The Language of Design: What is a Visual Identity?
Ever wonder what the heck all those terms about “branding” and design” mean? This series aims to answer all those questions and demystify the language of branding for the folks that aren’t sure what all the terms mean and are too sheepish to ask.

While we try to avoid jargon at Spectacle in the hopes of being “refreshingly human” with our clients, inevitably there are times where we need to distinguish between certain deliverables or steps in the design process — and in that case, the terminology is crucial to explain exactly what we mean. So read on to learn more about the first term we’re unpacking…. Visual Identity.

How we define visual identity

Just like your identity as a person is not defined by a single factor, a visual identity is not just one thing. It is the collection of distinguishing elements that signal it’s you — and no one else. It’s your style of dress; it’s the color of your eyes and hair; it's your mannerisms; it’s your perfume or your signature accessory; it's the sound of your voice.

Simply put, it’s a group of visual elements that ensures that all of your communications are recognizable as your brand and sets consistency for how you interact with the world around you.

It’s the way your brand strategy is expressed visually. 

It’s what you can SEE that relates to what you want the audience to FEEL. 

Those elements usually include the following:

  • Logo/Wordmark
  • Typography style (usually 2-3 distinct styles that work well together for headlines and body copy)
  • Color Palette (which typically includes primary, secondary, and sometimes even tertiary colors depending on the size and breadth of the company)
  • Photography Style (provides guardrails for what type of photography you should select or shoot for your brand)
  • Iconography, patterns, or other signature elements (like the “arrow pattern” shown below.)

What it’s not…

  • Just a logo. A logo is one part of a great visual identity (Vis ID for short), but it’s not the end-all, be-all. Especially if you’re a new brand, where you may need multiple visual shortcuts to help your audience understand who you are and what you do.

    There are many famous case studies of brands like NIKE and Starbucks that were able to drop their wordmark and express their brand as simply a logo — the “swoosh” or the “mermaid.” But when you’ve been around for 20 or 30 years and have 99% brand awareness, you can take liberties that young brands just can’t. So a more robust and distinctive visual identity system is crucial to help young brands build their equity and distinguish from competitors.

  • A website design. When we say visual identity, we’re referencing the sum of the parts that can be used in many different channels — of which, your website is a crucial one. But the two are not synonymous. Vis ID is a foundational element that ideally precedes a website design. And if you need a new website, it’s probably a great time to see if your visual identity also needs a refresh.

  • A campaign. Campaigns can serve many different objectives, such as building brand awareness, driving in-store trial, or launching a new product line. But your brand’s visual identity should ideally last for at least 5 or more years, during which time many campaigns may have come and gone. A campaign is temporal - and it’s a place where brands can take a little more liberty with design elements.

When you have a collection of items that work together cohesively (including a verbal identity that identifies what your brand says and how to say it), you can then dial them up or down to hit the right tone of what you want to convey in a certain medium. 


We hope this explanation helps shed some light on the language of brand design and gives you more comfort discussing the topic of visual identity with your internal team or agency partner. If you’re interested in learning more about how you create a great visual identity, drop us a line. We’d love to chat!