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Essential Design - How it works

by Jessica Deseo on 08/09/2016 | 5 Minute Read

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Essential Design - How it works

A few months ago we talked about how the principles of Essentialism can be applied to build brands by design. Here is a quick re-cap: 

Why it mattersWe are all struggling to manage the tension between more and less.  As consumers, as brand owners and as designers. And the brands we are creating reflect this. 

What it does Essentialism helps brands to determine what is vital and to eliminate everything else. To live by design and not by default. To go big with the things that really matter.

What it isn’t A particular style of design. 

What it is A method that helps us to make choices on behalf of the brand. To put the brand first. And a mindset that keeps us lean and focused. 

How it worksNow let us explain the four steps of the Essential Design approach:

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Without a clear intent you cannot make clear choices

Before beginning any project answer these questions on behalf of the brand: 

  1. Why am I here?  
  2. What is success for me? 
  3. Who will love me?
  4. What makes me special?
  5. What defines me?

These are not new questions, the key is to articulate answers in authentic, precise and meaningful terms

Authentic - you have to make this personal to your brand. No answers that could easily apply to another. 

Precise - every word (or image) has a reason for being. No vague terms that can be interpreted in different ways. 

Meaningful - any individual should be able to visualize what the answer means and be inspired to act. It’s a good idea to combine words and visuals to answer these questions. 

Sometimes this takes a conversation, sometimes a stage of work, it takes days or weeks never months, no-matter the size of the brand, it requires agreement but not wide spread consensus. It does not require a 40+ slide deck. 


Eliminate the non-essentials to focus on the vital

With a clear intent you have the confidence to say No to things that are not essential which allows the vital, distinctive elements to come to the fore. 

At the brand activation level, map out all recent brand communication examples (12-18 months), remove those examples, or elements of those examples, that do not fit with the brand’s essential intent and hero those few that do. 

At the design level dissect the existing visual identity system into these component parts: 

  • Category codes 
  • Navigation codes (signals for consumers to navigate between products/services)
  • Vital elements 
  • Non-essential elements 

Remove non-essential items, capture category and navigation codes and consider their role, importance and expression and highlight vital elements.


Focus on the essential elements and unlock their full potential

Whether it is an existing brand re-design or a new brand creation you: 

  • Unlock - If you have identified existing vital elements, give yourself the freedom to experiment through design to unlock their latent potential 
  • Invent - New elements must fit with the essential intent, strengthen any existing vital elements and have the potential to grow. 
  • Realize - Test and review how the elements work together within an integrated system (go beyond packaging design)
  • Craft- Refine the essential elements, make sure they are distinctive enough for center stage. 

Review your designs against the questions set out in the Focus stage:

  1. Do they take us closer to the success we have defined?
  2. Will they be loved by the people that we want to love us?  (we can ask!)
  3. Do they amplify what makes the brand special? 
  4. Do they have room to grow? 


Create the platform for effortless expansion

Essentialism is not about limiting options. The essential design elements anchor all activations ,which gives your extended team greater freedom to explore and go big. 

Here are the steps to take to inspire and engage expansion: 

  1. Recruit- a core activation team (people that “own’ the brand identity and inspire others to do the same)
  2. Capture - the essential elements, principles and application examples (15 pages, not 40+)
  3. Activate - Run activation sessions with the core team. Explore, break down rules and mix and match to show there is room to breathe within the essential design system. 
  4. Evolve - Create a channel for consumer feedback and use it to continue to build and evolve. 
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When you have completed these steps and reflect on a job well done, you will see.. 

a single minded brand with an essential identity system executed with freedom by an engaged team that gives a consumer the clarity to say yes and the and delivers the success that you had defined And you’ll still have the time, money and energy to keep going! 

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Written by Ben Cleaver and Marcus Hewitt

Ben Cleaver and Marcus Hewitt are the founding partners of Yellow, an Essential Design Company, recently launched in Brooklyn, New York. 

Yellow helps brands to focus on their essential intent, to eliminate excess and to go big with the things that really matter.  They deliver brand strategy that is precise and meaningful and visual identity systems that are single-minded and truly distinctive. 

Yellow is new, but Ben and Marcus are not. They have helped hundreds of companies to build brands by design including Toyota, ABInbev, Shell, Moet Hennessy, Philips and Viacom. 

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