Last week, my friend Nishant Kothary tweeted about how he had concluded that style guides are the “most useless design deliverables in existence.” Instead of discussing it over Twitter, we each decided to blog our thoughts.
I’ll say right away that I believe style guides for websites are headed down the right path and are an important asset. Anna Debenham wrote a great article in last year’s 24 Ways about the benefits of front-end style guides. My problems with style guides stem from the traditional “graphic standards manuals” that are either written as though they are carved in stone and ruled with an iron first, or, style guides that seem like complete afterthoughts and aren’t enforced in any way at all.
Style guides are intended to protect the integrity of the brand when in the hands of other designers. They’re meant to make workflow faster and to reduce the number of decisions a designer has to make. While the intentions are good, most style guides that I’ve worked with have created problems, too.
Working at an advertising agency, I’ve had to work with many graphic standards manuals from large companies and organizations. Most guides share common elements like rules for approved typefaces, colour palettes, and logo usage; but others have been dozens and dozens of pages in length, spelling out every detail of what’s allowed and what’s forbidden. These guides can be so strict that it can be virtually impossible to introduce a little creativity. You might not be allowed to place a logo over a photograph, even if it’s perfectly legible. You might be forced to place a logo at the bottom right-hand side of a page every time, even though it might look better in your design if it was centered on the page. Often, you’ll need to send your work back for approval, and if you don’t adhere to the rules, it’ll be rejected. While it’s very important to keep the most critical elements of a brand consistent across all materials, there should be more opportunity for discussion with the brand guardians if new ideas are proposed.
Being a “Brand Guardian” Isn’t Easy
If you’re publishing a style guide intended for use by designers and developers on a internal team, there’s a decent chance that it will be followed. The heavily-referenced Starbucks style guide comes to mind, here. If you’re creating a style guide that’s going to be shared with people outside of the design department who may not even have design skills, things can quickly fall apart. One of the worst offenders I’ve seen for this are universities.
There are countless university websites where every faculty has its own differently-styled pages. If measures aren’t taken by those in charge of overarching brand, providing a style guide is going to be a complete waste of time. Furthermore, consider the other materials that non-designers have their hands in — letterheads, posters, notices, reports — the list goes on. There’s always going to be someone who thinks that Comic Sans is a great choice for the body copy on a pre-designed letterhead.
A Better Solution?
Some of my favourite examples of style guides are short and sweet. Take a look at MailChimp’s brand assets guide. Not only is it easy to find on their website, but it’s short and concise enough that there’s no excuse not to read and follow it.
Another great example from MailChimp is their guide for writing content which they’ve made public at voiceandtone.com. While it’s fairly detailed, the interaction in this guide makes it easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. I’d love to see more of these web-based style guides instead of the usual guides provided as a big, overwhelming PDF.
Depending on the needs of your brand, you might choose to do something even more simple. Recently I designed the logo for the Responsive Images Community Group, and instead of a fancy detailed document, I included just a few basic rules in the usage agreement: don’t modify the existing logo, don’t display it more prominently than your own organization’s logo, and be sure to use a particular amount of whitespace around the logo. Maybe eventually we’ll find the need to expand on these rules, but for now, this is all we’re concerned with.
I don’t like the term “graphic standards manual” and I much prefer the idea of general branding guidelines. If you’re in charge of creating and enforcing a style guide, encourage others to show you their work for approval, but don’t automatically dismiss it just because it doesn’t precisely fit your rules. Allow room for creativity and improvement and be open to discussion. The chances of you being in control once it leaves your hands are slim, anyway.