There is no room for a disconnect between the image your firm is projecting and the position you seek to carve out of the marketplace. More than ever, shifts in the legal industry are shining a bright light on business development. As the face of the firm evolves, its storytellers, i.e. the logo, firm brochure, practice area literature, recruitment material, trade publication ads, event invitations, newsletters, and the web site need to reflect the change. Collectively and individually, these ambassadors make a great case in favor of judging a book by its cover. How they look is just as important as their content.
Shaping that look, as well as shaping perception, is a function of graphic design. Strategic graphic design begins at the point where business goals and creativity intersect. A design, no matter how eye-catching, will fall short of success if that point of intersection has been missed. Sharp graphics alone lack the substance to define identity, but offer plenty of style.
Style is driven by trend. Style, rather than the firm, becomes the focus of this design approach. The design may be unusual. It may use appealing typestyles, sport a catchy headline, feature compelling illustrations, and photos of each principal attorney. Brochure design may even include a splash of purple. But will this design translate firm-wide from an invitation to a practice area brochure? It may have distinguished your firm from others, but, quite likely, has left an impression that is unrelated to firm character and unique strengths. As a corporate storyteller, a piece driven by style is a one-time expenditure that is unable to add equity to identity or market position.
Dramatic color can be used effectively as part of a deliberate effort to project a vibrant image or to push an existing connection with the firm. Then that splash of purple has been transformed from a gratuitous whim into a unique and memorable characteristic, a cornerstone of any branding and positioning effort. A prominent firm with offices in Chicago and throughout the U.S. uses bright yellow as part of its design identity, taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by its name.
What if ‘vibrant’ is not part of your firm’s corporate story? Then an inappropriate characteristic is leading your image-making efforts. From among the following creative variables, which will create a tone that captures the essence of your firm:
a fast-paced and succinct writing style or one that is warm and conversational;
conceptual imagery or traditional portraits;
illustration or photography;
bright colors or ones that are subdued and monochromatic?
From this perspective, seemingly capricious design decisions become purposeful and connect to business goals. This strategic integration of information and presentation is what will influence people.
Another vital creative element that works to build image is the design system. Its function is to ensure that all publications look as though they have originated from the same source. Developing guidelines for layout, typography, color and use of imagery will create visual consistency across disciplines from the web to an event invitation. With repetition, this underlying design architecture will work behind the scenes to trigger the desired response: name recognition. Image will develop as the firm is represented in this consistent manner, and like branding, will develop equity over time. Great design brings great ad concepts to life.
But, look beyond the visual impact of memorable law firm ad campaigns to find that level of intelligent design and creativity carried firmwide from business cards to practice area literature. Not just a catchy tag line or dramatic photo, the messages about the firm that are conveyed through a deliberately designed system infer quality and creativity without having to state the obvious: the competence of the firm.
Multiple visual styles coming from the same firm dilute positioning and recognition efforts. An inventory of current presentation/marketing materials often reveals a variety of approaches. A collection of practice area brochures for example, may provide evidence of a lack of design consistency to the point where each appears to represent a different firm. Reviewing a collection of event invitations may indicate no visual relationship with corresponding practice area literature. Without the budget or mandate to develop a totally new identity system, crafting a deliberate image may seem out of reach. However, the inventory may also reveal which elements can be retained and strengthened and which can be retired. For example, the decision could be made to retain a logo because, having become readily recognizable, it has accrued equity. That equity could be built upon by creating a consistent presentation of the logo. If some of your publications read Jones, Smith and Glass while others read JS&G, consider which direction is strongest and adopt the position firm-wide.
Elements of a design system can be put in place over time as budgets allow. Developing a common grid system upon which all publications can be designed will ensure that they look compatible and have originated from the same firm. Color palettes could be updated, and depending upon the story of your firm, subdued or brightened. Photography could be used in a consistent manner; perhaps your images are candid portraits reflecting the truth that the attorneys at your firm are approachable, real people.
A family of typefaces could be selected. Just because there are 150 fonts in your system does not mean you have to use them all. Templates could be created for repetitive publications, or ones that are produced in-house. Many firms are opting to move away from the traditional and costly firm brochure. More cost effective to produce is a smaller book that tells the firm’s story with broad strokes, leaving individual practice area brochures to convey information in greater detail, with easily updatable inserts for specific attorney bios and contact information. Taking small steps toward the long-term goal of firm-wide consistency will make a difference over time.