5 Ways to Keep Your Publications On-Brand, Even if You Know Nothing About Design

In the world of K-12 education, marketing often gets lumped in (or perhaps dumped on, depending who you talk to) with the Admissions Office. Many admissions officers come into their role because of their keen interpersonal skills, knowledge of educational models, and years of teaching experience. They are excellent at what they do. They usually, however, have no background in marketing, advertising, or design. When left to design a viewbook or search piece, many outsource the whole thing to an advertising firm or local designer without much restriction or guidance.

That’s a mistake. Not only is it unhelpful for the designer, but you run the risk of diluting your brand. I frequently hear people give direction by saying, “I don’t want my materials to look like everyone else’s.” Or, “I really want this to stand out.” Phrases like that are liable to give you mixed results. Don’t be so concerned about not looking like everybody else that you forget to look like yourself.  

So, how do you do that, especially when this isn’t your wheelhouse? You may have heard the phrase “on-brand.” What does that mean exactly? It means staying true to your school’s authentic nature. For example, a formal boarding school in Boston should not have a brochure that looks like a Hawaiian surf shop. On-brand also means keeping your materials similar enough that folks instinctively know who they are from, using elements from your graphic identity system. The publications are members of the same family; each one is unique, but they all have similar characteristics. You may not be the not the designer experimenting with lines, shape, and texture, but there’s a lot you can control—and you should. These are what we call brand guidelines.

Here’s a list of elements that everyone can pay attention to. If you don’t already have brand guidelines and a graphic identity system, this will help you get started.

  1. Color – Tints, PMS colors, what have you. It’s all essentially the same way of saying color. Most independent schools already have an established set of school colors which makes for an easy start. From there, create a formal color palette with specific CMYK (print) and RGB (web) shades. A local designer can help you choose specific Pantones, if it all seems too much. Once you’ve decided, make sure that your publications utilize these colors every. single. time.
  2. Copy - You’ve probably heard the phrase, “It’s not as much about what you say, but how you say it.” Figure out your copy style. Is your school formal or folksy? What narrative style? Sure, the annual report may be a bit more serious and the summer camp flyer on the casual side, but don’t stray too far out of your range. Also consider adopting a formal style guide like AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style to help with consistency in your publications.
    And, if you have a tagline or key message points, by all means use them…a lot. You might be tired of seeing or hearing those phrases, but remember the “rule of sevens” in advertising--your audience needs to see or hear something at least seven times before they’ll remember it!
  3. Logo - Your logo needs to be on everything--it’s essentially a signature. If not, now’s a good time to ask why. Do a needs assessment of your logo. If your logo seems to be too formal to go on athletic wear, you’re likely in need of an athletic mark, informal logo or both. Are all departments using your logo(s)? Do they have the logo(s) in their various formats (jpeg, eps, tiff, etc.) and colors? Do they know when to use which one? The answers to these questions will likely help you decide if you need to tweak, create or redesign your logos or if you need to better structure and communicate when to use them.   
  4. Typography – Every font has its own connotation and some of them can cause a visceral reaction (ahem, Comic Sans). I recommend starting by picking two fonts that embody your brand personality (or what you want it to be) and using them consistently.­ One can be a little more lavish and used for headlines; the other should compose your body copy. ­About four years ago I would have droned on about the importance of at least one of them being part of the standard web-friendly, albeit boring, set, but with the rise of open-source web fonts (thank you Google Fonts and others) your choices are near limitless.
  5. Photography – Nothing looks worse than seeing a hodgepodge of photographic styles in the same publication. Similar to copy, decide on a photographic style (photojournalistic, lifestyle) and stick with it. When working with a photographer, show them the photography you already have so they can replicate the style. You can also extend the life of your repository by making sure that when you do a shoot, students are not wearing anything too trendy.

Once you establish guidelines work diligently to adhere to them in all publications and communications. You’ll find your publications will gain cohesiveness, consistency, and voice. That voice is an invaluable way to set you apart in the marketplace, which is exactly what you wanted from the beginning, right?