Suppose someone told you that you have 30 minutes to create a perfectly-cooked Beef Wellington.
If you’ve never heard about it before, a Beef Wellington is a filet of beef tenderloin that’s carefully assembled with liver pâté, mushrooms and onions, then wrapped in puff pastry. Yeah, you’re going to need a recipe. And once you have that, you’ve got to make sure that the ingredients are just right.
Creating brand communications pieces is kind of like cooking such a multilayered dish. You’re constantly going to need a set of rules, instructions, and a complete set of assets (ingredients) to make sure that the flavors stay true. That’s where the brand style guide comes in: it provides a clear handbook to share your brand’s visual symbols, value story and communication strategy.
I’m going to walk you through how to navigate it. In the meantime, here’s a handy checklist you can use to get your branding materials in order once you finish reading.
What a Brand Style Guide Isn’t
01. Style guides are not just for corporate brands.
Your personal brand can benefit from establishing consistency, and this document helps achieve just that.
02. Like recipes, style guides are not set in stone.
They are living, evolving sets of instructions that creators use as a baseline to interact with your brand. If a designer decides to try a new twist on the recipe, and it ends up tasting amazing, consider incorporating that new insight in your guide. Allow for some freedom when reading these guidelines, as the marketplace rewards lean brands that incorporate feedback quickly. Keep this close to heart: a style guide is not an excuse to stop innovating.
03. It’s not only about print design anymore.
If you look at a style guide from the 70s like Massimo Vignelli’s Graphic Standards Manual for the New York Metro, you’ll only find guidelines for print materials, including outdoor and indoor signage and instruction manuals. However, the Internet brings unique challenges in terms of how brands portray themselves and convey their messages. Instead of focusing exclusively on print design, your brand’s style guide should now consider web-based applications like icons, avatars, grids, banners, online ads, social media imagery, and many others.
Who uses a Brand Style Guide?
Brand Style Guides contain the basic elements, rules and considerations that companies of all sizes (including sole proprietorships) put in place to establish a consistent presence across various channels. Think about your favorite brand and how it uses visuals to tell its story in different mediums. Chipotle, for instance, has built a brand around the idea that “food served fast doesn’t have to be a “fast-food” experience”. Accordingly, they’ve designed multiple small reminders (i.e. brand applications) that reinforce that story:
It is evident that brand applications impact your customers’ perceptions. The way your brand is portrayed in your stationery, ads, web assets, and many other pieces affect their understanding about the value that your product/service offers. In-house designers, therefore, will definitely need a style guide to make sure that these impressions are consistent. However, there are many different outside groups that will also benefit from some clarity with respect to your corporate identity.
Think about the many different stakeholders that need a concise guide to apply your brand:
01. Are there any partners that need to apply your visual identity as part of a collaboration?
Mobile app stores, for example, must interact with developers to brand their marketing pieces. Both the Google Play and Itunes stores offer clear brand guidelines to deal with endorsements and availability badges.
02. Are any press members interested in covering your story, and will they need brand assets?
Always be prepared for press coverage! Brand guidelines can help reporters get a clearer picture of what they can/can’t use to share your story with others. If necessary, launch a specific site for press members to obtain any images, files or copy that they might need to make a better job at speaking about you.
Pinterest excels at giving reporters several handy tools and resources:
03. Will you be hiring different agencies and designers to create pieces for you in the future, and wouldn’t they benefit from a single visual language?
Let’s face it: even if you are getting most of your design work done in house, there’s a high chance that the people who work with you will change over time. Designers are in high demand, and spending decades within the same company is becoming more and more atypical. To make sure that your brand can stand the tests of time, create a corporate culture of reading, respecting and updating your guidelines. This is a best practice to procure consistency: no matter who is holding the mouse at any given time, those designs will come along looking like they came from the same place.
Starbucks is one of those companies that has to deal with a wide network of agencies, designers and an entire in-house creative team. The packaging concepts below, which applied their basic brand guidelines, were led by different designers within their team over two different Holiday seasons. We are left with the idea that, despite being two different concepts, they belong to the same brand. If you look closely, you’ll realize that coffee bags in both designs feature a centered Starbucks logo. You’ll also notice how none of the bags/boxes are green, to allow their main corporate color to stand out. The Verismo and VIA® ready-brew badges are also placed in the same spots. The list of consistent design elements goes on.
04. Would you like to maintain a consistent internal communications identity, and wouldn’t a clear handbook facilitate that for your team members?
Not everyone is a designer, and strong brand guidelines accommodate even for those who lack the skills. If you’ve been on a college campus lately, and stared at any given bulletin board for enough time, you’ll probably understand the following: universities can be a scary place for brand guidelines. Faculty and students use bright papers, unauthorized hand drawn or ornamental fonts, illegally downloaded images, among many other elements that we’d rather not learn about.
In the example below, Stanford University presents their identity.stanford.edu site: a space where everyone can access simple information about the way to use brand assets properly.
10 Ingredients Every Style Guide Should Include
The more comprehensive your style guide is, the easier your stakeholders will find it to apply your brand in different marketing materials. Just try to remember the last time someone sent you a single file (logo, usually) to design an entire piece around it. Didn’t you have to think hard about that one? Having someone create marketing materials around an isolated logo is like asking them to whip up a Beef Wellington and handing them a tenderloin. Where are they supposed to get the other ingredients that make the recipe (i.e. your brand) what it truly is?
From YOU, that is. They’re supposed to get them from you. And here’s a handy list of what they should receive:
01. Brand story
A clear overview of your brand’s vision, values & personality. A strong brand story helps unify your message around certain core beliefs. Think about your story as the foundation for all the visual symbols and growth strategies that your company will put in place.
These guidelines, developed by The Velo Group for Shake Shack, reinforce the brand’s central story: a natural, unassuming dining experience with fresh burgers (with no hormones or antibiotics ever), hot dogs, fries, frozen custard cones, and amazing shakes.
Seth Godin expressed the importance of a brand story brilliantly:
“Yes, every brand has a story—that’s how it goes from being a logo and a name to a brand. The story includes expectations and history and promises and social cues and emotions. The story makes us say we “love Google” or “love Harley””.
Lindon Laser, the designer behind timeless logos like Fedex, once revealed that his secret involved striving “for two things in design: simplicity and clarity. Great design is born of those two things.”
Simplicity and clarity are our best allies not just for designing logos, but to successfully present them for others to use. It is our responsibility to make sure that brand usage instructions remain clear, and that they can be understood by those who read our guidelines.
This section should include a detailed explanation of the different versions of your logo: black/white, horizontal/vertical, colored/white/black backgrounds, with/without tagline, among others. Also include web-ready versions such as icons, thumbnails and avatars. The entire document should be supplemented by a folder with the original files for these assets. While “original files” may be defined loosely, it generally involves attaching:
01. A vector rendition of your various logo versions (.ai, .eps, .svg) 02. High-resolution raster versions of your logos (.jpg, .tiff, .pdf, .png)
03. Color palette
Include a description of the primary and secondary color tones associated with your brand. While this varies, most brands select between 2-4 primary colors and complement them with a secondary palette of 8-12 more. Sometimes brands will go as far as to include an extended color palette, which offers many other tonal options. Secondary colors can be subtle variations on the main palette: These palettes often include neutrals like a white, a gray and a black hue. Always include print, screen and web color equivalents. For print, include CMYK and Pantone references, while screen and web are often defined in RGB and HEX codes. Finding it hard to convert a HEX code to Pantone or other equivalents? Try http://rgb.to/.
04. Typography scheme
Most brands select a single, main typeface to use for all marketing materials. This typeface is often an extended font family, with various weights and styles. In your guide, illustrate how the various styles can be applied for items like titles/headers, subtitles/subheads, paragraph titles, emphasized text, captions and body copy. Consider if this typeface can be used in web materials, or select an alternative web-friendly typeface if needed. Also include one or two alternative typefaces to be used in case your first choice isn’t available.
Explain how creators are supposed to handle logo white space and placement. If possible, expand on how text should be laid out using web and print grids. A strong web grid system will help unify your online presence, particularly if several developers have to apply your identity in different online marketing materials (landing pages, full websites, email, among others).
What do your brand’s buyer personas look like? What do they like/dislike, what is their lifestyle like, and why are they after your product/service? Define the audience for your marketing materials using as much primary research as you can (in-depth interviews, ethnography, among other techniques). Some external sources can also provide valuable secondary research data points to help refine these personas.
Connecting with your audience deeply will help you establish and communicate a unique position in the marketplace. Good design aims for effective communication. At the end of the day, we build brand guidelines to guide the way in which a message is shared with the audience that needs it most. But, what is it that they need? How often? And why do they need it?
Staig and Tomlins, the authors behind Technography, explain that the ability to align our brand communications with “genuine customer needs, motivations and desires is widely held as the way to differentiate brands in an increasingly competitive marketplace.” Learn to listen, and you shall be listened to. Take some time to design buyer personas based on real insights from existing/potential customers. Your brand’s guidelines and every single piece that comes out of them should be tailored to respond to these listeners’ needs and desires.
When these marketing materials are created, what type of language should your brand use to address the audience? Are there any specific words or vocabulary that should be used? What does your brand’s voice sound like in regular conversations? These decisions help set the stage for user experience design, marketing materials and many other touchpoints in the customer’s journey.
08. Supporting graphics
Decide how photography, patterns, backgrounds & iconography play a role in portraying your brand’s visual identity. Which kinds of images best support the values and vision defined in point A? Are there any particular icons that should be used across the board? How will complementary patterns/textures help convey your message?
09. Sample applications
Give readers a clear idea of how collateral, stationery, merchandise, ads, signage, web content and other marketing materials should look like. The point here is not to mock up thousands of potential applications, but to give stakeholders a general perspective about how these brand assets should be applied. One thing is to give them a bunch of ingredients, and an entirely different thing is to show them sample completed recipe photos. By the way, here’s a Beef Wellington:
As you think about potential brand applications for this section, keep in mind that they should relate to the different stages in your customer’s journey. In other words, your brand’s visual elements should assist your product/service’s core functionality.
Consider the following example, where Virgin Atlantic decided to bring the brand to life in non-traditional applications like socks, eye masks and toothbrushes. We’re used to seeing airline brands on boarding passes, signage and uniforms, but beauty/amenity kits are a definite departure from the standard. These applications made sense for Virgin Atlantic’s strategic business move: making flying a significantly more pleasant experience for travelers.
As you just saw, maintaining a consistent brand identity across different channels is deeply related to experience design.
When a brand’s visual assets like typography, color and imagery are combined to create pieces that make business sense, their impact becomes truly evident for stakeholders at all levels.
In Steve Jobs’ words: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Take Whole Foods Market’s well-known chalk signs. While it is a design decision to bring that hand drawn brand element into the store, it also makes sense to convey an eco-friendly practice like reducing paper waste. We love them, and they undoubtedly look great, but their real success lies in how connected they are to the brand’s story. The same goes for their seasonal eco-bag collections: on brand, aesthetically charming, yet deeply connected with the company’s mission to save the planet.
Bottom line: whenever you are tasked with designing a brand application, consider how it can positively impact every business function and customer experience stage.
A brand’s visual guidelines are merely tools to bring your business model to life.
10. What NOT to do
Sometimes things go wrong. This section explains what that means. One of the main issues designers face when creating a brand style guide is believing that everyone just gets the aesthetic that they were going for. False. You need to be able to articulate what that look & feel is all about, so that anyone, anywhere on Earth can apply this identity system and have it be consistent with the original plan. Don’t assume that people know what colors go/don’t go well with this brand, or that your logo shouldn’t be laid on top of a rainbow. Be clear about:
Whether your logo can be bent, twisted or inclined Whether it can be embossed or beveled What kinds of backgrounds it can be laid on top of. What are the rules for busy, vibrant or similarly-colored backgrounds? Whether the logo’s colors can be changed Your policy on adding shadows and glow Whether people can add a colored box to create a badge with your logo Whether shapes inside the logo can be reconfigured or resized Establish a minimum size for your logo’s text to be legible
The Brand Recipe Book (A Style Guide Template)
At this point you are probably wondering how on Earth you will manage to fit all of this in a simple document. That’s where I want to help. Using Canva, I created a handy style guide template that you can click on and start editing right now. Just click on “Remix” to get started.
The Brand Recipe Book is a style guide template that includes all of the sections outlined above. It is structured as a presentation, so feel free to either print it or display it in your next meeting. If you need more than one sheet for items like buyer personas or sample phrases, just duplicate the slide clicking on the icon to the right.
The Recipe: Bringing Ingredients Together To Craft Stunning Marketing Materials
Now that you have a solid (yet flexible) recipe to communicate your brand, it’s time to apply the guide to create stunning marketing materials. Want to learn more? Read more here: The marketer’s guide to designing a memorable brand. Happy reading/ designing!