We know the importance of branding and the value it has for every business. Once an organization has established a brand, how does it ensure that the brand is consistently displayed throughout all of its marketing materials? This is especially important for large organizations because many different people will be involved with showcasing the brand in their own ways:
Marketing teams will be sharing information about the company and demonstrating the brand in ads, on social media, or on the website. Product teams will have to consider how the brand dictates what the product looks like and how it functions. Even internal operations teams need to be aware of the brand as they make decisions about policies, equipment, and employee engagement. To consciously brand a company means making sure everyone in the organization is on the same page.
A brand style guide is how brands maintain consistency by providing examples of the visual brand including the logo, typography, colors, and images. But beyond the visual nuts and bolts of how a brand needs to look, a brand style guide should include context as to why all of those visual elements were chosen. This ensures anyone can understand what to do and not do when creating content for the organization.
Brand style guides are great tools for any size organization, even as small as an individual freelancer because they not only keep your brand consistent, they make visual design more efficient since you don’t have to start from scratch on every project. That being said, the style guide should not be seen as a creative blocker, it is a living document that can evolve as the brand matures. Here are five steps for creating a brand style guide for you or your clients:
At its core, the style guide shows the visual elements of the brand and how they should and should not be used. Some style guides are only nuts-and-bolts visually technical and assume the reader knows the “why” behind them but including information like the brand’s mission, vision and audience only adds context for the user. As you build your style guide, consider your audience just like you would for a product or website and ask yourself: who might use this style guide years from now?
A litmus test for a good brand style guide is to imagine you printed it out and put it in a bottle and threw it in the ocean. Years from now and miles from here, a designer, copywriter, or head of marketing could find this bottle (we’ll assume they are on vacation) pull out your style guide, and be able to produce assets and content that match the brand. If you’re going to set them up for success, you need to include context and the “why” behind what’s included in the guide so that anyone can understand the brand without being taught it by another person.
Put the mission and vision and any other similar context information at the start of your guide, generally right after the cover page or table of contents if you have a large guide. Give the mission and vision their own pages so there is plenty of room for them to be absorbed and build on one another as the reader goes through the guide. Putting them on their own page also establishes how important they are. Also, don’t be afraid to add an introduction to the style guide with instructions about how to use it, especially if it is in the brand’s voice (we’ll talk about this later).
While personas are not traditionally included in the style guide, including information about the customer/user/audience is important context to share. You can include full persona bios or even just a listing of who the brand is targeting. If a brand sells funny t-shirts you would assume its customers are pretty broad (funny people, in general, perhaps?) but if you know the t-shirts are designed for expecting mothers and that’s what the jokes revolve around, all of a sudden you have a lot more information about the brand and why the visual brand choices have been made, right?
If a brand loses sight of its audience or never updates who they target as the origination grows, it’s easy to stray from the brand guidelines or misuse them.
A brand’s voice is often overlooked section in a brand’s style guide. Remember, it’s not just visual designers that are going to be referencing this guide, there are other roles in the organization that need to reference the brand’s requirements. Include a section on the brand’s voice that clearly states how the brand should feel to its audience. This can not only inform what images a designer chooses to include on a flyer but also the way a copywriter describes the product on that same flyer.
Include a page that lists words used to describe the tone of the brand. These need to ride the line of being both abstract and specific. Let’s look at the word modern. When you think about the word modern it can be left up to interpretation by anyone but it does directionally tell you something as a designer. If modern is included in the voice of the brand, you’re probably not going to be allowed to use a serif font or design the home page to look like a retro 90’s website, right?
You might even go so far as to establish the brand’s voice through the very brand style guide itself in how it is designed and written. Skype did an amazing job of creating a guide that IS an example of how to use their brand voice.
If you were not part of developing the brand, you might find this step tricky but it’s an opportunity for you to offer value to your client. If you’ve been tasked with building the style guide for a client, review the elements they do have (they SHOULD have a mission and vision, product, and the other aspects of the visual brand we’ll talk about in the following steps) which can give you some clues.
Once you have reviewed any other context you have about the organization, take a stab at listing some descriptive words that describe that brand, this might even warrant cracking open a thesaurus. Then, share those with the client and explain the importance of brand voice. See what resonates with them and if they see the value in including this kind of content. Getting a few people from the organization involved can be a great exercise in unifying the organization because it forces them to express their interpretations of the brand and find a shared understanding.
Now it’s time to put in more tactical elements of the style guide, starting with the logo. If you look at the style guides of big brands like AirBnB’s style guide from 2018, you’ll see they have multiple pages dedicated to the logo and how to use it. That’s because the logo is such an important part of a brand and gets used in many different ways. If you think about a company and all of the functionalities of that organization, their use of the logo is going to expand infinitely. It is only a matter of time before someone uses the logo in a way that actually diminishes the brand.
Add examples of correct use of the brand in different scenarios to help those teams understand how the logo can be manipulated. What does the logo look like without its typical color, what if it needs to be white or black? A style guide focuses on what to do right but there are many brand style guides that also show what not to do which is a really helpful way to ensure those using the logo truly understand what is and is not allowed.
The brand colors and typography should have their own dedicated pages as well to give the viewer a clear understanding of how each component should be used.
Last but not least is imagery. In these sections, you’re showing not only what kind of imagery can be used but also how it is displayed. If the brand uses live-action images and illustrations, show examples of both. Imagery is something that is going to be used a lot on all design materials and therefore has the potential to be misused quite easily. In this section, you need to share not only what kind of imagery is acceptable (illustrations versus live-action photos) but the content of those images.
Some brands need to take imagery very seriously and like typography or color, use images only in certain situations. In this example from Jamie Oliver, you can see how if the brand only shared that they use the image of this person but did not stipulate “dos” and “don’ts” it would be easy for someone to misuse photographs for this brand.
A brand style guide is a living document and should be something that is updated when appropriate. When is it appropriate? Updates shouldn’t be made so regularly that it’s unclear as to which is the latest version of the brand but you also shouldn’t be afraid to make changes as the brand matures.
Perhaps the use of photography shifts and you do need to add a stricter set of guidelines around image use or you discover design elements that resonate better with the target audience. These should be small shifts or added details to what already exists as appose to changing the logo every six months.
Building your design style guide in a sustainable way is important. If it’s cumbersome to make changes in its first iteration, you might be dooming your future self with headaches when it comes to simple updates. Make sure you come up with a good naming convention so people know they are referring to the latest version and make sure your client distributes this in a way that’s accessible to the entire org and other vendors who are generating visual content.
Also, don’t reinvent the wheel. There are lots of templates online you can start from and they may even provide inspiration for you about what to include in the style guide. Check out Figma for great templates others offer for free and save yourself some time.
Lastly, don’t overengineer it by choosing to build it with a program that’s overkill for the task, especially if others without design experience are going to maintain this in the future. If it’s easier for whoever will be managing the guide to use Canva or PowerPoint, do it! It’s more important that the guide is accessible and updated than what program it is built with, at the end of the day, most people will consume it as a PDF anyway.
A brand style guide is in some ways the product of a branding exercise and if that’s all you are putting together for your client, that’s great, but you could also be a part of defining your client's brand. Branding is a service you can absolutely start offering your clients today though it might feel intimidating if you’ve never done it before. If you’re a designer or have a background in marketing or sales, you’ll actually find branding to be an amazing set of exercises that unify an organization and help them succeed.
There are a ton of free resources online about how to run branding workshops or produce collateral like brand style guides but if you really want to get serious about offering this service, take Flux Academy's Brand Design Mastery Course and you’ll be able to offer even more value to your clients.
This handy E-Book will help you pick the right color for every occasion