Creative briefs are great tools for outlining challenges, objectives, success metrics, business strategy and the consumer, as well as key information about the brand. But so often, people are willing to stop there, overlooking the potential value provided by developing and sharing creative pathways as a way of creating a visual brief. Or to articulate the ways in which design tools will be leveraged in a context to make the most of a strategic opportunity.
Creative pathways help to set teams up for success by driving alignment around how design choices will bring strategic opportunities to life, and can help build a forward looking brand vision into the work defining how contextual elements can create meaning for the brand in the future.
Just as words can be vague or subjective without the benefit of context (think of the last creative brief you saw with words such as “premium,” “natural” or “authentic” and how hard you needed to probe to discern their intent), so too are visual cues. Elements such as color, texture, shape, typography and image are the building blocks of all visual design, but it is their interaction and context that serves to create a recognizable brand. That is where a creative pathway can help—by beginning to build the “world” that a design exploration would live within and setting up a point of view on the interaction of those elements. In developing a few of these alternate brand realities, a creative team can gain alignment from brand or marketing teams on the way different strategies could be articulated visually. But it’s important to make sure that any opportunities for confusion or misunderstanding are eliminated, to create a process that brings agency and client together in mutual understanding. That way, the exploration can be focused and grounded in insights and opportunities. If you allow ambiguity to creep in, you have potentially sabotaged the process.
Creative pathways define the vision before doing the work of realizing that vision as an artifact. They are not mood-boards. They are not concepts. Creative pathways are snapshots of potential brand worlds that introduce the organizing idea and begin to bring a brand language to life around that idea. They set guidance for the design principles or visual toolkit which then could be leveraged to develop distinct design executions. They map visually and strategically distinct areas for exploration, and they give meaning to key points of difference while being grounded in consumer and market insights, category trends and brand truths.
So how do you create one, or recognize what is missing if you are presented with something less? A creative pathway contains all the visual and strategic elements combined into a unified expression. The gestalt relative to the competitive or cultural landscape establishes a position in the minds of consumers and is the foundation of brand identity. Creative pathways help to decode how elements come together to create those meanings and present them in an accessible way. For instance, most brand managers would understand that there could be tension between “natural” and “effective” and if efficacy is required but natural is a key point of difference, this tension needs to be addressed. The creative pathway would show how handling that tension in different ways might help to take advantage of different opportunities. The visual language that the pathway begins to establish, will be much less likely to be confused or misinterpreted than would a verbal positioning statement, even if accompanied by a visual cue. Care must be taken to ensure that the pathway isn’t so narrow that only one execution could come out of it, but also that it is unified enough that the meaning and overall visual impact of the tool would not change if one element were focused on, over another.
Alignment like this can’t be achieved with a mood-board or an asset toolkit. If the elements are removed from their context, the overall effect breaks down. Clarity and alignment are the goals, so it isn’t enough to show a font or two. Helvetica set two inches tall in extra bold with an outline, drop shadow and gradient saying “ALL OUT SALES BLOWOUT” on a car dealership ad has a much different feel than seven point Helvetica tracked out spelling out the name of a fragrance in silver foil. The brand manager or the design team might look at the Helvetica specimen and envision either beautiful, understated simplicity or a garish hackneyed workhorse. Showing how it’s usage could create meaning for the brand is the best way to limit risk of misunderstanding.
Similarly, color can’t be shown as swatches from a guidelines document. How is color employed to say something about the culture, or make the viewer feel something unique? Colors effects are profound and not just in a psychological way. Colors can have physical effects—red can raise heart rates, while pink can lower them. They become key points of visual distinction when used in a unique way by a brand. Joyful Coca-Cola-Red, reliable UPS-Brown, more than words, colors get imbued with meaning through their experience. It’s the same story for shape, as well. The same-shaped cylinder package cues classic, old-fashioned simplicity for Quaker Oats and conversely, modern minimalist utility at its finest for Italian espresso brand Illy. In a vacuum, as a screenshot in the appendix of a creative brief, or as an image on a mood-board, all of these things can mean a dozen things to a dozen people.
It is through the combination of all these elements as a unified expression that we begin to articulate the brand, competitive position and audience needs into a visual creative strategy. This cursory look at a visualization of values, brand personality, equities and goals is what makes a creative pathway a powerful tool for driving efficiency and clarity early in the scope of work. Showing how the elements of color, type, shape, etc. are used together separates a creative pathway from a mood-board. The presence of enough assets and design tools to articulate most expressions of the brand is what separates a creative pathway from a key visual or campaign concept. The ability to extract directly from the pathway, elements that will become the distinctive assets for the brand, is what makes the creative pathway a powerful tool for building alignment between brand and the designers who will work within a more focused frame.
How might imagery and shape be used in combination to create a strong point of view on a tension coming out of the brief or competitive landscape? How can the overall expression reflect brand personality in a unique way that would break down if any of the elements were removed or changed? Creative pathways show the design strategy. They drive efficiency as they focus and provide a target for the design exploration. And they infuse the assets that are extracted from them as the building blocks of a design execution with a unified vision for the brand world where it will come to life in the future. Don’t jump from brief into design exploration. Take a step back and set the brand and the team up for success at the next gate and into the future.