A visual language is a system of graphics, icons, colours, typefaces and much more that work together in unison to visually tell the story of a brand. Often referred to as a brand system, a visual language will also work to build consistency and recognition across all applications through the use of repetition. By reinforcing a brand with recurring elements such as the use of colour, copy or other design elements, audiences will recognise and remember these as being synonymous with your brand. Over time, these elements will become so embedded that they can be used individually. For example, both Royal Mail and The Economist now regularly use advertising that features only text against a red background, with no need for other elements. This is a testament to both brands having strong visual systems that have become engrained in the minds of consumers over time.
When developing a new or established brand it is essential to understand how visual language can flex and adapt to different settings and scenarios. Not every situation calls for the same level of brand language. For example, the Apple visual language can adapt from conservative (i.e. on their website) right through to expressive (product branding). Both scenarios use the same elements but in different ways — and both examples are undeniably ‘Apple’.
The goal for any visual identity should be consistency across all output from visual language to typography, as well as flexibility and the ability to react in a given context. These rules usually make up the bulk of a brand guidelines document and give guidance on how things like logos, colours and typography should be used together.
Recent examples of visual language work include the Halley Stevensons rebrand, our work for mental health charity Back Onside and the launch of Heritage for People.
There are no set rules to developing a visual language, however, we recommend that any brand first conducts a strategic audit to first fully understand what visual elements have equity, what should be refined and what can be removed completely. From here, a plan can be drawn up to identify where there are missing links.
For example, if a brand has a strong brandmark but no supporting visual system, it might be decided that a brand palette be developed alongside a range of new photographic content to reinforce a proposition. This will give some building blocks to start with. It is important to define what tone and message the brand system is trying to achieve; if it is refined and formal, a visual language will typically be more conservative. If the brand system has an energetic tone, then the visual identity might employ bold colours in its visuals.
It can take a considerable time for some visual elements to become recognised as symbols of a particular brand — which is why repeated exposure is essential if visual systems are to work effectively.
It is also essential that visual languages evolve over time as a business grows and expands, representing new product development, wider content creation and marketing trends. This can be done by undertaking regular market research into what rival brands in your industry or sector are doing. It is also worth keeping up to date on trends as and when they happen.
In order to create a truly flexible brand system, we recommend you first identify the existing visual components of your visual identity.
The brand system can be thought of as a hierarchy, with each element having its own purpose and meaning. For example, typography has specific roles to play in conveying information or reinforcing tone; photography might represent functional content for an app whereas illustrations will likely communicate company values. When pairing these together, they take on a meaning of their own that cannot be fully quantified until it is tested against a brand setting. This multiplier effect creates unique combinations that will help a brand stand out from the crowd.
Any absent elements should then be identified and, depending on the visual language desired for your brand system, a selection of visual components can be used to fill these gaps. The main goal here is to understand that each visual element has its own set of attributes as well as meaning when combined with others — so it is recommended a brand considers how they will work together at different scales and settings before opting for one option.
From here, we recommend building relationships and links between these elements. For example, fonts can be paired with other visual elements to create an expressive type system.
It is important to note that the best visual languages are truly adaptive and responsive — they should respond visually as well as adjust contextually within set parameters. This means they need to have both visual consistency and recognisability. For example, a website design system might respond differently on a desktop when compared to a smartphone. The change in scale might mean that the colour palette should become more restrained while the use of imagery might be deliberately tamed.
Finally, continue building on the visual language over time, creating new relationships for evolving contexts. A company may have an online personality that is refined and understated but also has to be more expressive in person. It is essential to recognise that, unlike the specific elements, a visual language is not a static entity — the relationships within the brand system should be dynamic and responsive to the visual needs of a brand. It will also change over time, maturing and becoming more confident.
Visual Systems are integral in shaping how brands communicate with their audience, establishing consistency around visual programmes whilst also making sure they remain recognisable in varied contexts. A visual language is essential for any company that creates multiple touch-points or wants its visual identity to work effectively.
If your business would benefit from a fresh approach to brand identity development, please get in touch and we will be happy to advise on the best route forward. We recommend that a strategic audit is undertaken before starting new strategic work to ensure it uses a solid evidence base.