brand tone of voice

Which comes first for a brand – tone of voice or visuals?

Working with a new client this week, we’ve been talking extensively about the personality of their brand and its essence. What has been so interesting is that this conversation has been happening in the wake of our initial set of creative work for them. It’s been the trigger for that series of questions.

One would usually imagine that to create successful new design work for a brand you would think all the ‘values stuff’ through beforehand. This is particularly the case with what we call their ‘brand tone of voice’. While it’s true that thinking and writing first is the best method in theory, sometimes to draft a new set of ideas based on a rough brief can help define the truth of that brand.


Choice leads to definition

The work we do invariably generates multiple sheets of options in the form of different layouts. These give everyone involved a few choices of an overall look and feel. When both we and the client look at these evolving ideas, some are successful, some less so. Such is the creative process.

For me the most successful way of reviewing these ideas is through the prism of what the company stands for. This might seem obvious but often the decision-making process is a result of the taste of the person commissioning it. That’s partly inevitable but can be unfortunate. For us, the true test of its success is because it’s going to be the right fit for the broadest base of end users as possible. Ultimately our client’s client is paying for the product, whatever it may be. They hold all the cards… credit cards. Their taste has to lead the decision-making process.


But what is this brand tone of voice even saying?

Which brings me to the words on the page. We are always talking. Writing headlines, copylines, slogans, paragraphs, descriptions. The cluster of words under a logo or the all-important first paragraph on a website.

Getting the feel of these words right is vital and usually comes from the brief. But often if a brief is verbal or a shopping list of end-products of the design process we start with nothing. That’s when reality bites – because designers require the raw tools to work with. We can find images, graphics and animations til the cows come home. But words are the key. So what do we do? Something meaningless: work with ‘lorem ipsum’, Latin filler text. It’s interesting to me that this untranslatable junk highlights just how vital getting the right words nailed really is.

So I’ve tried to avoid it lately. While Lorem is fine for us to work with on raw layouts, I’ve taken to removing as much of this as possible from our initial client presentations. It leaves design layouts looking chilly and ill-considered. Even a few of ‘the right sort of words’ completely changes the look of what has been done. The eye is drawn to read what’s on the page, no matter how eye-catching a design we are showing.


So should you write or design first?

As I’ve said, sometimes drafts of a design, whether that be a loose sketch for a website or brochure, can result in the clearest possible direction for a brand. The gut instinct of one layout, piece of type or choice of colours will always set a certain tone which can inspire us. I’m often asked about the designs that don’t make it, the things that are ‘wrong’ and I reckon they are as valuable as the successful ideas. You have turn away from something to be pointed in the right direction.

Ultimately though, creative choices ideally do need a genuine guide not a decision in spite of something else. To set out what the objectives are for a business from the outset is so important, particularly in agreeing who the target customer should be. In a sense this is the true way into any project for us – finding a way for the communication to truly find a home with a broad swathe of people who are going to react positively to it.

Writing all this down isn’t so bad, after all. It focuses the mind and allows a little gentle free-association to take root. All the research that brought everyone involved to this point starts to coalesce into something substantial. Then it has a currency – literally – given we all need investors to take notice and be convinced. Whether it’s an identity, new website or a much better PowerPoint presentation that is the undertaking, what we are working to inevitably then has more substance.

The brand tone of voice takes root and magic happens – the project resonates.


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