Designing a VC Brand
The story of how we designed Jovono’s brand
This is the story of how we designed Jovono’s brand and a meditation on branding in general. We hope that explaining how we approached our branding might be helpful for you as well.
The Base Layer and Logo
A lot of VCs have brands that are kind of boring. We set out to be different from the start. We hired Liliya Kriulina to design our brand.
A brand needs to capture the values of your company, and your first exercise is selecting words that represent those values. Ours were growth, investment, positive change, authenticity, creating value, and futurism. It’s essential to start here because you want to subconsciously evoke those connotations. Even if you fail to evoke these things, the exercise of writing them out is helpful to hone your own focus. While we wanted to look futuristic and progressive, we still wanted to evoke professionalism and execution more than fun.
The first big deliverable is the logo. Logos are the heart and soul of a brand. They communicate what you’re about and, for most people, it’s the only part of the brand they’ll ever see. For that reason, it’s the first substantive piece of branding you have to create because everything else is built around it.
The first important decision on this path was deciding the colors and fonts that our logo (and, indeed, the rest of the brand) would use. We wanted a color that would stand out, have positive associations, and look good both digitally and in print.
One trend we wanted to avoid: VCs love blue. So much blue. Almost as much as social media companies.
We get it. Blue is a soothing, neutral color that looks good in most contexts. But we didn’t want to get lost at sea. We aren’t a consulting company or a bank.
Quite a few VCs seem to like green as well. Makes sense — it’s the color of money and Sequoia. But we wanted to be different, so we threw that one out. Some VCs also use red, but we stayed away; while it invokes passion it also connotes losses, so we didn’t want people to “see red” every time they looked at us. That left three “standout” colors: yellow, which is just too hard for most people to see; orange, which doesn’t match with most colors and when printed too dark looks brown; and purple, which is what we ultimate went with.
Purple evokes royalty, empowerment, and unconventionality, all of which accord with our stated values.1 We chose a brighter, more electric shade similar to Han purple to (1) give the brand some energy in electronic formats, and (2) have a margin of error in case a printing runs dark. We also chose to keep green and red as secondary colors for charts, flowcharts, and other objects in presentations and documents.
For fonts, we chose to use Montserrat, a sans serif, for most of our assets. We wanted something that popped at every text level but looked highly distinct at different weights, and hence header levels. We also use Oswald for certain stylized elements and subheaders. We do use Georgia, though, as a serif font for document bodies because it goes well with the Montserrat header elements.
With those base elements in place we went on to design the logo itself.
From the start, we noticed that VC logos were mostly in one of two categories: wordmarks, like Andreessen Horowitz and Benchmark, and “square with side text,” like Founders Fund and Sequoia. There are also a few firms that just don’t fit the mold, like Kapor Capital and Jerusalem Venture Partners.
A lot of wordmark VC logos are custom fonts that combine letters or involve unusual cuts. Some of them look good; most of them don’t. We included a few strong ones below.
The problem is that it’s quite challenging to design a brand that’s built on a wordmarked logo; you mostly work around it because it is ultimately text, not a design. Furthermore, fonts introduce issues of readability, so creativity and utility end up being in tension —not a good incentive structure for branding, which is probably why most wordmarks are ugly or boring, even in fashion. So a wordmark, even one with a custom font, was out for us.
We noticed a common but subtle bit of flair that we did want to incorporate: a lot of VCs have “up and to the right” hidden in their logos. It’s the VC version of “there’s an arrow in the FedEx logo” and we loved it.
Much like the old Lux Capital brand identity, we drew on images and concepts from science and technology, especially in areas transformed by software, to construct the Jovono logo. Some of our allusions include chromosome maps, box plots, rockets, electronic circuits, and audio waveforms. While Jovono’s logo doesn’t specifically call back to any one of these shapes, when you see them side-by-side the inspiration is clear.
So, with that, we went to work. After three rounds of drafts, we had our design.
When building anything, whether a product or website, you have to start with the intended use. Most VC websites are basically marketing sites, though there are exceptional examples, like YCombinator and Andreessen Horowitz, that are also resources for founders. The key question you ask when you build a marketing site is: who’s the audience and what do you want them to learn? The VC answer is multifaceted.
You’re appealing to founders, first and foremost, who are doing diligence on you to see whether you’re a serious player and whether you might be a fit for them. But you’re also trying to look good for journalists, who might want to cover you, and potential investors, who might start their diligence with your website. Thankfully, though, all three audiences basically want to answer the same three questions:
What’s new? Users want to know about recent developments and see indications of the vitality of the firm’s venture practice.
Who’s there? Perhaps the most important part of the site involves communicating the entities involved, both at the firm and in the portfolio.
How good is the firm? Things like site build and interesting blogging are all indicators of firm quality, though the correlation is somewhat weak. This question clearly interacts with the previous two.
While at a high level all three audiences want to answer these same questions they are not always looking for the same answers, which means that attention to detail is crucial for the detailed elements of the page. For example, when looking at the portfolio page, founders are attempting to gauge the companies a VC has invested in to see if they are good fits too in terms of stage, technology, industry, or even geography. For that reason, for instance, it is important to show stealth investments with a brief description, even though the other two audiences don’t care much. Journalists and potential LPs, on the other hand, are mostly looking to see the portfolio construction and, especially, exits, so indicators for liquidity events matter more for these audiences.
The first question for the design itself: what’s the general vibe?
We decided to go with a light theme. The dark theme is overwhelming and the heavy blacks overshadow our attempts to highlight the brand color with subtle purple accents. The crisp whites also give a more professional feel than the dark theme, which felt more like a consumer brand.
We also decided to use a modern architecture motif. The idea is to evoke modernism while also subtly connoting building something, and building something big at that. The website uses Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, which also, to those familiar, evokes ideas of harmony and symbiotic creativity through symphonic music.
With the overall design, we blatantly took inspiration from the websites of Founders Fund, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Ribbit Capital, whom we judged to be the gold standards for polished VC sites. Nevertheless, we were careful to apply our own twist and communicate our personality.
At a high level, most VCs have the same common content, like a portfolio page and a news page. You see this a lot, for example, with SaaS websites, almost all of which have the same 3-point above-the-fold homepages and a few standardized pages with common names, like “product,” “pricing,” and “about.” People know what they’re looking for; why confuse them? Similarly, while each page on our website has its own twist (for example, we have “You” on our team page because we’re on the same team as our founders), we saw no need to reinvent the wheel.
One unusual thing: unlike most VC sites, we chose to state our principles. The idea seems to have started with Founders Fund, which has a manifestothat is essentially an extended version of Peter Thiel’s lament in Zero to One that we wanted flying cars but got 140 characters.2 Writing a whole essay like Founders Fund’s seemed unnecessary, but just putting out a vision statementlike Social Capital’s seemed too barebones. We went for a 1337-word middle ground we call a charter, outlining our 14 principles3 with explanations of what we mean.
The backend is a clever solution to our constraint that even an intern should be able to update the site. We hired CTRL.LA to build our website, and they came up with the idea of a Heroku app with an Airtable backend. That means every page with updatable content, whether news, portfolio, or team, is just a spreadsheet line away from being updated with minimal effort. It’s pretty cool.
In addition to the standard services like GitHub and Slack, we used two helpful tools in building the site. One is called Zeplin, which lets designers upload CSS designs that specify things like font weights and hex codes to better communicate with the tech team.4 The other is ZenHub, which has tools like kanban boards that integrate directly into GitHub. We highly recommend both.
You can see the final product right now at jovono.com.
Once we had our brand we made some fringe assets. After all, what use is a brand if you don’t apply it?
We went with a very clean business card. Our cards have email and phone only, partially to reflect our global nature and partially because most other services people would want to use to connect, like Wechat and LinkedIn, are connected with your cell number or work email anyway. We also used spot UV to raise our logo on the cards. Due to our logo shape, the idea is to subtly invoke “raising the bar.”
We also invested in presentation materials. We have our own stationary, a custom pitch deck with hand-picked stock images, and a custom pitch book cover usable for Word and Powerpoint. We have theme files (.potx, .dotx, and .thmx) that any partner or analyst can import and use within minutes. Plus, we made stickers!
The benefit of having a design language should clear in the above image. All of the assets feel consistent. It also will make it easier if we want to create more assets in the future, like mugs, additional stickers, luggage tags, or anything else.
Oh, and one more thing… we made thank-you cards.
Expressing gratitude is core to success, both in business and in life. We wanted something that was (a) more personalized than See’s chocolates, and (b) more scalable than buying gifts individually. Eventually, we realized that custom thank-you cards would do the trick. The inside is intentionally blank; while the card is custom to Jovono, the inside is always hand-written with care and appreciation. It’s also unique to us, which makes a meeting with anyone at Jovono more memorable.
So What About Your Brand?
Here are the key takeaways you can use for brand, whatever your startup is:
Know who your audience is and what they want. Tailor your aesthetic and assets to that.
Try to stand out in the context in which you’ll be seen, whether that’s an unusual color or a unique asset.
Know who you are and what inspires you, and build your brand around that. Start with your base and logo.
Get fringe assets! If you’re getting a branding package it usually doesn’t cost much extra.
Pay attention to the details.
Perhaps one reason for this is that purple is the color that occurs least in nature.
But now we have 280 so, uh, innovation.
The atomic number of Silicon.
One great consequence of Zeplin is that it allowed us to have an excellent but nontechnical designer and an excellent web team with no designers and have effective, specific communication between them, thus speeding up the process and allowing for division of labor.