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EVERYTHING COMMUNICATES: Creating Your Firm's Graphic Identity

By Verdell Christophersen
Androvett Legal Media & Marketing

So your firm wants to punch up its profile in the marketplace. You want clients and potential clients to know that you're a young, vibrant group of lawyers with energy to spare. Or you're looking to convey wisdom and experience and land Fortune 500 clients.

Whatever image you're trying to sell, it's not enough to say that's who you are. Your firm's graphic identity needs to convey it as well. A young firm hoping to trade on its vibrancy and enthusiasm is shooting itself in the foot if its graphic identity tells the world that its lawyers are more Sean Connery than Shawn White.

What is a graphic identity? It's everything from the typeface in your firm name and the colors on your website to the imagery you use. In a nutshell, it's everything the world sees about you and uses to make a visceral judgment about who your firm is and what you stand for.

Everything communicates. The font (also known as typeface) you choose can say traditional or contemporary, passionate or cool. Your color scheme can say "We're bold" or "We're safe." And the imagery you select can tell potential clients that you're solid and dependable, or you're innovative and resourceful.

Whichever end of the spectrum you want to be on, your graphic identity should support and enhance it, not contradict or detract from it. If you want to be seen as a bold, contemporary firm, don't select a traditional font, a gavel and navy blue as your visual ambassadors. If you're looking to be seen as the "safe" choice for Fortune 500 general counsel, stay away from quirky fonts, trendy colors and abstract imagery. These are extreme examples, obviously, but they make the point.

Your graphic identity isn't the same as your branding (how you want to be perceived in the marketplace), but it is an important component of your branding. Your graphic identity is the foundational building block for your marketing materials business cards, website, office signage, brochure, etc. and will probably be your firm's first impression to those in the outside world.

The Basics

What makes for a good graphic identity?

First, it must be distinct and ownable. You don't want to be mistaken for a competitor, or even end up in court because yours is confusingly similar to another firm's. Second, it must be versatile enough to work in various media. It needs to look as good in black and white as it does in full-color, and it must look as good when printed small as it does when printed full-size. Finally, it should be fairly timeless. Don't pick this season's trendiest color or a typeface that's all the current rage among graphic designers. Otherwise, you'll be doing a redesign next year.

Above all, you should like it and be proud of it. If you market yourself correctly, your graphic identity will be synonymous with your firm for many years to come, so you want to feel good about it.

This is not a do-it-yourself project. You need a creative team, preferably one with a background in professional service firms. Ask to see samples of past work and look for 1) a variety of approaches and 2) design that suits its intended audience. If all their past work looks the same, or if their design work for an accounting firm looks like it belongs to a tattoo parlor, then hire someone else.

Your creative team should spend enough time with you to determine what you want to communicate to potential clients, how the firm describes itself, its market niche, and other questions aimed at coming up with a narrative that can be portrayed visually. One of our chief tools is a Brand Attribute Assessment, which asks firm leaders to choose an adjective that best describes the firm's brand:

Contemporary or Traditional
Established or Emerging
Formal or Informal
Outgoing or Reserved
Structured or Unstructured
Independent or Collaborative
Energetic or Calm
Enthusiastic or Subdued
Adventuresome or Safe

Turning Words into Art

Once you have a handle on how you want to be perceived, your creative team will help you translate that into your graphic identity, using fonts, color, and imagery.

In general, though there are exceptions, serif fonts evoke a more traditional feel, while sans serif fonts feel more contemporary. (The serif, for lack of a better description, is that little hangy down thing on letters. Fonts like Times New Roman and Georgia are serif fonts and Arial and Calibri are sans serif fonts.) Some graphic identities successfully incorporate both serif and sans serif fonts, which can convey both modernity and stability.

Your color scheme is even more evocative than your font selection. Blue is the most frequently used color, and it conveys wisdom and confidence. It does not, however, impart creativity or energy, so if you want to be seen as "bold," a solid, dark blue wouldn't be your first color choice. Your creative team can help you navigate the tricky waters of color choice, but suffice it to say that you want something that supports the image you hope to convey to the marketplace.

As with your choice of fonts, "traditional" and "contemporary" colors can be combined to convey different messages, such as "a stable firm with bold ideas."

Imagery is the final piece of the puzzle. We're talking about any kind of image that may be associated with your firm name. Some firms have incorporated the principals' initials into their graphic identity, and others have worked in simple geometric shapes, lines and other abstract or concrete images.

Like all the other components of your graphic identity, the imagery must convey and support your overall firm brand, not undercut it.

Spend the Time and Money to Get it Right

You can expect to spend a couple of months and a few thousand dollars developing and refining your firm's graphic identity. While there are online resources that can develop your graphic identity for a fixed price, those providers have their limitations and may not give you a graphic identity as distinct and ownable as your firm wants.

When done right, your graphic identity is shorthand for your firm and its lawyers. Even before potential clients have met you, they should already have a feel for what you bring to the table.

Investing both time and money in a unique graphic identity that sends the right message to the marketplace is a worthwhile down payment on your firm's future.

Graphic Identity Do's and Don'ts

Don't do it yourself. Hire a creative team to help you translate your words into art.

Stay away from hackneyed imagery. Some law firms include gavels, law books and the scales of justice into their graphic identity. Those images convey one thing:"We're a law firm." If that's all a graphic identity needed to say, every restaurant would be represented by a napkin and a fork.

Recognize that graphic identity messaging is as much visceral as it is literal. Does your graphic identity make you feel what you want to impart to the world? If the answer is no, go back to the drawing board.

Don't rely solely onlaw firms for inspiration. Some law firms have creative, even inspired, graphic identities, but many are quite dull and unimaginative. Check out other professional service firms and even retail firms for ideas.