When you’re building an early-stage startup, it’s tempting to create a jaw-dropping brand from the start—one that immediately distinguishes you from the competition and attracts users, investors, and buzz to your growing company.
But with a startup budget, you’re probably balking at agency fees—even the leanest packages at agencies start at around $50K and can quickly escalate to six figures. And sure, you could skimp with a cheaper designer, but you’ll probably end up paying for it in revisions or redos.
It sounds dire for a company just trying to launch and look good doing it, but I’m here to deliver some good news: You don’t have to invest in the best possible design as a startup.
In fact, you shouldn’t.
I’ve spent the past 15+ years working as a brand strategist for startups, and I’ve come to realize that startups and premium brand design are not a natural fit.
It’s actually not worth it for a startup to try and scrounge up the money for a big branding package, and here’s why: Good design is about anchoring the look and feel of your brand in a business strategy—but startups are all about testing and pivoting. Your product, audience, and positioning will likely evolve a few times over; you shouldn’t go through a spendy branding process with that imperfect information. Doing so may lead to a rebrand sooner than you’d like, not to mention the nagging feeling that you wasted precious resources on that early design work.
Obviously, you still want your brand to look put together—but there’s a smarter, cheaper way. Here’s my advice for how early-stage startups should approach branding.
Start with “black dress” design
It’s entirely possible for early-stage startups to work with a junior designer to create their initial branding—or even take a DIY approach. The problem comes when they try to create something groundbreaking on a budget.
In the early days, the most important thing your brand needs to communicate is professionalism—which is what often gets lost when companies try to create complex branding on their own. Instead, aim for what I call “black dress” design: You’re not trying to create a revolutionary brand, you’re aiming for something simple and timeless.
Not only does this do the job of making your brand look legit, but it also leaves you flexibility: If you pivot your business model or refine your positioning, your branding will likely still work.
Use a wordmark instead of a logo symbol
Good logo design is expensive. And while there are plenty of free logo creation tools out there, they often create something a little too on-the-nose (such as a megaphone for a communications company) or something so random it’s not tied to your company at all.
An easier approach that will usually yield a more professional output is to utilize a wordmark—in other words, your company name in a timeless typeface. Avoid trendy fonts or anything overly ornate, and focus on finding something with clean lines that can be easily read at any size. Sans serifs are a versatile choice that can work with a lot of different looks and are easy to read at many sizes, whereas serif fonts may lend a more mature and sophisticated look to your brand.
While that may not be the most visually groundbreaking design choice, it looks far cleaner than a cheaply made logo. In fact, many of the biggest brands in the world, like Sony and West Elm, use a wordmark for their logo.
Pick a basic color palette
Color carries subconscious meaning and emotion, which is why branding agencies spend a lot of time choosing exactly the right shades. But you don’t have to be an expert to have an impact.
A more basic place to start is to pick a color based on the general emotion you want to convey or the common brand colors in your industry. Finance and tech companies, for instance, often use blue because it’s associated with reliability and integrity—think Facebook, IBM, and Visa. And while you probably don’t want to use the exact same colors as your competitors, it can be good to consider what the color you’re choosing evokes. Then build a palette from there: One bold brand color and a few complimentary neutrals to back it up should do.
If you’re feeling lost, use a color palette tool—like Adobe Color—that lets you generate colors that work well together and test them for readability and accessibility.
You might shy away from templates for things like your website, business cards, and social media posts because you want to stand out, but they can be a great way for you to tap the brilliant design minds that created them for a far lower cost. By customizing templates with your wordmark and colors, you can still have assets that feel unique to you but that are far more professional than a non-designer could create themselves.
Again, prioritize functionality and cohesiveness over splashy design when choosing a template—you don’t want your message to get lost.
Invest once you’ve found your fit
Once you have a simple, professional design in place, you can focus on what’s most important when you’re an early-stage startup—figuring out what your company does and who you do it for. Not only will this help build a thriving company, but it will also be critical information to have when you’re ready to invest in premium branding strategy and design.
Again, good design is all about anchoring the look and feel of your business in its core strategy. It’s rooted in understanding the mission, the target customer, the product, and what makes it unique—and it conveys all of that in a way that stands out from the competition. That means you have to deeply know all of these elements of your business before you can create a truly outstanding brand design. Startups that invest in branding too early can end up with a muddled design or one that doesn’t quite work for the long haul because they’ve skipped the step of fine-tuning their strategy.
As soon as you’ve found your product-market fit and feel secure in your business strategy, then shell out the dollars to work with a great designer. At that point—with a clearer brand vision and, hopefully, bigger budgets to boot—you’ll end up with a design that you’re truly glad you invested in.
Saskia Ketz is the founder of MMarchNY, a New York City-based branding agency that’s worked with brands like Netflix, Ikea, Timberland, and Mojomox, an online wordmark builder that allows startups to create dynamic, professional-looking logos themselves.