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  • Writer's pictureallisonsarno

Branding on a Budget: How to Create a Distinct Visual Identity for Your Startup


When launching a startup, creating a distinct visual identity is crucial for standing out from your competition and leaving a lasting impression. However, as most early-stage startups operate with limited funds, investing in branding early on may seem impractical or financially irresponsible. But that isn't necessarily the case! In this blog post, I will explore practical strategies and tips to help you create a unique visual identity for your startup while working within your financial constraints. I'll also share a few examples of what's worked for my clients.

First, Define Your Brand Strategy:

This may be obvious but before diving into visual design, take the time to clearly define your brand strategy. Identify your target audience, understand your core values, and develop a brand personality that aligns with your startup's mission. This foundation will guide the visual choices you make and ensure consistency across all branding elements. The visual identity, after all, is just an execution based on of all that great thinking and strategizing you did to get to this point.


Keep it Simple

A limited budget can actually work in your favor when it comes to creating a distinct visual identity by keeping you from employing overly complex designs that are difficult to produce and maintain.


Now is the time to embrace simplicity, avoid superfluous elements and focus on clean, uncluttered designs that convey your brand effectively.

Focussing on the core, foundational elements such as your logo, colors, typography and imagery will also give you room to evolve your brand and add more stylistic details as your business evolves.


Typography Matters

Choose a font or a combination of fonts that reflect your brand's personality and are legible across different platforms and sizes. Many free (Opentype) or low-cost font options are available, so explore various typefaces until you find the one that resonates with your brand. Google Fonts are of course free and extremely popular but you need not be relegated to a google font for all of your typographic needs.


Many of my clients do request Google fonts to avoid license fees. I usually abide by their wishes but offer alternative font choices for their logo. Choosing a less common font here can make your logo stand out from your regular body copy and have its own unique look and feel. I often source fonts from Adobe where I own a license or research small independent font foundries. I never advise my clients to use free fonts from websites like Dafont. Most of the fonts you will find here are either poor quality or unauthorized copies of fonts that available for sale.

Peak Product

Typography Example
For the Peak Product brand identity, I paired an Adobe typeface for the logo with Google fonts for headlines, body copy and buttons. A unique font helped differentiate their logo, while Google fonts made Web implementation and presentation creation simple.



Color Palette

Select a color palette that embodies your brand's personality and differentiates you from your direct competitors. Your can try using online color palette generator such as Coolors.co to explore color combinations or come up with a harmonious color pallet from scratch. In the case of one recent client, I selected a series of color swatches based on photography that aligned with their brand.


Imagery

The consistent use of imagery or photography is integral to most visual design systems. When it comes to brand imagery, be budget conscious but don't try to get everything for free or as cheap as humanly possible. For example, you can download free stock images from Unsplash but you'll essentially be using the same images as every other startup. I suggest going at least one level up on the stock art food chain and purchasing assets from a website like iStock Photo or Shutterstock. Here you will find photos, illustrations and background images for very reasonable fees.


Alternatively, for truly unique photography you can hire a photographer and models and conduct a photoshoot. This isn't always as expensive as it sounds. It can take time to plan, scout a location and talent but if done well, the results will be more unique and ownable. Whichever approach you choose, creating a small library of images is a worthy investment.

Examples of imagery produced for Ava
For Ava we coordinated photo and video shoots with very tight budgets by leveraging independent photographers and non union actors. We used an AirBnB for the location. This enabled us to shoot their product on model and have complete control over the look and feel. This way we created a vast library of unique images and video we could use throughout our channels.

Don't create everything from scratch

While your logo should be 100% unique to your company, some parts of your visual language can easily be purchased and modified. Iconography, for example, can be really labor intensive to create and that time and budget could be spend on more prominent components of your brand. When working with a limited budget I often take a hybrid approach where I start with an existing icon library and either modify the style to fit the brand or custom design certain icons that have more prominence. However you approach this, iconography is something you can usually revisit at a later date without much fuss or implementation effort.


Leverage User-Generated Content

In the land of social media, brands need copious amounts of content and imagery to stay fresh. User-generated content can serve as valuable assets for building a visual identity and helping your maintain your continuous feed of branded information. By featuring content created by your customers, such as photos, testimonials, or videos, you not only save on production costs but also foster a sense of community and authenticity around your brand. Companies like expeerly offer fast and affordable ways to source and generate UGC video content when friends and family are no longer cutting it.


Keep to a beer (not tap water) budget

I've known companies who sourced their logo on Websites like Fiverr or even AI tools that promise an entire brand books for a little more than $50. As the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true it probably is. It's highly unlikely that either of these options will result in a visual identity that is unique to your brand or based on any type of creative strategy. On a site like Fiverr you run the very likely risk that your new logo was appropriated from another company and not unique to you at all and the last concern you need is worrying about copyright infringement issues when establishing your new business.


Lastly, if you don't have a background in design, it's highly recommended not to attempt creating your logo yourself. Designing a logo requires specific expertise and training that you may not possess. By taking on this task yourself, you risk becoming too emotionally attached to the design, making it difficult to let go when the time inevitably comes to collaborate with a professional for a proper redesign. It's always best to entrust this important aspect of your brand identity to a skilled designer who can bring your vision to life.


Partner with a kick-ass designer

OK, you knew this was coming and I admit I might be a little biased here but in the early days of building your company, working with a skilled designer can be incredibly valuable. Before selecting your brother's friend's cousin who dabbles in Photoshop, leverage your professional network and hire a reputable designer with experience. Make sure their portfolio, general style and areas of expertise align with your needs and your personalities mesh well. Hiring a small agency as opposed to a freelancer is also an option, just keep in mind this will typically cost more because of the agency's overhead and fee structure.


Conclusion:

Creating a distinct visual identity for your startup doesn't have to drain your budget and you can satisfy your champagne tastes on a (craft) beer budget. By strategically defining your brand strategy, focusing on foundational design elements, being smart about where to invest, you can develop a compelling visual identity that will set your brand apart. Consistency and thoughtful choices in typography, color palette, imagery and design elements are key to establishing a memorable brand presence. Find an experienced designer or enlist a small agency to help and watch your startup's visual identity come to life.


About the Author

Allison Sarno is a product and branding designer based in Zürich, Switzerland. She specializing in lean design for startups and emerging brands. Have a project you'd like to discuss? Reach out at hello@allisonsarnodesign.com




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