Build a human-centered brand: an interview with Nela Dunato

7 min read
Oliver Lindberg

Branding advice for corporations and startups doesn’t work for service-oriented businesses, such as freelancers and creative agencies. Croatia-based independent logo, brand, graphic and web designer Nela Dunato suggests growing meaningful relationships with your clients and your audience instead.

She feels so passionate about the human-centered brand that she doesn’t just give talks about the subject at conferences like WordCamp Europe, she’s also written down everything she thinks a small business owner should know about branding and turned it into a book, aptly named The Human-Centered Brand. We caught up with Nela in Belgrade.

What’s a human-centered brand, and why do we need it?

ND: I work primarily with small businesses, which offer services. I realised that the way we market and brand service-based businesses is quite different from the way we market products. When you offer services, you have a direct connection with the client. You work intensely with them and build up a relationship, so the human-centered brand is focused on that specific way of relating to clients: you train yourself as a person with your own personality, including character traits and quirks. You’re trying to connect with clients that are a good fit, and that’s really important. You need to have a similar value system and a compatible way of communicating. So my approach to branding is focused on removing the corporate persona.

How can that help you find better clients?

ND: When I ask clients how they found me and why they decided to work with me, they often say they saw my website and that I obviously know what I’m doing but that I also seemed like a really nice person they could relate to. If you’re paying several thousand pounds for a service, you want to be really sure that you’re making a good decision. Whenever you want to buy something, you read the reviews, right? You’re trying to decide if this person is the right fit or if you’re going to regret hiring them later. There are a lot of trust issues.

So showing that you’re transparent and relatable and that you have a human side makes them feel safer. It makes it easier for them to approach you, and it’s important for clients to know what they’re getting into. They’re going to get a feeling of what’s working with you will be like. The way that you communicate on your blog or on social media, your videos and your blog posts, your services pages – they should really give a potential client a sense of how it’s going to be. That’s what helps you to make a connection with those people who really resonate with you that way.

Have you got a specific onboarding process for your clients?

ND: It took me a few years to develop. For example, I always ask my clients to fill out a form, a short questionnaire, so I can see if it’s even a project I can help them with. Then we have a Skype call or a real meeting and see if the core personalities fit before we decide to work together. I also have a document, a guideline, that I send them, so they can read what the process is going to be one step to the next, as well as business policies, so they can decide if they’re on board. Later all of that becomes part of the contract. It’s all written in a language that’s really conversational and easy to understand.

What are some common mistakes designers do when creating a brand for a client or a small business?

ND: Any kind of templated approach is just not going to work. You have to approach each business individually. Their core values and underlying principles are important to communicate because it’s what the customer sees and interprets. We all do it. You see a logo and form an idea of what the business is like. Is it an expensive or a budget business? Is it eco-friendly? Colours and textures tell your story, so we have to be mindful of these shortcuts. We really need to make a decision that’s rooted in the client’s approach. The way they speak to their customers really needs to harmonise with the way they present themselves visually. It all has to connect and make sense as a whole.

What’s the first step to creating a successful brand?

ND: First, the client needs to decide on their values and what they want to communicate. So I ask them what matters to them and their customers. I don’t think it’s really interesting if you’re creating a hair salon logo and you put scissors or a comb on it. That’s too literal. You have to understand the deeper value that you’re giving to your clients or customers, and this is where we can draw inspiration from. The more stories the clients give us, the better. A company that has been in business for a little while can show you examples of work and then the designer can pick the essence of these stories and tell it in a visual way. Designers are essentially translators. We get the verbal information and turn it into visual information. We mustn’t be satisfied with superficial answers but ask deeper questions, so we can get deeper answers and interpret the deeper message.

What kind of tools and technologies do you use to build a human-centered brand?

ND: I usually start the process with the logo and the visual brand. I create a logo and brand style guide as a PDF and then I turn it into a visual style guide for the website, which is static at first and includes all the different styles that we’re going to use, so that the client can go there and see what is available, when they need to make a change. I also make a WordPress mockup, which is more like a naked wireframe. It’s just content with placeholders and then I code this visual style guide into a real working website.

How do you attract constructive feedback?

ND: It’s really important to set some boundaries. Clients usually don’t have much experience, maybe this is their first design or website project. Try and find a point of conversation to get it started. And try go guide them. Ask them direct questions. For example, if you think about your target user for this website, how do you think they’re going to respond? How do you think they’re going to feel? Do you think they’re going to find their way around the page easily?

Try and put the client in the mindset of the user and also ask them about their business goals and targets. If they say ‘it’s too blue’, try and find out what it means for them. What is it that bothers them so much about this colour?

You have to guide the conversation and be a very skilled interviewer. Everything about the process is really about helping the client feel safe. Take their hand and guide them through the process because if they don’t know what is expected of them, then how are they able to do it? I really find it helps to ask them very specific questions and to give them examples in writing to show them what kind of feedback I expect.

The Human-Centered Brand – A Practical Guide to Being Yourself in Business is out on 30 July.