Aligning Design with Your Personality

A spark of sunshine broke through our dark days of winter last month at Iris Creative when we received this totally cool, completely entertaining annual report email from our email marketing provider MailChimp.

The report is creative. It’s fun. It’s original. It’s one of those pieces that gets your wheels turning out ways you can craft your own engaging, original piece to really draw in your audience.

And we’ve been working with clients long enough to already guess what you’re thinking.

“That is so cool!” you say. “I wish we could do something like that.”

“But,” you balk, “it’s just not us (our audience / our CEO / our board).”

Well, we’re here to tell you: You can do something special and engaging without stepping out of your brand’s character!

Let’s take a look at some of the brand-appropriate ways you can make your own information-laden pieces shine — from annual reports to public health messages.

The Visual Trend

People are busy these days. And they’re swamped by the sheer volume of information they have to process — from constantly buzzing phones to overflowing inboxes.

Scholars haven’t dubbed our era the Information Age for nothing.

That’s why finding ways to simplify your message — while remaining true to your brand and your voice — is becoming ever more important to cut through the clutter.

And that’s where MailChimp gets it right.

Sure some of the stats they share are off-the-wall. Yes, the drawings and animations are whimsical. And maybe that’s not you.

But they convey a lot of information without using a lot of words. And that’s the example we can all learn from, no matter what our brand’s personality.

Your True Colors

To help us organize our discussion, we picked one of the millions of models out there that you can use to talk about your brand’s personality. We liked Jennifer Aaker’s, which divides organizations into five categories that emphasize one of the following brand traits:

  • Excitement (daring, spirited, imaginative, up-to-date)
  • Sincerity (down-to-earth, honest, wholesome, cheerful)
  • Competence (reliable, intelligent, successful)
  • Ruggedness (outdoorsy, tough)
  • Sophistication (upper class, charming)

Don’t get too caught up in the categories here. The important thing is to see how MailChimp’s visual approach can be adapted across many different brand personalities.

Here we go.

If you’re daring, imaginative, exciting …

In other words, if you’re just like MailChimp …

The success of this piece starts with the type of information they chose to share. Instead of telling you how much money they made this year or the number of employees they have, they chose unique stats to tell you important things about the company:

  • 74 graduates of MCU, our internal development and growth program
    Translate: We treat our awesome employees well.
  • 4 pounds of coffee consumed by our support team per day
    Translate: We put a lot of energy into supporting our customers.
  • 13 tons of physical server infrastructure added
    Translate: We’re growing. A lot.

Most importantly, they don’t use oodles of words to convey their message. They pared the information down to just a few key phrases and got busy drawing, using a comic-strip style to literally illustrate their story.

So what does MailChimp’s approach look like if your organization if “adventurous” isn’t exactly the word that defines you?

If you’re known for sincerity, honesty, cheerfulness …

If your organization is a bit more serious, you can have success with a more straightforward approach.

Instead of telling us how much coffee your support team drinks, tell us how many American-based people answer the phones in your call center. And don’t show us a crazy comic-strip drawing of a monkey talking into a banana — use an actual photo of your call team at work — or better yet, take a photo of your people at iconic places in your town to reinforce your “localness” if that’s important to your audience.

There are lots of examples out there of serious organizations that effectively use a visual approach to convey their messages in an interesting way.

A winner in this category is the USDA’s Choose My Plate campaign at

No amount of words can beat this graphical depiction of a balanced meal.

The information is easy to digest. (Sorry, pun intended!) And it makes the behavior they’re trying to encourage easy to replicate.

Another good one is this infographic from the food brand Kashi that explains why the company uses ingredients from farms in the midst of the process of going organic. They introduce the consumer to an entirely new concept and its benefits through a highly graphical representation.

It’s not daring or silly — it’s completely down-to-earth and sincere. But it’s totally visual, just like MailChimp’s annual report.

If you’re competent, reliable, intelligent, successful …

If reliability is your brand’s primary personality trait, your approach will be similar in style to the sincere organizations, but perhaps a little less cheery and a little more polished.

Going graphical can be even more important in this category if you need to help your readers understand complex ideas or data.

A lot of the information that the Centers for Disease Control puts out falls into this category. Take for example how they illustrate the way the International Health Regulations work.

Banks also provide great examples of “reliable” brands presenting their information infographically as well, like this one from TD Bank illustrating their healthcare survey results.

If you’re rugged, outdoorsy, tough …

Think all the examples you’ve seen to this point are too colorful, corporate or cute to really translate to your rugged brand?

Industrial equipment company Grainger show that visual representations of information can be rugged and tough, too. They partnered with NASCAR on this series of infographics that are clearly designed to delight their consumers. And only one includes any link to their products. The series is a great example of positioning your organization by aligning with things your community already loves.

John Deere used visualized instructions to reinforce proper use of their products. When you are tying to keep people safe, images are faster, easier and more likely to be followed than written instructions.

If you’re sophisticated, classy and high end …

This is the trickiest one of all, and it’s pretty much MailChimp’s polar opposite.

In our experience, it’s much harder to find highly “sophisticated” exclusive brands using the same type of visual approach we saw with the other personality types.

But visual communication is not limited to communicating instructions or information. You’ll find that these brands often use the fewest words of all in their overall communications, relying instead on gorgeous photography and one or two choice phrases to make their point.

Take a look at this brochure from Ferrari. It’s 36 pages of stunning photos and only 6 pages have even a single word.

And, in probably my favorite example ever of the battle between visual impact and wordy explanation, I give you this classic YouTube viral video from 2006 “Microsoft Designs the iPod Box”. Hard to believe it’s been 11 years since this was the cutting edge!

As a designer myself, I still find this video hilarious. And the story it tells is just as relevant today. Rumor has it some frustrated Microsoft employees were the masterminds behind this gem.

This is so funny precisely because Apple is known for it’s visual communication.

Organizations that want to embody sophistication absolutely work the fewer-words, more-images angle, even if it shows up in a drastically different way.

Finding ideas everywhere

We hope we’ve shown you that even the wildest of annual reports can get your own organization’s creative juices flowing, no matter what your organization’s personality.

MailChimp stirred ours.

Where will your next great idea come from?