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  • 12.17.14

Head to Head:

IQ designers duke it out over “how to” or “how to not” follow a brand’s style guide.

Head to Head Style Guide Design

Point: The Type-A Guide to Following Design Rules

By: Lauren Weir, Sr. Designer

Our creative team nominated me to write the point of the article — establishing why you should stick to brand guidelines and how to work creatively within them. And while I’ll give you that I’m the type of person who neatly orders my pens, keeps a daily game plan on my signature yellow notepads and may or may not be easily compared with Monica from FRIENDS, I still have fun and sometimes I show up to work in a banana suit. I just think of brand guidelines like a pair of moon shoes — sometimes kind of clunky, but they help you jump to new heights. They’re also infinitely cool.

Brand guidelines are so important to designing for a brand because they explain and uphold the values and importance of the brand for which you are designing. A strong brand will help increase recognition and brand loyalty, which is directly related to a company’s success and profitability. As Smashing Magazine points out, brands have to reach people through so many different platforms that recognition is critical. As designers, if we do not help a company clearly communicate their messages and uphold the definition of their brand then the brand will start to develop on its own through customer opinions in spaces like social — and we all know how that can go south pretty quickly.

How to stick it to the Book:

  1. Make sure you and your client have a complete understanding of the brand guidelines. Take time to go through the guidelines with your client and ask questions. By sitting down for a conversation first, you’re avoiding the future problems that could arise if the brand guide has any holes. Figure out how strict the guidelines are and what will still be considered within the guidelines if it is not explicitly stated. This will give you a clear understanding where the designs can start to move forward. You can also for a clear idea of what to measure your design successes on and give you, as a designer ground to justify the designs you have produced. You can become a design partner for your client, making recommendations for their design in the future, rather than just a production artist for what they envision for their brand.
  2. Experiment within your limits. Think mixing different martinis, rather than making a mix drink with gin, Bailey’s and Chardonnay. Creating and following parameters set by guidelines can give you the chance to try a ton of experiments on different pieces to create interesting designs that relate back to the brand. For example, within a color scheme, try combining the colors in a different way or in different proportions to create something that is different than what is expected. Sometimes the most successful designs come from a new or updated perspective on already existing guidelines.  Guidelines can help you narrow down what areas to experiment in, rather than spending all of your time looking at the endless design options. Put your design energy in the right places, rather than the places that are already defined.
  3. Measure back to the guidelines. Keep brand goals, audience needs, key messages, and brand personality central to each and every decision made in designing for the brand. It is easier to justify your design decisions because the client has already approved their guidelines. Once you can design really well and with new ideas within the limitations given by the client, you can clearly understand the best way to adapt the brand to new platforms (social, mail, web, etc). The most successful and gratifying design systems work show a strong brand voice and visual style across multiple mediums without becoming too repetitive.

There are many brands out there whose designers rely heavily on the visual guidelines and still create some badass designs. Like these:

Counterpoint: How to Design Outside the Style Guide (and not get caught)

By: Carol Montoto, Associate Creative Director

So I was nominated to write this counterpoint by my team. I guess they see me as that annoying creative who just won’t stick to a style guide. Maybe that’s slightly true, but I see a style guide as just a guide and not an end-all-be-all. It’s tough exploring creative directions to take a brand without wandering outside the style guide a bit. Rebellious design superhero, Paula Scher, talked about guidelines at the Adobe Max Conference (13:00).“Guidelines are difficult things because they’re rules that prevent bad things from happening, but they don’t really promote good things TO happen.”

It’s not that I think designers should irresponsibly blow off style guides and have a creative free-for-all. But as creative experts, it’s our job to ask questions, challenge the rules when necessary, and push our creativity beyond its limits. Personally, it’s my favorite part of the job. The key is to use brand guidelines to maintain the spirit of a brand. As long as your brand remains consistent, recognizable and the design doesn’t suffer, the guide has accomplished its goal. As John Moore from Idea Sandbox put it, “A Brand Style Guide is essentially an internal communication compass. It provides guidance on how a business should communicate the Identity, Personality, and Authenticity of a brand.”

Common Style Guide Challenges

There are some style guide challenges every designer is familiar with. An incomplete style guide is the most common. Its creator can’t predict what all the uses for it might be in the future. For example, often it is created for print, not for digital. This leaves important brand details such as color (CMYK versus RGB), and fonts (web-friendly) up for debate. The ridiculously strict, 598-page style guide is just as tough to work with. As blogger Geri Coady explains, “Guides can be so strict that it can be virtually impossible to introduce a little creativity.” If you are spending more time measuring pixels than exploring creative directions, just take a step back. The last thing you want to do is kill any amazing ideas you have because they might not exactly fit the style guide. Sometimes, the style guide looks like the ugliest pair of moon shoes you’ve ever seen. If following the style guide is forcing you to make bad design decisions, you’ll need to bend the rules a bit, for everyone’s sake. Chances are that making some small tweaks will vastly improve the design without looking off-brand. If you can pull this off while keeping the brand police happy, nice job.

How to Design Outside the Style Guide:

  1. Know the rules before you break them. Read the style guide. Thoroughly. Really get to know it. THEN you’re ready to challenge the rules. You’ll need to have a good reason for doing so, not just because you think it’s fun to break rules. (Sorry.)
  2. When in doubt, share your thoughts with your client. Even something as small as an inverted white logo on a dark background may just have never come up for a brand. Crazy, I know. If you want to challenge the style guide, why not just talk with your client? Paula Scher suggests making your client a co-conspirator with you (16:52). Be up front and explain to them why you need to deviate from the brand guidelines. You’d be surprised how effective this can be.
  3. Don’t let the style guide become a design crutch. At the end of the day, people will see the final product and NOT the style guide you are following, no matter how beautiful that guide may be. Don’t be afraid to push the creative. The brand police will rein you in if necessary.

Above all else, just remember, “I was just following the style guide” is not an excuse for bad or boring design. Have fun and rebel — responsibly.

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