When I began working at Cobalt, we had a very basic visual identity framework: a logo, colors, a typeface, and an initial brand book by the original designers. By the time I had created our first cohesive set of Brand Guidelines, a couple of colors had shifted, an additional typeface was added, and I had refined the essential elements of our company story.
I did these things carefully, methodically. I left in things that I did not necessarily agree with and only changed them after I had spent time with stakeholders and had applied the provided assets to real projects. Only then did I determine exactly what needed to change, and why.
Before attempting to direct the brand (i.e. make any major decisions about the existing assets and guidelines), I explored the company archives for relevant notes, interviewed leadership, and led a discovery exercise for the founding team (12 or 13 people, including leadership, at the time).
As part of my research,
I focused on better understanding our product and service, as well as the security industry we were targeting. I balanced those learnings with studies on the challenges of cultural acceptance for robotics.
In meetings with leadership,
I presented images and phrases pulled from assets in use, or that reflected conversations and notes about the company’s goals and vision, or that I believed would elevate the current conversations. I made notes based on their feedback, adjusted my presentation, and interviewed them again.
The discovery exercise for the entire team
began a week or two ahead of a planned internal Town Hall, with a request to everyone for five words that they felt described our identity as a company.
When we met, I had written everyone’s words on index cards. If multiple people chose the same word, each mention counted for another card.
I spread the cards out on a table and invited everyone to organize them in a way that made sense to them. Some gathered same or similar cards together, others created groups and hierarchies.
While participants interacted with the cards, I noted not only what they did with the cards, but also how they responded—to words they had not expected, to repeated words, and to contradictory words (for example, how to reconcile ‘scrappy’ with ‘elegant’? and ‘driven’ with ‘soft’?). There was surprise, delight, and some really good conversation as participants discussed the meanings and priorities of each other’s choices.
I had gathered an abundance of insights; Patterns were beginning to emerge.
I kept asking questions and strewing provocations in smaller ways, but it was time distill my learnings so far.
Documentation is not only an essential practice for guiding future projects, but also an elegant and powerful tool I use to process big questions. I begin by creating the loose framework of a proposed story: it’s a first draft, and the aim is to jump start the distilling process.
Knowing, for example, that part of discovering our brand is to understand where we come from and where we aim to go, I create blank pages in a “book” with titles that start out as “The Why” and “Vision”. Onto those pages I dump snippets of what I know so far.
The snippets can be moved to different sections. The titles will certainly change. But by simply beginning to tell our story, I unearth patterns, expose gaps and raise important, clarifying questions.
Having populated the pages of the first Guidelines draft, I went about the day to day of utilizing our visual identity assets to create sales and marketing materials, develop the UI for our online operations centers, and provide our customers with the tools to help introduce Cobalt to their employees and guests.
Now I had context, I had an understanding of our company and product, and I had started to develop informed empathy for our target markets.
The original visual identity designers had provided a palette of primary and secondary colors. As I learned more about our market, our messaging and our internal vision, it became clear we were playing things too cool. Our neutral gray and our icy pink were not helping us introduce ourselves to a cautious industry, skeptical of Bay Area startups and high tech promises.
We needed to dial things to warmer hues, differentiating ourselves not only from the perceived Silicon Valley Disrupter bubble, but also from “enforcer” wannabees and Hollywood’s robot stereotypes. To that end, we also moved the middle secondary blue to a primary role.
The typeface specified in the initial brand book was beautiful, but its high per-seat price would be costly for our flat organizational hierarchy and its numerous content producers. Also, its body copy weight was not going to perform well in text-heavy whitepapers and case studies. I opted to keep it for print headings and subheadings, but chose a complementary free font with a slightly higher x-height to use for body copy and online communications.
In order to introduce Cobalt to the media and external vendors, I broke our company story into three parts:
- The Facts (describing our product/service)
- The Story (our “why” and our values)
- The Intent (our vision)
By now, much of what is included on those pages is increasingly public knowledge. That said, it is more valuable than ever to present these ideas as a somewhat formal narrative.
On the pages that follow that narrative, the story becomes increasingly abstracted—from words to images, and then to the essential colors and forms of our visual identity.
The rest is pretty standard: color values, photography rules, a section on brand voice, etc.
Cobalt has evolved and the market has continued to mature as its exposure to robotics increases. We have expanded the types of customers we serve to include malls, warehouses, and stadiums. Most importantly, we are fulfilling more than the basic security guard role (“observe and report”), and demonstrating value in roles such as mobile kiosk, remote concierge, remote evacuation assistance, and on-call hazard monitor.
We’ve already begun testing messaging to reflect these changes, and it’s time to also address them in a new edition of our Brand Guidelines.