Graphic design is all I have ever known. After graduating in Visual Communications in what was then the DIT College of Marketing and Design and working for a very brief time in Dublin, I emigrated as most of my generation did. My move was to London, where I got a job as the in-house graphic designer for a small social issues publisher. That publishing house was part of a larger charitable body called the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, NCVO. As the years progressed, I became the in-house designer for NCVO, still working for the publishing house but also for the many other small charities under the care of NCVO. I worked alongside a print buyer, and between us we created every piece of visual communications which included a monthly magazine, many books, exhibition design, and many many brochures and annual reports. This job is one that I firmly believe gave me the grounding I needed for setting up CUBE Design.

In 2008 Ireland was in the beginnings of a recession, and that is when I decided to start CUBE Design. A strange time to start a new business, but there was always the thought that Walt Disney started around the time of the great depression. My drive was my creativity, after building our own house and raising two kids, I wanted to build something where I could satisfy my creativity, and continue to raise my family. CUBE Design was in good company in 2008 as it was also the time when AirBnB began. We may not be at the dizzying heights of Disney or AirBnB, but my measurement of success is the respect we have achieved with our wonderful clients and connections in those 13 years.

What CUBE Design does is solve the visual identity and communication problems for ambitious small business owners and leaders who care about the perception of their business and their customer experience.

We work best with businesses who might be changing focus, pursuing business growth, taking over the family business or those that find themselves competing on price instead of their value. Typically the business is either between the start up and growth phase, or growth and maturity phase.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
It is often the case that a small business owner starts out with little or no budget, and developing their brand is the last thing on the list. They usually decide they need a logo and a website. The logo might be something they pulled together themselves, or got a friend’s son or daughter who is in art college, or ‘good at drawing’ to do up a logo for them, or they bought it online. The website is usually done by a web developer with no brand sensibilities but the site works brilliantly in terms of the technical and functional aspects. There is usually no consistency between the logo and the website, and no thought process about how the product or service is perceived by the target audience, and often there is no definition of who that target audience actually is. Mistakingly the business thinks because they have a logo and a website that they have a brand. This is not the case. A logo and a website does not make a brand.

That can all be fine for a couple of years, but seeing this time and time again breaks my heart as I know this is doing small business owners more damage than good in the longer term, and they are making it more difficult for themselves. They are setting up to fail. Their ‘brand’ they think they have created is ultimately going to let them down.

Why do you suggest these businesses were ‘setting up to fail’?
The reason I say this is for a number of reasons, but at the most basic level, your business will not survive unless you design it from your customer’s perspective. Your customer needs to have a trust in you, and if your brand is in consistent and unprofessional in how it visually presents itself, you will lose trust from your audience.

Our vision is our strongest sense, we respond to emotion more readily than facts, and our subconscious mind, where our feelings and emotions live, is making decisions about what we see before we become aware of those decisions. We become aware when our conscious mind takes that decision and puts it into a sentence or belief. This is where brand strategy comes into play and can be a powerful influencer for the perception of your brand and in how you build that trust with your audience.

A brand is more than a logo and a website, it is about authenticity, differentiation, culture, perception, brand values, and why does all of his matter to your ideal client. A brand is when you can bring all of these elements and more together in a comprehensive way that makes sense to you your audience in a way that they value. Clients will pay for something they value. A brand is about building your value and showing it through the visual identity and your messaging. It is all about perception and building trust. A logo here and a website there is not going to do this for your business.

Branding is a hard concept to grasp at times. It is something intangible that cannot be easily measured with numbers and metrics. But branding is very powerful, and our subconscious mind is a strong influencer on our decisions.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to a small business starting out?
My advice would be start with brand strategy, it is the best investment you will make in terms of building a solid foundation from which you will grow. Then any logo design or website you build will be based on that foundation, and you will have clarity and direction. Yes, start up ideas often change shape, but if you know your purpose, the reason you want to do what you do, who you are doing it for and why it matters to them, then any change will be guided by solid brand building principles. I always say to clients they should always ask themselves will a particular action help or hurt the brand. When you have your brand strategy to guide you, this is easy to answer.

What is the difference between branding and marketing?
Branding is often confused with marketing, but branding is NOT marketing. Branding is the piece of work that is vital to truly understanding why you want your business to exist beyond making money, who you exist for, and why it matters to them. It is the groundwork that is done before you go into marketing. Marketing is about taking that brand strategy work, and the design tools that are developed from it (your logo, brochures, website etc), and creating marketing plans which promotes and sells your business. The brand is the understanding and reason for being, and the marketing is about the transactions of your business. A brand will give clarity and certainty not just to your business but also to your marketing plans.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The worst piece of advice was when someone once told me my business card, which is of course is a square card, was no good because it would get lost among other cards. When the objective is to stand out and be noticed, my square card has got me so much business over the years, I’m glad I listened to myself.

The best advice was from my business coach, who gave me so much good advice, but one thing that made a huge difference was to get out off my kitchen table and into a studio. I am now really enjoying my third studio on Pottery Road in Dún Laoghaire. It is the place where I can be truly creative, and a space that has welcomed so many great clients, and inspired so many successful projects.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Over the last couple of years I have been privileged to work with the global leader in brand design, Marty Neumeier. Marty began his career as a graphic designer and copywriter, working with the likes of Apple, HP, Adobe and Google. He is the author of all the most concise, and in my view accurate, brand books and the person who changed how I run my business. Marty recently set up Level C a training programme which aims to help other designers trigger meaningful change. I am now working on Brand Architecture with Level C, moving from brand strategist to brand architect, and the client I am working with is Dr Oetker. My attitude is to always be learning and improving, which then feeds into my processes that help my clients to grow and improve their businesses.

How has Covid impacted your business?
Covid has forced me to think of other ways to deliver my services. Prior to Covid my services were mostly face to face in the studio, workshops were always in the studio. But I can now deliver all my services and all my workshops online as well as face to face. I have also been very busy during Covid helping businesses to influence the perception of their business for the better, as they were no longer allowed to meet face to face they were relying more heavily on their digital presence, which was not a strong one. To take advantage of the covid twists and turns I have also helped a couple of clients to rename themselves which has been very positive for them.

One other thing I have been working on during covid is a new business in partnership with my business coach, where we aim to support the next generation of young entrepreneurs. This new business will be launching in the next couple of months, and is called Flipp Angels.

Barbara Monahan, MIDI
Brand Strategist and Designer
Creative Founder of CUBE Design

October 28th 2021

Image courtesy of David Murphy