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visual identity design Polywork

How to design your personal brand, according to visual identity expert Sarah Dewlin

A side hustle can stay humming for a long time just by reaching out to your network and doing consistently good work. But if you want to take your freelance business to the next level, it’s time to start really treating it like a business. That means understanding your brand and using a well thought out visual identity to showcase your point of difference.

Visuals are powerful tools to show potential clients your story quickly. Just like packaging on a product, the way your website looks and feels gives off a lot of cues to what kind of work you do. Mountain Dew and Ollipop are both sodas, but the design of the can alone tells you a lot about what makes them different.

If you’re not a designer, determining your brand’s visual identity can be a pretty daunting task. But fear not, brand identity and packaging design expert Sarah Dewlin is here to help.

Sarah's design credits include Blackened and Target

She’s led the visual evolution of some of the world’s most beloved brands (Budweiser, Kashi, Target) and knows how to translate personality and values into a cohesive visual look and feel. Here are her five biggest tips for starting to visually design your personal brand.

1. Gather inspiration

The easiest way to start thinking about your brand’s visual identity is to take inspiration from other freelancers in your industry. Look at your competitor's websites to see how they are differentiating themselves visually. Decide for yourself if you think it’s successful or if it’s distracting. Then Sarah recommends going on Pinterest.

“I’m not kidding, Pinterest is an incredible tool. Just search your industry and website or your industry and business card and you’ll get a lot of inspiration. Then you can dig a bit deeper – search colorful business card or minimal business card. Exploring simple keywords will help you feel out what you’re responding to, and what feels like it would suit what you’re trying to do with your brand. Even just searching business card! You're going to get so many different types of business cards and maybe you’ll think, ‘Oh, this one's a square. That's cool. That's different from a rectangular business card. That feels very me because I’m a bit more modern and I like to do things differently.’”

2. Decide what you want to highlight

A visual identity is there to reinforce your point of difference or what you want to be known for. Then think about how you can connect those things visually.  Sarah suggests starting by making a list of what you bring to the table.

She says, “You can't be known for everything. So you almost have to sit with yourself and do a little hierarchy study of what's the number one most important thing that you want to be known for? What’s the key takeaway that makes your work different? Let's say as a writer, you want to be known for being funny. So maybe on your site you feature one huge hilarious line of copy as the first thing that someone sees when they get to the page. Or maybe it's an illustration of someone laughing or smiling so you're connecting people with humor. Whereas if you’re more of a journalist, your site should probably be more buttoned up or maybe it takes cues from how a newspaper is laid out.”

"You can't be known for everything. So you almost have to sit with yourself and do a little hierarchy study of what's the number one most important thing that you want to be known for?"

Sarah thinks of these design cues as tools in a tool kit. She explains, “If you want to show that you're creative or fun, you might dial up color. You might introduce something whimsical, like an illustration or a pattern. If you want to play up that you’re more professional, things should be more streamlined, there should be a clear hierarchy of messaging, maybe you’d lay out work in a grid.”

The key here is to make sure that you're using these tools intentionally to showcase your work, not just what appeals to you. “I love green but I’m not going to make my site all greens because that will clash with the work I do. It might also give off the impression that I specialize in eco-friendly brands, which would be great, but it’s not the case.”

3. Keep it simple

The biggest mistake Sarah sees? Overdesigning. “If designing isn’t what you do best, don’t try to get too crazy with it. You don’t need a fancy logo, a giant color palette, or a site with a lot of animations or something. You never want someone to ask, ‘Wait, what does this person do?’ You want it to be clear what you offer and why they should hire you. That’s the most important thing. Think of the most straightforward way to showcase your work and most likely that’s the right approach."’

Sarah's extensive portfolio includes beverage company Halfday

Another benefit to simple is it’s easy to maintain. “Whatever you decide to do, do it consistently. If your visuals are chaotic or mismatched in style, you come off as chaotic. Less is always more,” Sarah says. “Another mistake I see is people trying to incorporate everything they’ve worked on in their web design. I recommend featuring your top 8 projects and then keeping some in your back pocket to talk about when you actually meet with a potential client.”

4. Know your limits

Once you’ve decided on the aesthetic you’re going for, it’s time to think about what you want to put into creating that visual system. Here are some questions Sarah suggests asking.

  • How much effort do I want to put into an initial design?
  • How much money do I want to invest?
  • Do I want something templatized?
  • Do I want something more personalized?
  • Should I bring in a designer to help me realize my vision?

The answers to these questions will help you decide next steps. “Squarespace and Cargo are great templatized site tools that can help you create beautiful, simple websites. Then all you really have to do is think about what color, font and layout speak best to your work. But if you want something more custom, you may need to loop in a professional,” Sarah suggests.

And after you’ve made your beautiful new website, it’s time to promote it.