What makes us choose different outfits for different occasion?  

We would never consider wearing our luau clothes to a funeral.

Nor would you act the same way, or talk about the same subject matter, in either situation. Yet in each situation we’re still our recognizable selves.  

We do this by equipping ourselves with a consistent visual style that’s informed by our values, which allows us to be us in a variety of different situations.

Brands, like people, must also be flexible in their behavior and appearance.

A brand’s values are its heart and soul. It gives reason to why a brand exists and helps form an audience ready to listen. From this self understanding naturally comes how it walks, talks, and visually presents itself to the world.

A visual identity is a brand’s wardrobe. Staple pieces – our go-to, everyday style – are what make up the core of our visual ID. We also have items that are worn on occasion and accessories. All these parts – the dress, the shirt, the watch, the hat, the jewelry, and our physical appearance; makeup, hair style, beard – whatever it is – all becomes the system.

Every brand needs a system of visual elements in its wardrobe or it’ll be stuck in the same appearance without ever being able to adapt to different audiences, events, or markets.

You would think that large brands such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Target, and Apple would have complex and varied visual identity systems, but in reality these companies keep things relatively simple.

First and foremost, they know who they are. Target knows that it’s not just a department store, it’s a lifestyle. Apple knows they don’t just sell computers and phones, they sell an experience. This knowledge guides them in understanding their look, and allows them to make edits and adjustments to appeal to all different audiences without ever being unrecognizable.

One of my personal favorite brands that is both flexible, yet simple, is Nike.

For a global brand, Nike has a small collection of brand elements which are central to the overall brand – the swoosh, a core color palette, a couple typefaces, high contrast product shots and gritty, bold, empowering images. They use the same tagline “Just do it.” across their global brand.


Yet Nike allow themselves to venture and explore other visual styles that remain in alignment to their core design system and ideologies. Each of their divisions has its own distinct visual style that fit into niche spaces while still being distinctly Nike. You would never confuse Nike for someone else.

Nike’s designers and brand teams execute this by allowing designers and contractors to think big and bold through playful typography, illustrations and design elements while staying anchored to the core brand visual identity.

Apple is an interesting example because it keeps it’s visual identity system very tight but utilizes loose and creative ads and campaigns for new product launches.

Although there have been minor updates over the years to Apple’s core visual identity the major elements have stayed constant. The iconic apple logo, the crisp black typography on white backgrounds, tactile white and black packaging, and a photo style that is now mimicked across the web and by close competitors.  

Apple’s made a choice to stay close to their core visual identity, and it’s worked. They’ve strategically designed their brand elements to be timeless. You can see Apple utilizing its distinct style when it ventures into ad spots with bold, crisp, highly technical images – black or white and narratives which continue to nod to people who ‘think differently’.

Apple is an example of a visual system that achieves its flexibility through simplicity. Their design language will last ages. When you see an Apple product or ad – you know it’s Apple (although its competitors have done a great job to replicate that style and undermine Apple’s brand equity).

Even small brands can create visual flexibility by using simple forms and elements, and limiting themselves to only a handful of colors and typefaces. In doing so they create design restrictions that are necessary to steer the creative process. Only with restrictions can a brand get truly creative.

In the work we do here at Emery understanding the business and its leadership always comes first. If we get that right we can get the visual identity right. We can set the right design restrictions, equip businesses with the simple core visual identity elements and allow truly unique design systems to take shape as the business grows and evolves.

You don’t have to be a global brand to think like one.

If you have any questions please get in touch with us!