Branding for intranets is not black and white

By: Tamsin Standford
Date: May, 2015
File under: Articles

Recently I had a conversation with a graphic designer who is creating a visual design for his organisation’s new intranet.

He asked me a question I haven’t been asked for years: “why can’t the intranet just look like the website?”.

It’s been a while since I last had to defend an intranet having its own look and feel, and when I took to some of my trusty intranet sources to see how my views compared with others, it seems I am not alone.

I’m a firm believer in the strength and importance of maintaining and protecting a corporate brand. But at the same time, I also believe that an intranet should not look the same as the website, since its fundamental purpose is different.

That’s not to say it should bear no resemblance to the corporate identity, but I see multiple reasons why the intranet should have a different-but-complementary look and feel to an organisation’s public-facing channels:

  1. Colour and design are visual prompts: Visual design is a key element that supports quick recognition of a platform. Staff often use both internal and external information for their jobs so making the intranet look distinct from the website means staff are less likely to mistakenly think internal information is suitable for public consumption.
  2. Informal’ encourages collaboration: A contemporary intranet has a huge role in supporting ideas sharing and problem solving across the organisation. Presenting a social networking platform with a very corporate, external appearance does little to foster the kind of innovative thinking and creativity you want.
  3. You’re not selling to your staff: Your employees already know where they work: if they don’t like your intranet, they can’t simply switch to a competitor’s intranet so don’t sell to them with hero image or banners that are not relevant. Intranets can easily contain 10 times the content of a website, so real estate should prioritise the content and functionality over the design.
  4. Colour palettes need to be broader: External branding palettes are often restricted to one or two colours to support recognition by consumers – think ‘Coles’ or ‘Ford’, where a single colour dominates. In the absence of some flexibility and options for colour, design elements and brand assets for internal use, it’s common for the business to try and develop a unique look and feel for every initiative to make them stand out from the rest.
  5. The intranet is part of your staff culture: The intranet is a reflection of the culture of your organisation and therefore the people who work there. Think about whether the same brand attributes or keywords apply internally and externally. It’s not about making the intranet ‘fun’, it’s about making it something staff like and trust.
  6. It sends the right message: Investing in a brand for the intranet – among other aspects of what makes a good intranet – sends the message to staff that it is an important channel, and their experience as users is important.

Developing an intranet design is not easy. While most people can be objective when they are dealing with wireframes or black and white prototypes, add some colour and iconography and everyone becomes a design expert.

So what do you do if you’re faced with the same question I was?

Firstly, check out your internal communications style guide. If existing channels such as the staff magazine, e-newsletters or posters are considered ‘on brand’, it makes sense to use them as a starting point.

If not, see whether your branding or marketing teams are supportive of creating a separate identity, which includes the visual design but also icons, tone and language. Explain that you want something complementary to the external brand, but also appropriate to the purpose of an intranet.

For some of my favourite Australian intranet designs of the past few years, not being corporate has been integral to their success. Bupa’s ‘sunshine and trees’ design, City of Casey’s ‘Boris’ character, and the RSPCA’s ‘Daisy the cow’ are distinctly different from the external brand, but are liked, trusted and most importantly used by staff.


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