What is Visual Language?

Published by Colin Finkle on

Visual Language definition

/ˈviZH(o͞o)əl/ /ˈlaNGɡwij/

  1. a consistent aesthetic, both overall and in details, between a family of products.
    “the Mazda 3 share a visual language with the Shinari concept car.”
    synonyms: design language, visual vocabulary


What is Visual Language / Design Language / Visual Vocabulary?

Executive Summary | Abstract | TL;DR
Visual language is the consistency in design between different products under the same brand. It is a language because it helps products relate to each other. Visual language makes a brand recognizable through the look its products. Visual language makes the customer experience more consistent. Visual language can create a competitive moat because competitor products with similar visual language will be considered “copies” and only serve to validate the original. You implement visual language through guides and reference designs.

Visual language is the consistency in design between different products under the same product family or brand. For example, the similar visual language of the Microsoft Surface line of computers.

The Microsoft Surface line: Surface Pro, Surface Book, Surface Studio, and Surface Laptop

It is called a “language” because it is a consistent rule set to help different product relate to each other, much like a how language helps people relate to each other. A simple example is the double grills on all of the BMW models since the 60s; if you see that on a car, you don’t need to see the badge to know it is a BMW.

BMW 3 Series Over 25 years

How does visual language affect business?

Visual language makes your brand recognizable.
You only leverage or grow your brand equity when customers recognize your product as a coming from your company. Your brand name and logo are meant to do this, but they only go so far. People use many products in which they do not know what brand it comes from because they never read the label or forget the name of the brand.

People are far more likely to recognize a product if it has a familiar design language. A customer remembering a positive experience could lead to a sale. At scale, that is a significant effect.

To create a consistent experience.
People struggle with the product from a business with no design language. Switching between such products is jarring for the customer; customers build expectations about how a product from a company should look and function, and it hampers the experience and takes away credibility when other products are different than the customer expected.

Customers will choose a product line that is consistent over one that is not, given a choice.

We actually criticized Google for not making the design language of their Made by Google line of products when it launched. That lack of consistent design language could impede customer experience and future sales.

To build a moat.
A company with a strong design language can have a long competitive advantage because they can “own” the design especially if it sufficiently different from the visual language of products in the same category. Any similar looking designs will be perceived as copies and not have credibility with potential customers.

Strong examples.

The Dewalt line of products has strong visual language.

The line of MSI computer products

The line of Dyson vacuum cleaners

How do you implement visual language?

Through reference designs and guides.

To implement a consistent visual language across your products, you need to explain the colors, styles, and details to the designers of your product.

“Currently our design department consists of nearly a dozen functions and outcome teams,” says Karri Saarinen from Air BNB design department. “It became clear that we needed more systematic ways to guide and leverage our collective efforts.”

Your brand standards guide should have some explanation for graphic designers. The brand standards might be enough for web designers and application developers, but often they look for style guides (like this one from Google), so the icons, menus and other interactive elements are consistent.

The design language of hardware products can be more challenging to explain through a 2D guide because it is 3D. This necessitates a reference design. Industrial designers, mechanical engineers, and architects love reference designs because it is a tangible, 3D example of what they need to strive to implement. The most well-known example of reference designs are concept cars (Wikipedia).

Mazda is best in class in using concept vehicles as reference designs to create a consistent visual language their production cars. The modern Mazda visual language was introduced in the Shinari concept car at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show. They implemented the visual language to the Mazda 3, their top seller, and the rest of their line.

Conclusion on Visual Language

Visual language is something the management of a business should understand and drive toward. Visual language, design language and visual vocabulary is not just a buzzword your head of design uses to sound important; they refer to an essential concept in brand marketing. Visual language is the most effective way to leverage your brand equity, and getting the most out of your assets is what proper business management is all about.

Black and white photo of Colin FinkleColin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at Colin Finkle’s portfolio site. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter. He is also the author of the book series, the Neverborn Saga.

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Colin Finkle

Colin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at finkle.ca

1 Comment

Mazda: Best in Class at Visual Language | Brand Marketing Blog · November 7, 2017 at 1:07 pm

[…] Summary | Abstract | TL;DR Mazda is the best of the car companies at defining a visual language in a concept car and applying it consistently across their product line. Their previous visual […]

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