As Managing Director of a design agency, much of my time is spent convincing clients that we can offer so much more than creating pretty pictures. It goes without saying that clients expect good design teams to be capable of interpreting strategy, but they don’t necessarily believe they are capable of creating it.

While all design agencies offer what I would call the ‘operational’ side of brand design, i.e. creating the logo for a brand, very few have the skills to develop a strong brand identity. It requires a delicate balance of strategy and creativity to uncover what’s truly unique about a brand.

What many clients don’t realise is that before they even think about hitting the drawing board, a good designer will immerse themselves in a client’s business and sector to try and define what their point of difference is. The best way to do this, however, is in partnership with the client as part of a strategic workshop, which drills down into the heart of what the brand essence is. Some clients are reluctant at first – they would rather deliver a brief and send the designers off to do their thing – but if you can convince the right people to get their heads together in a room, amazing things start to happen.

On a fundamental level, a strategic workshop helps you to hone in on what makes you different from your competitors. If there’s an interesting story to tell, you’re going to find it through that process, by really digging deep into what the essence of a brand, product or a person is. Of course, you would never go into a meeting and present a new brand identity without having a rationale behind it, but a brand workshop gives you so much more to work with rather than simply investigating the competition.

When you’re face to face with somebody getting under the skin of a brand, their reaction to even a word or a sentence can give a depth of insight that takes you to a completely different place strategically. It’s so satisfying when you help a client to discover what it is they want to say. They may think they know their story but actually, they may not, and when it comes out, it’s amazing; it’s almost cathartic.

This is a great benefit, even with clients who are very cynical about the process. As the workshop develops, they will start to understand the value of it. It makes all the difference to the result – you are able to produce an outstanding piece of work, rather than simply responding to what they thought you should be doing.

At the very least, a strategic workshop should allow you to answer the question: “So why should I come to you rather than anybody else? What makes you unique?” In most cases, it will reveal a whole host of fantastic material that allows you to highlight the client’s point of difference. Sure, on a daily basis, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a bunch of designers behind a computer creating designs, but you can create the work with a much more strategic understanding and an appreciation of the client that really does change the quality of the output.

Sometimes it even surprises me how well it works! You will know that every design you create for these clients is spot on. You may do three or four options, but you know that strategically, they are ticking all of the boxes. And then it’s down to the client to overlay the subjective desire for one solution over another.

There will also be occasions where you start a piece of design work and come to the realisation that a strategic workshop is needed to get it right. In many ways, the workshop can confirm some of the work you are doing, but it also throws out some routes as well, allowing you to focus on work that is 100 percent right.

Once you’ve uncovered what’s unique about the brand, the client has the beginnings of a communication strategy that will drive the graphic design brief. The next step is getting the words absolutely right – crafting that sentence that summarises the brand and its proposition. The client then has the first tangible piece of collateral – something that, if they had just asked for a logo design, they would never have had.

From that, you can develop a very powerful checklist of the values that you’re trying to communicate. It could be anything from the tone of voice in the text to the choices of colours, or the boldness of design. The process may have highlighted that the client is thinking one thing and presenting something else, but now the tools are available to pull those pieces together. Rather than just creating a brochure because that’s what they thought they needed, the design team can feel confident interrogating the brief to ensure that every piece of collateral is doing the job it should be doing.

As a designer, understanding the true essence of a brand – its ethos, values, and unique selling points – is essential to defining its creative identity. Only then can you create a tangible programme outlining where the client is visually, and where they need to be. Whether you’re looking at a brochure, a website, a data sheet, or the full brand identity, executing this strategic process ensures that all visual touch points sit well together and tell the right story for the brand.