The designer’s guide to Brand Tone of Voice

Designers and Art Directors (the good ones at least) know how to handle words.

I know one excellent Graphic Designer who can’t spell for toffee, but he really gets how important words are in his design process. I’m not saying I’d trust him to craft a 5,000-word brochure or come up with the next ‘Just Do It’, but his headline ideas and creative rationale really bring everything to life.

Everyone’s Talking About Tone of Voice

This post is for anyone who needs to work with words, but isn’t a fully paid-up member of the Royal Guild of Copywriters. It’s a practical guide that should not only convince you of the power of defining a brand’s ToV, but will help you to bring words into play when tackling your next branding brief.

I won’t blind you with science (even if I could), but if you can spare 5 minutes, you’ll be left with a bit of inspiration and a few simple steps to add depth to your design approach.

Which comes first, the words or the design?

I’d argue that if you started with words instead of pictures, you would end up with much more focused and powerful design approach.

Let’s imagine you’ve been tasked with re-branding a range of walking boots.

If you have a well-written brief, start by pulling out the juiciest, most salient words and phrases from the briefing document and laying them out big and bold.

Even if there isn’t a written brief — shame on the agency — look to the packaging, product inserts, care instructions, website…

For argument’s sake, you’ve harvested the following wordy nuggets:

Designed to handle the most rugged terrains / Waterproof / Comfortable / Tested in the Lake District / With the right care, they will last for years / Built for any weather / Light, but strong…

Straightaway, you have lots to work with.

Now let’s have some fun

In an ideal world, the agency’s planners and strategists would have done their homework — having dissected the brand, interrogated the owners, talked to the audiences… but if not, the onus is on you to start to define the ToV.

You should never work blind. You have to have an understanding of where a brand sits (or needs to sit) in the market, what its competitors are up to and what the audience looks like. Do your own research if you have to: talk to people, trawl the net, visit the shops where the boots are sold, buy a pair on expenses.

Again, for argument’s sake, you’ve done your research and now you can define the brand’s values.

Use as many descriptors as you wish, but three is usually the magic number. The power of three helps you to stay focused in one area and stops the ToV from becoming wishy-washy.

Three brand values: reliable, tough and adventurous.

Now, RELIABLE, TOUGH AND ADVENTUROUS should already get you quite a long way, but you need to take these values and use them to conjure up a brand style or attitude.

You could be Rugged and GRRRR, Witty and Sophisticated, Young and Cheeky…

Play with the values, have fun, come up with some phrases that start to bring the values to life:

As solid as the rock you walk on / Walking with giants / New horizons / For the pioneers / Mountain? What mountain? / Arctic tundra, Namibian desert, Manchester drizzle… / Walk this way / Made from grit, sweat, and pain…

As you start to explore the brand’s attitude, what might have been a superficial design exercise becomes a deeper brand exercise. Not only are you starting to define how a brand looks, you are deciding how it sounds.

The language you use starts to paint pictures before you’ve even begun trawling stock libraries. If you start with the ToV, then typefaces, colours, pictures… everything starts to fall into place.

Even if you haven’t decided on just one ToV, whatever design work you put into motion now is rooted in something solid and tangible. It gives you much more to discuss with your Creative Director or client than pretty pictures.

Want some more?

1) Decide what a brand is ‘not’

2) Imagine the brand as a person

3) Explore personality and character traits

4) Don’t let a great ToV hide the truth

5) Look deeper

6) Kick convention in the teeth

7) Don’t ignore your audience

Knowing who you’re talking to means you’ll get the balance right.

8) Sense check

Does it feel right for the brand?
Do you find yourself squirming as you read?
Could you imagine yourself selling it to the client?
Could you imagine the client using it when talking to their audiences?

Does it push the brand forward and help it to stand out?

If it’s a case of yes, yes, yes and yes, you’re probably onto something.

A bit more inspiration

Ugly Drinks

Jonathan Wilcock_The-Logo-Creative-Guest-Post

Author Bio:

Jonathan Wilcock has worked in London advertising and design agencies as both Copywriter and Art Director. He was Creative Director on the P&O Ferries account and a Partner at Remedy Creative. He is now freelancing as a Conceptual Copywriter/Content Writer/Creative Director/Art Director (“Call me what you want, just call me”) for advertising and design agencies across London and the South East under the So, What If… brand.

Award Winning International Brand Identity Design Studio: Creating Adaptable Visual Identities that are Memorable & Timeless. Working With Clients Globally.