You will often hear the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In some cases, that might be true. To truly judge the book, you have to open it and read a page or two. Just because the cover is pretty doesn’t mean that it’s well written or thought-provoking. Ugly covers might even have better stories within them.
But, then what does the cover do?
The cover is what gets your attention. It’s what draws you in to focus on this one particular book, versus the dozens of others on the shelf. Sometimes it relates to a specific genre and let’s be honest, maybe you love mystery thrillers over self-help books. And that’s the true power of a cover – it should represent the writing inside.
So, what’s really going on here, and how does it relate to photography? The big takeaway for me is that your brand determines what types of clients you’ll attract and in turn, reflects your work overall as a photographer. Do you want clients to pick up the book you’re writing?
If you want an edge attracting quality clients, you need a solid graphic identity. As a photographer, your brand is made up of your photographic and graphic identities. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume your portfolio (photographic identity) is in optimal shape, and we’re going to focus instead on developing a graphic identity.
The term graphic identity describes all the visual elements that help communicate to the world who you are and what you do. It also goes by other names: branding, brand identity, visual identity, etc. They’re the typefaces, colors, illustrations, and design that support your photographs, and give structure and personality to your marketing materials.
It starts with a logo and branches out into your stationery, website, print portfolio, promotional mailers and more. A great graphic identity stands the test of time and is flexible enough that you can use it over the years, with only minor updates.
Here are a couple examples of successful identities used across a variety of materials/platforms:
Does your logo consist of your name spelled out in Helvetica or another default font? Then you might be ready for a makeover.
Beyond that, there isn’t one right answer to this question. Some photographers start focusing on different specialties and realize their old identity won’t fit with their new work. Others target new clients and want their brand to attract them. Some haven’t updated their brand in years and want a fresh look.
If you’re considering updating an existing identity, don’t be afraid to ask for an outside opinion. When you’re close to your work, it makes it hard to be objective. Ask someone in the field, as opposed to a family member. You want to work with someone who deals with this stuff for a living and will give you a real, objective opinion.
I’d honestly recommend hiring a professional designer to tackle your new visual identity. A designer’s experience is an invaluable asset. They have more resources, skills, and experience available than someone who just “knows how to use Photoshop.” They will probably consider design options/ideas you wouldn’t think of on your own. If you have an existing brand, they can think of inventive ways to update it, should you want to keep some elements the same.
That being said, if you’re going to tackle this yourself, start with some good ol’ fashioned research. The subject?
Yes, you should research yourself. It might sound silly, but it pays off. Lots of factors can influence your brand, so write them down before you open up Illustrator (or more likely Photoshop in this case). Understanding yourself, the path you want to take, and your work will make the process much easier. Even if you change your mind later on and still need an identity, you can pass along your research to your designer.
Here are some questions for photographers looking for a rebrand:
Who are your current clients? What new clients are you trying to appeal to?
Important questions. Your visual identity isn’t just a form of personal expression—it’s a tool to help you get hired, so it should appeal to your clients. Now, I’m not saying that you should pander or squash any personal flourishes. But there is a difference between what appeals to you personally and how you present yourself professionally. You might like an industrial look, but if you want to shoot lifestyle, your logo shouldn’t include steel bolts and gritty textures. There would be a disconnect.
One example of good connection with clients/style: Matt Dutile’s business cards. Matt is predominantly a travel photographer, and his luggage tag business cards express this nicely.
What type of photography makes up the core of your work? Is there a type of photography you’d like to shoot more of?
Use your work as a compass to guide you. I wouldn’t create a delicate, ornate brand for an action-adventure photographer. When designing, I often keep sample photos on hand, so I can compare how a logo or colors work with the photographer’s images.
Some photographers shoot a few different specialties. In cases like this, consider creating a brand that is less geared towards a specific style or aesthetic – for example, instead of something with organic and script-based, you can use a modern typeface in a light line-weight.
Pretend you currently have no brand at all. What important aspects would you want your brand to convey to clients?
Keep your list concise, but specific. A simple message will translate better than a complicated one. Some things, like a level of professionalism, are given. Beyond that, what else do you want clients to know about you?
Are there any brands, whether they be another photographer’s or a company’s, that you particularly like? Think less about the visual design and more about the message behind each brand.
Branding is a visual language, and one person’s “sophisticated” could be another person’s “simple.” Here’s a reference board I sometimes send to photographers:
These photographer logos provide a range of styles, and I would consider them all well executed. I’ll ask clients to let me know how they feel about each of these. I find out what they like and dislike, but I also find out what each of these logos expresses to them.
Complete this exercise yourself, so you can help define the look you’re searching for. Don’t be afraid to check out companies unrelated to photography for this either—inspiration can be found in strange places! And with apps like Instagram and Pinterest, there are endless possibilities to search!
Who is your competition?
Okay, so I don’t actually ask photographers this question, but I do research this on my own. It’s a good thing to review before you get to work. It helps me see what others are doing, which forces me to be more innovative. Also, there’s less risk of accidentally copying someone. I wouldn’t define a brand solely on what your competition is doing, but I definitely recommend seeing what’s out there.
You’ve done your research, and you’re ready to execute. Grab a cup of coffee (or tea, if you’re like me!), and heed this advice:
Rules are made to broken. Yes, I am willing to put this in the section after dos and don’ts. The truth is that brands are complex. Sometimes, something that wouldn’t work for 99% of other photographers will work for you, or vice versa. The key is to know when a concept clicks, or if it’s too forced.
Branch out. A little variety will go a long way. You can use the same layout for your emailer and postcard, but you’ll keep client interest longer with subtle variations throughout your brand. Ideally, your collateral will look like it belongs together, without being exactly the same or completely different.
Oooh, shiny! If you have it in your budget, consider using different print techniques to distinguish your collateral. There’s foil stamping, die-cutting, spot varnishes, and letterpress to name a few (and for the look, no one has, try printing your business cards with thermo-sensitive ink). Even selecting heavier paper stock for your business cards can change the tone of your identity. If you have it in your budget, consider using different print techniques to distinguish your collateral.
Don’t design in a vacuum. Take breaks. Look at your work with fresh eyes. Ask someone for feedback. Think about it, and then go watch a movie and come back later. Your work benefits when you’re in a good state of mind.