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Building a Corporate Identity

I’ve been recently helping a client “build” her corporate identity materials, including her logo, a business card, two rack cards, and a web presence. It really is an organic process of going back and forth between and among the various elements to see what works together and what doesn’t.

My goals are to have the viewer immediately recognize that all pieces of the corporate identity package “go together” and to reflect the goals, values, and benefits one would derive from my client’s business. She is a Reiki practitioner and hypnotist.

In prior weeks we had been working back and forth on a business card and a rack card for her Reiki practice. My client liked the Reiki rack card so much that she wanted to design and print a separate rack card for hypnotism (modifying undesirable behaviors like smoking through suggestions aimed at the person’s subconscious).

My Approach to Adding a New Element to the Corporate Identity

Adding a second rack card for hypnotism in such a way that it would be immediately recognizable as collateral for my client’s business, while at the same time not being confused with the Reiki rack card, was a challenge. It also differed from my approach to designing the business card. Here’s how:

1. The first rack card had a full bleed, ghosted image of a bridge on the front and back of the card. The entry to (opening of) the bridge was on the front of the card, and the exit from the bridge was on the back. My client used “bridge” imagery on her website and in her rack card text copy as a metaphor for a conscious transition in life.

2. Since this image was ghosted back, it was not dominant in the design. Rather it provided a mood or tone to the rack card. I also put the bridge on the back of the business card (at full intensity: not screened back, or ghosted). Therefore, when designing the second rack card for hypnosis, I kept the background image exactly as it was on the first card for my client’s Reiki practice.

3. On the front of the Reiki card, I had placed my client’s logo at the top with a photo of a “cairn” in water immediately below the logo. (A cairn is a pile of rocks used to identify one’s place on an overland journey. You might find a cairn of rocks in the countryside in Iceland. The image of rocks is simple and primitive as well as directly relevant to metaphors of “the path of life,” growth, and transition.)

4. Water is relevant to growth and to surrendering oneself to the flow of life. The image of the cairn in deep green water echoed the deep green in my client’s logo (immediately above the photo) and provided a dominant green “presence” at the top of the card, where the reader’s eye would go first. The background screened-back image of the bridge was set within the green hues of a forest (albeit a somewhat lighter green since the full-bleed background photo had been ghosted, or screened back).

5. With all of this in mind I envisioned the second rack card with the same logo but a different “top of the page” photo with a different dominant color. I assumed the reader would immediately and intuitively grasp that this rack card is different from the other rack card because of the color. My assumption was that color recognition and image recognition would be more immediate than awareness dependent on reading the text.

6. My client (who is also a photographer) provided an image of a candle in a candle holder (like a tea light), projecting images onto the wall through openings in the spherical candle holder. Metaphorically, the image hinted at illumination, warmth, and perhaps the projected illusions of life that we believe are true. In terms of color, the image was imbued with yellows, golds, and browns—all very different from the opening photo on the Reiki rack card.

7. Then I treated the text in the same way as on the first rack card (same font, type size, leading, etc.). To reiterate, for a rack card I wanted to suggest near equivalence through the design. The two cards were the same (both were rack cards), but slightly different (each focused on a different service my client offers).

Compared to the Business Card

Like the two rack cards, the business card includes the image of the bridge. However, it is treated somewhat differently in that it is of full intensity (not ghosted). So it looks related but not the same. Also, since the color scheme and typeface are consistent on the business card and the two rack cards, there’s a sense of continuity of imagery and tone.

Moreover, the logo is actually larger on the business card than on the two rack cards (the logo is type-only, so it reads like a headline more than an image). Therefore, this larger size also makes the name of my client’s business more prominent on the business card when seen next to the rack cards.

Going Further

For my client, these minor changes were enough. She only needed these components of her corporate identity system. However, in your own design work, you may also need to create such an identity system, and you may need to add letterhead or a #10 envelope or a large booklet envelope. If you are a graphic artist, here are two approaches you might consider:

1. Vary the size of the elements. Take an image or even text from one key component of the identity package (part of a logo, or even a word set in the typeface used for the logo), and enlarge it. Then screen it back to perhaps 25 percent of full intensity. You can get away with a really large image (perhaps bleeding it off the side of a thank-you note, an envelope, or a brochure) if you ghost it in this way. The lighter the image is, the larger you can make it.

2. Contrast simple and complex design elements. Successful design depends on contrasts of one kind or another. If you’re designing a shopping bag to go with the business card and letterhead, you may want to make one large panel of the shopping bag (or perhaps the front and back) white with only a small image in the center of the white field. Then you may want to make the smaller, surrounding panels of the bag more active (or busy) using brightly colored images, or a screen of a color, or a pattern.

The Take-Away

Here are some thoughts:

1. Keep all design elements relevant. If you can find themes and visual metaphors like my client did (the stack of rocks to indicate a point on the journey, or the tea light noting illumination), that’s ideal. Design based on an overall theme is more effective than just aesthetically appealing design. Also, make sure that anything you include relates directly to your (or your client’s) brand message and values, as well as to the benefits the business offers.

2. In your corporate identity design work, find ways to address pattern, balance, symmetry, repetition, reader eye-movement, image dominance, and other principles of aesthetics. Study these online and in books. They pertain to both the fine arts and the graphic arts.

3. Always keep in mind what elements of the package are different (my client’s business card and rack card, for instance) or almost the same (my client’s two rack cards). If something is really different, don’t make the visual difference subtle. Make it dramatic. Save the subtle visual differences for similar items.

4. Think in terms of large and small: Will the logo work on both a business card and a wall banner?

5. Think in terms of black and white vs. color. Will the logo work in black and white as well as color?

6. Study corporate identity packages you like. Articulate what the design goal of the package is and what graphic elements work together to successfully achieve this design goal. Consider the use of themes, metaphors, and visual concepts.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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