Startups 101: UX/UI Vs Brand Design Agency

June 16, 2023

I’m a branding enthusiast who’s transitioned into being a Product Manager. I was lucky enough to start my career in advertising as a brand associate at Leo Burnett, then I worked at other top ad-agencies. I even had a stint as a brand manager at an ed-tech startup.

Now, I’m a product manager at an Insuretech startup. Even though my professional role has shifted, my passion for branding remains. I still read a ton of branding books and tune into brand strategy podcasts (a big shout out to Terry O’Reily) whenever I can.

Before my current role as a Product Manager, I had the opportunity to work as a product strategist at a top UX design firm in LA. In addition to that, I’ve worked with numerous UX designers on various freelance projects over the years.

information architecture of a web app
Working with Juan on the Information Architecture of a web-app

Having navigated through these experiences, it’s safe to say that I’ve been in the trenches with both brand designers and UX-UI/Product designers. For many founders/business owners a designer is a designer but that can’t be farther from the truth. Based on my experience let’s see what makes them so different?

Why are product and brand designers so different?

  1. Focus and Objectives: UX agencies are mostly packed with young designers who are all about solving user problems or “pain points,” as they like to call them. Their mission? Make the user’s journey smooth, intuitive, and, sure, nice to look at. Meanwhile, art directors at ad agencies are also problem solvers, but they tackle different kinds of challenges. They focus on creating visuals that evoke certain emotions and resonate with the audience. While UX agencies are hacking design to improve usability, brand agencies are hacking imagery to build connections.
  2. Approach: UX design typically adopts an outside-in approach, actively engaging with users to comprehend their issues, and seeks to systematically address them through user testing, feedback, and iteration. This approach is data-driven, placing emphasis on making well-informed decisions grounded on user feedback. In contrast, branding embraces an inside-out approach, delving into the essence of what the brand represents and articulating it through design and voice.
  3. Design Process: The UX design process is highly structured and repeatable, often hinging on established patterns and design systems. It’s methodical to its core. Conversely, advertising thrives on a less predictable path. A prime example can be found in the branding process outlined in the book ‘Branding in 5 and a Half Steps’ which demonstrates that the brand process can commence from either the brand narrative stage or the brand design stage, making it inherently non-linear compared to UX design.
  4. Lifespan of Design: The visual design created by UX agencies tends to have a pretty short shelf life, often changing to keep up with UI trends or competition. In contrast, brand design can be long-lasting and is created with a mindset of enduring relevance.
  5. Tools and Methods: The tools and methods that UX designers use are quite different from what brand designers use. UX designers use tools like Figma and Sketch, while brand designers might be using Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.
  6. Target Audience: Branding usually involves understanding and communicating with a broad audience. It is about conveying the brand’s values and mission to the masses. UX design, on the other hand, tends to be more focused on the specific user base of a product or service, ensuring that the communication between the user and the product is seamless and intuitive.
  7. Metrics for Success: In branding, the focus often lies in brand recognition, perception, and emotional connection. For UX design, metrics such as user satisfaction, retention, and conversion rates are pivotal

An ad agency is one of the few remaining safe spaces for weird or eccentric people in the worlds of business and government.

— Rory Sutherland

How do these differences translate into work?

Now that we’ve established the differences, you might be wondering how they manifest in the work produced by these agencies, right?

Let’s explore this through a case study. For this exercise, we will focus solely on logo redesign, not the entire branding effort, and observe how the two agencies respond to the same creative brief.

Prefinery original logo
Prefinery’s original logo

The Brand: Prefinery is a no-code SaaS tool that enables marketing teams and founders to build pre-launch waiting lists. One of the pioneers in the pre-launch waiting lists business, their product has been used by both startups and enterprises like Microsoft, Atlassian and WealthSimple.

Among startups, Prefinery is considered an essential, no-code marketing tool, since refer-a-friend and pre-launch waiting list campaigns are an integral part of a product’s early adoption toolkit.

The Challenge: Prefinery’s previous logo (and overall branding) failed to resonate with its target audience — startup founders. Our research revealed that many people mistook Prefinery for an energy business, due in part to the graphic of the ‘P’ in their logo resembling a drop of oil. Pair that with ‘refinery’ in the name, and the confusion is understandable. However, this perception was far from reality.

Moreover, due to its poor branding and marketing, Prefinery, which was once a pioneer and market leader, began to lose its competitive edge. New entrants with similar products but better marketing and user experience seized the opportunity, causing Prefinery to fall from its leader rank to that of a follower. The challenge was clear: Prefinery needed to revamp its branding to better reflect its true identity and regain its position in the market.

The constraints:

  1. Preserve the ‘P’ in the logomark.
  2. Remain faithful to the existing color scheme.
  3. Ensure the logomark reflects themes of launch, growth, or virality.

To Summarize: Prefinery’s logo felt antiquated and void of significance. What was needed was a logo that mirrored the contemporary, dynamic, and tech-savvy nature of the company — something that echoed ‘no-code’, ‘SaaS’, and ‘startups’.

Logo redesign:

I took the lead on this rebrand in late 2021, and for the project, I teamed up with a seasoned art director I’ve known for a while. He’s a pro in brand identity design and has spent his career at some of the big-name ad agencies. We have a history of working together. He’s my first call for any brand design work.

I won’t go through the entire logo-design process here. To keep things short, let’s dive straight into what we created for Prefinery.

Prefinery logo
Logo redesign by a top-notch brand designer

What we accomplished:

  1. Developed a logo that communicates the brand promise of growth and the excitement of a launch, while resonating with the tech community. Stayed true to the original color scheme but made it more accessible by adding contrast.
  2. Incorporated a ‘rocket’ as a symbol of launch and growth.
  3. Retained the ‘P’ in the logo, as required by the brief.

Post logo redesign, we delved into rebranding, but things didn’t progress to launch. I keep tabs on Prefinery via social media and recently spotted this post on Prefinery’s LinkedIn:

From Prefinery’s Linkedin page

I was thrilled to see the brand finally got the makeover it deserved — executed by a UX/UI agency. I assume they received the same brief. Let’s take a closer look at their logo redesign:

Prefinery logo
Prefinery logo redesign by a UI/UX agency

More about the logo, from Linkedin:

The new logo features the magenta-colored circles that signify points on a graph, embodying our commitment to growth and continuous improvement.

We’ve also updated our signature orange color with a captivating gradient of magenta to a new tone of orange, which is like the warmth and energy of a sunrise in a way. This symbolizes the jump-start of your product, celebrating the new era that begins as you launch your product with our flagship feature: the pre-launch waiting list. Most importantly, this is YOUR own journey of success and we want to incorporate that into our logo.

Before drawing any conclusions, let’s make a side-by-side comparison of the logos along with the brand tagline:

Prefinery logo
Logo Design Showdown: UI/UX Agency (Left) vs. Adman (Right)

Having seen them side by side, it becomes apparent that UI/UX and branding agencies have distinct areas of expertise and approaches to design.

If you’re looking to create a brand that strikes a chord with your audience, branding agencies are the way to go. If it’s about crafting an intuitive user experience for a digital product, then UI/UX agencies should be your choice. It’s essential to know what you need for your project and make an informed decision.

By the way, which logo did you like better? Just curious — no hard feelings either way! Drop a line in the comments.

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