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  • General Best Practices
  • Independent Schools
Creating Cohesive School Brand Experience: Tips for Developing a Visual System
Alex Budnitz, Director of Design, and Michael Eads, Director of Production at Sametz Blackstone Associates

 A visual system is made up of several parts, including your school's logo, typography, imagery and more. Learn how to coordinate these pieces across your school's marketing on and offline for a cohesive brand experience.  Read more in this guest blog by Sametz Blackstone Associates

All visual systems are made up of a set of basic design components and approaches to modulating those components. The elements of design—type, color, imagery, compositional and graphic elements—can be largely generic in and of themselves. Unique ways of manipulating and integrating the elements of design is what brings distinction, recognizability, and, critically, repeatability across platforms. 

Context also plays a role in your school’s visual system: a website, a mobile app, a banner ad, a space ad, a viewbook, a poster, or a building graphic are all wildly different in form and function—yet, given a strong, well considered visual brand system, all of them can reinforce a coherent visual brand.

This is where an inclusive approach to system thinking comes into play. Our ability to manipulate the elements of design varies from medium to medium; we can’t (yet) control the visual experience of a website in the same way we can a printed alumni magazine. But with a systems approach, both formats can speak the same language. 

Now, what are the components of a visual system?

  • Logo
  • Typography
  • Color
  • Imagery
  • Composition and Graphic Elements
  • Methods and Materials

Let’s dive into each one in greater detail.

Logo

Though not technically an element of design, your school’s logo plays a critical role in establishing brand recognition. When developing a new identity, considering all the possible applications is critical. Your logo (be it a seal, a wordmark, or an abstract icon) should work and be recognizable whether it’s cut out of steel on the side of a building, or a favicon in a tab in a web browser. 

You’ll want to keep all of the following in mind:

  • Simplicity and elegance: simpler forms will reduce better online and in print, and also be easier to create at a macro size in unusual materials
  • Elegant degradation: even the simplest mark will shed detail at tiny sizes… but it shouldn’t become illegible or messy
  • Variability: consider horizontal, stacked, and initial versions for long wordmarks in digital (or space-constrained print) contexts

Taft School's seal is simple and reflects their school's colors, the lamplight symbol, year of founding, and motto in Latin; "not to be served but to serve. 

Typography

Typography has always been a great signifier of visual brand, and, in the last decade, it’s become increasingly easy to extend typography beyond the printed page and onto screens of all sizes. (Finalsite acknowledged the growing significance of typography in early 2017, and noted it as one of their biggest design trends to watch.) One of the simplest ways to create cohesion across contexts is through the consistent use of typography—both what typefaces you use, and how they’re used. 

When choosing type families, be sure to account for usage on the web at your earliest phases of design exploration. There are a range of approaches (and costs) to serving branded typography online (be it a website or an app); so investigate thoroughly and do a cost-benefit analysis early on. Some fonts are freely available for use in print and self-hosting on the web, while others require the use of third-party platforms or tracking scripts. 

Test potential choices on different screens, in different browsers, and across different operating systems. While you’ll never be able to test your desired choices on every possible device, you can determine the major players in your user group, and test those combinations carefully. 

Holton-Arms School's typography is visually appealing across their site and marketing materials. 

Holton Arms Inquiry Page

Type performance should also be tested for print and display applications. The same pitfalls that catch up type on screen apply in the worlds of print and fabrication—though in different ways and for different reasons. On screen, there are often problems of resolution—some devices fail to resolve the fine detail of some typefaces. 

In print, there can be problems of reproduction—fine detail, especially when being reversed out of a solid color, can succumb to the physical properties of absorbent paper and spreading ink. That said, printing (for now) offers far greater resolution then screen applications. In fact, lack of detail can become a challenge when choosing type for print. 

A well-drawn typeface will look good at small text sizes and at large display sizes (or, will be provided with versions specifically designed for display contexts), while a lessor typeface may well grow clumsy and chunky as you increase its size and its imperfections are magnified. 

When faced with choosing finite typography for a virtually infinite number of uses: 

  • Pair two families with different strengths: Choose a family with fine detail and high contrast for headlines in web and print. Choose a simpler, more robust family, for body copy
  • Subset when appropriate: as long as there is clear visual connection and commonality, you don’t have to use all your type all the time. Consider choosing a primary family for web and print, and a secondary family for print (or to use sparingly online and more extensively in print).

Color

Color speaks to people and, when used skillfully, can be a powerful signifier. For brands with a relatively narrow range of needed expression—product or retail brands, or consumer brands with a single unified product or product line—a circumscribed palette of three to five colors allows for some expressive flexibility, and brand memory and recognition. 

For more complex organizations with multiple, distinct lines of endeavor, a simplified palette may not provide enough flexibility. Schools, with their need to speak to students, parents, alumni, community, and, at times, government and corporations about educational, research, sponsorship, development, and athletic opportunities, often fall into this category. 

Berkshire School's green color palette reflects a vibrant New England school located in the heart of the Berkshire mountain range.  

berkshire schools homepage

School colors are often defined by history and tradition, and can only be slightly modified and adjusted for contemporary display and print technologies. The accent palette, however, can take many forms. It’s extent and personality should be guided by the attributes and qualities of character that define the overall brand. The accent palette might be made up of: 

  • Bright, primary colors;
  • A series of natural hues inspired by the local environment;
  • juxtapositions of secondary or tertiary pairings;
  • Groups of monochromatic pairings;
  • A series of highly desaturated colors (for a school with a bright, primary core palette), or
  • A series of highly saturated jewel tones (for a school with a deeper, richer core palette).

The right choices will be different for different organizations, but you’ll gain more flexibility by expanding your options through an accent palette.

Western Academy of Beijing's site is centered around varying reds, while accent hues of yellow create a vibrant brand experience. 

students sitting at desks with open laptops

Imagery

Like your logo, imagery is something that can be owned. More importantly, perhaps, photography’s authenticity and immediacy is hard to beat. Establishing a distinctive point of view in your institutional photography—along with ways of cropping, juxtaposing, and rendering images—and promulgating that point of view across mediums builds brand recognition and brings audiences closer. 

When developing a photographic voice to aid brand recognition:

  • Pick two or three perspectives and stick to those (90% of the time);
  • Choose a color space (or specific combination of color spaces) and be faithful to it—monochrome, over-saturated, desaturated, earthy, high-contrast, over-saturated wide-angles and black and white portraits, and so on; and
  • Consider your depth of field (continuous, shallow, etc.);

Texture and illustration styles are also part of your imagery choices—and the same broad principles apply. If you use texture or illustration, establish a library of options with clear formal relationships and use the same source material in print and digital applications. 

Composition and Graphic Elements (And Interactions)

Be it two, three or four  dimensions, approaches to composition will help define your visual brand and allow it to flex and stretch to meet the needs of different messages across different platforms. 

Approaches to composition are wide and varied, from methods of utilizing grids to ways of overlapping colors. The goal is to create a few memorable approaches that can be used to good effect across multiple media. A few options include: 

  • Approaches to setting type: centered, aligned left / ragged right, force justified, etc.;
  • Text decorations: approaches to drop caps, underlining, highlighting, unusual hierarchies, drop caps, etc.;
  • Ways of using color: edge-to-edge, accent only, overlapping, gradients, etc.;
  • Purposeful use of imagery: full-bleed, in grids, in shapes, overlapping, varying color spaces, etc.;
  • Adherence to relatable grid and column structures: symmetric/asymmetric, inline or adjacent imagery, text wrap or break, etc.; and
  • Disciplined adherence to a particular idiom of graphic elements: squares, circles, dotted or dashed lines, thin, thick or no frames, color overlays, transparency effects, icon or symbol sets, etc.

Methods and Materials

As the counterpart to online communication channels, traditional printing and fabrication of materials offers many choices important to how your message will be received and perceived. These choices are an integral part of the way you think of your visual system as a system to be carefully shaped and maintained.

Format

Let’s say you’re designing and producing a school viewbook (a piece with two distinct but critical audiences: the prospective student and the parents). You’ll want to think about what shape / size will intrigue folks to pick it up, but also once they start in, keep them engaged all the way through. 

Also, consider your content and the format that will best complement what you’re working with: many generous photos that want space to let the reader get lost in them? Or a lot of prose that needs a more intimate size (think journal) for the reader to embrace?

Paper

Another important decision for a printed piece is paper — specifically coated or uncoated. While coated (often gloss) is often a very appropriate choice for retail and more traditional consumer print, the tactile feel of uncoated and the resulting affect it brings is more suited to educational print. In short, it has a subtle look and feel that is the opposite of its cousin, coated paper. And good printers today are able to print rich, saturated photos on uncoated paper in a way hard to imagine even a few years ago.

It’s always helpful to have a blank paper dummy made when deciding the weight of the paper you’ll use. Holding it in your hand, seeing and feeling it, is the best way to picture how your reader will encounter and engage with your piece. 

Method

Offset and digital printing are the two most common methods of printing today, and each with variables that come into play depending on the size (dimensions and page count) and print run you’re working with. Working with a trusted printer is the best way to navigate these decisions and achieve a piece that is the quality you want at the price point you can afford.

Extras

For a special audience or occasion, an emboss or foil stamp can bring a needed “special touch.” Similarly, engraving—always a favorite for commencement materials and invitations—imparts a simple, classic elegance unmatched in the printing world. Again, working with your printer can help you find that right “extra” special effect that will elevate your printed communication.

Similarly, the binding you choose can also send a message. Apart from traditional saddle stitch and perfect binding, there are many methods you can consider to give your publication a special feel; center sewn and exposed sewn binding are two borrowed from traditional book binding that have been popular lately.

As you make each of these decisions, focus on the answer to the question, “Will this piece feel right to the recipient—and engage them enough to take the desired next step?” The success here, as with online responses, is a testament to how strong your brand is across different platforms, media, and channels.

Fairfield Prep created a colorful spadea, or newspaper wrap, that centered around facts about financial aid and affordability and echoed their school brand. 

 

The Power of System Thinking

We’ve certainly covered a lot of ground here—but don’t be daunted. While visual system development might seem overwhelming, the wealth of choices you have at your disposal are actually your biggest advantage: they’ll give you all the freedom and flexibility you’ll need to communicate effectively with different audiences, for different purposes, across different media.

Start exploring!


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