biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies 09: maximum visual impact for your business

by Grace Bonney

today’s second biz ladies post is all about visuals. debi ward kennedy, a retail designer based in seattle, has kindly written a very detailed guide to maximizing visual impact for your business. she covers everything from logos and branding, to business cards and fonts used by your business. it’s a great look at how powerful a strong, timely and unified look for your business can be. thanks so much to debi for her wonderful tips!

CLICK HERE for the full post after the jump!

Hello, everyone! I’m Debi Ward Kennedy, a retail designer based in Seattle. I’ve been a design*sponge reader for a while now, and recently connected with Grace about her Biz Women series here. I’m thrilled that she’s asked me to contribute!

One of my goals is helping other businesses succeed – especially women entrepreneurs. For over a decade, I’ve been involved in online networking with other women who are starting or running their own cottage industries. My participation in, directing, moderating, and founding these communities has provided valuable insight for my design work, speaking, and writing: It has offered opportunities where I can help women with start-ups and young businesses improve their visual impact. And regardless of how long you have been in business, how you present yourself to potential customers is a vital component of your success. Writing this post for design*sponge is my opportunity to share some of the most effective ways to leverage your brand visually.

When I work with clients to design their retail environments, I start with this principle: ‘Tell Your Own Story’ in all visual communications.

Make your brand a consistent expression of your business’ individual mission, purpose, style, and products or services – and then leverage that brand by using it in every visual medium at your disposal. This is the main opportunity for you to show your potential customers why YOU are different than others – be proud of your individuality and build on it.

Let me explain that concept this way: Have you ever tasted a Cabernet wine?

If you were to taste one each from Walla Walla, Yakima, Horse Heaven Hills, Indian Wells – all regions in the Eastern half of Washington state – you’d find that not all Cabernets are created equally. The vineyards each have distinct variations in soil content, rainfall, sun exposure, and other conditions, which cause the vines to grow grapes that have vastly different sugar and acid levels, affecting their taste (‘palate’). When harvested and fermented, those variances result in wine that is unique to that grape varietal in that particular location – a Cabernet from Walla Walla is not like a Cabernet from Yakima, or anywhere else. Your business is not like any other – no matter what you sell, you’re unique because of all of the distinct variations and characteristics that make up your business.

In the wine industry, this concept is called ’Terrior’ (Tehr WAH) – loosely translated, it means ‘Pride of Place’. Or, ‘I’m a proud product of where I come from’. Wineries utilize this concept in the marketing and positioning of their businesses within the industry and to the consumer, by capitalizing on the uniqueness of their terrior. They combine their location, history, resources, processes, mission, and ultimately their product, to create a brand identity that Tells Their Own Story. It’s much the same concept as selling designer jeans or mineral makeup or floral design services – your competition is selling the same basic thing, and it’s your brand image that talks. Be a proud product of ‘where you come from’!

It really is a process of leveraging everything about your brand image and the uniqueness of your business to gain customer confidence. By designing that image very purposefully, everything you present to them will point to you, which means that you will control what their image of your business is. That’s opposed to opening your door, throwing up a few ads, making some business cards to get your name out there, and having the public decide what your image is. (It’s a bit like putting your wine in a cardboard box with a generic label, sitting it on a shelf next to premium bottles of Mondavi or Chateau Ste. Michelle wines, and expecting to compete with them… not really going to attract the same customer, is it?) It’s a big world that’s getting bigger every day with online access. Your business needs to stand out with a clear identity and memorable message to capture the customers you want, and your visual brand expression helps you achieve that goal.

How can you maximize your visual impact? Here are five things you can do:

Be Consistent

Plan the components of your design and utilize them across all mediums. From your business card to your web site to your store or office, the same visual elements should appear – color, logos, fonts, taglines, etc. should all flow seamlessly. There should be no question that they all reflect the best things about your business.

Think of it this way: When a potential customer sees your ad, finds your blog online, or is handed your business card, what is the next step for them? Probably to check out your web site and get more info on you. Then they’ll come to your place of business. Will they see the same business image in all of those mediums? Does your image engender confidence?

When I work with clients to build their brand image visually, I help them choose elements that can be used in many mediums and materials to express a consistent image. We create a ‘logo palette’ that incorporates all of those elements to use in their brand expression. From the paint on the walls to the fixtures holding merchandise to the sign outside, it all plays off of their logo and business attributes. It’s experiential marketing because it immerses the customer into the brand – quite literally: When they walk into your place of business, your brand image surrounds them.

Be Professional

Elements of your logo, brand, and visual image need to convey a lot of information to your clients and potential customers. Each separate element needs to work in conjunction with the others to send a cohesive message.

Consider the impact of certain fonts – bubble letters, crooked fonts, or embellished fonts are going to send a message, but is it the one you WANT to send? Your fonts should be clear, concise, and easy to read in multiple sizes. If you are using a designer font, use a larger type size so the letters can be visible through the swirls or borders. Can you read your sign from across the street at an angle – the way most cars approach? Can you read your biz name on a biz card or blog page? Adjust the size, or the font, to make your message clear.

Color combinations can also convey various moods, from sophisticated to childlike. Be cognizant of what emotions each color and color combination evokes, so that you are using them as tools that help your brand rather than distract from it. Define what you want your customer to see, feel, hear, and experience when she walks in your doors, and build that experience with your design choices – based on your brand image. And don’t think too literally here – it does not mean that you would cover an accountant’s office walls with money-printed wallpaper or graphics. Too kitschy! Better to think in abstract terms: money means growth, so you could focus on green colors and natural textures. Or, take the metallic colors of coins and develop a design plan using them in a contemporary setting. (I wish banks would think this way!)

Be Unique

You want every facet of your image to appear professional…but don’t rule out whimsy or avante garde approaches to expressing a brand. Even small things can show your personality and make your business memorable:

I just drove past an accountant’s office, and his sign out front said “Tax Time… Who Ya’ Gonna’ Call? 555.555.1040” Brilliant! It’s a movie reference we all ‘get’, it’s timely, and that phone number is pure genius! (Taxes and 1040 forms. You’ll never forget that!) He’s using whimsy to catch our eye and tell us what he can do for us. He knows you’re worried about your taxes. He’s telling you he can help, and he’s making it easy for you to remember him. A sign that said ‘Taxes Prepared Here’ certainly isn’t going to have the same effect, is it? Same service offered, but the way it is presented – and just with words – elevates him above his competition and makes him memorable.

This concept can be expressed in a million ways. Using one color from your ‘logo palette’ and painting funky furniture with it to use as props in your store is one way. Staining your garden store’s concrete floors with ‘neutral’ green stain but applying it in lines to look like a freshly-mown lawn is another. Setting up your travel agency office to resemble a hotel lobby or cruise ship lounge is an appropriate use of whimsy. Taking something literally in a fun way is memorable, as long as it follows the guidelines of staying true to your brand.

Be Current, but Not Trendy

This one IS possible! If you sell a product, chances are that it has a very short shelf life. One month is a lifetime in retail, and things are constantly changing. They have to – it’s what our retail system is built on: continual development & creation of new goods to entice the consumer to continue buying. So don’t lock yourself into a trendy look or style, because you will quickly become outdated. That’s not to say be generic, though…

For instance, do you just LOVE the current chandelier craze? Me, too – we all seem enraptured by it. And of course, you want to capitalize on that if you are selling products or design services because it’s hip, it’s stylish, it’s what everyone wants. But here’s the trick: Don’t use a chandelier in your logo… put one (or a dozen!) in your store or office, and use one in a photo or graphic in an ad. This is ‘changeable content’, and can be updated when the fad trends out and replaced with something fresh and new. It’s not ‘permanent design’ that you are stuck with. Saves you money, and keeps your biz image on the edge of the design curve instead of chasing it. Think of it this way: You can date trends, just don’t MARRY them! ;0)

Be Active, Not Passive

Take time and effort to make sure you are presenting yourself and your business in the best way possible. Look at your environment and ask this question: If a magazine or TV show came in today to photograph or film your place of business, would they be able to? Is it clean, orderly, well-lit, areas defined, purpose clear, and business brand prominent? Does it project the professionalism that you are trying to project in your ads or web site? Or, does it look like you just moved into the space, even though you’ve been there three years?

Don’t complain about no customers, get to work! Organize. Clean. Rearrange stuff. Make the space work better and look better, so that when those customers do come in, you are FABulous. Create new marketing materials or online ads, freshen your blog and Facebook or LinkedIn profiles. Make sure your content is all consistently reflecting your brand. Just like a fitness program, it is sustained and consistent effort that gets results… not haphazard attempts. Get serious, get busy, invest some energy into it, and you’ll get paying customers.

A note about investing energy into something:

For over 30 years, I have provided visual merchandising services to retailers, wineries, garden centers, trade shows, and other clients. I can rework a display of product that has been sitting idle on shelves for months and make it sell like hotcakes in fifteen minutes. It’s true! Do you know how? Pull all of the product off of the shelves and put it in boxes on the floor. Dust, clean, rearrange the fixtures a bit. Maybe even carry those boxes to another display location in the store. The minute you start pulling the product out of the boxes, customers will come up and start grabbing it – sometimes literally out of your hands. Comments are always the same: ‘Is this new?’ and’ Oh, I heard about this’. It’s a mob scene and incredible amounts of product are sold. Even store employees who have been staring at that dead product on dusty shelves for months see it as new – ‘Ooooh, how long have we had THIS?’!

Why does this happen every time? Curiosity – customers see me working and can’t resist coming to see what I’m doing. They see boxes full of merchandise and can’t help but wonder what’s in there – and it’s in a box, so it must be new, right?! The perception is that if I care about it, they should, too. Because of the attention and energy that is put into the product by your hands, the product becomes desirable. Sounds touchy-feely and mystical, I know, but it is the absolute truth. If you care enough to invest your time and energy and sometimes muscle into something, that energy carries through to others who come in contact with it. Those stale sad forgotten products on a shelf have no energy to spare, so nothing happens….but move them, highlight them, make them a focal point, and you start a swirling vortex of positive action. (Shake your head all you like, it’s been proven!) This is a great time to change the flow of energy in your business, to focus on details, and to make your brand image exactly what you want it to be.

There are many facets to your brand image and the visual expression of it. It is all a visual representation of what you can do for your customer: the experience you can provide, the products you sell, the service you offer, and the benefits your customer will reap by doing business with you. From your own personal appearance & attitude, to your business card, ads, & website, to your store or office environment design, everything about your brand image – designed or not – talks. Ask yourself what it is saying about your business, and develop some ‘Pride of Place’ to Tell Your Own Story. And then send me your stories – I’d love to hear how your brand has developed!

Debi Ward Kennedy

Retail Designer|Speaker|Writer


Debi Ward Kennedy is a Seattle-based Retail Designer, Speaker, and Writer. She provides design services for coordinated visual presentation of environment, merchandising, and marketing materials to independent merchants and small businesses. Contact Deb at Debi.WardKennedy@Gmail.com .

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  • Thank you so much for this!! This post answers so many questions and things I have been pondering and thinking about recently, and has certainly encouraged me to get planning and working on what my brand will look like. Food for thought indeed! Thanks so much for your words of wisdom, I know they are appreciated by so many of us, Glitterysah x

  • Thanks for all of the ideas and information! I especially liked the idea about restocking the shelves, to give customers the perception that the product is somehow new or important. That is a great tip.

  • Wonderful post — thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and experience. This is truly inspiring!

  • Ladies, I thank you for your kind comments, and am glad to hear that this information is timely and helpful for you! You are all wonderful…

  • This is great advice. We have definitely seen how moving things around makes them seem “new” again. Its amazing the way people see things differently depending on their context.

    We are relatively new to retail, but have had a lot of fun with our branding. We have an illustrated elephant (“Eli”) who gets to say all sorts of fun things (on tags, one our website, advertising etc). And a diamond motif that keeps things clean and fun. We were also lucky to have a friend who is a color genius to help us pick colors for paint and our identity– that’s been huge, we haven’t had to second guess the colors- and all the pieces are ready to go when we need an ad or new tag.

  • There are some wonderful points which don’t just apply to retail stores. Other service industries can benefit by following the same advice. Two words – Be Consistent.

  • as a designer myself, its great to hear that others really want to invest time and energy into good design, i think it is one of the best investments you can make!

  • Hi Debi–thank you for sharing these wonderful tips. I stay in a funk trying to stay fresh and exciting. Feels like I am on a merry-go-round though.

  • I’ve just re-run this post on my blog, and wanted to update some info:

    I am no longer located in Seattle. As of 2012, I am now in Southern California – so if you are looking for a retail design consultant in the southland, I’d love to help you!

    email me at debi.wardkennedy@gmail.com