Visual Identity on a Budget

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Brand strategy and positioning, image attributes, and brand architecture can become overly complex when there are hundreds of thousands of dollars involved. Many small to mid-size companies (with fewer than 500 employees) want the same thinking and quality that define a major branding initiative. It is just too expensive. Seeing no alternative, these companies search the web for bargain-bin logo factories, or hold “competitions” for art students to “gain experience.” In some cases, company owners try to design by themselves, usually imitating the Coca-Cola of their industry. To address these issues, here are several considerations.

You Should Stand Out

One of the main purposes of a visual identity is to make you feel distinct from your competitors. Your business has a value proposition, that is, you promise customers a reason to choose you. Take that perspective. Suppose you said, “Shop here because our prices are the same as everyone else’s.” Suppose you said, “Nothing we sell is of any particular interest.” Not a great value proposition. So then, why communicate that visually? Why suggest that you are Coca-Cola, in the sense that you have red with white swirls, but otherwise have less to offer? Usually, it’s an attempt to make the company look like a real company. Startups want to seem established. Leveraging the identity of another company is a misguided attempt toward a reasonable goal. Moreover, copying puts you at legal risk. If you sell, say, food rather than soft-drinks, the giant soda company could still sue you for causing consumer confusion due to the vertical integration of food and drinks markets. In fact, a humor website from the 1990s called “Meow Mail” let cat owners create e-mail accounts on behalf of their cats. The company behind Meow Mix brand cat food asked the website to change its look and feel. That was a happy ending. Nothing good can come from abject copying. Nothing. That said, part of the first stage of brand strategy is to audit what relevant competitors are doing. Eventually, you should view your logo-in-process, on a board of all the logos of relevant competitors. Not to copy them, but to stand out while still feeling like that class of company. The same is true for other aspects of your visual identity: typefaces, color palette, imagery and mood, and any sensory cues you employ.

Hire a Professional

Design students are in school to learn, develop, and practice. If the school is any good, they won?t design commercial outcomes until the end of their studies. What they are studying are general principles about form and communication. Small dots, big dots. Lines that look fast, lines that converge. It ramps up to include imagery, typography, business, and finally integrates to a portfolio for finding a job. The first job is usually a favor based on a positive attitude and a solid expression of design principles. Working with an experienced art director for several years is what builds real-world experience. Asking a student to design your “logo for $100 and real-world experience” is a disservice to yourself even more than to the student. At least the student gets $100. What you get is a brand nobody will believe in, and you need to make profits. As for doing it yourself, you might be able to pull it off. I know a few people who are not graphic designers, but they have an excellent sensibility and would make great art directors. Usually, though, it’s a train wreck. Your expertise is your knowledge about your stakeholders, your industry, your company, your civic engagement, and your goals. Explain these clearly and honestly to a professional, and let them interpret. They?ll expect your feedback along the way, and while you might have little swordfights, it works out much better in the end.

Professionals Can Offer Reasonable Rates

Okay, if you want Bob Dylan to perform at your bachelor party, it is going to cost you. Same if you want to hire the people who drew symbols now embedded into your brain over decades. First, you can ask a large firm for a referral. If you have $20,000 but not $100,000 the firm could probably pass the project to former colleagues who have struck out on their own. If you are talking about $5,000 then, again, it comes down to honesty. Approach a few small studios and be upfront about your goals and budgets. You can find out in the first few minutes if it is not possible for even a small studio to cut costs enough. What we do at Adam Rotmil Partners is eliminate most of the overhead by establishing an initial relationship, and then work online from home offices. We don’t employ staff, but instead partner with independent experts who each have a niche. That’s like having a staff of 100, with no office rent to pay, no regular salaries to dish out, and potentially no travel costs. Same people, same abilities. We are not the only ones doing this. I suggest you consider a few alliances and see how flexible people will be.

Fewer Variations and Revisions = Lower Cost
It has become a standard assumption that a designer will show a client several variations and give options to choose. This helps clients feel a sense of control  “it is the client’s company” and facilitates buy-in, the feeling that we’ve reached this outcome together. Frankly, you are wasting your money to make yourself feel better. If you have hired someone who knows what they are doing, variations and revisions can be a process internal to the design studio. During the process, what you should see is the best outcome, even if there were 50 or 1,000 other sketches in the studio. It may help, at the end, to see what went into the project, so you can better understand why your design is the best outcome of many. That is at the end, not in the middle. Barry Schwartz discusses in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less that too many options make it hard to pick anything. At the grocery store you might want peanut butter, and if there are dozens of types and brands and sub-brands, you’ll probably be unable to choose one, or it will be random. When you go to McDonalds, you’ll see three main options, really big, and you’ll probably get what you always get. If you want to pay designers more money to make more variations and revisions, they’ll accept your extra money. And if you tell them, “Make this purple,” they will if you haven’t entrusted them to research such choices. If you say,”I had this idea that it could be a lightning bolt connected to a bar with the word ‘solutions’ around it in a circle.” Well, you just bought a week of design time begging you not to do that. That’s if they have integrity. If not, they’ll just do what you said and take your money. Try this: tell them you want to see one design only, the one they think is best, and you expect them to try variations and make revisions in the studio. It will go faster, and the results will be better. You should still comment on what you see, use that deep industry knowledge of yours that we talked about. Nobody can force you to use something you dislike. Just consider if you’d tell your dentist how to use the drill.

Participation Motivates Lower Fees
Many designers became designers because they enjoy making things in the first place. Over time, reality hit them that it is mostly about making things for others, expressing the voice of others. People tire of that in their hearts, but it is their profession. To compensate, they take joy in the excellence of a job well done. Sometimes this is called the crystal goblet principle: the best goblet just feels like you’re enjoying wine; you don’t notice the container or who made it. Many designers aspire to become invisible, and the ability to disappear is a mark of excellence. On a deeper level, though, designers still want to participate. If you offer a designer more engagement and participation with what you are doing, chances are, you’ll get more and better support at lower rates. Let the designer go beyond “creative freedom” and offer to share your influence. That, to most people, is gold.

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Adam Rotmil

Adam Rotmil began setting type as a teen, co-wrote an instruction book about Flash during college, and upon graduation helped rebrand a Fortune 500 economic consulting firm.


He has led concept development through press-check quality control. Adam’s clients have included Brown Brothers Harriman, The E.P.A., Harvard University Alumni Association, small businesses and individuals.


Among his accomplishments, he founded Adam Rotmil Partners while living in Japan, designing and coding web pages on-site and entirely in Japanese (including software). Adam provided linguistic advice during the rebranding of Cigna, the global health service company employing over 30,000.


He writes for Advertising Week online and is among its social media team, connecting with youth culture after spending time with Tokyo DJs and actors.


Adam has published in Forbes and Applied Arts. He has spoken on design at art schools and at the AIGA Annual Conference. Adam holds a BFA degree from The Art Institute of Boston; studied typography at HGK Basel, Switzerland; studied Japanese language at Harvard University.

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