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With Olivia Pedersen

Building a brand identity on a shoestring

The brand you develop for your climate startup matters from day one. A strong visual identity is key for gaining recognition, legitimacy, and establishing trust, which is pivotal for any business. But when you don’t have the budget to hire a design firm, how can you develop an appealing brand identity that builds confidence in your business?

Olivia Pedersen is founder and CEO of Sustaio, and previously worked as a creative director and graphic designer. We sat down with her to discuss the importance of good brand identity, how to make your design reflect your business’s values, and the best tools for DIY graphic design. You can check out Sustaio’s brand identity at

Why design matters for startups

Design tells the story of your brand or product visually in a subliminal way, where people can inherently relate to (or disagree with) your brand on an emotional level. The visual matter that people interact with on your website - colors, typefaces, graphics, images - helps them understand what your brand represents, and how to relate to the brand, which means they’ll be more likely to build recognition with the brand the next time they come across it in the future. Brand recognition is hard to measure but an important ROI when done correctly. 

People are inherently averse to new things, but this familiarity means they’ll be less resistant to adopting your product or service. This is why consistency is so important in branding - if you break the pattern of your visual identity, you’ll undo this work of making people feel comfortable (i.e. familiar) with your company.

Where to start

As the founder of an early stage startup, it’s especially important that your brand identity reflects who you are as an individual and your values; this is especially true if you’re raising capital and are pre-product and pre-revenue. To connect your personality to a visual identity, start by writing down your mission statement - a simple sentence that explains what you plan to accomplish with your business. This mission statement is your north star, and you can come back to it whenever you feel lost or overwhelmed and need a reminder of your business’s purpose. For example, Sustaio’s mission statement is “to empower people to live climate-smarter”, simple, easy to read, and 8 grade level comprehendible. 

Next, build out your brand values. Think about what you stand for, and define those things in a way that aligns with your company - so, if empathy is important to you, what does empathy mean to your business? It’s OK for the words that come up to be emotional - that’s how you’ll connect with people. 

You’ve now figured out what you want people to feel when they interact with your brand, and this feeling will drive your design choices. Start to relate the words on the page to color, graphic and/or photography style, and typography - you don’t have to be a color theorist to know what impression the color red gives OR if this is really just out of your realm, you can just google “what do colors mean” and find an nice infographic to help guide you like this one. Find what colors best fit you as a person, and by extension your brand. 

Two caveats here: 

  1. Funky, colorful branding might not be the right fit for a B2B enterprise SaaS company setting. This is why even at the earliest phases of designing your brand identity, you should keep your customer in mind. However…
  2. Make sure to do a competitive landscape so that you don't accidentally create an identity too similar to a competitor. Brand identity is a very valuable area to differentiate and niche when beating the competition.

Platforms for DIY design

A common roadblock startups face is the high cost of hiring a designer. But there are inexpensive tools out there for making your business look professional, with little to no skill required. These plug and play tools work great as a placeholder until you get to a point where you can afford a professional.

1. Iconfinder

A cheap marketplace for icons and illustrations. Here, you can download icons and graphics and mix and match them into a logo that suits your brand.


An AI-powered brand identity builder. Once you’ve entered your company name and tagline, and selected what colors, typefaces, and logos you like, AI will generate dozens of options for your brand. This tool is especially useful if you don’t have any experience in design or web development. 

3. Canva

An easy-to-use graphic design tool. On Canva they have endless templates and you can shuffle combinations of color palettes and typefaces until you find one that feels right. 

4. Free Stock Photography

There are many FREE stock photography sites to keep costs low like Unplash, to look polished and professional (enough).

5. Free Typefaces

There are many FREE typography sites to keep costs low like Font Squirrel, to get started with a professional font family.

Other tips for creating your brand identity

Building your website

Once you’ve created your brand identity - including logos, fonts, and color codes - you can put it into action across your website and email. You can build a website in a day using a template on Squarespace, even if you’ve never done any web design before. Another option is Webflow, which is more sophisticated, and both can grow with you as your company expands. 

Deciding on a name, get the Domain!

If you’re struggling to come up with a name for your company, try putting a dozen or so words that you want to be associated with into an online name generator or word jumbler, which will take the letters from those words and scramble them to make new words. 

If a name sounds good but you are not sure if you want it for yourself, buy the domain anyway if it is unclaimed and for a very low cost ($20 or less). You can keep your options open and potentially sell the domains you do not want for a profit one day. Having an SSL secured website and an official domain is the quickest way to legitimize your startup. 

Sweat the small stuff

The details matter when it comes to leveraging design to build legitimacy. For example, make sure your favicon - the little icon in your browser tab - clearly shows your company’s logo. And when you’re implementing your brand’s color scheme across your website and email platform, make sure you use the exact same hex codes every time. 

Go with the flow

Whatever brand identity you build at this stage, you won’t be stuck with it forever, so don’t spend weeks deliberating over which colors to use. Trust your gut - it’s better to have something than nothing, and you can always rebrand once you’ve raised the funds. As long as it’s consistent and clean, roll with what feels right in the moment - and feel free to take risks.

Gut check

Get some outside feedback before you put your brand identity out into the world. Leverage your network and ask anyone with relevant expertise for their opinion - this could be designers, or even just friends with a good sense of aesthetics. Find out how your brand identity makes them feel, what resonates with them when they interact with the brand, and what they think the brand represents. Then compare their answers with the words that you came up with when you were deciding your brand mission statement and values. Do they align?

When you don’t want to do it yourself

One potential shortcut for developing your company’s visual identity is to go to your local college and ask if there are any design students who’d be happy to do it for free. They’ll get a valuable portfolio piece and real-world experience, and you’ll get a creative brand identity made by enthusiastic amateur designers.

Olivia is a creative leader with over 10 years of experience in design, strategy, and consumer products. She has a Master of Arts in Sustainable Design. Over the last four years, in her most recent feat of entrepreneurialism, she has been working tenaciously on her climate tech startup, Sustaio, a consumer technology that pays people to reduce their carbon footprint by taking home energy electrification and efficiency actions. Sustaio has been recognized by Techstars EnergyTech accelerator and USA Today for its approach to human-centered design. Previous to Sustaio, Olivia owned and operated a creative firm, How Collaborative, that designed brand identities, e-commerce products, and marketing websites for consumer brands like Adidas, Columbia Sportswear, and lifestyle SMBs.

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