How to identify and hire the right brand designer

As tech startups increasingly see the need to invest in intentional brand-building, thanks to the visible impact of the many who already do, especially competitors, there is a healthy pressure to expand beyond your product designers (‘UI/UX’) and bring a designer on your team who is focused on the brand.

As if that is not enough, brand design agencies are insisting that you hire one in-house before they work with you. Except you are working with a ‘talent-deep’ agency like FourthCanvas, they are probably also not offering to do the hiring for you, and it’s indeed not within their obligation. Your HR needs to take action but it must begin on the right foundation of what this role really is, and is not, and what to look out for.

First, you need to think of the Brand Designer as “the graphic designer on your team with the mind of a brand strategist”. They deploy their visual and strategic competence to translate the brand’s voice and personality and are excited to act as brand champions to defend its integrity.

They are not coming on board simply to make beautiful visuals for the marketing team. They are a critical part of the marketing process and are necessarily paranoid about “staying on brand”—which places them at the intersection of a brand manager and a creative professional. Their work also goes beyond customer-facing marketing, to include every other component through which the brand communicates and expresses itself, within the team and without.

Things to look out for

Whether you are spotting these things in their portfolio or as they answer your interview questions, these are some critical qualities to look out for.

A love for systems and standards.

The type of designer you are looking for is way more than a spontaneity freak. Yes, they are thrilled in the moment but are more excited about sustaining the magic. They want to name layers, organize folders, prepare versions, prepare guides, document everything, … anything to ensure the magic can be recreated.

Ability to tell a story.

It helps if they have a ‘natural’ ability to make things make more sense with the whipping of their words, the use of analogies, visual pointers, and more. Summarily, it helps if they are a great storyteller, and you will be able to tell from how they tell their own story. If they are always trying to get straight to the point and do not appreciate the richness of context and narratives, you may want to look further.

An eye for patterns.

How quickly can they connect dots and identify patterns? They will need this as they hold conversations, sort through complexity, and create within systems. There are patterns in everything, everywhere you look. They should be able to spot them faster than your average team member.

“Some touch of OCD here and there.”

Talk about obsessive attention to detail, or say perfectionism. While they would usually require tact and emotional intelligence to bring everyone else on the same page with them, it helps if they naturally get paranoid about getting things done right. (If they keep mentioning “alignment” and “consistency” during the interview, hire them 😄*).*

Courage to be different.

Brand design and communication requires a lot of courage. Sometimes it’s about looking away from a tempting trend, some other times it’s about embracing a jarring visual direction that may take people some time to catch on with. They would require a lot of courage to stand for the brand and sometimes take the road less traveled just to stay on brand.

Curiosity and openness.

“I am a very curious person” will not suffice here. What books have they read and how far have they gone to seek knowledge? How open are they? What are they humble to admit they are still trying to figure out? The brand designer you need is confident and courageous, yet with the excitingly curious mind of a child.

Basic (Skill) Requirements

  • Graphic Design – Colour, Typography, Iconography, Motion, Print, Illustration, 3D, Layout & Publication Design. PS. You may not get this in one person. More likely in a team, but typically most Brand Designers would be masters of more than one of these.
  • Basic knowledge of Product, Marketing, Comms, and other allied fields. This ensures they are able to flow and collaborate with other professionals they will work closely with, and sometimes have to influence.
  • Core understanding of Brand, Branding & Brand Strategy.
  • Great collaboration skills.
  • Great presentation and communication skills.

Additional things to keep in mind

  • Creative magic is not enough. “Badass” is not the medal.
  • Product Design expertise does not translate to brand design expertise.
  • Being busy is not how you measure their work.
  • Set KPIs around how consistently everyone is able to reflect the brand.
  • You may find them more in conversations than on their laptop.
  • They may debate a lot. It’s part of their JD.

It’s hugely important to get this right as the impact of their work cuts across multiple layers. When you hire external agencies (like ours, FourthCanvas) to take on the complexity of a rebrand, for example, your Brand Designer acts as an internal collaborator and a critical bridge to make sense of the engagement and help position your team to sustain the goals of the branding effort. While they may be involved in day-to-day social media designs and creative copywriting for the marketing team because they enjoy it, they should be hired primarily to increase the chances of anyone creating any form of communication stay ON BRAND—whether it is a Powerpoint presentation, or poster on Canva, or some merch production process, and so on. They will usually need to work in collaboration with other designers across product, marketing, and more, to keep everything centered on the brand while filling critical gaps like creating necessary unique visual assets that only they can be trusted to translate from the visual system.

Getting your ‘Brand Designer’ hire right is a huge win for your brand transformation in the short and long term. Hopefully, you have gained some insights to set you on a path toward that.

PS. Brand Designers are more likely to take your call seriously if you sound like you understand them. It is recommended that you read the article again, take some notes this time and restart your search.

Co-authored by Victor Fatanmi and Tunji Ogunoye, Partners at FourthCanvas.

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