Good Design works fast.

Good Design always been the ultimate brand differentiator. But in a time-poor world it matters more than ever. Good Design is the silent ambassador for your business, It welcomes your audience and impresses your clients – instantly.

To take advantage of this superpower it’s essential to have clear and effective documentation. This lets every member of your team pulls in the same direction.

The problem is that brand design guidelines inevitably descend into a series of farcical rules and unworkable direction. They may be tolerated, but they crush the life out of the design process and stop designers doing what they should be doing, which is focusing on the customer.

Budgets are under pressure like never before, but once you’ve cut costs you still need to grow the business. As the legendary Peter Drucker noted, the only way to do it is through marketing and innovation.

To be effective, marketing and innovation need to be executed to a high standard. In other words, be well designed. And once this design strategy has been decided upon and proven to work, it must be documented.

Brand design documentation is not just about fonts and colour palettes. It’s more of a brand design playbook, covering every single part of the business, from values and positioning through to photography and headlines.

The bottom-line value of good design has been long established. McKinsey have reported extensively on the matter: “Companies that excel at design grow revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry peers.”

But what relevance does this elevated view hold for smaller businesses? How can a brand design playbook help you grow in a rapidly changing trading environment?

Here’s six places to start.

1. Show what good really looks like

The legendary Milton Glaser (IheartNY) died last year. One of the reasons that made him a truly great designer was the ability to reflect on his craft. Here’s his number one rule: “There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.”

I love the dryness of this quote, the idea anyone would even consider another choice. But it is a fact that many businesses actively avoid WOW! Because WOW! involves the risk that someone, somewhere won’t like it. That it will be ‘wrong’, and so, to be on the safe side, it’s better to be right as opposed to interesting.

We’re not writing legal contracts here, we’re in the attention business. And whilst we might think that our audience are eagerly awaiting our latest ‘content’, the fact is, we can’t engage them until we interrupt them.

Here’s Dave Trott: “Ordinary people’s lives don’t revolve around us. Their attention is on other things. So, if I want their attention, I have to interrupt them. Of course, I have to interrupt them in a way they enjoy.”

He’s also fond of quoting the Victorian novelist William Thackeray, who said: “We must make the familiar new and the new familiar.”

Dave may have been thinking about advertising, but Thackeray’s view remains a more general storytelling truth. It’s particularly relevant to content marketing, because here ‘content’ must make the brand feel new, whilst making the new feel on-brand.

Without this consistency of purpose, any sense of content ownership is gone, along with the chance to monetise it.

None of this is rocket science, but when resource is tight, having a proven brand design playbook makes all the difference.

2. Deliver impact, manage risk

Design is judged instantly, and always on a deep emotional level. But design the wrong kind of impact, and you might get fired. That said, not enough impact might get you fired anyway, so we need to find the sweet spot in the middle. This is tough – design decisions have to be evidence-based, but after that, it’s all about perception and experience.

From a practical POV, it’s a case of understanding how to control what I might describe as the ‘friction’ in the design and using that to direct the customer and their response.

Positive friction interrupts in a pleasing way, inspiring confidence in the viewer. Negative friction distracts – odd colours, jarring type or fake pictures can all make customers wonder if your brand can be trusted.

And trust is the only currency that matters.

3. Do not waste time

Good design has to deliver immediacy, tangible visual signals and certainty that promises made can be kept.

Many of the difficulties in content marketing stem from delivering an endless stream of low impact content as opposed to a series of read-me-now events. It’s a lot harder to persuade people to engage today when it will still be there tomorrow.

Take for example, Archant’s County Life portfolio – Essex Life, Yorkshire Life and seventeen others. All decent enough titles, but with the honourable exception of Cotswold Life, filled with wallpaper content.

None of them sell well unless it’s Christmas, at which point, sales virtually double, as this is an event, a moment in time that requires us to act right now.

This phenomenon is not about content, this is about delivering to a reader’s sense of identity – who they are, reflecting their hopes, values and dreams along with articulating deeply held beliefs.

Good Design is the fastest way to create a sense of event. Brand design guidelines remind your team how to do that.

4. Get your audience to pay more

Here’s Rory Sutherland: “Connect with feelings instead of thoughts, and you’ve reached the place where decisions are made.”

But buying decisions are not only made by attitudes, but “concrete, perceptible experience at the precise moment and situational context in which a decision is made.”

This is from Phil Barden’s excellent book Decoded, which explains how behavioural economic theory can solve practical marketing problems.

From a design POV, Phil’s book shows that context is everything. And at the decision interface, the core driver of attention is how well peripheral brand signals fit with the customer’s personal goals.

We all share a deep understanding of what these visual signals mean – they are judged in microseconds as a result. If the implied value (as created by the overall look and feel) is high, then design will direct the eye to the explicit value – inspirational content, tangible insight or believable promises.

Good design presents these signals to show how relevant a brand is to the customer’s goal. The tighter the fit, the higher expected reward and the more they will be prepared to pay.

Your brand playbook keeps you on track.

5. Join everything up

Design is like an organisation’s nervous system – connecting and consolidating the business into a functioning whole. Because it affects every single touchpoint, Good Design is the number one method of differentiating a brand or a business.

Differentiation can be effective even if superficial – think Monzo’s flouro orange credit card or Orange Wednesday. But given that Orange is no more and Monzo is in trouble, perhaps it’s better to design a competitive advantage that customers actually care about.

Brand differentiation doesn’t need to be massive, but it must be meaningful if it’s to add lasting value. And to amplify its promise, the visual perceptible link between content platforms is crucial.

6. Write. It. Down.

Creativity isn’t a support service, it’s all about being able to create something uniquely valuable from scratch.

That can only really come from intuition and experience, but to make sure this creative value is fully maximised, the principles and purpose of your brand have to be instantly accessible, both as fixed assets and online hubs for team feedback. Yet all businesses resist, as documentation never feels like a priority.

But if stakeholders can sign up to a cold piece of text, it gives the design process something to be measured against, allows the right questions to be asked and prevents stakeholder bias blowing the ship off course.

No matter how smart, most business strategy fails through poor execution. Harvard Business Review suggests this is due to lack of agility, innovation and co-ordination. But most important of all was the failure of leadership to make sure the mission is not just communicated but understood. They said: “A recent survey of more than 400 global CEOs found that executional excellence was the number one challenge facing them.”

And what ‘executional excellence’ really means is design excellence.