Interview with Melissa Carlson on corporate identity

This week we connected with Melissa Carlson, an experienced graphic designer located in our neck of the woods – Madison, Wisconsin. She’s got some great insight on creating a strong corporate identity to share. But enough from us, here’s the interview:

Tell us a little about yourself and what you are currently doing – give us a brief bio.

I worked for an ad agency in Ohio for seven years right after college. It was a great experience — a small agency which allowed me to get to know all areas of the business, including a great boss who was a lot of fun but also a stickler for detail. Once I moved back to Wisconsin I decided to do my own thing. I’ve had a few opportunities (and offers) to work for someone else, but it wasn’t ever the right fit.

I like having variety: client contact, brainstorming, designing, working with vendors, getting all the kudos. Of course, when things go wrong, and they sometimes do, that’s when you can really shine on how you handle it.

Right now, I’m working on:

  • a brand for a food company
  • a 40-page magazine-style piece for a non-profit
  • an annual dinner fundraiser invitation package
  • a WordPress website for a financing company

You specialize in corporate identity, annual reports and packaging, what sparked your interest in that area of design?

I’ve been designing since I was a kid. My Dad is a creative, and was creative director of a point-of-purchase/packaging company for 30 years. He used to bring home pads of paper and I would fill them up with drawings of ballerinas and princesses (and princes). So, I’ve always loved to draw. There isn’t a big calling for drawings of ballerinas though, so I’ve expanded my skill set to include corporate identity, annual report and packaging design.

What are some reasons businesses need help with their corporate identity?

Uniqueness: part of my job is to look at the competition. We want our identity to be different, but not different for different’s sake — different to reflect what makes us unique.

Consistency: so many times, companies have something they call a logo but they change it up to fit its various applications. It looks one way on their business card, another way on their signage, you get the picture. Even if they’re going with a type-only logo, they need to be consistent with that font.

Quality: people don’t always understand file formats and what works best where. This isn’t a creative thing, it’s technical; but the best designed logo in the world isn’t going to look good if you’re using a lo-res image on a printed piece.

When do you update a corporate identity and when do you scrap the current corporate identity to start from scratch?

I would say when you look at corporate identity/logos and they feel dated, you might be able to change something, just a little bit, like the font for example. Or the color. If a company has been around a while and they’ve built up equity in the brand, you don’t want to mess with it too much. You don’t want to confuse the audience.

If a logo doesn’t reflect the business anymore…maybe they’ve changed their products/services or their business direction, it may be time to start from scratch.

What are some of the struggles businesses face when implementing their new corporate identity?

It can be expensive! Not only are you paying someone to create this new corporate identity, but you have to put it on all your stuff. Sometimes companies have boxes of old stuff they don’t want to throw away, so they sort of start using the new stuff but the old stuff is also out there. They see throwing the old stuff out as wasteful. Another struggle is getting color to match across the board on printed materials, web-based applications, signage, etc.

Any advice on how businesses can overcome those struggles?

Throw out the old stuff. It’s confusing to the audience. Once you commit to a new identity, truly commit.

Create a graphic standards manual. Have specifics on how a logo should/shouldn’t be used. Have corporate colors and fonts.

Work with good vendors who understand the need to be diligent with color quality. It may cost a little more in the beginning, but you’ll have standards in place that you can go back to.

What are the biggest benefits small businesses experience from having a strong corporate identity? (what does it bring their business?)

Credibility: if your identity is strong and consistent, that probably carries over into how you do your business. Having graphic standards means your logo will always be used appropriately, the color will be consistent, it will be legible and clean.
Professionalism: instead of creating something fast/cheap, spend time on your identity so it’s really sharp and represents you well. What do you want people to think about you when you’re not there to explain your business?

Can you share a brand that was especially fun to design for?

It’s great to help a client forge, and have control over, their identity. One brand that stands out is for Vogel Bros. Building Co. The bold VOGEL has been around for nearly a century — I didn’t create that. But I did help craft an updated version of the logo and the tagline, and that was fun. It also meant putting that identity on signs, trucks, trailers, stationery, ads, a website, shirts and jackets. It’s very cool to be out driving and see a brand I helped develop.

I love what I do. It’s the perfect intersection of what I love, what I’m good at, and what pays the bills.

You can check out more about Melissa Carlson on her website or follow her on twitter @melbatoast65.

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