A brand - and specifically a visual identify - is vitally important to any organisation, often in all sorts of ways that haven’t even been considered. That’s why the process of developing that identity deserves to be undertaken carefully and thoughtfully. Something that ‘looks good’ isn’t always enough. In fact it usually isn’t.

Occasionally we’re lucky enough to work with a start-up organisation from the very beginning - developing an identity from scratch before making that identity come to life online. One such opportunity arose recently with Dublin-based start-up DataChemist. I know for some the notion of creating visual identity from nothing is to be filed alongside alchemy, so what follows are some observations and thoughts on the process that I follow. I hope it’s of some use!

1. Start on paper

In many ways the most important step is the first. I start by writing, and I start by writing with an old-fashioned pen on old-fashioned paper. During conversation with the client I want to get an understanding of what sort of business they are and what sort of business they want to be in five years time - because what emerges needs to be as future-proof as possible. I want to know how the product works, and who would buy it.

While I am listening (and after I’ve listened) I’ll build our mind-maps and other forms of word-based brainstorms. Why on paper? I find it enables me to work without distraction and the lack of any requirement to impose ‘order’ on my thought processes means I am more capable of getting thoughts and directions ‘out’ - which is the goal of this initial phase.

When I’m finished I should have a lot of material. That’s good - I can begin to focus on the more promising angles and bring them with me to the next stage.

2. Getting creative (still on paper)

Those words or phrases that jump out now get some form of visual treatment. Again, I don’t want to limit myself at this stage. Ideas are everything, execution is almost irrelevant, so for that reason I continue to work within the sketchbook and (as you can see from the sketches shown below!) there are very few marks given for artistic expression at this stage of the game.

As a business DataChemist essentially helps create order from chaos, and in some sense acts as a form of ‘plumbing’ that pulls together disparate datasets and databases into a cohesive whole. You can see my thoughts moving in this direction on these pages, albeit in a very embryonic form. The goal remains to create a LOT of sketches and give myself (and ultimately the client) a lot to work with and as many options or directions as possible.

3. Into the machine

At this point it’s time to start work in Illustrator (or whatever you’re having yourself, it doesn’t really matter). Two things need to happen first however. Firstly, I select three or four sketches for further treatment. If ‘magic’ could be said to happen at any point this is probably it. Usually it’s a case of gut feel or just a sense that one particular idea has potential, but it would be wrong to pretend there is any formal set of criteria I use when making this decision.

Secondly, I’ll pull together a simple mood board of work and design I like from organizations in the space. In truth, this type of research has been happening in the background throughout the project - but it’s not that I would formally pull things together. Having this kind of mood board in place will help inform the design direction in terms of colour palette, font selection and so on. This is the stage at which those decisions are made. For DataChemist, I wouldn’t be ashamed to say it was a case of ‘safety first’ to some extent. Start-ups selling to large organisations such as banks or publishers need to work hard to present as dependable, reliable and ready to take real responsibility.

That approach and direction can be seen in the mood board below. “Serious and direct whilst bold and innovative” probably describes it best.

Once those steps have been taken I’ll take some of my pencil sketches and work them up accordingly. As you can see, the concepts of plumbing and connection remain front of mind but the treatment hopefully embodies all those lovely adjectives we mentioned above. Now it’s time to take a deep breath and get the client involved!

4. Show and edit

I’m a great believer in getting the client involved early. The old days of the ‘big reveal’ are over, or they certainly are for my generation. As long as boundaries are clear and a client is under strict instructions not to pick up a pen I like to work collaboratively. So the truth is, where appropriate I may well have shared some direction already.

At this stage that becomes formalised and we’ll look at three potential approaches. I won’t have ‘finished’ these necessarily. We’ll chat about what we like and what we don’t and revise until we are both happy. As a designer I care a little too much about what goes out the door, but the client lives with it for the rest of their life or something that feels like it. I’m involved, they are committed.

In this instance we immediately honed in on the circular logo that played with a visualisation of ‘data intelligence’ through combined intricate patterns ( or ‘plumbing circle’ if you are feeling less poetic) but after some discussion felt it may appear over complex and not necessarily support being reproduced on less-than-perfect printers, scanners and so on. A great example in designing for everyday life. With that in mind we revised again and delivered the logo as shown.

5. Build out the style guide

Last but not least - I build out and share with the client a full style guide. A logo does not and cannot live in isolation. We need various versions for different situations, but we also need a colour palette, illustration guide, font guides for written documents - everything that enables anyone designing on behalf of the client to do so in a consistent and great looking way. When, and only when, that style guide is handed over, the job is done

That last group includes us of course. We’re busy building an online presence for DataChemist right now. Watch this space!

Journal full list