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69% CHAT

  • Writer's pictureJulia Woollams

Design It Yourself

When I joined the design industry in the noughties, creating brand manuals or visual style guides for organisations was very much focussed on the audience of other graphic designers.

Budgets for branding and design have changed a lot over the years, and largely gone are the days where client finances allow for design studios to create the majority of their comms.

So nowadays when I create brand manuals there is a much stronger focus on the audience being the staff in an organisation.

This is ever more the case when it comes to individuals, start-ups and micro companies, who generally aren’t able to afford huge agency fees for their branding and design, but will still need to communicate professionally and coherently in a way that doesn’t eat up all their profits.

What I mean by ‘Do It Yourself’ design is how non-designers are able to implement their organisation's visual communications in a way that is effective.

A lot of designers (myself included) are detail freaks and very much like to hold the reigns of brands they create. However there usually comes a stage when you need to ‘release it’ into the hands of your client. Therefore advising on clear principles and giving practical tools and guidance on using the key elements is imperative.

I’m interested in the concept of ‘Do It Yourself’ design and branding. Of course there are a variety of digital tools available to everyone now that weren’t readily accessible in a pre-internet era, so technically anyone can ‘design it’ themselves, whether it is well done or not. But what I mean by ‘Do It Yourself’ design is how non-designers are able to implement their organisation's visual communications in a way that is effective.

Some designers shudder at the thought of Word and PowerPoint, but well-built Microsoft templates can accommodate most brand elements these days for users to create unified designs easily. Then there are free-to-download tools such as Canva and GIMP which give users a lot of control over their design requirements without always needing to employ the services of a professional.

Here I chat to three collaborators working in different sectors, to find out their perspectives on how non-designers can successfully implement branding and design:

  • Valeria Della Rosa – longtime client and collaborator, who we worked with on the brand identity for the Human Resources and Organisational Development department at international financial institution the EBRD.

  • Rachel White – founder of two related boutique PR organisations, who we worked with on the rebrands of both organisations, Brick and House of DIY.

  • Cath Caldwell – creator and consultant editor of the popular DK book ‘Graphic Design For Everyone’, who I worked alongside, as contributing author on the ‘Understanding your brand’ section.


I kick off our chat by asking Valeria, Rachel and Cath what their connections are with branding and design.

Valeria: I love design. I appreciate beautifully designed things and I have a problem with things that aren’t designed well! With only a few designed elements you can affect how people feel in a positive way, whether they are looking at a screen, taking notes in a notebook, experiencing a product – I think it’s true of pretty much anything we do – good design helps in all settings.

Rachel: I help small business owners with DIY PR and there's a clear crossover with PR and branding. Usually it's helping clients ensure their mission and brand messaging is communicated through their chosen PR routes. Consistency is really essential in building audience trust and awareness.

Cath: I used to run a design studio which specialised in editorial redesigns. As part of the delivery we handed over templates, and style guides on a brand’s visual and philosophy. In a way we were helping them with their brand development and brand extension. It worked best when we were able to collaborate with non-designers who would then pick up and run with the visual identity. Not so good in a top down way. Users and customers have always been important in design and I'm therefore interested in co-design methods. I'm now a visiting lecturer at Central Saint Martins on branding design for Fashion Journalists.


Firstly I speak to Valeria about implementing DIY design within large organisations.

Julia: In your experience how does having a cohesive internal brand help communication with staff?

Valeria: Using design cohesively creates a line of sight between who you are and what you do (from an organisational point of view). To put it very simply, it can connect your purpose and your strategy. The brand of an HR department can really serve that purpose. HR has a huge power because it talks directly to people, and within an organisation which naturally has a strong purpose-driven mission, having an effective brand can help connect with people at a deeper level.

Also when you’re a big department and everyone is creating their own presentations and reports, it can look like everyone is working at a different company without the right design tools, which I just think is ineffective. For me there’s always two sides to design – the pleasure from the aesthetic, then the functional aspect, where design helps you to do things in a better way.

When you’re a big department and everyone is creating their own presentations and reports, it can look like everyone is working at a different company.

Julia: Why do you find it important for good design to be accessible to staff who aren’t necessarily employed as designers?

Valeria: Not everyone has a sense of design or even appreciates it, so it’s not that people create badly designed visual comms on purpose. Non-designers don’t necessarily know what ‘good’ design looks like until they see it and equally those who appreciate design may not know how to create it themselves. When you start giving staff well branded tools and show them how to use them, they usually ask for more if they work – they feel quite empowered (if they are nice that is!). If these tools communicate clearly, they have an impact – on the benefits generated and the objectives set, they help with engagement or marketing where for example a clear return can be measured.


Next I ask Rachel about implementing DIY design in smaller organisations.

Julia: What digital tools have enabled you to implement your brands and how have you used them?

Rachel: I find Canva really useful for creating engaging content, as it allows you to store brand fonts, palettes, and favorite graphics, so you can work creatively but also within set brand guidelines.

Julia: When would you design it yourself, and when would you get expert help?

Rachel: I would always get expert help with my overall brand vision and design. As I'm no graphic design expert myself, it's important for me to collaborate with those I feel can really elevate the look and feel of my business.


And lastly, I chat to Cath more generally, about non-designers implementing branding and design.

Photo of Cath Caldwell, courtesy of Magculture

Julia: As both a professional graphic designer and graphic design educator what do you feel are the risks of giving non-designers the tools to create their own branding and design?

Cath: I believe that the world of graphic design has changed so much it is actually empowering to the non-designer. I think it's great that people can work with their own tools now. If graphic designers fear being made redundant then like so many others, there is greater flexibility in our world of communication design.

At a certain point, designers are needed for specialist areas and that’s fine. My Dad did a seven-year apprenticeship to become a type compositor. I studied graphic design for 4 years at art college. Now you have many more choices open. Today's graphic design graduates have to work hard to engage with helping to solve issues that are enormous and complex, such as in service design, circular design and design for environmental and social good. They are doing something different to the basic design of type and layout that we learned.

I'm a fan of photography, illustration and design being used as tools in social activism. The book shares basic design principles that can empower people and make branding design more effective.

Julia: Why are books like ‘Graphic Design For Everyone’ important for people starting out on the branding and design journey?

Cath: Not everyone has access to a Graphic Design education. The pandemic brought home such inequalities for those starting out. I am a believer that design should not be an elite activity. I'm a fan of photography, illustration and design being used as tools in social activism. The book shares basic design principles that can empower people and make branding design more effective. I know great start-up teams, journalists and entrepreneurs who have a sound visual aesthetic but have not had the benefit of a design education. The book is really aimed at non-designers changing directions in their careers, and for young people new to the area who previously did not have access. I’ve been told by young graduates that the chapter on Branding has been particularly inspiring for them as they take their first steps on the ladder. Thanks Julia, for collaborating on that! It is important to have a book that has been checked out and well researched to guide you. There are many contradictory sites with misinformation online. It's good to see it being translated into French, Italian and German and spreading out. The illustrations are deliberately taken from global sources to wriggle out from Euro-centric aesthetic.

In my practice as an educator, I'm taking this co-design model and using it to research more compassionate ways of teaching and assessing. We are now more aware that a sense of belonging helps to produce the best out of people. The same could be said for branding design, that by helping people to feel they belong and having empathy for them, is a good thing that works for everyone.


Many thanks to Valeria Della Rosa, Rachel White and Cath Caldwell for chatting with me.

Pencil photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán.


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