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Look sharp and tell ’em straight

Why a strong visual identity is important for your cultural institution.

Branding. Identity. Logos. There is often an adverse reaction to these words, especially in the world of arts and culture. They are seen as dirty words that connote consumerism and commercialization. They can make those of us who deal with aesthetics and art feel anxious or even “dirty”.

The truth is that when it comes to naming our endeavors and actions, identifying ourselves socially, claiming ownership and point of origin, we've been branding ourselves for thousands of years. The heraldic emblem of a royal family, the monogram of a textile house, factory marks on Roman oil lamps and the simple hand carved wooden sign above a cobbler’s shop are all attempts to convey a message and tell a story.

I won't get into my issues with the hypertrophied and contemptible version of branding here. What I want to talk about is the good stuff - how creating a strong visual identity and doing so tastefully, can help you better understand your audience and in turn enable your audience to better identify with you.

At minimum, a good visual identity includes a logo and a style guide that outlines the use of typography, color, and photography. The identity is then applied to your signage, web site, advertisements, posters, annual reports, and business cards etc. - essentially everything that your organization produces. The idea is to create a cohesive look and feel that tells the story of who you are and what you do.

If you want the graphic excellence of your identity to match the excellence of your programming, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Connect with people
I'll assume you are already creating relevant work, and that it resonates with people. If you aren't already doing this, no amount fancy business cards, social media or beautiful design can save you. Stop now, step back and reexamine your mission and programming.  

If you are already making something that people are responding to with excitement, think deeply about why they love what you do. Why is it seductive? What are your values and ethics, and what makes the project tick?

It's not about making up an imaginary slick face to present to the world, while we know underneath things are not what they seem. Instead it's about knowing your institution’s story and having the courage to tell it.

I think it’s important to remember, we’re here to enrich people's lives, not sell widgets.  

Build a relationship
When you are sure that you have a clear understanding of yourself and your audience, hire a professional designer who can work with you to turn these ideas into a timeless visual identity. It doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. Take your time finding the right person to work with. Find a designer who wants to understand your goals and can work within your budget.

In the same way you've built a relationship with your audience, build a deep relationship with your designer, and trust him/her to do what you’ve hired them to do. For me, when I have a client like this, I am able to produce my most interesting work. The design process becomes fluid and free, almost magical at times.

Be fearless
Be fearless! Don't be intimidated and feel like something has to look a certain way, or that you can't afford to create something that looks good and is meaningful.

Be flexible
A good visual identity should be flexible. You might be a theater group and your audiences may range from culturally engaged college kids looking to try something new, to retirees who have a long history of theatergoing. You want to be sure you can tailor elements of your identity to communicate better with niche audiences - if your message is strong enough, it won't have trouble adapting to a variety of circumstances.

Slow media
Have you ever kept a plane or train ticket after a particularly memorable trip, or bought a t-shirt after an amazing concert?  Extend your identity’s reach into the physical world by printing posters and postcards that create real, tangible connections with people. They will generate excitement in a way that is just not possible with a flyer that only exists in pixel form.

Make spaces into places
Another often overlooked opportunity is the unused or underused physical space that you hold your events or exhibitions in. This could be in your building, out in the street, or on a partner's property. I'll never forget a particular underground music venue that I frequented as a teenager when going to punk shows. It wasn't slick or considered, but it had a true sense of place. You knew where you were, what to expect, who would be there and you were excited. This is a tricky concept, but the idea is to turn these underutilized spaces into places by treating them as extensions of the identity and allowing people to form a deep emotional connection to them.

Just the beginning
An identity should be cultivated and carefully modified over time. Let it grow with you and your organization. Be sure it's as fresh and relevant as when you first unveiled it. If smartly cultivated, a well crafted identity will pay dividends over time by reinforcing connections with your existing followers and fostering relationships with a new audience that is just finding out about the great work that you do.

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