Why Branding Comes First: Expert Interview With A Brand Designer

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Your brand identity is the backbone of your business’s success. But…what is a brand identity, anyway? And how why does it matter so much?

In today’s Expert Interview post, Lindsay Mariko, Founder of Lindsay Mariko Design is here to educate us on exactly why a brand identity is so important (and tons of other extremely helpful tips for creative entrepreneurs and designers).

Keep reading to learn more about the world of brand identity and design from an absolute queen.

Q: How did you get into the graphic design industry?

A: At university, I studied Fashion Communications, which is essentially all things creative related to the fashion industry. There are a few different directions you can take, and a lot of people went for things like PR, business, or event planning, but I was a lot more interested in graphic design.

I fell in love with it during school, and in my final year, I worked on a thesis project that completely solidified my love for design and typography. We designed a 100+ page coffee table book, designing everything ourselves, from typography to layouts to art direction. I had so much fun on that project, and I loved the creative freedom that came with it.

Q: Did you graduate and immediately start freelancing, or did you somewhere else first?

A: After graduation, I was hired at a small retain startup in Toronto to handle their marketing. Because they were a new company, the marketing team was only a team of two, so my responsibilities were made up of basically everything creative: graphic design, social strategy, influencer relations… you name it, I was doing it. I was also taking on freelance projects on the side to sort of dip my toes into the world of entrepreneurship, and after one year at the startup, I made the jump to freelance full time… one month before the pandemic lockdown happened in March 2020.

Q: Out of all the facets of graphic design, why did you choose branding / brand identity design?

A: There’s something about getting to dig deep into someone’s “why” behind the business that they’re so passionate about. I love getting to know people, and bringing their visions to life is the most rewarding thing that I do. I also love how creative you can be—there are no limits on creativity in branding, because the whole purpose is to design something completely new.

Q: How would you define ‘brand identity’ to someone who is unfamiliar with the concept?

A: Brand identity isn’t one element in particular; it’s an entire system of elements working together to create an experience. A brand identity is comprised of a primary and secondary logo, a color palette, the way you style typography, image direction, photography direction, copywriting, and messaging. All of these things are combined to create one cohesive unit for your target audience.

Q: Why do you recommend a business invest in an entire brand identity as opposed to just a logo?

A: In the early days of my freelance career, I used to offer logo design on its own. It was so hard to try and build something out of nothing with only one element. For a truly cohesive brand that people will connect with, you need all of the elements of a brand identity to come together to create the look and feel you want for your brand.

If you just have one logo, you don’t get the full picture — there’s no context or meaning behind it.

When you don’t see colors or images or anything else playing together, your brand is not creating an experience. It’s super important to build the identity as a whole to create that context and deeper meaning that your future clients or customers will connect with.

BTL Note: How many times have you picked up a random item from the aisles of Target because it looked pretty? How many times have you wandered into a store because the sign intrigued you? How many times have you selected a coffee shop because of how their cups looked on Instagram? That’s the importance of brand identity.

Q: What do you wish people understood about branding?

A: How important it is, for sure. Oftentimes people don’t understand that when a potential customer is visiting your website, it takes them a matter of seconds to form an opinion on who you are, what you do, and whether or not they want to buy something from you — and your visual identity has a lot to do with that. Cohesive branding is so important to your customers’ decisions of whether or not they want to invest in your products or services. If your branding is all over the place / not making sense, you aren’t going to gain their trust.

Related: Expert Interview with a Squarespace Web Designer

Q: How would you describe your brand?

A: My brand is definitely influenced by where I grew up on the West Coast of Canada: laid-back, while still a bit elevated. I try to attract a higher-end clientele, which is what my brand exudes. Considering who you want to work with is essential when creating your brand, because you want to make sure the right people feel connected to your visual identity.

Branding is all about balance and designing an experience that will resonate with people. I describe my brand as a laid-back version of high-end, because while I’m hoping to attract a certain type of business owner (high-end), I also prefer to work with people that I get along with and feel aligned with (laid-back). My brand is also a reflection of my design style, which helps to attract clients who have a similar aesthetic.

Q: What is your favorite part of the branding process?

A: It changes from client to client, but I really love diving into the meaning behind the brand and beginning the research process. Lately, I’ve been loving getting into building concepts. This comes right after we’ve defined the overall creative direction, and is where the real designing starts. I’ve been in a good creative flow lately, which is definitely why the initial design is my favorite part right now, but it’s hard to pick favorites when you love what you do.

Q: What does your process look like?

A: My process is split into 3 phases: discover, define & refine, and launch.

Discover: we begin with a 1:1 call so I can learn more about the client and their business. Once they sign the contract and pay their deposit, they fill out a strategy questionnaire that covers everything from their business goals, to competitors, and aesthetic preferences. I then guide them through building a Pinterest board for gathering visual inspiration. These “homework” items are completed by the client prior to our start date.

Define & Refine: on our start date, we set up a brief kickoff call to review the client’s homework items, then I put together a creative directions concept. Once we’re aligned on the overall vision, we dive into the design process, where I present 2 brand concepts that are packaged up in an organized PDF document with applications to help them visualize each concept coming to life. From there, I have the client select their favorite concept to move forward with and request their feedback.

Launch: once everything is finalized and approved, the final deliverables are packaged up, along with brand guidelines clearly defined so the client knows exactly how to apply the branding themselves.

And that’s it! Once all 3 phases are complete, the client is ready to introduce their new brand to the world.

Q: Which design programs do you use?

A: Adobe Illustrator is what I use the most. I use it to design the majority of my work: logos, color palettes, branding concepts, etc. I use InDesign for layouts, long bodies of text paired with images (think magazine style), client presentations, and brand guidelines. I used InDesign a lot throughout my experience in fashion school.

I use Adobe XD for wireframing, Photoshop for photo editing and creating gifs, and sometimes Premier Pro if I’m creating video content or motion.

Q: There are a lot of differing opinions on this one… how do you feel about using Canva as a professional designer?

A: I think Canva is great! I do not design brands on Canva, but when it comes to creating assets for clients, Canva is a perfect option. With every branding package, I include 10 Instagram templates on Canva for my clients because I know they likely don’t have access to Adobe software (and likely don’t have experience in graphic design). Canva is super user-friendly, and if they’ve never used it before, it’s extremely simple to figure out. And the free subscription makes it accessible to everyone.

Q: What is your preferred web design platform?

A: Right now, I only design on Showit, but I’d love to learn more about Shopify because the e-commerce space is growing exponentially.

Related: Expert Interview with a TikTok Strategist

Q: What’s your favorite project that you’re working on right now?

A: Ah, it’s a secret! I can’t wait to share more when the project launches… but for now, all I can say is that it’s a skincare and beauty brand. I love working on anything in that industry because working on packaging design is always so fun — I love working with brands that create tangible products.

Q: What’s your dream project?

A: Honestly, I don’t have one. The one I’m working on right now is pretty close, though, because beauty is my ideal industry to work with. I’m also working on another ideal project next month for an upcoming cidery. I’ve always wanted to work on branding and label design for a craft brewery or cidery like that.

However, I don’t have one specific brand or client in mind, because they likely don’t exist yet — that’s the fun of working in branding!

Q: How do you attract new clients?

A: Putting my work out there on Instagram has been the easiest and fastest way that I’ve attracted new clients. At the beginning of my freelance career, though, it felt very intimidating to put my work out there. Showcasing your hard work can often feel vulnerable, but it gets easier as time goes on and you gain more experience.

Q: What would you recommend starting with if you’re hoping to learn about graphic design?

A: Learning the basics first is essential, especially basic Adobe Illustrator skills (learning how to use all the tools and shortcuts), and practicing until you feel comfortable with the software.

I spent 4 years during university learning design and 1 year after graduation perfecting my craft before taking on design clients. Honing in on your skills will help you greatly.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring branding designers?

A: My #1 advice is to put your work out there even if it’s not perfect. One thing I’ve had to learn as a ‘recovering perfectionist’ is that you will never feel ready, so you have to simply go for it anyway. Even if you don’t view it as *perfect* putting something out there is better than nothing. You’ll always be improving on your craft — I’m still improving after years of designing myself — so trust the process & GO FOR IT!

We look at our own branding and our own online presence under a microscope, analyzing everything that might be wrong with it, but an outside perspective is never as critical. No one else is looking for those details, so they aren’t worth agonizing over.

I want to give a huge thank-you to my friend Lindsay for graciously offering her expertise in this month’s edition of BTL Expert Interview! Lindsay is such a talented designer, dedicated entrepreneur, and supportive friend to have in your corner. To learn more about Lindsay, check out her website here or follow along with her on social — trust me, you’ll want to live inside her Instagram feed.

If you liked this post, make sure you SAVE it on Pinterest & give Lindsay a follow! (And, of course, subscribe to be notified when my next Expert Interview post goes live!)

If we haven’t had the chance to *virtually* meet yet, hi! I’m Sara Noel—website copywriter and marketing mentor for creatives, copywriters, and all-around cool people. If you like my content and you want even more BTL in your life, here are a few ways you can connect with me:

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