A step-by-step guide to creating a style guide for your startup

Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré
Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré

Creating a style guide for your business is integral to the branding process. Your style expresses so much about you - your value to customers, what you care about, the emotions you wish to convey, the experience you hope to provide. It’s every wish you have for your business, visually expressed.

And, once you decide on your vision, you have to keep it consistent so your customers can spot you a mile away, on a billboard.

Details matter.

One recent example you may not have heard about: Airbnb just went through a substantial re-styling - complete with creating their own font, Cereal.

cereal_font-airbnb
Airbnb

So much thought, planning and strategy went into designing these deceptively simple letters that will go on Airbnb’s website, billboards and all other branded material.

Embedded in the simple shapes is a brand story that’s anything but simple - in fact, it took designer Dalton Maag two years to complete the font’s alphabet (albeit in 12 languages and counting).

From Co. Design:
Dalton Maag usually starts its design process with a series of workshops to uncover the emotional qualities it’s trying to express. . . . Airbnb was unusually self-assured of its own brand; what emerged was a desire for something clean, but with enough quirk to exude friendliness.

The result is a font that is friendly, approachable, fun and cheerful—it’s as un-intimidating as you can get without resorting to Arial (or, heaven forbid, Comic Sans).

Details like font, logo and color scheme are all contained within a style guide.

House of Who, a San Francisco Bay Area design firm, has worked with companies including ebay, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Disney and more. And their Senior Designer Bill Murray was kind enough to explain where they begin when the client requests building out a style guide.

Step 1: Understand exactly what a style guide is and does

A style guide is a list of directions and images that help people in your company and outside of it represent your brand’s visual identity accurately and consistently.

Basically, it’s responsible for ensuring that your brand is recognizable anywhere, by anyone.

As Bill Murray explains:

“Once you've already invested in creating a beautiful logo, or if you become responsible for a visual identity that has a lot of brand equity, it's incredibly important to your overall brand to ensure your visuals are accurately communicating who you are."

Mistyrose Glasses Fashion General Media Kit
Navy Teal Modern Photo Press Kit

"A brand identity is only as good as it appears in context. Style guides help brand managers make smart choices about where, when, and how a brand identity appears in the world. This is critical for keeping a brand consistent.”

Which means you don’t want someone misrepresenting your logo, whether by accident or on purpose.

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Image from The 46 Craziest Chinese Counterfeit Products

Most brand misuses are accidental, but all erode your brand’s integrity. Your style guide’s job is to prevent that by explicitly showing and explaining what your visual representation needs to look like.

Step 2: Start with the logo

White Simple Home Furnishing Logo

Bill Murray says:
Always start with the logo. A logo is the keystone of a brand’s visual identity—the center from which all other design decisions follow. Once you make the crucial decisions, like how much white space to have around the logo and how to use it in terms of size and shape, then you can move on to addressing design elements like color and typography.

And, it’s not just one logo you have to choose. A full brand identity typically includes multiple logos for use in different contexts, all of which are immediately recognizable as your brand.

At minimum, you need:

A primary logo: The core logo design that every other design will be based on. It’s the identifying mark that’s unique to your business, like Nike’s swoosh.

Secondary logo: This takes your primary logo and arranges it so it’s more flexible for use in a wide array of contexts. Maybe it’s a simplified logo, or a vertical one instead of horizontal, or one that fits your social media profiles.

Neat Restaurant Logo

It’s easy to select a logo template in Canva and customize it for as many variations as you need. Here we took our Organik logo and simplified it into a secondary logo for use on social media.

Step 3: Make your style guide ahead of time (and stick to it)

Bill Murray says:
Make your style guide way ahead of time and stick to your rules. And make sure that everybody who has access to your visual identity files knows how to use them properly—it's not just for designers. A style guide should always be about how to communicate your brand clearly via visuals, so make sure to address questions like what types of colors and backgrounds you're allowed to use.

Your style guide is not just for designers—it’s for anyone who wants to use your brand on their website, in media publications, on blogs, etc. Which means that you either have to limit access to your visual identify files, or teach people how to use each type of image.

Foursquare’s style guide gives detailed rules for each of their design elements, including a lengthy introduction to the “Brand Idea”.

foursquare-brandguide
Image from Foursquare Brand Guide

Their list of brand identity must-do’s include:

  • Logo specifics
  • Clearspace & sizing
  • Usage
  • Improper usage
  • Logo mark
  • Social icons

Notice how they include “improper usage.” In fact, their guidelines include just as many Dont’s as Do’s. For example:

“The Foursquare wordmark should be used in the main Foursquare blue or white. The wordmark should never be used in the Foursquare Pink. Black can be used in rare situations but should generally be avoided.”

When creating your brand style guide, consider how you don’t want your logo to look and give examples.

foursquare-brandguide-02
Image from Foursquare Brand Guide

As Bill Murray says, your style guide’s number one job is to clearly tell people how to properly represent your business visually.

Working with a designer, you can specify how your brand looks down to the last detail of how closely your logo’s letters are spaced.

But you don’t have to be that detailed. The more details you give and the more explicit you are, the less room there is for error.

For large brands, or businesses that are scaling quickly, it’s important to get these things right, every time. For smaller, more casual businesses, it may not matter quite so much if the shade of pink in the logo that appears on an interview with the founder isn’t exactly #FF69B4 (the html code for hot pink).

Once you’ve decided on your logo and your color scheme, create a style guide. It doesn’t take long and it will help ensure you’re always looking your best.