Whether you are an in-house design department, independent design boutique, agency or studio, having a solid set of brand guidelines is an invaluable resource to draw upon—putting basic design decisions on auto-pilot and letting you focus on the bigger picture. Even if you typically work independently, formalizing your fundamentals in a brand guidelines document can be a great asset when dealing with contractors or other temporary workers who need to get up to speed quickly and accurately in order to move a project forward.
The most important elements of a typical brand can be defined in as little as a dozen pages, although deeply diversified product lines and sub-brandings may require some extra attention to help keep things clear, especially if the guidelines are to be used by a large team. Those guidelines need to be detailed enough to control critical elements, while also being concise enough to make them easy to use and follow. Examples can be a huge asset here, as they help illustrate the key principles of a brand in practical use.
When preparing your guidelines, start by answering the questions below. While most of this article is written about “your” brand or logo, it applies equally well to a brand guide that you are helping develop for a client or partner company.
Logo usage and placement
You probably have more than one version of your logo, so where and when is each appropriate to use? How much space should be maintained around the logo? What compromises can be made when limited colours are available or when using the logo at exceptionally small sizes?
Many brand guidelines also include a page or two of what ‘not to do,’ with examples of horribly re-coloured, skewed and bitmapped versions of the logos in question. Hopefully your design team doesn’t actually need to be told that they shouldn’t be doing these things, but it’s still kind of a fun page to make and to read, since really: when else do you get to lambast your own logo?
Similar sections may also be needed for other brand elements, such as key icons. Take Facebook’s “like” thumbs-up for example, which isn’t directly connected to the company’s logo but has its own usage requirements and restrictions.
What are the brand’s key colours? What are their Pantone, CMYK, and RGB/Hex values? What is the hierarchy of the colour palette—which are the primary brand colours, which are the supporting ones, and in what order or relative amounts should they be utilized?
Unlike logos (which are wholly owned) and colours (which can be used by all), typography poses interesting challenges because of the legalities surrounding font files and their use.
Some guides tackle this by providing separate rules for print design, web design and office-software usage. Others try to take a more consolidated approach by using open-source fonts that are free for all. Keep in mind that some fonts that are often thought of as ubiquitous and universal are actually rights restricted—Helvetica is a prime example, being unavailable to Windows users and Android devices without a separate commercial license.
In addition to a rundown of which typefaces to use, providing details on their appropriate use—both individually and in standard pairings or groupings—will help keep documents looking uniform throughout a brand’s materials.
Copy, tone of voice and brand personality
What is the correct spelling and usage of the brand name (especially if it has acronyms, initials or compound words in it)? For example: should our brand be written out as Designedge Canada, DesignEdgeCanada, Design Edge Canada, Design edge Canada, or something else entirely? Should we ever abbreviate it as DEC?
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You might be deeply familiar with the brand you are writing about, so the answers may be obvious to you, but try to see it from another person’s perspective. Having these details clearly laid out will help others who don’t have the same level of company knowledge.
Along with addressing visual elements and correct name usage, it is helpful to detail the tone of voice to use in communications. Is the brand serious or playful? Innovative or traditional? Formal or conversational? These guidelines help maintain a consistent tone across communications.
How should business cards and other stationery items be formatted for consistency, particularly when building a brand guide for a large or geographically dispersed organization? If it is a multinational organization, keep in mind that international formats for business cards and paper availability and sizes vary from region to region and a one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate.
What are the trademarks, registered trademarks and other legal notes associated with the brand? How should these be designated and what is the appropriate trademark statement to be included on communications or publications?
The best tools are the ones that make your job easier to do. If you succeed in making a clear, concise and user-friendly set of brand guidelines, your employees, co-workers and partners are that much more likely to adopt and uphold it—reducing time wasted on revisions and bringing things back ‘in-line.’ A good brand book improves brand clarity and fidelity through all of your communication pieces.
Some rules are meant to be broken—occasionally, anyway—and while adhering to brand guidelines should always be the default, part of your job as a designer is to examine and evaluate the appropriateness of the details for each project you work on.
While it would be extraordinarily rare to be reprimanded for following guidelines to the letter, following anything blindly without regard for context or situation is similarly unwise—sometimes the very reason you can’t solve a design problem is because you’re playing by the rules, so don’t be afraid to challenge them now and again—just pick those battles carefully, and for the right reasons! As Picasso put it, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” •
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.