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6 Essential Elements of a Useful Style Guide

If you’re in the design business, you probably have mixed feelings when someone mentions the words, style guide or brand guidelines. Your mind probably pulls up one (or both) of the following instances:

  • Sparse, unhelpful, or nonexistent style guides, where you get caught between three arguing sections of corporate, who all disagree about whether or not their logo can be placed on black
  • Lengthy style guides that could just be published as a novel-length book (NASA’s 220 page Graphic Standards, anyone?)

If you own or manage a brand, style guides are an absolutely critical part of building and maintaining your brand. A style guide is the Declaration of Independence of your brand—it declares your mission and purpose to the world while setting down some guidelines on how the brand works.

Essentially, style guides (also called brand guidelines, visual identity guidelines, and brand style guides) list all the rules and regulations that a business establishes about their brand, such as typefaces, colors, logo, photography, written voice and tone, and more. Some style guides are extensive (like NASA’s). These more extensive guides include more than visual details—they also include core information such as the brand equity and audience.

Unfortunately, designers are often trapped between two different approaches: micromanagement or boundless freedom. When a business micromanages their brand, the design team has trouble releasing their full creative potential. And when a business doesn’t use a style guide, the design team must take extra time to establish a foundation to build from.

Why should you use a style guide?

While a business might feel like they’re functioning fine without a style guide, it’s important to take a closer look at consistency throughout the different mediums, such as websites, business cards, brochures, and so on. Do they all use the same fonts, colors, and styles? Also, if a business hires externally for a design project, the lack of any guidelines adds quite a few unexpected pain points.

A longer time at the drawing board

The design team has to do all the initial research into the client’s style and voice themselves. This lengthens the project timeline.

Internal and external miscommunication

Often, the design team will ask questions the client isn’t prepared to answer. The client sometimes takes a long time to decide on the answer, and even then, the design team may receive conflicting answers from different sections of the business.

Excessive revisions

When a design team doesn’t have a style guide to work from, the only alternative is trial and error. This may lead to multiple revisions and can lengthen the project timeline.

Lack of consistency

When there’s no set rules to go back to, the website may use a different design and voice than the brochures. This leads to a disconnected experience for the audience or end user.

So what does a good style guide look like? We’ve created quite a few style guides for our clients, and working on these projects has shown us a few basic elements that most style guides share. So, here are the six essential elements of a useful style guide—straight from the Maestro design team.

1. Logo usage

A logo is the face of a brand. It comes in a certain size, shape, and color (or colors). Because it’s the face of a business, it should stay recognizable regardless of the medium on which it’s placed. Take a quick look at Dropbox’s straightforward logo rules.

What designers want to know about logo usage

  • Size. Are there any restrictions regarding size? How small can it be? How large is too large, depending on context?
  • Color(s). What colors are the logo? When do you use those colors?
  • Placement. Where should the logo be placed? Top left corner? Centered on the bottom edge?
  • Usage. When should the logo be used? Is there a smaller variation that’s used in certain situations?

Creativity crushers for logo usage

Try not to micromanage color use. For example, it might sound nice to have the logo only in white, but this means designers can’t ever place it on a white background. Now, the designers can still make something amazing, but a lot of great designs will be scratched before even seeing the client.

2. Brand colors

Brand colors often overlap with logo colors, but brand colors are more extensive. These cover many of the colors you use with the logo, typefaces, iconography, illustrations, and patterns. They can also affect photography as well. But it’s important to note that while a brand can have a color palette, that doesn't limit color usage entirely. You can still use colors outside the brand palette. The brand colors are just the colors you want your users to recognize at a glance, such as T-Mobile’s trademark magenta. It’s also a good idea to brush up on your color types. For example, RGB and Pantone are color types that are bold and brilliant on screens, while CMYK and Hex create beautiful colors in print.

What designers want to know about brand colors

  • Primary palette. The main colors behind the brand in Pantone, RGB, CMYK, and Hex
  • Support palette. The accent colors in Pantone, RGB, CMYK, and Hex

Creativity crushers for brand colors

Micromanaging the brand colors, having a small support palette, or assigning certain colors to certain mediums (such as only permitting blue in print ads) can severely limit a design team’s creative reach. Try to give your designs enough creative freedom to win your business the Clio Awards.

3. Typography

There’s more to typography than picking a font and sticking with it. Most companies use two or three fonts to add emphasis to headers and headlines. Now, you can still use one just fine—check out how the Irish Red Cross uses Helvetica Neue. Most fonts come with an assortment of weights (line thicknesses) to help achieve clarity and visual hierarchy.

What designers want to know about typography

  • Official typefaces. What is the main typeface(s) used by the brand?
  • Font weights. Does the font come in thin, bold, extra bold? Are there any restrictions?
  • Acceptable alternatives. What alternative fonts should be used as backup?
  • Usage. When should one font or font weight be used instead of the another?

Creativity crusher for typography

Fonts are a lot like dancers—they work best in pairs. The more you add, the more chaotic your brand becomes. And for the sanity of all designers, please don’t advocate the use of overused and abused fonts, like Papyrus or Comic Sans.

4. Iconography, illustrations, and patterns

Sharp digital screens open up a whole new world of possibilities for icons, illustrations, and patterns that add to (rather than distract from) your brand. For example, the architecture studio March, uses a subtle dot pattern to accent their media with a geometrical flare. And Dropbox gets out of the box with their warm and witty illustrations. Just like brand colors, these icons, patterns, and illustrations reflect and represent your business, so it’s important to list out some guidelines for them.

What designers want to know about iconography, illustrations, and patterns

  • Style. What mood or feeling do you want to convey? Whimsical? Sharp and modern?
  • Colors. What colors and color combinations are acceptable?
  • Usage. Do these icons, illustrations, and patterns go in certain places on the website or other media?

Creativity crushers for iconography, illustrations, and patterns

While it’s important to set some rules, try not to get too detailed when determining which illustrations or patterns go where in what colors. Give your designers the freedom to mix and match patterns, illustrations, and icons in ways that make your brand look its best.

5. Photography

Does your business use original photography for everything? Or do you have a company library of stock images? University of California, San Francisco provides simple guidelines for photography, including access to an online photo library and rules for original photos.

What designers and photographers want to know about photography

  • Standards. What’s the required style for photos?
  • Subject matter. Are the photos science and innovation themed? Or perhaps nature and exploration focused?
  • Posed vs. candid. Do your subjects smile at the camera or each other?
  • Lighting. Are the pictures taken under dramatic lighting, natural lighting, or perhaps studio lighting?

Creativity crushers for photography

Photography is an art, so if the photos follow the basic rules, try not to micromanage the creative aspects of the photography. Give your photographers the freedom to try new things and push the limits. Great creativity often arises from the unexpected.

6. Brand voice and tone

Your brand voice is more than whether you sound whimsical or professional—it needs to tie directly into your brand story and your audience. Most importantly, your brand voice should be consistent, regardless of the medium. Because design and content go hand-in-hand, make sure your entire style guide is written in your desired tone. If your business has a lot of unique rules for writing, you can also create a separate style guide just for written content (like Mailchimp’s widely celebrated content style guide).

What designers and writers want to know about voice and tone

  • Brand equity and mission statement. Start with the basics. Who is your business, and what is your purpose?
  • Differentiators. What makes your business different from everyone else?
  • Audience. Who are your people, and how do you want to talk to them?

Creativity crushers for voice and tone

A content writer’s nightmare is corporate jargon. Unless your business is highly technical, it’s good to let the writer find a balance between a professional and conversational tone. Using too much corporate jargon is a good way to both lose your audience and your differentiators.

Extra tip: length

Style guide length varies greatly, but dropping a 200-page guide on designers is a great way to see some fixed smiles and glazed eyes. Now, if you’re a larger business, it makes sense to attach a few more rules to your brand standards. Urban Outfitter, I Love New York, and easyGroup all keep theirs around 50 pages—even Apple’s style guide is 48 pages long (take some notes, NASA).

What do designers really want? For simple, visual identity guidelines, the Maestro design team’s answer is 5–10 pages. That’s one page per essential element—two pages max. Quality, meet concision.

Walk the talk

Does your brand have a style guide? How does it compare against this list of six essential elements? Does it encourages creativity and out-of-the-box thinking?

Take some time to sit down with a design team and take a good look at your style guide. Or, if you don’t have one, contact a design team and start brainstorming.

Just remember the following key point: try to communicate your verbal and visual identity in a concise format—one that gives designers and writers a foundation to stand on, while also giving them the space they need for creative freedom.

Your style guide shouldn’t just state the brand rules, it should demonstrate them from beginning to end.

Exceptional design is our game.

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