Industry Insider: Building a Visual Voice for your Brand

This article is part of a new series I'll be developing alongside my business partners at KNITCRATE, designed to offer helpful tips and information for independent, small yarn and design businesses seeking to grow and develop their brands. This piece is part of the discussion on our Dyer Discussions Facebook Group for Dyer Supplier - a source where indie dyers may find and order ethically produced and manufactured yarns with transparent supply chains. 

Today, I want to talk a little about developing a brand's photography 'style'. I personally work with several brands - not just Knitcrate / Dyer Supplier, but also with several yarn companies, on yarn projects, and on collection projects, in addition to building the book. One of the biggest challenges - and one of my favorite challenges - is developing a distinct visual style for each brand's photography direction.

It is never too late or too early in your business' process or development to change, enhance or define your style. I also want to stress that although you are the dyer, and probably are the center of your business, and your taste comes from what you love, your brand does not have to be identical to your personal taste at all times - it needs to have a more refined, defined voice than that. I personally fluctuate drastically from loving bright, brilliantly colored things to soft neutrals, to moody backdrops. For years, I struggled with developing any kind of visual style because I felt like my personal style was all over the place. It is not disingenuous to your customer to choose a voice for your brand and stick to it. It is OK to have a strong brand identity that changes slowly over time, rather than try and incorporate all of your favorite things into one visual voice.

It is not disingenuous to your customer to choose a voice for your brand and stick to it. It is OK to have a strong brand identity that changes slowly over time, rather than try and incorporate all of your favorite things into one visual voice.

Determine your visual voice through branding words

The first thing that I do for any new client is ask for 5 - 10 visual 'direction' words that help me determine what we're aiming for as a voice. For instance - if your dye style is all about soft, semi-neutral tones, gentle colors, natural dyes, you should be pursuing a very different photographic voice than another dyer who is all about ultra-bright, neon acid-dye colors.

The first company's words might be: gentle, soothing, calming, natural, neutral, soft

While the second company's words might be: energetic, exciting, fun, wild, optimistic, edgy

(I try to get everyone to stay away from words like influential or inspirational - these words can mean anything to any particular person.)

Build a guide board on Pinterest

After you have your 'brand words', it's time to take to Pinterest! I made this board to share with you this morning: Sample Brand Board - Warm & Bright

As you can see, this pretend brand's theme is Warm & Bright. If I had defined this brand with words, I would have chosen words like: handmade, happy, cheery, glowing, saturated color, clarity, warmth, familiar, home

Then, I went through my Pinterest Inspirations board and looked for images that conveyed this. The first image I came across was a very happy picture with a house, and I decided that this would be a great focus point for the brand. I love the strength of color, the pop of bright red against a sort of dusty blue, and the clear, crisp photography, so these are the guidelines I used to select the other images on the board. You'll notice that although the first few images have a very holiday feel (probably due to my current post-Christmas, early New Year vibes), the board eventually morphed into something that was more about saturated, rich color. 

Pinterest Board.JPG

From here, I take photos that fully embody what I want for the brand and pull them into a grid-building program. While I use Adobe Illustrator most often, I love to recommend Big Huge Labs' Mosaic Maker - a free program that makes beautiful collages for you. All you have to do is create an account and save the images to your computer, then you can use them in collages. Since these are for personal use only -- and are frequently not seen by anyone other than the brand partner and myself -- I feel that it is ok to use the images in this way. For the purpose of this blog post, I'm sharing my image collage below, with attributions that I could find through Pinterest. 

Visual Voice Refined.jpg
Catherine Gratwicke Photography ; The Purl Bee ; Bryan Gardner Photography ; Saskia Wilson / Fashion Gone Rogue ; Annie Larson ; Unknown Handbag ; Brit & Co ; Paper & Stitch 

As I collected eight images that best represented this brand to me, I noticed a few things:

Images that showcased bright colors on an equally saturated background felt 'fresher' to me than using only simple ones on a white background. They felt more editorial than traditional product photography. I would probably use both, but in different ways, for the brand photography.

I frequently pinned images that had the elements in clusters or in linear arrangements, which might be good to use later as direction for styling on social media features or advertisements

I loved when similarly colored elements were grouped together on a background that echoed that color. We very rarely see this in yarn photography, so if this was a real brand, I would probably look at the yarn and see if I could draw some visual parallels and look for props and backdrops that would give me this effect. 

Determine your brand's photography rules & restrictions. 

All of the images I had chosen for the board had one thing in color: really strong, saturated color. This means that it's likely in the post-processing (the part where you load your images into Lightroom or Photoshop, or when you're editing them on your phone), that the contrast and saturation have likely been enhanced, and that the whites are balanced to appear as clean and crisp as possible. 

For any product, this presents a unique challenge. No dyer wants to misrepresent the color they've dyed by doing too much editing on their photos, but sometimes, a photo turns out a bit darker, less crisp, or clear than the brand photography guide would want us to follow. I'm going to tell you something - it's OK to edit your image a little bit.

Selling yarn is a lot like selling food: if you set up a meal at home and take a photo without any fancy lighting or post-processing, it’s going to look less appetizing than a photo from a cookbook, and it has nothing to do with the tastiness of your chicken pot pie.

Selling yarn is a lot like selling food: if you set up a meal at home and take a photo without any fancy lighting or post-processing, it's going to look less appetizing than a photo from a cookbook, and it has nothing to do with the tastiness of your chicken pot pieThis isn't just because magazines and bloggers have better cameras -- it's also due to post processing.

Turning up the lights and brights, editing your saturation, and making the yarn more visually stunning isn't lying to the customer, as long as the yarn looks that good in person when they receive it. The problem lies in turning things up too much. Do as much as you can with the photography setup to achieve the right results, but don't be afraid to pop it into a photo editor for final tweaks. That's the difference between a professional-looking photo and an amateur one. Don't feel guilty about stepping up to the proverbial 'plate' and doing some styling -- as evidenced by these Ravelry photos of all the exact same yarn, your customers will expect some variation from this professional photo of the same skein, taken by Hedgehog Fibres:

Stick to it, but allow for gradual change. 

I think the most challenging aspect of developing a brand voice is maintaining that voice. If I developed this brand and didn't choose to match my tags, wrapping, packaging, font choices, and dye style to these principles, why am I using it in the first place? Building a strong starting point and then sticking to it throughout all of my business platforms -- Instagram, Facebook, Ravelry, my blog, etc. -- is essential to change an idea into an identity. Remember that your customer might only see one of your images every week. You want every image to be as close to representing your brand as possible. 

With a product-based brand, it's important to try and maintain visual consistency for best results. If you feel that you want to include photos of your behind-the-scenes, try and stage or post-process them to match your brand's visual identity. Don't include photos taken late at night (unless you have a lightbox setup and that style of photography is your goal). Don't include anything grainy or sub-par. Put the time in to be selective -- it will make a difference!  

As artists, you also have to allow yourself room for growth and change. If, as the seasons change, you find yourself moving away from your initial visual direction, see how you can draw parallels to the work you're doing now versus the work you began with. Be willing to slowly transition your visual style. Keep building onto your Pinterest board, and consider revising your mosaic every six months. Development is a healthy part of any business that is succeeding, so don't resist it -- just guide it visually so that your customers don't feel a sharp cutoff or disconnect from who you 'were' to who you are. 

Put the time in to be selective — it will make a difference!  

Independent dyers can join us for more photography, branding, and visual voice discussion this month in the Dyer Supplier Facebook Group