Making Pie: a brand and product at the same time

Sam Hodges & Mark Robbins

Creating a brand system alongside an app design language needs different types of designers. By sharing ownership and working closely, brand and digital teams can challenge each other to make the work stronger. Here’s how that went for an app that makes tax simple.

Working on Pie was a rare occasion: one studio entrusted with both a brand and product language.

We were excited. They were an ambitious team looking to launch a beta app. And they wanted a partner who could coordinate more than one mode of design: a distinctive brand ready to go, alongside a product language which looks and feels engaging down to the most functional moments.

If you haven’t seen our work for Pie, read on to find out how we made it, or check out the case study first.

Exploring the possibilities

Following a strategic deep-dive, we uncovered the proposition, ‘it’s your money, claim it’. We started the design work, as always, by exploring and identifying the most promising broad territories with the Pie team. Using sketches and references we pushed into different ways Pie could express itself: ownable moments in the app, illustrating data and encouraging customers to engage.

As our first review of visual work with a client, here we’re looking to gauge what’s landing. At this stage, ‘no’ is as useful as ‘yes’. It’s a safe space for exploration, to test ideas and learn what gets everyone excited. Doing this well means we go back to the studio, empowered to build out routes with a strong sense of direction.

We uncovered some promising angles to take into our concept: making tax easy through ways of visualising data, democratising tax knowledge and motivating people to take charge of their accounts. Notably, there was a need for an injection of colour to energise the experience and present tax in a way that would stand apart from the category.

Defining a brand concept

With insights gathered, it’s time to land an overarching concept that will define all decision-making within a new brand’s world. This foundation forms a way to measure anything we make. Everything within the brand language and product system will ladder back to the concept, informed by our strategy.

We put together three approaches for Pie that responded to the discussion findings. The first was utilitarian and product-driven. It made data beautiful and simple, by stripping away any excess, giving centre-stage to the here and now.

A brand concept needs to serve as an approach and a toolkit for creating actual products and experiences. If it can’t be useful in that way, it shouldn’t exist beyond this point.”

The second route was built on people, personalisation and empathy. It empowered the different kinds of people who do their taxes. Tax knowledge was usually reserved for financial advisors but, by using plain terms, personalising and contextualising, that knowledge would belong to everyone.

Our third was inspired by the pie chart itself. With the gift of the name, we looked at how creating clean divisions can organise, segment and resolve a complex world into something bite-sized. Everything complicated could be broken down. The Pie team got really excited. They felt this had an energy that took tax to a totally new place.

Pushing design rigour through the concept

The next stage is critical for everyone involved. A brand concept needs to serve as an approach and a toolkit for creating actual products and experiences. The digital team’s user journey work is combined with the brand team’s development for the first time. This is where we see the work becoming more tangible. If the brand concept can’t be useful in that way, it shouldn’t exist beyond this point.

It was the time to put the Pie brand concept through the rigour of a product design process. Our digital team were tasked with how it could come to life as an interface, and started to solve app and website problems. How could the segmentation concept have a function? Interactions, motion language and full pages were all covered.

The dashboard experience required a lot of functionality and organisation. This is where we started to really test and develop how layout, hierarchy and interactions could work uniquely for Pie. As we established that, we uncovered opportunities for the product to have memorable interactions and moments that become ownable. Assets, colours and a visual approach gave enough variation for various data. Through this testing we also found we needed more depth and contrast in the visual hierarchy.

Adding depth and brand distinction

By this point, we had a basic framework through our pages. But, with only a basic set of parts, it was feeling a bit flat. Crucially, we’d built up a clear idea of what was missing, so by bringing the brand team back into the fold, we worked together to develop solutions.

One example is how colour moved on. We switched to a dark background for moments of focus, with a vibrant secondary palette. This palette had to be consolidated to work through brand textures, as well as a functional set of colour pairings in our data visualisations. We continued to extend the visual language, with typeface, iconography and photographic direction laddering back to the brand concept of divisible segments.

Thanks to this feedback loop between teams, we were testing brand decisions through the product and locking the successes into our system. The digital team pushed the brand to solve tangible design challenges, while the brand team pushed the digital team to find something distinctive in every moment.

Testing the product with Pie

This was a milestone in the project. With a design language driven by testing through various product moments, we could move into the next phase.

Working in weekly sprints with Pie’s head of product, we focused on designing the various moments across the app, building a component library as we went. We worked through app intro screens, onboarding, dashboard, invoicing, refund processing and more. Checking in twice a week, we’d share progress, handle feedback and take on briefs for upcoming pages. As we built up our shared library of work, the Pie team were empowered to test, extend and feed back new requirements as needed.

As our work drew to a close, we stayed in close contact with Pie’s team, occasionally arranging ‘reverse shares’ where the team would show us what they’d made. They’d bring their design challenges from the week and we spent an hour working through a few approaches together. By this point, it was crucial for Pie’s design team to have ownership, but to have support as they ramped up with the new toolkit.

We hope this example adds some detail to how brand and digital methods can combine to make a project more successful. You can read more about our approach here, and check back for more deep dives coming soon.

Sam Hodges & Mark Robbins

As Digital Design Director at Output, Sam (he/him) brings experimental thinking together with a deep understanding of product usability, to ensure the experiences we create are as functional as they are beautiful. Mark (he/him) joined Output to take our brand work to new levels of creative craft. As Associate Creative Director, his deep-dive articles show how creative thinking can solve complex problems, change behaviour and create meaningful impact.