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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 14 of 18

How to Design a Brand Identity: Preperation

Timothy Samara

Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

14. How to Design a Brand Identity: Preperation
Graphic design at full volume is the creation of brand identity. Timothy models beginning the process of designing a brand identity for a client with the core component: the logo. What are the best research practices for logo design? How do you create a powerful logo? Does it need to communicate a message? How do you problem-solve for its applications in various forms of media?

Lesson Info

How to Design a Brand Identity: Preperation

We're gonna be essentially bringing together a lot of the different kinds of specific skills, the specific kinds of processes, that we have looked at, image selection, image manipulation, choosing colors, looking at typography and how it integrates with imagery, dealing with editorial as well as interactive issues, all under one roof, and that is through the creation of brand identity. So, we're going to be talking about designing visual identity, or branding, as it's often called, and those two terms are essentially interchangeable if you're talking to a designer. If you're talking to a strategist, branding means something a little bit extra than that. It involves all the strategy, all the writing, the feeling, the corporate culture. But we're interested really in the visual aspect of that, is that, really, giving a kind of a recognizable, different, and memorable visual form, a presence, to a particular entity or organization, whether it's a single person, a small group, a large busi...

ness concern, a multinational or global organization, that will set them apart from their competitors, not only in terms of service offering or of being different, but of communicating sort of the brand's or the company's core values, as well as what is different or important about their particular service offering, versus others. So, this particular identity is actually still in progress, and it's for a certified macrobiotic chef who advocates for better nutrition and better knowledge about nutrition through a variety of activities, education, through group presentations, cooking demonstrations, consulting, food writing, and she also offers personal chef services as well as menu planning. The first thing that usually comes to the fore in terms of beginning the process of developing a brand identity is to actually identify the entity, is to tell, to show, who that thing, person, object, is. And what we're really talking about is a logo. The word identifier or visual identifier, is a more kind of highbrow academic term for that thing. But really it's a logo. And a logo is a sign that really does what it sounds like. It identifies the particular organization, and really that's all it has to do. There is always, I think, not necessarily what I would call confusion, but, this sort of intuitive, sort of idea, and we can call it perhaps a misconception, about logos, is that they have to communicate what the company or the organization does. That's entirely unimportant. What is important is that, in seeing the identifier, that one is able to recognize who that particular entity is, and to know that they are not some other entity functioning in the same market or business sector or performing the same kind of activities. I think it's always a plus when a logo actually communicates kind of the subject matter or the nature of a business, and I often look for that. But, you know, ultimately, it's about who and not necessarily about what, but I think that every project sort of steers you in, every identity project steers you in kind of one direction or another where the what-ness or the who-ness kind of strike a certain kind of a balance. In this case, the what-ness is actually a very critical component of the identity. The identity is most often the starting or the identifier, the logo, is most often, is most often the starting point for building a brand program, because it is the core sort of anchoring element that essentially defines all other things around it. And so we're gonna start there with that. This particular client, who is a macrobiotic chef, a nutritionist, and a writer, has a particular philosophy about how food ought to be selected, what kinds of things you need to think about in terms of dietary issues, how nutrition, nutritional elements, vitamins, chemicals from food interact with each other in the body with regard to acidity, and she's very very interested in dispelling a lot of myths and fads that come up on a regular basis as people are trying to lose weight or gain more energy or help their cholesterol level and every other week, you see another kind of report on the news or you read in the paper that, okay, first, goji berries are really good for you and then, oh, goji berries are not good for you and then oh, soy is the best thing for your cholesterol, or, oh, soy increases some other hormone in your body, and your cholesterol, depending on who you are. So, one of her goals is to kind of cut through the chatter and to present a very kind of common sense and down to earth way of thinking about food, of being able to discern between competing kinds of sources of information, and to really, to kind of listen to your body, rather than to go simply by the word of some "expert" whether they are an expert or not, to allow your body to tell you what exactly it needs. And part of also her mission is to return cooking to a kind of a simpler sort of method even though she's trying to move people sort of along a conveyor belt from how they eat now towards something that, theoretically, down the road, might be more rigorously macrobiotic, but she's not trying to make converts out of anybody, so she's interested in that education and also of helping people to feel kind of empowered about the kinds of food choices that they're making. So, my research of course, spans all media, so I go to books, I go to the Internet, I had extensive conversations with the client, about her cooking in general, her nutritional ideas, and I also read a number of the studies that she was referring to, from other nutritionists, who are in alignment with her, and so, as a first part of this particular research, I actually presented a lot of research to my client in the form of what's called a competitive audit. And essentially, on the visual level, I was interested in finding out, what is the kind of, the stylistic or visual landscape that she's gonna be entering into. Essentially, what is the market and what does the market look like? What kinds of colors are used by similar kinds of nutritionists or chefs or restaurants or farm to table merchants or green markets or macrobiotic cooking? What kinds of... What kinds of materials do they produce? When is the imagery something that you expect and something that's really unexpected? I provided an extensive presentation of hundreds of examples of visual material that related to this sort of area of concern. Dining, nutrition, food packaging, restaurants, restaurants' websites, blogs, blogs on nutrition, scientific studies, and just general sort of design trends, so she could sort of see what was kind of happening around out in the world, what is kind of contemporary, what seems historical or what seems a little bit too, a little bit too earthy, and so on, so that she could have a kind of a sense of, you know, what it was she was really getting into. And that way we could talk about what kinds of messages she really wanted to provide for her constituents, for her audience. How did she want to direct the communication, in a particular way? Ultimately, the client is the source of those decisions right off the bat. I, as a designer, might offer suggestions. I might say, well, you could, you could present yourself as being very very sort of clinical and very scientific, but that might be a kind of a conflict with the kind of, the friendliness or the approachability or the accessibility that she would like to project to her audience, so. The client, in general, is pretty much driving the bus in terms of informing the designer about what they really want to talk about, how they want to be perceived. After that I also began to research some visual material that was related to ideas that she had started to talk about, so one of the things that she talked about was kind of old world cooking or getting back to basics. Cooking in a way that one would have before processed foods. So I started to look at things like packaging, for food goods, for foods, from the late 1890s into the early 1920s, as well as food branding for contemporary brands that were kind of trading on that vernacular. I began to look at graphical details from different kinds of objects and materials that might impart a certain kind of hands-on or handmade kind of a quality, tickets, illustrations, packaging for certain kinds of objects in a home, stationary applications, packaging for other sorts of soaps, and things of that nature. And in terms of imagery, I was also drawn to the idea of engravings, right off the bat, and we actually sort of came to the same thought immediately when we were kind of brainstorming together. The idea of the engraving is that it depicts not only a time that is clearly in the past, that speaks about heritage and to a certain degree, naturalness, organicism, authenticity, in farming, but because the image form is produced using an archaic method, a relatively archaic method, is that those messages are actually kind of amplified. The sense of almost like Morris looking back in the arts and crafts movement to the medieval period in order to move forward, and to define a new modern sensibility, we thought we might look back to some other kind of time as a kind of a reference point. So I began to gather engravings from stock and clip art books that I have, from sources online, looking at figures, looking at elements that are related to cooking, this is a soup terrine, and then I also began to look at sort of symbolic ideas, so I was thinking, you know, about, sort of the reciprocal nature of things that grow, especially plants, is that they draw upward from the earth, they fruit and give out, and then they die and then they return to the earth and nurture themselves so there's this sense of natural cycles involved and so on a kind of a conceptual level, that seemed kind of appealing, potentially very very powerful, and these were some examples of the Tree of Life elements. The similarity of the structure of the tree and its foliage above the ground and the root structure below, in terms of kind of two halves of the circle joined by a kind of a conduit, seemed to offer some very powerful metaphorical ideas. I began to look at symbols, for symbols related to non-western traditions of medicine and spirituality, especially because, macrobiotic cooking is essentially an Asian, an Asian-derived cooking methodology, focused mostly on Chinese medicine, and with a little bit of the Japanese thrown in. And so I began to look at symbols related to, there's one there, this is the Endless Knot, these are, this is an East Indian spiritual symbol, as is this one, this is the Om, you see a form of a lotus, the kind of the intertwining, again, and another kind of an Endless Knot, and this is also, this is the Flower of Life where the form is created by these interlocking circles, so there's this idea of kind of continuity and connectedness being connected to food, being connected to the earth, being connected to one's choices, being connected to the path that the food travels from farm to where you're getting it, or from source and so on, and then this kind of overlay of Asian sort of spirituality or philosophy that could be useful. I began to also look simply at sort of vegetable, vegetal or floral pattern elements from a variety of sources, again some clip art books that I have, some prints that are around, because I have kind of an archive of different kinds of image sources from different styles or periods. Some of these are also of Asian derivation, and some of them are things from the early period of the Americas. I began looking very specifically at some Japanese iconography. These are forms that are used typically in fabric printing, but I was drawn to the boldness of them and to a certain degree the geometry, which speaks about a certain kind of sense of power, of totality, of confidence. And because this sort of sense of being relaxed and allowing the body to tell oneself, being confident in how one is feeling, based on what one is eating, seemed to suggest that maybe a bold form that was also somehow related to food, could be interesting, even if it eventually turned out to be very abstract. I also started to pull samples of typeface designs that were no longer available, things that have not been digitized and are not available for use anywhere else because one of the things that is very very important about branding, is a proprietary sense of the form, is that it's somehow ownable by that client, by that organization, and only by them, and because a lot of typefaces that are very beautiful are very popular, sometimes choosing a typeface as a starting point, whether it's gonna stand on its own as a logo type or a word mark, or it's gonna be paired with some kind of a symbolic element or details from it might influence a kind of a manipulated form of an existing typeface, it's very difficult to find a face, a font that nobody has used before, so I began to go through some old type specimen books from the 1890s and 1910s, 1920s, to find some things, and this one happened to have this kind of floral motif involved. There's an interesting kind of medieval quality to it that I also kind of responded to, and it did carry a sort of arts and crafts quality to me which I didn't interpret as necessarily an irrelevant read, because that sort of socially progressive philosophy of that period and its deference, its respect for nature, in its form-making, seemed relevant. And then I found some other faces that were a little bit more neutral, things that had been used for text in that same time period, so I scanned them. And I was looking at sort of how organic they were versus how sharp, whether or not there were some interesting details, for example, here, the cross-strokes in the E and the F as well as the cross-stroke in the H begin to suggest these kind of organic forms, a certain kind of leaf-like quality or twig. That might be useful in a word mark itself, if those letter forms are there. It could be that something like this could be extrapolated or translated into some treatment for altering a form if I was going to go after a monogram mark, something that was based on the letters of the client's name, the G, the N, and the C, or it could be something very very usefully in headings where it's incredibly recognizable as being different from other things. This one in particular was very kind of casual. And so I began to kind of look back and forth. When I work, especially on a logo, I have all of my research essentially out flooding the space, everywhere around me so that at any given moment, as I'm sketching, as I'm working through these sort of very very rough ideas is that I'm constantly in touch with and in tune with the various kinds of things that I'm attempting to be influenced by or that I'm trying to draw some knowledge from. So, this is a kind of a rough sketch. In this case, I worked with ink, actually a specific kind of ink, it's a kind of a tempera, in black and white, which I often do in order to be able to determine very quickly and very immediately what the relationship of positive and negative are to each other. Pencil sketches carry a lot of extra detail and a lot of kind of energy that sometimes dies when you suddenly transfer something that looks really cool as a pencil sketch because it's got all this texture and gestural marking and so on, and suddenly, it becomes very very flat and undesirable, so, I very often paint logos, logo concepts. Plus I have much greater control with a brush than I do with anything else. But I also work digitally, and so I began to also look at certain kinds of floral motifs mostly based on the idea of a lotus, given the kind of Asian influence and kind of a reference to sort of zen central, becoming centered, and so on. I began to also look at, on a kind of semi-abstract level, textures and patterns that were related to food. Nothing really kind of directly representational, but ideas that might be tendrils of a mush or chunks of rice or curlicues from, I don't know, corn kernels and such, and just sort of looking at sort of those textural possibilities and was there anything in there? Would I use it to make a shape? Would I combine different textural forms together and create a cluster, to show kind of the variation of sort of nutrients in combination, the rich bounty of the garden? As essentially the... Her dietary philosophy is essentially plant-based. I also looked at sort of typographic word marks that is, using the name full on, spelled out, and bringing to bear some of the typefaces that I had found in my research, sometimes very very directly as here. These are two of the example that I showed. I also took this particular typeface. I set the type and then traced it with a rough tool, a china marker, in order to generate a different kind of a texture over it, and then I also explored some very very direct sort of script, handwriting. Given the kind of qualities that are embodied in the name Good Natured, there's a kind of a casualness, a friendliness, an openness, and a kind of free spirited-ness that a handwritten kind of solution could potentially provide a really nice sort of access for a viewer, for an audience. I also began to look at very very strong sort of monograms or letter form-based marks. Sometimes looking at, for example, some of these very very classical, very high-contrast and bold serif forms where there's nothing really literal at all, or even remotely related to the subject matter in these forms. It's more about the feeling, and that in itself is a kind of a message about what. A certain kind of confidence and precision is projected by these extremely close and sort of critically considered lapses in the continuity of the stroke, how much attenuation in the curve to this point out of the mass, and then extreme contrast. There's a whole lot of energy in that form that's being very tightly controlled. So, it really speaks about a certain kind of an analytical thinking, a very thoughtful or considered approach to something, even though there's nothing that has to do anything with food. Then I also looked at kind of making a G form for Good out of Good Natured out of some kind of reference to rice or some food element with the spoon acting as a crossbar. I went on then to other kinds of utensils, here, a very highly reduced, very simplified, very contemporary, we could even say almost kind of Scandinavian in quality, kind of iconic form, with just a little bit of, you know, essentially flat planar silhouettes, but with just a little bit of linear detail to add some punch and then I looked at replicating the spoon again with this sort of script tool, basically a calligraphy pen, as I had written the other type treatments with, just to see what that would do. I was very very interested in the endless knot. Initially I tried to draw it, first the original reference was this kind of geometric kind of angular formation that you saw earlier. That seemed a little bit too direct of a lift and also, not particularly friendly, not fluid, and fluidity, in a mark, it generally has to do with kind of interconnectivity of processes being natural and effortless, and so I wanted this very complex form to kind of resolve itself in a way where it almost seemed like it just appeared. I tried initially kind of drawing it digitally, and in a number of different ways, but it was still too stiff, so I ended up also painting that one, working back and forth with black ink and then white ink, to kind of adjust the curves so that they weren't kind of weirdly awkward, that they were flowed into each other and to really look at, you know, where were the points of crossover and how much space in between, just as a kind of a starting point. So I kind of gathered together, after a couple of weeks, a large selection of some of the ideas that I'd been working on. There are some other ones here that I didn't show earlier. Here's a grain of sort of rice, here's a kind of a translation of that Eastern Indian symbol of the intersecting triangles that is shown earlier. Here is another use for a kind of a spoon form that had grown out of this one, so as you start to develop more concepts, sometimes elements from those inform other ones and you start to kind of cross-pollinate and very often, it's because as you develop this wide variety of stuff, is that you have a lot of kind of interesting opportunities to bring disparate elements together that you might not necessarily have thought about combining before and that's where you start to really find sort of ideas that are not necessarily expected and that hopefully you haven't seen anywhere else. This also is one that was very interesting. This is sort of based on the Tree of Life idea with this sort of reciprocal relationship between the growing element and the root structure but in this case, the element had become kind of a fork holding food, so it was both a fork and a tree, and also, a very sort of historical, almost period piece, sort of an English tin packaging idea, again looking at kind of a historical element.

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!

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.

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.