the magic of visual identity

How the magic of visual identity is transforming digital products

There exist a few sights and applications whose design you look at and think: "Wow. This is pure magic." You might wonder at such a site and then wonder how much something at that level might be worth. You might ask yourself what kind of digital wizardry must have gone into its creation. You imagine it born from a mysterious sphere of inspiration straight from the bowels of Silicon Valley, or perhaps conjured in arcane knowledge from the pages of some ancient swiss manuscript. The truth, we will discover, is not far off. Let's unravel this mystery together.

The Pledge: what do visual identity and magic have in common?

A few words about magic

We all love magic. Magic – is something wondrous. It is unknown and seemingly unknowable, and in its beauty, it can mesmerize us beyond the borders of our understanding. Displays of magic never fail to delight and surprise us. They immediately command our attention and, in that final moment, leave us speechless and yearning for more. The force and mystery of magic are irresistible, regardless of the audience.

But among the audience, some are not satisfied to be shocked and awed. They want to dazzle and delight with their own shows of magic, offer this wonder and surprise to others, and, of course - they want to sell tickets. They are the great showrunners, and they need to know all the tricks of the trade.

Magic and visual identity

Designers are the magicians and wonder-workers of the digital world. They conjure products that capture our imagination from the very first glance, fill us with delight, stir our desires, and inspire us to share them with - and recommend them to - our friends.

The showrunners in our story are, of course, the brands themselves. Every time they want to infuse a product with a high level of originality and design, they seek out the most gifted magicians the world has to offer. Sometimes these magicians can guide and aid the internal design team in making a significant leap in quality. This leap is where we find the value of real digital magic.

Yet, the search for a master magician of the digital world can, regrettably, be a thorny one. On their road to an expressive and meaningful visual identity, many showrunners approach and team up with many different magicians of varying levels of talent and skill. Eventually, they do find their own Merlin or their own Gandalf. Some meet sooner, some later. But magic, it is said, always has perfect timing.

But the question remains: what actually happens when the showrunner and his magician finally do meet? It is here that we see how real magic is made.

Are you watching closely?

The Turn: how do designers prepare for the show?

Magic Tri-sphere

Staging a show is always challenging work. On the stage, everything must happen in sync and in the same moment. The magician unfurls his cloak, casts his spell, and then just as quickly disappears - as if he never existed. Speed and finesse are crucial in delivering his surprise. But I must repeat, behind this seeming simplicity lies complex preparation in the form of design and rehearsal.

The very same is true when creating product design. A bit later, we will explore the actual process itself. But, for now, let's unwrap the necessary components involved in our preparation. These components all fit into a symbol of three interwoven spheres. However, since we are talking about magic, let's make this magical.

The three-sphere analogy, as is obvious from the name, consists of three interwoven spheres. Three is a magical number and presents itself as deceptively simple. But it's simplicity is just an illusion as not all design teams are capable of weaving all three elements of the tri-sphere together in their work.

Levels of perception of visual identity

Each of these spheres functions from the level of perception of the actual user. This varies in-depth, and so the weaving and fastening together of the tri-sphere elements require the designers to possess a range of "magical" skills. To better understand this, let's move on to structure and walk through the very same stages of perception that the users, themselves, must go through.

Core Identity -​ this is the fonts, colors, icons, logo, and sometimes the mascot. This level is accessible to most design teams, but in truth, it is often the stopping point as many design teams mistakenly believe that this is the visual identity. Actually, this is only the top-most layer. But let's say that the core identity has been skillfully crafted and takes a peek inside the user's mind to see what story he discovers in the design.

Visual Storytelling -​ or the metaphor surrounding the brand - is a matter of vision. It requires a veritable potion of creativity, behavioral psychology, and a knowledge of architecture in order to create the image in the user's mind, which artistically connects the value of the product to the user's needs. If the concept resonates with the core, then the visual identity becomes meaningful to the user. This is the level where what is ordinary finds narrative and begins to seem magical.

Details ​are the final flourish and are usually hidden upon first glance. But when they are eventually noticed, they are the last touch that really brings the magic to life. This kind of unexpected aftertaste is always memorable for the user. It is where the team's ability to seamlessly integrate the core with metaphor at the micro-level is demonstrated. If the ability to conjure this level of subtle charm is not up to par, the designer is carried away into unnecessary decorum. This use of unnecessary decoration is meaningless and always means to deceive.

For a master magician, beauty is always honest and goes hand in hand with functionality. When everything comes together in such a way, the final barriers fall.

When visual identity is sure to work

Product identity design is most resilient and less likely to crack when all three components are intertwined and work as one. This does not mean that the connection between the design elements should be obvious or exaggerated. For example, if a brand attempts to reimagine mail and presents a product to the world with but another envelope as its logo, it's boring - and anything but magical.

In fact, the opposite approach is usually the hallmark of successful design. Ideally, brands find their identity in the "sweet spot" between obvious clichéd metaphors and overly contrived images that are difficult and laborious to understand​. ​But there is so much more to identity than just the philosophy of a brand. Identity requires other, less flashy - less sexy - components such as longevity, recognition, scalability, and ease of use.

But, It is not enough to rely on theory alone to create a solid design. This approach is not the end-all-be-all of design processes, but it is our approach. For us, the very process of creating it is filled with meaning.

The process of creation and the roles of a designer

As he walks the difficult path from understanding the task to full-scale implementation, the designer must be flexible. A skilled specialist finds himself playing several different roles throughout the design process.

To create or reimagine a metaphor, the design team must transform themselves into highly knowledgeable archaeologists. They study the brand's historical roots, learn about the founders and their stories. They must examine what cultural code has evolved around the product throughout its lifespan, what words are associated with the brand, and what kind of people were, and still are, fans of the brand.

This understanding is necessary even when the new design must sever all ties with the past. In this situation, such comprehension of previous brand identity is crucial. Without this knowledge, the magic simply isn't possible.

To form the core, the designer studies the entire industry around the product. He must become a kind of analyst. His goal is to ascertain the general mood, find repeating patterns, and then understand it from the macro and micro levels. Only then does he endeavor to create a unique brand identity.

This digital magician's proverbial staff and wand are his mastery of fonts' properties, space, composition, and the interaction of colors. He can cast a visual spell with these instruments, which leaves the user with the undeniable feeling that he is looking at something extraordinary - even if he doesn't yet know why.

For a brand, creating this user experience is invaluable - and a pathway to broad recognizability.

When it comes to these details, the designer assumes the mantle of a master craftsman. He lovingly adds detail and polishes inconsistencies. Every so often, he takes a couple of steps back to see if a whole image has emerged.

Does his work look organic? Was the last detail not too much or over-the-top?

Finally, there is one more role the designer must step into. It is the part which the designer does not stop playing until the end of the project - a psychologist's role. This part is vital. He may indeed be a great professional, but if he finds that the showrunners (stakeholders) are uncomfortable creating their product with him at the helm, he is still just an amateur.

A wise designer integrates the vision of the business into his design and is able to accept someone else's point of view, and is always willing to explain his actions while never slipping into snobbery. This is how harmonious and long-term cooperation is born.

Various combinations of the tri-sphere levels

Visual identity, as a subject, is something quite interesting. Sometimes we take to it immediately, but there are products that we pass by without even a flicker of interest. There is a subtle yet direct relationship between the number of areas that make up its core and the impact of design on the user—the more complete this core-set, the stronger the product's visibility and attractiveness.

Visual Storytelling, core, and details.​ This is, quite simply, the recipe for a strong identity. If we revisit the analogy of the show, Cirque du Soleil is a perfect example. Each performance is a unique story. The artists' skill is mesmerizing, and the detail of the images, the pyrotechnics, the lighting, and costume design come together to create an incredible synergy. Catharsis. And Transcendence.

Visual Storytelling and core.​ Though this is still a strong design, such an identity will lack individuality even on an intuitive level. The subtle nuances and particulars of a brand are deeply embedded into its fabric. They are akin to clothing accessories. They are not the main point of emphasis, but their presence transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary even beyond the level of conscious perception.

After all, if the devil, known for his love of small things, wore fancy shirts, he would never forget to wear stylish cufflinks. The devil is certainly in the details.

Just the core​. This is a solid, albeit inadequate, level of visual identity. It has been proven to help a brand stand out from the crowd, but nothing more. It will attract a user's attention, but it is unlikely to inspire catharsis in them. This is your friend who learned on YouTube and rehearsed the card trick. Surprise - maybe. Cool - sure. But show - definitely not.

The Prestige: what happens next in real life?

The importance of visual identity for users and a team

An artistic, stand-out visual identity must take root in both the users and the product's design teams. It is essential for the team to work in a way that creates a deep feeling of connectedness to the whole and understanding the meaningful ideas that comprise it. Here they are given a chance to embody these ideas themselves and be proud of their shared values.

A more practical attribute of identity is its versatility and scalability. This is the brand's new visual language. Marketers and creatives will use it to engage and communicate with their audience. A well-thought-out identity will adapt to any known medium of communication.

For users, a good identity is a pathway from recognizability to brand loyalist. It has always been human nature to surround ourselves with things in which we can see ourselves. Visual identity helps us recognize our own reflection in a small icon, in the header of social networks, in an advertising banner, or on a product's website.

Behind-the-scene conclusions

They say that if you don't understand physics laws, the world will always appear magical. However, if we endeavor to learn about mechanics, electrodynamics, optics, and thermodynamics, then the magic is demystified, and what once seemed like magic becomes clear, understandable, and ​usable.​ The very same can be said for visual identity and design.

In the beginning, we started with a simple premise - visual identity is magic. But as we unraveled the details, it became clear that it wasn't ever really magic at all, but a craft. In place of spells, wands, and magical gestures - we found ready-built processes and the ability to work within the sphere of business and complete the tasks at hand.

For savvy professionals, design and visual identity transform from something magical into a working tool.