Designing a Basic Corporate Design for Freelance Work

Having taken care of the main bureaucracy involved in starting to work as a freelancer, and after having set up my homepage, a further task on my to-do list was to develop a basic corporate design. Many freelancers do not use an explicit corporate design. A freelancer is himself his brand. And in the case of designers the style of their work makes up the largest part of their brand. Still, in my case I see the use of a coherent corporate design as a further possibility to demonstrate my basic design philosophy (more engineering than art) and sense of style (simplicity, minimalism).

Simply put, a corporate design is a set of graphic design style rules that are applied to all corporate documents in order to achieve a consistent appearance. In my case I wanted some basic design elements I could apply to my business card, invoices, letters, homepage, and social media profiles. A basic corporate design is made up of:

  • Business name
  • Logo
  • Colors or a color palette
  • Fonts

Corporate design guidelines of big companies can be further detailed, also speciyfing typesetting, icons, and many other aspects. Examples of such corporate design manuals can be found here.

Here is the final result of my corporate design as manifested in my business card:

This is how the business card and and an invoice document look printed:

The business name was the first thing I decided. When registering as a freelancer in Germany it is required to state a company name, which must include the last name of the person. After mulling over this a bit I decided on a straightforward „Data Visualization Dr. J. Wirges“. Adding the doctoral title „Dr.“ to the name is common in Germany, where the title is held in high regard. Depending on the context I’ll also spell the first name out, as in the business card above. I often find it preposterous when people give fancy names to their one-person businesses.

The visual design process I started with searching for fonts to use. Because I mainly work with open source tools, I also wanted my fonts to be open source. Several such fonts are listed on this wikipedia page. The Font library lists many such fonts. The best overall source source for open source fonts seems to be Google fonts.

I like Microsoft’s Segoe UI font, a very clear and clean font designed for user interfaces, and looked for something in this direction. I decided on Sans Source Pro as the main text font to use. It is a nicely clear and balanced font, well suitable for use on maps and information graphics as well as longer text (the text of this blog is set in this font). It was important to me that it comes in a wide range of weights from extra-light to black in both regular and italic.

As a headline font I wanted one that was a bit more noticeable, but still minimalist and geometric. Being a fan of Paul Renners Futura, a geometric font similar to Bauhaus fonts, I looked for open source fonts in this direction. An easily recognizable feature of such fonts ist the small „a“ as a full oval. Because letters a, b, d, g, o, p, q and I, i,L, l, 1, ! look so similar in such fonts there are in my opinion not well readable as long text. (Surprisingly the biggest German tabloid newspaper Bild uses such as font for printed text.) The similar Renner and looks a bit too edgy (i.e. too much like the outdated Futura itself ?) to me. I decided to use Muli, also coming in a wide range of weights (alternative: Spartan, narrower alternative: Universalis, alternatives in fewer weights: Questrial, Didact Gothic, Glacial Indifference, similar but uneven line widths: Poppins). A disadvantage of combining two such clear and minimalist fonts is that there is only little visual contrast between them.

Designing the logo required several iterations. I began by collecting ideas via brainstorming, looking for images to key concepts such as „data visualization“, „data“, „visualization“, „Dr.“ „Johannes Wirges“ etc. These ideas I first sketched out on paper. With the more promising ideas I then experimented as vector graphics in Inkscape. I’ve noticed that I’m much better at selecting the most appealing design among a selection, or iteratively seeing what is wrong with an existing design, than at clearly stating how a design should look. In order to leverage such „passive design skills“ I created many variants of a design which I then placed side by side on a big vector graphics canvas. The image below shows such a canvas with the semi-final logo in the upper right.

The design process resulted in three milestone logo designs which I successively tested with friends, former colleagues, and family members. These milestones are shown below.

The first logo means to show a bar chart made up of vertical bars and horizontal background lines. The feedback I got for this logo is that it looks nicely minimalist and professional, and the link to data visualization is obvious, however it has little recognition value. Thus I started again from scratch.

The second logo means to show two people discussing about a data visualization. The circles/bubbles here can stand for both a statistical data visualization as a bubble chart or a geographic data visualization as a proportional symbol map. The only five bubbles look like somewhat complicated data because the bubbles come in three sizes (four small, one medium large, one large) and are arranged in a wave shape. Each person talks about the patterns he sees in the visualization, represented as blue and red circles. This image nicely reflects my philosophy of data visualization. I see it mainly as a means to support communication. In analytical applications data visualizations serve as the basis for discussions among experts about what patterns they see in the data. In presentations such visualization help to communicate findings and hypotheses to an audience.

The feedback I got for this (unexplained) design was much better concerning recognition/originality, however, the link to data visualization was not as obvious as in the previous logo. A fellow designer noted that I could work more with surfaces and less with contours. I agreed to this point. In logo design, as well as in maps, charts, and infographics (and also user interfaces, see flat design) the current trend is to mainly use surfaces free of contours. Thus I designed the third and final version of the logo.

When selecting colors, I like to start with named colors. A named color often has its background in a specific material, pigment, dye or historic use. The specific RGB specification may vary by source. Wikipeda has a nice list of named colors sorted by shade. The reduced palette of web colors can also be a good starting point. The Encycolorpedia is a good ressource when searching for colors by name or similar colors. Being a fan of traditional japanese design, I also like to take up the natural dye colors of traditional colors of Japan.

For this logo I wanted shades of blue and red that are slightly „off“ and muted. „Warm“ red and „cool“ blue are obvious choices when visualizing any kind of dualism. For blue I settled on cerulean blue (#2A52BE), reminiscent of a dark blue sky. For red I mixed an unnamed orangish red (#E14040), initally starting from fire brick (#B22222). The third neutral color used here is grey, of course.

I also wanted versions of the logo in greyscale and in black and white. I prepared these making slight adjustments to the original. In logo design it is often recommeded to start in greyscale or black and white and only add colors later. This puts emphasis on basic forms in the first design steps and leaves the possbility more controversial subjective selection of colors to a later step.

So that is my basic corporate design I’ll be using in the future. The specification is simple enough to write in on a post-it:

  • Business name: „Data Visualization Dr. J.(ohannes) Wirges
  • Logo: Two human figure icons with a shared speech balloon containing bubbles arranged in a wave shape. The two figures have different colors, which are also used for selected bubbles.
  • Colors: cerulean blue #2A52BE, orangish-red #E14040, and grey
  • Fonts: Source Sans Pro for text, Muli for headers

I expect to make further adjustments and refinements to this basic corporate design as time passes.