A four-year journey to a full brand refresh and more
Senior Visual Designer
A company’s brand is crucial, reflecting the values of a business, and represents the image customers will associate with. The brand increases loyalty and engagement with existing customers, and gains influence by attracting new ones.
Founded in 2009, SmartBiz Loans offers a unique combination of an online SBA and term loan marketplace and a bank-enabling technology platform that matches borrowers with the bank most likely to fund their loan. So when I was offered the role with SmartBiz Loans in early 2018 to take their brand to the next level, I was ecstatic.
I passed on other similar roles in the fintech space because to me, SmartBiz was a blank slate that needed the most design help and where I could have the biggest impact.
It was almost overwhelming, as every single touchpoint needed an experienced designer's eye and a strategic thinker’s business sense. But as I’ve said before elsewhere on this site, I love a challenge. Having been a business owner I can confidently say I was well-suited to understand the pain points small business owners experience, and that background may have given me an edge over other candidates who interviewed for the role.
This was a brand new role in a very small, fledgling team, a role where I could be an experienced design mentor to two UX designers with varying degrees of UI design experience. The role was as yet undefined when I joined in 2017, so I ended up writing my own job description.
Given the massive amount of projects I worked on over the course of 3 years, I thought it’d make more sense to break it down into logical categories.
Elevating the Brand
The first step in upgrading the SmartBiz brand was to take stock of every single piece of communication, branded or not. The existing look, tone and feel was dated and not very aspirational. SmartBiz already had a vibrant palette of secondary colors that were seldom used, but I leaned into them and made them the prime players. Once the design rules were established, I developed brand guidelines that defined our photography, how and where we use illustrations, and how do we carry this visual language forward into product design so that everything, external as well as internal, begins to take a unified shape and feels like a part of a design ecosystem.
Putting together a Brand Guide seemed like a good place to start to document this.
I worked on dozens of individual communication pieces that included:
- Business cards and letterhead
- Sales Sheets and White Papers
- Tradeshow banners and recruitment materials
- Swag and employee gifts
- PowerPoint and Google Slides decks
- And finally, a major website redesign and a new Design System
SmartBiz before the brand refresh
After the brand refresh
MailChimp EmailsIllustrated headers
www.SmartBizLoans.comWebsite brand refresh and design system
Partner Assist AppLoan processing software (SaaS)
Sales Sheets and White Papersfor customers (top) and bank partners (bottom)
Paycheck Protection ProgramLoan application page
Customer Success StoriesLarge-format posters
Developing the Design System
I could write a very long essay about developing a Design System, but you could find a hundred Medium articles about the same thing. A Design System (DS) requires a big time investment for designers and engineers, but the ROI is huge. When the moment came to design and build an entirely new website, it was clear that this was the right time to build the DS and construct the foundation for the Product designers to leverage.
A static website is relatively easy, so developing the components that could be mixed and matched in creative ways was challenging and a delight to explore. I did have the fantastic luck of collaborating with one of the most brilliant (dare I say genius?) full-stack engineers I’ve ever met. She has a rare eye for design and understands why I need a range of spacers in 10 pixel increments. Before you think I expect pixel perfection, I don’t. The web is fluid and will never render the same on any two devices. This much is true. As I tell my QA team, I don’t need pixel-perfect, just pixel-approximate.
There’s still a lot of documentation left to do, but site updates happen so quickly now that we’re able to make enhancements faster and keep our content fresh on a regular schedule. I know that some companies have entire teams devoted to their DS. I’m proud of the fact that we built this system with two people.
If you want get into the weeds and see how it was done, head over to our Storybook Design System and see where we ended up.
Creating a Culture of Design
Design is a collaborative process, and one that requires participants outside of the design team. I enjoy being a catalyst for people, so I created monthly events bringing in design friends and colleagues to speak to the Product and Design teams. Our guest speakers included illustrators and printmakers and artists from Pixar who came to share their craft with my team. It was something that hadn’t been done before. Sometimes you need to step away from designing banking software and have a little fun with your peers, so these monthly events were a great opportunity to socialize and see what other creatives are doing.
SmartBiz new office graphics
Part of creating culture was doing something about the space we occupied. When we moved to our new office, our Director of People Ops asked, “should we hire an interior designer?” Absolutely not! I’ve done event design before for Intel and love to think in 3 dimensions, so I proposed budget solutions to dress up our office, spec’ing paint colors in line with our brand palette, frosted privacy scrims for conference rooms that doubled as signage, and fun wall murals. The new décor was a huge hit and served to further cement our brand. After coming from an all-beige office, it was exciting to see my cohorts respond so positively to a new office space that was full of color and light.
To be honest, I don't think the above image does the work any justice. It's simply a composite visualizations done in Photoshop. The COVID pandemic locked us out of the office space since early March, so final photos are not currently available as of this writing.
Research and User Testing
Being a small team means we all need to do tasks that are outside of our wheelhouse. In the past I would have worked with researchers to test and validate assumptions, but I was always the helping hand and quick sketch artist and never the lead.
At SmartBiz I was able to perfect the art of writing a product hypothesis and testing plan, and then analyze the results. No one on the Product or Marketing team has the time to go over a dozen user test video reels, so assembling it all into a high-level presentation for key stakeholder was important to communicate results and move projects forward.
Download a sample Discovery Deck and User Testing Analysis.
This zip file contains a PowerPoint presentation with embedded video and is 24mb.
“She possesses a great blend of user experience, visual design, and business strategies, consistently over-delivering on everyone’s expectations. I know I can trust her to bring only the best work forward.”
— Laura Vecchione, Senior Project Manager
“I always enjoy working with Suzanna on projects because I know that I am working with a reliable and smart designer who gets it. I am confident that she will provide designs that look great and are easy to work with.”
— Thomas Lough, Senior Front-End Developer
“Every design she delivered was not only on time, but also gorgeous, well-organized, exactly what the client needed and desired.”
— Lise LaTorre, Lead Engineer