s a little tip from a seasoned designer – everything looks better in grids.
This simple truth means that a central part of the visual language for most successful visual branding is the grid. Not only do grids make your content look better, but they have several other advantages as well. By organizing content in this way, you can easily transfer it between different formats and contexts, whilst simultaneously making your branding more accessible.
Many designers love grids so much, in fact, that I’ve seen detailed descriptions of them written into the style guides of major corporations. While you might not need to go that far, having a good understanding of how grids work can make your branding and content look a lot more professional.
4. Make a Library of Components
The next step, after creating a set of consistent colors and typefaces, is to start building a library of components from them. Components are elements that you will use across many different platforms and in many different contexts – such as an “order now” button that will appear on your website and in your app.
Having inconsistent elements can really wreck an otherwise careful design, but the consequences can be far worse. Users quickly get used to the visual language you are using. Changing the color of a button between pages can make it harder to navigate your site, leading to increased bounce rates.
There is a simple rule when it comes to creating components – make sure that you only have to do it once. By that, I mean that the first time you use a button on your web page, for instance, you should create a template that all of your other buttons will follow. If, at the end of your designing process, you can’t recreate your site using only templates, you haven’t been creating enough reusable components.
5. Styling Images
Finally, a quick word about image style. Most visual languages will define an image style, and this can be as complex or as simple as you like. It can relate to anything from photo crops (tight versus wide), use of filters, speed of videos, and style of composition, right through to whether you are using photos or illustrations (or hand drawn images of Guy Fawkes amidst a bunch of stormtroopers) for your branding.
However far you go with defining an image style, test and choose the photo manager you will use sooner rather than later. Trust me, your life will be easier and more productive. This allows you to quickly see the images you have available, and which actually fit into the design you are working on.
While consistency is critical, it is equally as important to adapt and change your branding to suit the times and the mood of your audience. Because of this, you should think of your visual language as an evolving one. Don’t be too keen to change the elements I’ve mentioned above – and especially your typefaces and colors – but make sure that you change things up if you are not getting the traction you should be.