In our last article, we explained the importance of creating a coherent visual design language for your brand guide. In this article, we would like to give you a bit more insight into the components that make up a brand language in product design.
To be clear, we are not going over all the aspects that make up a brand guide, such as your logo, color palette, and corporate identity. That topic has already been discussed and explained in great detail by a multitude of others, all with great examples and templates.
What is the goal of product design guidelines for brand guides?
The first goal for creating product design guidelines for your brand guide is creating a cohesive brand language for your complete product portfolio. Stylistic coherency reinforces brand awareness and drives your marketing campaigns, and should therefore be applied in your product design language as well.
The second goal of creating brand guidelines for your product design language is the ability to share your brand’s philosophy and story through your product. After all, the product is the longest-lasting brand touchpoint your customers have post-purchase.
These two goals – brand awareness and brand cohesiveness – combined increase the strength of your loyalty loop, creating the beautiful upward spiral effect of transforming your customers into brand ambassadors.
It is important to include design elements in your brand guidelines to ensure this cohesive brand story. When creating this guide make sure it is not an explicit “do this, don’t do this” booklet like we commonly see in regular brand guides. In contrary to, for example, “logo use in advertising” product design isn’t as clear-cut. Instead, try to create a framework in which your product designers or design agency can freely design within the boundaries of your brand’s story.
In this article, we will give you examples of several design elements which you can use regarding brand guidelines for product design. For all these elements, we make sure to add real-world examples of brands you might know. This way you can implement your brand’s story and create a framework for the design decision-making process within your organization in a similar way.
What do you need to have predefined before starting on your Product Design Brand Guidelines?
Before you can start building the product design pillars of your brand’s house, you need to produce a solid brand foundation: your brand DNA. This DNA is the story of your brand, the reason for your company’s existence. In essence, that what makes you distinguishable from your competitors. This might be captured in your company’s mission and vision and/or manifesto, but it must be well formulated before you can build a product language around it that will make sense. If this part is missing, the design of your product will always lack that part of DNA which gives your product that little bit extra to make it stand out among your competitors.
A company that perfectly translates its brand DNA into its product design guidelines is Dyson. Their core brand DNA says that they are a technology & innovation-focused brand. Through a strong utilitarian product design language, Dyson emphasizes technology and innovation on all their products. A great example of their emphasis on technology is how they show their technique in their product range. If you look at their early range of vacuum cleaners, you will see a lot of transparent parts, exposing the technology in the device, without diminishing the usability of the product.
Dyson’s core product design guideline is “putting emphasis on technology and innovation”, not “design clear parts”. This way, when trends concerning the innovativeness of a product changed, so did the look of the Dyson products. If we take a quick look at their newer products, such as the fanless fan or blow-dryer, we don’t see any transparent parts anymore. In these products, the innovativeness and technology are highlighted by removing the parts we normally would expect on products like these. With this elevated step of their product design, they stayed true to their original design philosophy and brand story. This is a great example of creating a framework for your designers or agency to work within freely, without losing focus on the current market and trends.
Defining Form language in a Brand Guide
Form language may be a vague term for the uninitiated, but even non-designers will recognize your brand based on its shape when your form language is well defined. For example, every car enthusiast recognizes the latest Porsche 911 based purely on the overall shape. But the form language also expresses your products positioning in the market. BMW has a more aggressive “road devouring” form language than Renault because the brand is positioned more towards the fun of driving, or as they state in their slogan: “Sheer driving pleasure”. Recognizing form language is step 1, but defining the right one for a brand guide is a whole new level.
A form language consists of several components. To give you a bit more insight, we selected some key components which you can use in your brand guide. To define a form language in a brand guide, you can describe the emotional tension of the form language, or you can use one of the following elements:
The first one is product silhouettes; this loosely translates to the way your product looks if you would squint your eyes or would look at the product from far away. Generally, the shape and form you would see that way should conceive an emotional response fitting with your brand. These shapes can be mapped out on several matrixes, but a general rule of thumb would be: the sharper the corners, the more aggressive the form language. Rounder shapes equal more friendly form language. It can soften your customer’s brand perception in a great matter. A company that shows great awareness of this in almost all their consumer electronics is Google. The multinational technology company needs its brand to express trustworthiness and unintrusiveness to combat the image of a big tech company. For this reason, they explicitly created a friendly form language for all their products. The silhouette of all their products is soft with rounded shapes and edges, which evoke an emotion of trust and comfort.
Another way to use form language in your product design brand guidelines is the application of signature shapes. These are especially great for brands that have positioned their brand and/or products in a certain niche. Signature shapes are brand-defining shapes or features that can be used in a multitude of ways. It’s that one form element that makes your product recognized as part of your brand. This can be a small form feature or an overall shape, but the key is the recognizability of the feature.
Examples of form language
A good representative brand that uses their form language as their main brand feature is Italian home appliance producer Smeg. The release of their retro-styled refrigerators in 1997 is a great example of the bold expressive statement they try to make with their products. After this success, a complete range of 50’s styled products has been added to this product family. Even if you would remove the brand name from the product, it would still be recognizable as part of this product line through the form language. Currently, this entire product line is a synonym for the Smeg brand. Although they make a lot more products than just this line, it works as an enlistment product (more on that later) for their entire brand. Customers looking for new kitchen appliances but less keen on making such bold statements will recognize the Smeg name on their more modest product lines, “Cool by association”.
Another brand that might look similar but has a completely different approach to the same form language is Kitchenaid. The combination of the curved product silhouette with the metal band as signature shape might make their brand language also feel “retro”. But if you know the history of the brand it is more heritage-based. Kitchenaid’s brand is based on its reputation of making THE kitchen mixer you need to buy if you take yourself seriously as a baker. Even though the company has been bought by Whirlpool in 1986(!), the brand is still alive and kicking and carried by the same strong form language visible in the first mixers.
So, what at first sight might seem like a similar form language, Kitchenaids’ story is completely different than Smeg’s, as it’s based on their legacy. You could even state that Smeg is capitalizing on that same legacy feeling and reusing it for their benefit.
Color, Material, and Finish for your product design brand guidelines
Color, materials and finishes: it’s a profession on its own and for a good reason. Commonly abbreviated as CMF, these aspects are the most straightforward elements of your product’s design but might be the hardest part to get exactly right, as they will define how your product looks and feels. They simply can’t be seen separate from each other.
Let’s take a “black product” as an example:
As you can imagine, just saying a product should always be black can result in numerous outcomes, all of them telling a different story about your product and brand. Not only does the combination of color, material, and finish give your product a certain look and feel, it also depends on what kind of product you are applying these aspects too. High gloss black glass hints more towards high tech and innovation if your designing consumer electronics but might look more elegant and minimalistic on the kitchen stovetop. If we now take that color black again but apply it with different material and finish – for example plastic with a structured pattern – it would translate into ruggedness and toughness if used on power tools or police body cameras. The same color for all 3 products, but the product tells a completely different story.
The point is that defining your product line’s CMF is more than choosing a color palette. The 3 elements go hand in hand and need to emphasize each other and your brand’s story. It helps to explain the reasoning behind the chosen CMF combinations in your brand guide, so rather than stating: “Black is our brand color for product line X”, try something like: “The combination of the Pantone Black C and Gorrila Glass Victus emphasizes our strive for perfection and being the markets true innovator”.
To demonstrate the above-stated CMF guidelines we’ve selected 2 brands that have a very distinguishable line in their CMF choices. The first brand that translates their core brand values into their CMF choices in a very sophisticated way is B&O. With the use of high-end and “non-artificial” materials like steel, wood, and woven fabrics, their products get positioned in the higher end spectrum of the market. Making them stand out from their more common competitors, not only in quality but also in look and feel. These CMF choices also ensure that the product they are creating fits into the luxury homes they end up in. Or as they state themselves: “For a life less ordinary”
The American power tool brand DeWALT, part of Stanley Black & Decker, was rebranded to be the choice for the customer who wanted a more professional high-end tool. For this purpose, the Black & Decker Professional and Kodiak lines were also outfitted with the characteristic black and yellow exterior parts and rebranded under one name: “DeWALT”. This uniformity and notable uniqueness in CMF choice ensured a greater brand awareness under contractors and semi-professionals with a brand recognition rate of 70%.
Creating a Brand Champion
Another very effective way to increase brand awareness and brand recognition through product design is the use of what we like to call a “Brand Champion”. This champion can be a variety of elements, but each brand has only one champion. It is the BMW grille, the Spirit of Ecstacy from Rolls Royce, but also the blue light from any Amazon Alexa speaker, and the click wheel from the early Apple iPods. It’s a specific element that is recognized as if it is your brand or product line itself. It instantly brings your product out of namelessness and gives it a face. Creating such a hero is a delicate task because, in the end, it is the customer who will decide if that “small green light triangle” on your product becomes the synonym for your brand. Making your brand hero a success is directly linked to the core of this article: make sure it’s tied to your brand story, and ensure it’s sincere.
User Experience and User Interface for your brand guide
This article is not about User Experience design or User Interfaces, if you want to know more about how to design for a great user experience, we’ve got you covered! This paragraph is more on how you can implement brand features into your UX design to create a more coherent brand language for all the layers in your products. This is not just true for the user interface of your product, but the complete user experience. For a company like Volkswagen, it might be the sound the door makes when you shut it. For Philips, it might be the feeling when clicking the On button. By no means write down how this action should sound or feel exactly. Instead describe the desired emotional response on interaction. This way the guideline can be implemented in multiple ways and tested during the design process with your target audience.
Regarding user interfaces on your product, you can create guidelines for physical buttons, displays, and button layout. Make sure to define a hierarchy in the functions of your product and make guidelines on how to represent this hierarchy in your product design. Main functions should be the easiest to find and use for your product user. Try to explain this through the design of the product. Dyson does this by color-coding certain interactive elements on their products. As shown above, Philips creates a hierarchy in their product’s user interaction by having the main functionality in the giant knob directed towards the user, and the secondary functions divided over smaller, less intrusive buttons.
Define the product context before applying the brand guidelines
We’ve mentioned it above, but as with everything in product design: Context is Key! Context of the brand, the product, the use of the product, the environment the product is used in, and the place of the product in your product portfolio.
After you’ve defined the position of your brand in general through good brand propositioning, define the placement of your product in the market. What’s the product’s target audience? Is the product part of a product family? If so, is there a High-end, Mid-range, and Low-end version of your product? Where is the product used? In your customer’s living room, or the kitchen?
Define the proposition and context of your product before applying any of the features mentioned in the earlier paragraphs. In your brand guide, create guidelines that can help your designers or agency to apply these rules according to the context of the product. Maybe the CMF guidelines for your high-end products have a different accent color than the low-end version. Or use a softer form language for products that might be used in living areas.
The Swiss hardware company Logitech does this like no other. If we look at their PC Keyboards, most of them are friendly-looking inconspicuous products that blend into their customers’ working environment. Same product, same brand, but the Logitech keyboards in the G-series are directed at gamers and therefore come with their complete own brand language. Directed at gamers means the brand needs to convey a form that shows the competitiveness the customer wants to be associated with, which results in a way more aggressive form language through the use of color and lights.
Final thoughts: make it workable, and make it engaging!
This article shows some elements that can be used to define your visual brand language in product design. This list is by no way definitive and a brand guide should always be tailored to your brand. There are no shortcuts, templates, or off-the-shelve solutions for such an important and brand-specific tool.
When creating the brand guidelines, always remember the end goal of the document you are making. It should be used by all of your company’s employees and external stakeholders to make it easier for them to capture the DNA of your brand into their work and your products. So, give clear guidelines, liberties, and boundaries for design. And make sure the document is engaging, fun, and inspirational. Be creative with it: “Brand Xs’ golden rule of design is:” or “Brand’s 10 product design commandments”. It has to be carried throughout the entire organization and in all steps of the design process, and this can only be achieved if the document itself is appealing to use.