A solid foundation is everything.
When you walk into your kitchen and you’re hungry, you typically don’t pull out a whisk, drinking glass, casserole dish, and garlic press and then just start cooking. Well you could, but good luck eating within the foreseeable future. You normally work with the essentials and introduce more complex or specific tools when needed. If you’ve got a frying pan, spatula, cutting board and knife, then you can pretty much do anything. The same logic can be applied to being a startup owner and trying to create pitch decks, promotional content, or even a business card. Starting with a solid brand foundation is the difference between creating a business card in 5 minutes and 45 minutes.
What constitutes a solid foundation? Well, that’s up for debate, as a person’s needs are always different, but from my personal experience and seeing a wide array of startup “design” folders, I would boil it down to:
- Logo kit: your logo in various formats, labeled appropriately
- Typographic style guide: a text hierarchy guide that outlines font sizes and styles (Title, H1, H2, body, etc.)
- Color guide: your official colors and at minimum the HEX code for each
- Image bank: a small library of images that reflect the mood you want people to get when they hear about/see your company
- Presentation/document grid: a simple template that shows you how text, graphic elements, and images can be placed in a document.
If you’ve got these resources clearly outlined and available, then you stand the best chance at maximising your time when it comes to design and keeping your brand’s message controlled and consistent.
Folder hierarchy will save you countless hours.
It’s almost unbelievable the amount of time wasted trying to find the .png version of your logo with white lettering and the coloured icon, or the business card file that has the corrected email address text. It’s easy to let things get out of control when you’re not only the CEO of your company, but also the CFO, COO, secretary and janitor. I get it, keeping track of what is the latest iteration of your ever-changing logo and what pitch deck has the latest totals your trying to raise can feel frivolous. After all, these documents and tools are only thought of after the fact- meaning you only think about them when you need them.
One of the first things I ask a startup when interviewing them about their branding and design is for them to show me their latest leave-behind or PDF they send to investors. This typically makes them have to open up a few folders to try and start thinking about the last place they remember saving that file. 9/10 times, it takes more than a few minutes, which leads right into my point about the need for folder hierarchy. One of the easiest ways to clean up your files and get a “fresh start” is to simply create a folder titled “Archived Files” and start placing all the V1 and V2 files you have into their. Ideally leaving behind only the latest 1–2 versions of a document. The next step is to start thinking about how you search for things and retrieve documents. For designers, it’s typically broken into three categories: “Brand Tool Kit”, “Print” and “Web”. In the “Web” folder for example, we would create subfolder of “Social Media”, “Website”, “Promotional Material”, and “Tool Kit”. For “Print”, we can set up folders like “Business Card”, “Leave Behind”, “Brochure”, and “Roll Up”. From there you can logically create the sub folder structure you need, making sure to include an “Archived Files” folder in each, to make sure your old files are out of the way.
Doing this will give future you a much needed break, as scrambling to find the CMYK horizontal version of your logo is something that should take no more than 15 seconds.
Consistency is key.
This may seem obvious, but it’s always one of the most difficult lessons to practice because it requires you to have a good understanding of your brand and how it should and shouldn’t be portrayed or look. If you consider yourself to not have an “eye for design” then this can feel like the hardest lesson to implement. It can feel like trying to write in a language you barely understand. You know what you want to say, but finding the write words and sentences can feel like a tedious impossibility. That’s ok. It happens to every person, even those with the so-called “eye for design.” In all honesty, I struggle with this all the time. The biggest difference is I’ve learned to identify and manage the frustration that comes with it.
My best advice for trying to keep consistent when it comes to working with your brand visually: KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). When in doubt, revert to the basics. Playing it safe sound boring, but it exists as an expression for a very good reason. Taking chances with your visual identity is fun, but there’s a time and place for it. Making a new campaign for your Kickstarter is that time. Sending a pitch to one of Sweden’s biggest angel investors, not so much. Be confident in your brand and trust that you’ve built a solid foundation and that your tools are representative of your brand message. Creating consistency will give others the confidence to take your brand and your idea seriously.
Don’t do it all yourself.
It takes cojones to start your own company. There’s no argument there. The independence and freedom that comes with being your own boss is difficult to explain to someone who’s never done it. The liberation and creative freedom always seem to outweigh the risks and potential pitfalls, at least in the moment. As your own boss you get used to overseeing all aspects of your idea’s growth. You hand pick your team, you choose the name, domain, and even logo. You’re the face of the company when pitching and mingling at events. And there’s great satisfaction in that. There’s also immense pressure to get it all right. I see it time and time again. Startup owners feeling like that have to do every pitchdeck slide design on their own. Creating countless iterations of a business card that essentially looks like every other business card that’s every existed. Getting caught up in the minute details of design can waste valuable hours that could be spent writing more code, or sketching a new mockup of your product.
The professional creative community has a vast offering of tools to speed up and automate design workflow. Of those tools, a few I consider essential in making accessible to startups and small business owners. Here are just a few:
- Squarespace — easy and professional website creation
- Webflow — slightly more advanced website creation tool, gives you much more control
- Google Fonts — free fonts that are especially tweaked to work on web, mobile, and print with ease
- Pexels — free high quality stock images
- The Noun Project — icons in SVG or PNG for any need
- Adobe Color (aka Adobe Kuler) — free color palette creation tool
- Coolor — free color palette creation tool
Things will change, so don’t get hung up on the minor details
The last bit of advice will hopefully take the edge off a bit when thinking long term: things change, so don’t get hung up on the minor details. You’re a startup which means your idea, team, and business structure will inevitably change. Therefore, don’t get hung up on the exact shade of orange you want to use or the perfect stock image of a diverse team working together you want to use in the middle of your pitch. Trust in your solid foundation, keep your tool kit clean and organized, don’t take unnecessary chances when you don’t need to, and outsource processes when possible if it means a better end result. And if something looks like shit, don’t worry. Observe, learn, and adapt for next time.