Madison Ave. Collective

est. 2008

Here at Madison Ave. Collective, we have a tested naming process for creating a memorable name that engages your most critical audiences and positions you for success.

All branding and marketing projects start with questions. Lots of questions. In order to uncover unknowns and proceed with confidence, we recommend starting with a Discovery phase. Learn all about Discovery for your next branding project in this free, 8-page illustrated guide.

From positioning statements to elevator pitches to taglines, here are eight messaging elements you can use to define and promote your business or nonprofit.

Icons often get overlooked. This is probably because their job is a thankless one: Enhance the content without being too distracting. After all, your audience wants to be able to get information as quickly as possible and an overly-complex and beautifully detailed illustration can often distract rather than help. When it comes to icons, they tend to discreetly enhance a layout rather than be the belle of the ball.

(Not sure what the difference between an icon and illustration is? Check out our article.)

So why should you use icons?

Icons are a functional and important part of any marketing piece or website. Being functional doesn’t mean they can’t be beautiful, but icons need to remain simple and, most importantly, clear. Icons are used to quickly draw attention, clarify copy, or point a customer to a certain action or goal.

Icons are also a great way to save on space, particularly for mobile devices where space is at a premium. Think about crazy-long navigation menus. Not great for cramming onto a mobile screen, right? To circumvent this issue, UI and UX designers rely on the beloved “hamburger” menu (three lines stacked on top of each other). Tap the simple three-bar icon and it reveals the navigation menu that, without the collapsible menu, would have cluttered the screen. The adoption of this icon initially grew from the necessity of needing space on mobile and has since found its way onto larger desktop screens (a practice that is widely debated by UX experts to this day).

Desktop and Mobile view of G. Christianson Website

On Desktop, the main navigation is clearly displayed. On mobile, where space is limited, the main navigation is placed under the “hamburger” icon.

Same idea with the good ol’ “search” icon. Rather than have a box that says “search,” which is perfectly acceptable for the large real-estate of a desktop screen, a simple magnifying glass works for mobile and is a widely understood space-saver.

But don’t forget, if you can say something simply with words, maybe an icon isn’t needed. Yes, they can be very useful, but when used inappropriately they can cause visual noise. Don’t put icons on a page just to have icons. Make sure they have a purpose.

So when should you use icons?

First, think about what your icon is being used for. An icon can take many different forms: Is it an icon supporting an important piece of content? A social media icon? An icon that is universally understood? An icon calling for an action, such as “play” or “refresh?” Is it a Favicon (those handy little icons you’ll see on the tab associated with your website in your browser window)? Each icon needs to be treated differently depending on its purpose.

Icons that support copy

Let’s say you have a brochure with a lot of copy. It’s a marketing piece that explains the exciting breakthroughs your company has been involved in. Problem is, the customer is confronted by a big wall of text. That’s not very exciting or interesting.

Icons can be a great way to break up large amounts of text while giving the reader insight as to what they will learn before diving in. In cases like this, icons can be a little more detailed than, say, an icon that is trying to quickly direct you to an action (more on that below).

For example, if a customer sees an icon of a briefcase on your site, they will likely assume it is indicating something about “business” or “work.” Based on common icon conventions, it is quickly understood and there was no need to waste a bunch of verbiage to get the point across. If, however, the icon is supporting a complex idea put forth in the text, it may need another level of detail. This could be a briefcase on top of a globe with a heart over it. Unlike the simple briefcase icon, its purpose is not quite as clear without the text and yet it still needs to be quickly understood. When this happens, a clear title can tie the icon and copy together. Something like “promoting good business across the world.”

Example of detailed icons supporting a complex idea

When icons support copy, it’s best to have a clear title to tie the two together

Above is an example of more detailed icons supporting copy. These are a great way to elevate the message on the page. They draw the reader’s eye in, and quickly support the copy in a simple visual way.

Social media icons

Ah yes, the ever-ubiquitous social media icon. Found on almost all websites and marketing materials, these icons are great indicators of a broader social media presence. There are, of course, the familiar social media icons such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. In this case, check out the media kits and licensing provided by these companies. Often the icon files are free to download, but keep in mind you often cannot change their color (unless it’s black or white) or the icon itself. Let’s face it, you probably wouldn’t want someone changing your logo icon either. So, stick with the rules.

But let’s talk about creating your own icon for social media use. When creating an icon for application on various social media platforms, keep in mind it needs to be flexible and simple. Often icons for social media are designed in the shape of a square with ample room around the corners, since, depending on the social media platform, your logo icon could either be placed in a square, a square with rounded corners, or a circle. It’s also going to be viewed at large and small sizes, so this is where the simple part comes in. An overly complex icon is not going to be very recognizable in a Facebook newsfeed on your phone.

Example of icon in square, rounded corner, and circle formats

Social media icons need to fit a variety of shapes

That said, social media icons are used for just that… social media applications. Whether they are linking TO a social media application, or it’s the appearance of your icon on the app itself, simplicity is key.

Universal icons

Icons can be used to resonate with a global audience when words can’t effectively reach such a broad group. Think about street signs across the world. Without knowing the language, you can clearly understand a warning or message. Same idea applies to a marketing piece or website. If a user sees a magnifying glass on your site, it is universally understood that means “search.” This doesn’t mean, however, that all icons work for a global audience. A great example of this is referenced in a Creativebloq article on icons:

“… in the West an owl stands for wisdom, while in the East it’s a symbol of stupidity. Poor old owl.” — Ruth Hamilton, Creativebloq

In fact, few icons work universally. Think about the Shopping Cart. Seems pretty universal, right? Wrong. That cart is also often represented as a bag, or even a basket. Same goes for the “heart” icon. It can mean “favorite, ” “love,” or “save,” which makes it difficult to understand right off the bat. On top of that, “favorite,” “love,” and “save” can also be represented as a star. When using icons, do your research. What will make sense to your audience? Is it really universal?

Shopping cart, shopping bag, and shopping basket icons

The cart, the shopping bag, the basket … not all icons are universal.

Icons that imply an action

Found everywhere on the web, these are icons that hint at an action the user needs to take. Generally these are universal icons and therefore understood around the world without labels or introduction. A great example of this is the “play” button. Quickly understood and recognized, the “play” button just needs one click or tap, and the user knows that a video or song will start playing. The action is already implied in the icon. Another example is the “home” icon. Click on that icon to get “home.”

Video with "play" button from

Icons like the “play” button easily point a user to an action

While these icons can exist without labels, it is wise to consider adding labels when you can for the sake of ADA compliance and overall clarity.


Favicons are a subtle icon that can solidify the branding of a web page. Take a look at the page tabs at the top of your browser window. See all those little icons next to the page title? That’s a Favicon. Favicons are a subtle reminder of where you are, especially if, like me, you have about 15 tabs open at any given time. Favicons also appear in your bookmarks bar as well as the icon that appears when you save a site to the home screen on your phone.

Example of a favicon in a web browser

Although small, the Favicon can help tie a site’s branding together

A nice cherry-on-top for any website, the Favicon can often get overlooked. A Favicon is actually a collection of many different sizes of icons, used for a variety of devices. There are a couple of ways to approach the Favicon. First, there is the ICO file. An ICO file contains multiple files, all set up to conform to the multiple applications needed for the Favicon. This method works great because all the files needed are contained in one tidy ICO file.

The other option is to save the multiple files yourself or via a generator. Often, my approach is to create a high-quality PNG (in a 64px x 64px square). I then use a favicon generator that takes this PNG and saves it in the 24 sizes needed to appear in bookmarks, URL bars, tabs, and Apple and Android screens. A nice added bonus to this latter method is I can take a few of these files and customize them to be more ideal for their application. Sometimes an image that looks great in a tab won’t work as well as the icon on your Android or iPhone home screen. This flexibility makes this my preferred method of creating Favicon files.

Clearly icons have a variety of ways they can be used. On top of determining which kind of icons you need and why, you need them to match the look and feel of your brand.

What if you want your icons to look special?

There are vast banks of pre-created icons. Whether they are free or charge a fee for use, these icons can be an excellent time-saver for a quick print or web piece. The key is making sure these icons remain consistent throughout as you pick and choose icons that suit the messages you are trying to convey. Or, if you have a designer handy, they can take these icons and adjust them as needed. Not too shabby. Below are a few resources for free icon sets, just be sure to check licensing and crediting:

Often, however, there isn’t an icon that quite matches the message your piece needs to convey in those pre-made sets. Or maybe you have a very particular look you are after in order to match your overall brand. Or maybe your competitor is using the same free icon set (yikes). In such instances, custom is the way to go.

When thinking about custom icons, consider if you need just a couple icons, or an entire icon set. A few icons? Okay. A designer can create a few for your brochure or web page and you are on your way. But what about future print pieces? Future web pages? It might be a good idea to have a repository of icons custom-made to suit all of your business needs for present and future work.

While creating an entire custom icon set is a large chunk of work, it can be a time-saver in the long-run. Any future marketing pieces or presentations already have a ready-to-go repository of icons. This allows for brand consistency and ease-of-use for employees.

Next time you find yourself perusing a website or printed marketing piece, take a moment to look at the icons. Are they clear? Are they consistent? Are they taking too much away from the content on the page? How are they enhancing the content? Are they distracting? See what is working and what is not. Chances are, you didn’t look all that closely at the icons before, but now you can see the subtle brilliance of a good icon set. Even better, you can apply these insights to your next marketing piece or website.

This handy infographic will take you step-by-step through our branding process.

It happens all the time. In just about every meeting with every client there’s a point when words stop working as expected. You say one thing; your client hears another.

Miscommunication with clients is particularly frustrating because as branding designers we are in the business of communication. We pride ourselves in our ability to simplify the complex. We leap at the challenge to transform a mess of disjointed inputs into an elegant output. We labor long hours, fine-tuning our client’s communications in order to ensure their message is easy to understand and easy to act upon.

But then, inevitably, it happens. While you’re pitching that all-important big idea to a new client—or even just trying to describe the thing on your screen to someone over the phone — the understanding of a word gets in the way.

It happened the other day at our office. A couple members of our design team were meeting with an important client who works in the online security space. Our work for this client includes the development of a branding toolkit that includes about thirty icons for them to use in presentations and on their website. In addition to this expansive set of simple icons, we’re also developing a handful of more detailed illustrations for their website. These larger illustrations are being used to support paragraphs of written content about our client’s services and target industries. Together, the icons and illustrations come together to form an infographic we’re designing to communicate the various methods and tools our client uses to keep the Internet safer for everyone.

Problem was, several words kept getting mixed up as our conversation with the client bounced around between different pages of the website and other branding elements we were discussing. When one of our designers began talking about adding texture to the illustrations, it took a minute to realize the client was actually talking about the iconography. And when someone on the client side mentioned the logo could be bigger, we suggested increasing the logotype but keeping the size of the logo’s icon unchanged, given the space restraints. Now wait, which icon are we talking about again?

Backtracking to untangle the word jumbles cost everyone in the meeting extra time and resulted in a wee bit of frustration on my part. But the problem wasn’t a lack of listening. The problem was a lack of agreement about what these words meant by those sitting around the table.

So I asked myself: What could we have done better, in advance of this client review meeting, to make sure everyone was in agreement on the basic definition of terms?

One way could have been through the development of a more comprehensive brand book. In fact, whenever a client hires us to develop a branding system we always recommend including an identity guide or brand book as part of our deliverables. Whether it’s just a few short pages (we call this an identity guide) or something longer and more elaborate (we call this a brand book), the document is a valuable tool that can — when done correctly — improve communication between our firm and the various stakeholders on the client side.

The brand book we initially created for the client described above included some information about the various types of artwork we developed. Unfortunately, we missed an opportunity to clearly define the difference between “icon” and “illustration.” These are illustrations. Those are icons. This is how we use the illustrations. That is how we use icons.

An early draft of the brand book didn’t do this, but we’re now updating the document to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Top nine offenders

Another way to get in sync with a new client is to give them a list of branding terms, with definitions, that you anticipate will be used during your time of working together. Best to do this early in the process — well before you start designing anything.

Below is a list of nine words, with definitions, that in my experience get used (and misused) most often when branding designers and their clients attempt to communicate.

1 | Brand: A brand is a noun. It’s a thing. More specifically, a brand is how someone might describe your organization’s reputation. It’s what your customers think or feel when they think of you. Example: Apple’s brand is about style, while Dell’s brand is about … meh.

2| Branding: The ing tells us that branding is an action. Developing your organization’s logo is an act of branding design. Likewise, the act of applying your brand identity elements (your logo, color palette, fonts, etc.) to say, a brochure or a website, is an act of branding application.

3 | Logo: Unless we’re specifically talking about the mark a branding iron burns into the hide of cattle, your logo is not your brand. Conversely, your brand is not your logo. These two words shouldn’t be swapped around willy nilly. A logo is a distinctive visual mark that represents a brand. It visually identifies the brand in a similar way that a name, when spoken, audibly identifies the brand. Most logos include two elements: 1) typographic letterforms called a logotype; and 2) an illustrated component called an icon.

4 | Logotype: The letterforms of a logo, especially when distinctly designed to represent your brand, are called a logotype. Examples of stand-alone logotypes are Coca-Cola, FedEx, and Samsung. Another word for logotype is wordmark.

5 | Icon: If your logo has an illustrated component that is separate from its letterforms, this part of the logo is often called an icon. It generally will communicate a singular idea, although designers often enjoy packing multiple (sometimes hidden) meanings within a single icon. Synonymous terms are symbol and mark. My advice: whatever word you choose, pick one and stick to it. Big brands with household names like Nike, Apple, and McDonald’s can get away with using an icon alone as a recognizable substitute for their full logo. In these instances, the icon may be referred to as a brandmark.

6 | Iconography: A collection of icons — separate from the logo— used within a brand’s visual identity system can be referred to as iconography. A defining characteristic of the individual icons is that they’re simple. Iconography, therefore, is a set of simple illustrated icons.

7 | Tagline: This is a descriptive statement. It’s a short, useful phrase that’s tagged onto your logo. Its purpose is to describe what your organization does, how people can benefit from your services, or something else that differentiates your organization from others. Below is a logo and tagline developed by the MAC for a company that produces heirloom-quality furniture with a lifetime warranty.

8 | Slogan: This is a marketing statement. There are significant differences between a slogan and a tagline, which I’ve written about in more detail here. Slogans are catchy phrases you could lead marketing campaigns with, and when at their best will make you feel something. Many big brands will change their slogans often (remember Food, Folks, and Fun?), but others (e.g. Just Do It) stick around for years.

9 | Lockup: When a logotype, icon, and tagline (or marketing slogan) come together as a single piece of artwork — and delivered say, as a single JPEG or EPS file —you’ve got yourself a lockup. This word can also be used to describe multiple logos, such as a parent company logo and a sub-brand logo, that are used together.

Well, those are the big ones. Did I miss something from your list of misunderstood design terms? Feel free to copy/paste the definitions above and drop them onto your own company letterhead. Then, pass it around the table at the beginning of your next design review meeting.

This article is also published on Medium.

Branding touches on every aspect of your organization, including who you are and who you strive to be. Use this brand strategy framework to help you begin to articulate who you are as an organization (your brand identity) and identify where you may face gaps or inconsistencies.

We start all new development projects with an extensive research and strategy phase called Discovery, where we develop a deep, nuanced understanding of your organization, offerings, internal culture, values, goals, and audiences. This worksheet is no replacement for a thorough Discovery, but it will streamline the start of your rebrand project by helping you organize your thoughts and needs.

You’ve spent countless hours developing a game-changing technology. You know all the nitty gritty details of its functionality and want to showcase your technical skills and knowledge.

Your website is laden with pages of detailed descriptions, specs, and a chronology of product development.

But, the people aren’t listening. The problem — your granular descriptions don’t compute.

When people visit your website and encounter dense paragraphs, they’re likely to click away. These details matter to you, but they likely do not speak to your customers.

A technology branding strategy will help make your nonhuman offerings relatable to humans.

Technology branding strategies add value

Even if you’ve found the perfect combination of price point and performance, if you don’t have a branding strategy, you’re missing a piece of the formula.

Having a strong brand to lean on will:

How to humanize your technology brand

Brand strategy is a broad topic, encompassing a defined organizational purpose, consistent brand behavior, an emotional impact, and more.

A key purpose of a strong technology branding strategy is to inject humanness into your brand. We can accomplish this by defining your brand personality and the emotional response you want to elicit from your audience.

Consider the following brand personalities and examples to help guide your own brand strategy development, and transform your robotic interactions into interactions that grow customer loyalty.

The reinforcer brand

A reinforcer brand confirms its audience’s perspective. They’re dialed in on their consumers desires and needs.

If you’re serving a particular industry or narrow audience, this is likely your strategy of choice.

With a specific offering that resonates on a deep level, your audience will gleefully form a community.

For example, VMWare, a leading enterprise technology company, offers a diverse selection of products and services ranging from cloud management to data security. Its healthcare solutions target the industry’s needs specifically with digital workspaces, data security, and IoT for hospitals and clinics.

Its brand personality can be observed in its web content, which is centered on use cases and the end user. What you don’t find here is a slew of technical specs and product development history.

VMWare reinforces its relevance by building community with an active social media presence and blog. Its brand is actively aligning its offerings with its consumer’s worldview to build trust and community.

VMWare’s healthcare community

Takeaway: As a reinforcer brand, pinpoint ways to closely tie your offerings to your audience’s needs and desires. To live out your brand personality, integrate messages that encourage collaboration, community, and trust.

The supporter brand

A supporter brand invites behavior modifications or improvements. They’re solving a problem with an innovative solution that asks their audience to make a change.

If you’re a supporter brand, you can win your customer’s heads and hearts with educational resources and inspirational stories.

IBM’s suite of collaboration platforms invites employers to find the tools that empower their people to “do what they do best.” The product video presents complicated technology in an inspiring and captivating way.

Takeaway: As a supporter brand, look for opportunities to help your audience make adaptations so they can successfully use your product or service. Focus your messages on empowerment, rather than product capabilities. Be your customer’s cheerleader.

The challenger brand

A challenger technology brand questions the status quo and offers a groundbreaking alternative. They’re persuasive and rebellious.

Its audience also thrives on thinking outside the box and regularly seeks alternatives.

Slack, a business application, challenged the way teams do work. The founders questioned the logic of disconnected channels and created a centralized hub for all communication and collaboration needs.

Slack centers its brand on the need to change workplace behavior. This message comes through in its product video and social media content.

Takeaway: As a challenger brand, you can activate your audience with a directive to change their behavior. But be tactful. If you’re too pushy, your approach will backfire.

Bridge the gap

Whether you’re a reinforcer, supporter, or challenger, a technology branding strategy can bridge the gap between your human audience and your nonhuman offerings.

Each of these strategies focuses on the end user rather than the ins and outs of the product or service itself.

Choose a brand personality that aligns with your organization, and centralize your messaging on that persona. The result — a technology brand strategy coded for humans.

This article is also published on Medium.

Nonprofits exist to make an impact. And branding can help you deepen the impact you make: clarifying your goals, translating your mission into a powerful story, and bringing your entire organization into alignment.

The importance of branding for nonprofits is well expressed by several notable names, including the World Wildlife Fund, The Red Cross, and Cancer Research UK, all of which are “widely recognized,” as “people from all over the world know what they do and who they are,” said Dan Linn at Solution Link. Why are these organizations well known? — “because they have a great brand strategy.”

Developing such a strategy is a complex task that touches on many different areas, all of which are achievable with the right expertise. What’s often most difficult lies closer to home: getting internal buy-in from your team during the branding process.

Today we’re going to share a simple technique to help you move through that challenge successfully. Before we go there, let’s start by looking at some of the markers of a strong brand.

Building a stronger brand

A strong brand is one that differentiates your nonprofit from others in the same space. One that harnesses the power of storytelling to communicate what you do in a way that inspires people to join in your mission. One that builds credibility by expressing your leadership, your impact, and your partnerships.

To bring these thoughts to life, let’s see how our client, the Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems at Oregon State University, does so.

Example: the Center for Small Farms

The Center for Small Farms hired the MAC to strengthen their brand with a messaging toolkit that included an elevator pitch, several audience-specific value propositions, and extended copywriting appropriate for a variety of applications (such as a website or brochure).

Here are a few excerpts that demonstrate some of the principles we mentioned above.

1. Express leadership

“The Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems is a leader in sustainable, local food production. We’re working all over Oregon to unravel challenges and create innovation in farming communities.”

2. Express impact

“Small farms boost local economies, support the environment, promote public awareness, and build community resilience. And every dollar of support helps us do more.”

3. Express partnerships

“We have partners in every corner of the industry, who trust us because we’re effective and support us because it matters.”

By developing language designed to strengthen our client’s brand, we helped the nonprofit position itself to reach larger donors and pursue its financial goals.

That said, doing good work is only part of the process. How a nonprofit handles feedback within its team plays a major role in determining how successful that work will be.

The buy-in challenge

It’s one thing to hire an agency to partner with you on your branding. It’s quite another to persuade your internal stakeholders on that partner’s strategic recommendations.

Why is it so hard?

The disconnect comes down to a difference in what we know, and where we’re standing.

1. Different expertise

The staff and board of a nonprofit are experts in doing the work of the organization, and they typically care a great deal about that work. Specialists within a branding firm, meanwhile, are experts in brand communication.

Sometimes it’s hard for internal stakeholders to trust external expertise, because it stems from a skill set and rationale outside their own experience.

2. Different vantage point

Internal stakeholders are insiders: they have powerful insight into the nonprofit’s values and offerings. But being immersed also lends itself to blind-spots about how your organization is perceived by those you seek to reach.

Sometimes the creative solutions that meet the needs of your external audiences feel counterintuitive to an insider. When doing the tremendously important work of branding, it’s crucial to see from the outside in.

Seek feedback — not buy-in

The solution to this challenge is disarmingly simple. Change the goal from “getting everyone’s buy-in” to “hearing everyone’s input.”

It’s rare for everyone on a large team to agree on anything, let alone on creative decisions. In fact, perfect consensus can be detrimental to creative work. The most daring, noticeable, memorable, and effective ideas are also the most likely to get cut right off the bat, leaving only the safest and blandest ideas to be getting on with.

Great branding isn’t the result of unanimous committee agreement. It’s the work of small, tightly focused teams with the experience, research, and insight to make decisions that prove their worth over time.

To be clear, it’s vital to include your team in the branding process. As internal experts, their perspectives are invaluable. As ambassadors of your brand, they need to be on the same page about what it all means. And as human beings, they’re sure to feel frustrated if they’re ignored.

Switching the focus from buy-in to feedback addresses all these needs at once.

How it works

1. Seek input early and often

Be proactive about collecting input from those with the vantage point to offer meaningful feedback. Listen well, evaluate how their input aligns with stated project goals, and integrate what’s useful.

2. Reserve the right to make a different decision

Don’t count on getting 100 percent buy-in on any step of the branding process. Allow yourself to rule out feedback that’s off target. Expect some amount of disagreement with your decisions. It’s normal for people to dislike what they aren’t used to; that’s a human impulse.

Remember, the goal isn’t to please everyone on your team, but to make decisions that empower your organization to do its best work.

When you take this approach, beautiful things can happen. Even amid internal disagreement, proactive listening combined with confident leadership can bring an entire team together.

The process in action: the Center for Small Farms

The client we mentioned earlier in this article is a case in point. Here’s how the process went for the Center for Small Farms.

  1. We did our homework: the MAC performed a brand audit, then conducted interviews with the nonprofit’s directors, extension agents working directly with farmers, the farmers themselves, and others.
  2. Drawing from what we learned about the nonprofit’s mission, offerings, lived culture, and audiences, we developed messaging components firmly founded on research and expertise.
  3. We worked with the nonprofit’s directors (a team of two) to fine-tune the messaging.
  4. We scheduled a round-table discussion to present the refined work to the larger team and collect their feedback.
  5. We met with the two directors to review the team’s input and evaluate what we heard. We didn’t incorporate every note, but we did consider every voice and integrate input that served the project goals.

The result was a strong, unified messaging toolkit, which will help the entire nonprofit unify their voice throughout the state of Oregon. And because each team member knows their voice was heard, they’re ready to stand behind it.

Tricky, but worth it

At the MAC we understand how hard it can be for nonprofit teams to navigate internal politics, avoid the pitfalls of committee decision-making, and gather multiple perspectives into a productive consensus. It’s a process we’ve helped many of our clients navigate.

In fact, we see it as part of our job as a branding partner to provide this type of guidance, helping each organization work through their internal process successfully to arrive at a final product that truly serves their goals.

Hard work? Sure, it can be.

Worth every minute? Absolutely.

This article is also published on Medium.