Since I started my freelance design business back in 2015 (which feels like three decades ago by now), I’ve created a lot of brands—including logos, submarks, color palettes, typography, icons, and all the jazz that comes with creating a full brand identity. And while I always think it’s worth investing in the look and feel of your brand, sometimes when you’re just starting out, you simply don’t have the capital to hire a brand designer. I know from experience that the first year of your biz—whether it’s full time or a side hustle—can leave you pretty darn broke.
To help, I’ve compiled a few strategic tips to help you DIY a brand that feels both elevated and authentic to who you are and what your business is all about. From how to use your fonts to selecting your color palette to setting up a simple yet sophisticated website (with my go-to platform, Squarespace), read on for the frequent branding mistakes I see and how to fix them.
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Missing your core brand mission
As a designer (and an Enneagram 4), I’m always conscious of how a brand looks and feels. But I think there’s a general misconception that branding is only about aesthetics when in reality, the best brands communicate something deeper and intrinsic about that company and what it values. Which is why when I start branding projects with my clients, I always have them fill out a questionnaire about their company, both for my benefit and to help them organize their thoughts about the mission, ethics, and meaning behind their brand.
Before you start thinking about your own brand’s visuals, take a beat. Grab a clean sheet of paper, open the notes app on your phone, or print out our downloadable worksheet and think about what makes your company or brand special. What do you bring to the table? What is your core mission? Who are your ideal clients and what do they believe in? Having these values outlined beforehand will help you make decisions later on—both about what you want your branding to say to your customers as well as other important decisions you’ll make each day for your business.
Forgetting to incorporate your audience
Now that you have your business mission and values outlined, you should have an idea of your ideal customer. You want to keep your customer or reader in mind as you’re thinking about your brand visuals. Keep the following things in mind:
Make a moodboard
Start by creating a board on Pinterest with images that you think reflect your brand and that would resonate with your audience. These don’t have to be logos or brand elements you like (though they can be). Pin anything and everything that catches your eye. Once you have a good amount of images, start reviewing the board and delete anything that no longer makes sense within the context of all the images. You should start to see patterns emerge. Maybe you pinned tons of images with a similar warm color scheme. Or maybe there are handwritten scribbles or elements throughout several of the pins. Note these patterns for elements you’ll use in your brand.
Consider color theory
Now that you have a moodboard of inspiration imagery, pull out the shades that reoccur. These are typically the shades you’re drawn to—you can see in the snippet of my brand’s moodboard above that I’m drawn to warm beiges, soft muted greens, and faded charcoals.
Squarespace 7.1 comes with one of my favorite features, which allows you to select your desired color palette within the Design editor and then utilize that color palette throughout your site by selecting the pencil icon and choosing “Colors.” This saves so much time and ensures your shades are consistent throughout your site.
Once you have these colors, consider color theory. Which colors match the keywords you associate with your brand? If your brand is all about harmony and trust, try incorporating shades of blue that flow with your moodboard. If you’re more about energy and positivity, try shades of yellow. Refine your shades until you hit on a group that you like (keep it to around seven or less). Make sure you save the specific colors for future use—here’s a great tool on finding the hex code of a color from an image if you don’t have any design software like Photoshop or Illustrator.
Incorporate your brand copy
While you’re considering your brand look, it’s also a great time to hone in on a few strategic pieces of copy for your brand. How can you distill your mission down to its purest form? That becomes your tagline. For example, my freelance business is primarily a branding and print shop focused on creating heart-forward design for creatives and small business owners. To communicate that feeling in fewer words with an impactful punch, I distilled that mission down to a simple tagline: Crafting visual love letters. As you fill out our worksheet and think about your audience, jot down a few ideas for a tagline or condensed mission statement you can utilize across your website and branding materials (like business cards, etc.).
Equating minimalism with “boring”
You know that old Coco Chanel adage that you should take one thing off before you leave the house? Branding is like that. It’s really easy to overdo it, especially if you’re creating it for yourself. Sometimes you might think that more = better, when in reality, a more pared back and minimal design will be easier to nail as a brand newbie. And by minimalism I don’t mean that you have to only use one font or just use black and white as your color scheme. It’s more about letting the simplicity of something speak for itself. So you can still use bright, bold colors or incorporate fun elements like hand-drawn graphics or icons or bright, poppy photography while being more minimal. Some key things to keep in mind as you’re creating your brand look:
Keep the number of fonts to three or four
A really easy way to overdo it and make a brand look unnecessarily busy or visually confusing is to use too many different fonts that are all competing with each other. When I create brand identities for clients, I usually choose three or four fonts that they will use across their website and brand collateral in the following hierarchy:
Heading: This is the font you’ll use for the biggest text on your pages. This is the text you want your viewer to see and read first. You can get funky with your heading fonts because they generally make up a small-ish amount of text. I like to play with display serif fonts (like this) or this is a great place to incorporate script fonts and those with more personality than a standard font like Open Sans or Times New Roman.
Subheading: This is the font you’ll use for the smaller text that might live under a heading. You’ll see in the example below that my heading text is my name and the sub-heading text is my title. I usually use san serif fonts for subheadings (fonts without any flourishes on the ends of the letters—like Helvetica, etc.) and frequently do the font in all caps for more impact at a smaller size.
Body copy: This is the font you’ll use for any larger paragraphs of text. You want this font to be very easy to read because you don’t want your audience to get confused or navigate away from your site because the body font was too funky to understand.
Tagging your text like this on your website also helps with indexing and SEO (win, win)—learn more about that process here!
Don’t overcrowd your elements
One of my favorite tricks to give non-designers is about negative space. Whenever you’re creating something for your brand, consider the room each element has to “breathe” within the design. Just as you wouldn’t take a photo with the top of someone’s head cut off, you want to leave space around the elements (text, images, logos, etc.) of your design to avoid anything looking or feeling too cramped.
One of the reasons while I love Squarespace and frequently recommend it to my clients is because they make it so easy to create balance with negative space. You can add spacer blocks between photos or text to make sure nothing is too tight together or use one of the pre-made Squarespace layouts or templates that have strategic negative space built in.
Letting perfectionism get the best of you
Last but not least, as a recovering perfectionist myself, I think there is such an impulse to wait until everything is “perfect” before you can launch your brand or put your business out into the world. And while I don’t think you should launch before you’ve done a few strategic things, there unfortunately isn’t a magical time when everything is perfect and you feel 100% ready. And that goes for your branding and visuals as well! Even as a brand designer myself, I’ve re-branded a few times over the years, which I think is completely natural and an extension of your business growing and evolving.
So don’t be afraid to create something for yourself initially and think you’ll be stuck with that look or visual identity for the rest of time. Start with something simple (I always say you can’t go wrong with simply typing your business name in a really great font—boom, instant beginner logo) that you can build off of in the future. And remember that re-branding also doesn’t have to mean scraping everything and starting from scratch. Sometimes I’ll refresh my own brand by updating the colors slightly or changing around or further customizing my Squarespace template to better reflect where my business is at that moment. Have fun with it and play around, especially at the beginning! There is always room for experimentation and discovery.
Ready to share your vision or business with the world? Start your free Squarespace trial today (no credit card required) and use code ‘EVERYGIRL’ for 10% off when you’re ready to publish your website.
This post was sponsored by Squarespace, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everygirl editorial board.