It's amazing how much visual material businesses create.
I like that, though. It tends to keep me in business. Think
about the typical mid-size company. They have signage, stationery,
forms, vehicle graphics, uniforms, brochures, catalogs, webs
sites, newsletters and advertisements to name a few things.
As a company grows, so does its visual arsenal. Pretty soon,
there are more locations, more signage, more forms, more stationery,
etc. If management isn't careful, it can get out of hand faster
than a group of young guys at a Britney Spears concert. That's
where the design audit comes in handy. Don't let the name
fool you. This kind of audit is a good thing.
design audit is a review of all the visual elements used by
a business, as well as its message to the public. It's something
a company can do that's akin to therapy, leading to corporate
enlightenment. Without a method in place to monitor visual
style, a business is in danger projecting more personalities
And, it's not just for the big guys. Small businesses can
benefit from an audit as well. Just like their larger cousins,
they have signs, forms, stationery, ads, and brochures too.
By the way, if you're a small business, and you don't have
these things, call me. I'll fix it for you.
A design audit concerns itself with the consistency of visual
style and message. What does it all look like? Is the design
consistent throughout all materials? What message is being
sent? Is it the right one? Is it consistent? Is the level
of production quality where it should be? The visual materials
produced by a company is a key factor in how it is perceived
by its market and other audiences. If a logo is the face of
a company, visual style is its clothes. Sure, there are several
other factors that contribute to corporate identity. Quality,
customer service, environments and the likes all work in concert
to create an identity. Successful companies will direct these
with a strategic plan. Companies that don't police their materials
and message simply let their identity happen to them. Not
a real good idea in a competitive marketplace.
An audit begins with the collection of all visual elements
a business creates. For companies with several operating locations,
materials are gathered from each. These are then studied by
the designer and an analysis report is presented to management.
Many businesses have a shocking revelation when they see all
their visual elements together in one place, at one time.
It's often a monster made of pieces and parts that would do
Dr. Frankenstein proud.
As companies expand, they often start to have materials created
and printed in remote locations. 'Geez, we're almost out of
letterheads. If we order through headquarters, it will take
too long. Let's just go down to the local quickprint shop
and have some run off.' And so it starts. A little here, a
little there. Next thing you know, your company has 15 or
20 versions of its letterhead. Same goes for other elements.
For the small business owner it's often the same thing, just
on a smaller scale. Out of business cards? Run out and get
some printed. 'Oh, you know, I used to like that typestyle,
but the one in the book here is pretty neat. Let's go with
that. Oh, and make it blue this time. Whadda ya mean what
color blue? I don't know. Just blue!'
So, is that a big deal? You betcha. When the visual style
goes down the tube, so does positioning and with it, potential
sales and mindshare. If things keep changing, customers and
clients can get a little nervous. Worse, they may not even
recognize you in the market after the latest change. If there
are multiple operating locations, the connection between them
begins to fade faster than your favorite pair of jeans.
Visual style and message are a big part of branding. When
you go into a McDonalds in Hoboken, it's the same as the one
in Sri Lanka. Drink a Coke in Detroit and it's the same as
the one in Tokyo. The colors are the same, typestyles are
the same (within the confines of the locations' alphabet).
That's comforting to people.
We communicate with words, but also with our mannerisms,
body language, clothes, attitudes, etc. Think for a moment
of someone who talks like Neiman Marcus, but dresses like
the local Goodwill. How believable is their message? The message
and the style that it's wrapped in need to line up. When a
business strays from a consistent visual style, its message
begins to erode. One part of the company is saying one thing,
while another is saying something else. It's kind of like
corporate cognitive dissidence, where you think one thing,
but do another. That creates anxiety. Management get anxious
because the market isn't reacting as they believe they should.
The market gets anxious because they can't figure out what
the company is trying to say.
A design audit brings all the inconsistencies to light. From
this point, management and the designer can begin to structure
a plan to insure that the company and its message are presented
in harmony. That harmony should be chronicled in a Standards
Manual. This documents how an enterprise's visual style should
be portrayed. It shows how the company logo is structured,
what colors are to be used, using a standard numbering system
like the Pantone Matching System. It will also show what typefaces
are to be used along with any specifics about them.
A Standards Manual can be a just a couple of pages for a
small company or a volume equal to War and Peace for a multi-national.
It simply depends upon the size and scope of the company and
how many applications are typically used. A large company
will need to show signage applications, uniforms, vehicle
applications and several others, while a small business may
only need to show the logo, its colors, stationery and a few
forms. The point is to document it and never, ever, under
any circumstances, stray from it.
With a completed design audit and a clear set of standards,
you're ready to meet the market with a stronger, consistent
identity. You'll also save yourself a lot of time and aggravation
down the road when it comes to preparing new or additional
visual materials. You tend to sleep better too.
©2002, Neil Tortorella