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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 16 of 18

Building Brand Language

Timothy Samara

Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

16. Building Brand Language
Brand identity may start with a logo, but a logo is just one part of a brand - it needs to exist within a world with context. Timothy models how to flesh out the rest of a brand’s visual language, from website content to color palettes, icons, and taglines.

Lesson Info

Building Brand Language

After the mark is developed, what happens then is that you have to sort of think about, well, what is the kind of realm in which the mark is going to live, 'cause the logo is only a tiny portion of the brand. And even though the logo is important, because it tells who, it's what you use to recognize the organization, it's really the other stuff around that's really going to carry the brand. So color, typeface usage, compositional ideas, what kinds of images, whether they're photographic or illustrative, what kind of illustration or combinations of those, how are images cropped or silhouetted or bleed off the edge of a page, or off the side of something in a particular application. So what you're really building is a kind of kit of parts, almost like individual words or sort of grammatical chunks, and you're building a language. It's a visual language, and just like any other visual language, all the parts have to talk to each other and the first thing that they have to talk to is the l...

ogo. So, my exploration, the first goal was to launch a website. So I went there as a starting point, and it was a very fast study. First I look at the mark, and some of these show sort of earlier versions, because that refinement to the solid actually happened over time, and this is an earlier, an earlier iteration of the type lockup. But I started to look at, you know, what kinds of supporting typography might there be. I wondered about bringing that sort of handwritten idea back in as kind of a callout or a pull quote, something to emphasize, almost like you were writing on a recipe card or in a cookbook as kind of notes. There was gonna be a kind of the thought of the day. I wanted to bring back some of the other kinds of graphical elements. This is also the thing that you always have to keep in mind, is that you're generating in that initial study for the logo all this stuff, and it really actually doesn't have to go away. Sometimes, you end up making a lot of very interesting elements that, when combined with the logo or combined with each other, you know, they're not the symbol anymore, but they could become used as a decorative band to introduce contrast, or you might look at something, like here's a way of influencing the typography. So sometimes, these other kinds of ideas make their way back into the final material. And there also most, sort of most importantly was the kind of a cleanliness. It's almost, it's almost clinical. And so I was trying to impart a certain kind of, a certain kind of elegance and also sort of an idea of precision, of consideration, of thoughtfulness, and of cleanliness. Clean, not necessarily in a, you know, physical sense, but clean of spirit, clean eating, clean cooking surfaces, the clean kitchen, and so on, and there's something, you know, this sort of, by using the silhouetted image with a very little bit of contrast in the background, it allows the text material, the content, to pop forward, but at the same time, it also sort of refers to sort of packaging design that's often used for culinary tools, like if you go to a place like Williams-Sonoma or any other restaurant supply store and you look at packaging for cutlery and plates and dishes and sauce pans and so on is that it tends to be very, very descriptive, often photographic, and that there's a kind of, there's a metaphor there. There's a language, a vernacular, that is common to that. And that's kind of an expectation or an association that you can give, put forth to the audience, and make them make that connection, even though it might be sort of tangential in some way. Next, I was looking at the engravings. I'm using the kind of, sort of the round sort of stamp idea from another logo variation and the same typeface for calling out a kind of cooking tip, using the engraving not only as kind of a background, but also as icons for different sort of subcategories. So with the sort of primary or global navigation constrained to this very, very thin strip and the content essentially going to scroll underneath that, on the entry page, which is going to feature the blog article kind of entry point, there were gonna be these other sort of separate articles, and these, these would refer to our really kind of call outs of specific elements, giving, again, this almost a kind of sort of diagramming quality to the typography. And then sort of a combination. We started also to get a little bit closer to color, so there was this kind of green purple thing going on that we kept bouncing around about. For the blog itself, she was initially very interested in shooting photographs of objects silhouetted, that is, not contained instead of a box, so that you would have this very, very clean, very direct, somewhat honest or authentic quality in the presentation, no fluff, no extra clutter and so on. Start to look at some additional typefaces and a structure for how things might be arranged that could inform other material, and that's where we went really quickly then into really defining the system, which follows. So there's the mark itself. And so what you're looking at here are really the kit of parts, and you'll see all of these kinds of decisions that have been made at some point along the way, kind of isolated and sort of coming together. I began then really sort of trying to define what is the relationship between. The green-violet combo is essentially sort of, it's a sort of complementary relationship, as between green and red, but just off a little bit. And sometimes, so, what I would gain there would be a very, very dynamic optical color experience, but at the same time, something that wasn't so jarring that it would seem kind of sharp or unfriendly or dangerous or jarring. So I was after comfort. So by softening the complementary relationship and moving the red away from direct confrontation with the green towards, or this way, towards the red-violet, towards the violet, it cools it off, makes it a little bit friendlier, and then I was interesting in, and, plus the green, I did end up going to green as representative of naturalness and organicism and plants and so on. You know, why fight it. But it's not a kind of earthy green. It's not a, it's not a soy green. It's not a spa green. It's not a minty green. It's a kale green, but really, really super fresh kale. So we tried to match kale, was our goal. So, these are swatches of ink that show you the actual ink color that come from a Pantone book, so you can really see what those colors are gonna look like printed on paper, and so you're not judging against the screen. And that's always something to be aware of, is that when you're judging against the screen, you can't, really. The screen, the monitor changes. The color's off. You have to, you know, if you're designing for print, you have to look at the color in physical daylight printed on something in order to know what it's really doing. Also began to look at paper stock. So this is how the mark translated into color. The two colors are the same value, that is, if you were to take a black and white photograph of this mark, they would, each area, the green and the violet would appear to be the same tone of gray, that one is neither darker nor lighter than the other. These are the, the, the color palettes, and so there are two defined. This is the primary palette. Here's the violet and the green, and then as kind of a tertiary color that would show up in specific sort of high-level or primary brand applications like stationery or advertising, I introduced a third green which was a little bit more vibrant. This is much more electric than it is in real life. It is, it is a yellow green, but it's very soft. Then as kind of a secondary palette to provide accent and contrast when necessary but still relate to the primary corporate palette, I choose sort of variants of the two primary corporate colors. So a deeper and slightly cooler version of the corporate green to add some depth to it, a cooler and much deeper version of the violet, as well as a much punchier and slightly hotter or warmer red-violet for accents, and then kind of a hybrid between these two, in case I need to create some kind of a transition between some kind of message on one place and some kind of message in another, is that something in between that's not quite as yellow as that and not quite as blue as that, and not quite as dark nor quite as light, but in the Goldilocks zone. And then these are the, the brand typefaces. So, there's a serif. It's really a slab serif in a number of weights. This is the lightweight that's used for the word mark within the logo and then also the medium and bold weights are used for different kind of information. As a support, there's a complementary family of sans serifs that was designed simultaneously with the serif version so that it gives me a lot of flexibility for complex hierarchic problems without sacrificing overall stylistic unity, 'cause they're designed with the same kind of proportions, the same kind of curves in the rounded forms, the same kind of shaping in the legs or the R and the G, the same kind of descenders as far as, well, related to a sans serif. And then a couple of typefaces, one from some of the earlier visual language studies, this kind of so informational sort of typewriter-y type that I'm not even sure I can explain why I think it makes sense here. There's something kind of informational about it. It has, it carries a little bit of scientific credibility, but not really. It's a little old world, 'cause it is kind of a typewriter typeface, but not really super old world. It's got a texture that works really well with the other elements. And the last, selected another typeface, a script bringing back this hand-generated element, again, for specific element uses. The image language is actually engraving, and so I sourced dozens of 19th century engravings of vegetables and fruits and painstakingly scanned them, cleaned them up, adjusted them, altered them, customized them, simplified the number of lines, and that was an interesting process, and for a reason that I'll talk about later, I built one composition of them together. They can be used independently when they need to, but I found that there were a couple of, there were a couple of instances where I needed to create an overall field of texture or pattern, either as a background or as a surface against which to place some message element, and it came in handy, and in color it looks like this. So this is the two colors combined, that is, the primary green and the primary violet. When they print on top of each other, they create a new color, which is kind of a deep violet blue. That combination of colors actually created some issues that I had to deal with in terms of how I set up the files to reproduce when we went to press, so that the violet quality or the red-violet quality of the primary brand didn't quite disappear and become quite as blue as you're seeing it here. This is just an enlargement of those, that language. These are two supplementary elements. On the top are a series of icons that are used only on the website to denote things like cooking time and shopping tips and stuff in the pantry and cooking tips. That was based on the sort of small, iconic elements at the bottom, but I decided to configure them in a language, a line language, that spoke directly to that of a logo. Then, the tagline, which is actually trademarked now, down to earth. And so, it seemed that this sort of, the generous and friendly and spontaneous and human quality of handwriting seemed to be, to make a lot of sense for that particular element, and it's used on everything. From the proportions of the logo lockup, I derived a grid formation that was to be used for all, all print applications, all internet applications, everything. So, it's based on the width of the symbol itself, and it creates this kind of column structure. The only deviation that happens is that, and this is really kind of a diagram of how that grid is implemented, or one way that it's implemented on the stationery is that there's a separation between the first column and the remainder so that the logo's column is actually a little bit away from anything else that's, that it's juxtaposed with.

Class Description


  • Identify and apply fundamental graphic design elements
  • Add essential design skills to your toolkit
  • Approach and manage the creative process through varied projects


You don’t need to have a background in fine arts or be an Adobe InDesign whiz to create compelling designs. In this class, Timothy Samara takes you back to the fundamentals of graphic design - the same principles he has consistently returned to in his 25-year career.

Through real-world projects, you’ll learn the basics of:

  • Form and image
  • Color theory
  • Typography
  • Layout and composition

Most unique about Timothy’s class is his demonstration of how design theory manifests in actual projects; he cracks open his professional portfolio and takes you into the world of how real designers work. With an extensive career behind him, Timothy’s design services have spanned from web design to print media, to interface design, and to building brand identity. By walking through Timothy’s creative process, you not only see how design elements interact and impact an overall product, but you get a rare view of the problem-solving graphic designers do and the decisions they make. What rules exist and when are they broken? How do you juggle meticulous research vs. spontaneity?

Whether you want to design a poster, flyer, or logo - this class will give you the insights you need to design with confidence. Welcome to the art and science of graphic design.


This class is designed for beginner and intermediate graphic designers as well as more experienced designers looking for a brush-up on design principles, career-changers, marketing team members, and anyone interested in graphic design fundamentals.


Timothy Samara is a New York-based graphic designer and educator whose twenty-five career has so far focused on visual identity and branding, communication design, and typography. Since 2000, he has split his time between professional practice and academia, defining a highly respected reputation as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, Parsons/The New School for Design, Purchase College SUNY, New York University, The University of the Arts, and Fashion Institute of Technology. Mr. Samara is a frequent university lecturer and contributor to design publications both in the U.S. and abroad. He has written eight books on design to date (all from Rockport Publishers), which have been translated into ten languages and are used by students and practitioners around the world.

Connect with Timothy online: LinkedIn

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a Creativelive Student

Wonderful class! I loved getting the info as to the creative process. Great!

Øyvind Hermans

I love this class, clear and precise information with very interesting examples. I have worked as a graphic designer for 6 years but have no design eduction, so at times I feel like there is these gaps of design-knowlegde in my decisions, this was the perfect filler of these gaps.

sixtina maculan

Thank you for sharing your experiences in this class. It's been a pleasure to listen, learn and understand, as well as a wonderful motivation.