The Problem With Style Guides

Posted in Advertising, Art & Design, Web Design, on

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.

Stifling Creativity

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.

UCLA Style Guide

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.

Memorial University Department Websites

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.

MailChimp Brand Assets

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.

MailChimp's Voice and Tone

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.

Responsive Images Community Group Logo

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.

Photo of Geri Coady

About Me

I’m Geri Coady — a designer and illustrator living and working in St. John’s Newfoundland — the most easterly city in North America. I've got an eye for detail, a passion for the web, and I'm ready to work with clients worldwide. Want to learn more?

11 Comments

Jacob Halton
  • Jacob Halton

A well designed brand style guide maintained by a good creative director/team will hold up the brand's integrity.

A style guide is meant to be just that, a guide. If you use it as some kind of "bible" for the brand, it'll just get stale and boring really fast.

To NOT have brand guidelines is asking for non-cohesive communication material and different variations on the brand depending on what designer is working on it. Then again, even a good brand guideline in the hands of a bad designer is worthless for anything more than maybe light consistency.

Ben
  • Ben

Thanks Geri, this is a nice round up and references quite a few sources I'm happy to know about.

David Y
  • David Y

Style Guides are helpful when showing a client how everything ties their brand together, and how they can actively use that information to maintain their brand. Within the realm of things being strict there is still room to expand upon that information in various different ways.

Chris Da Sie
  • Chris Da Sie

Great thoughts Geri! I definitely agree that a style guide should be just that a guide. It shouldn't hinder the creative process. It should be used as a way to enhance the content. Too often we see style guides pigeon hold designers into tiny little design corners. But if we leave these guides as a more flexible understanding like the examples you provided then it can be the perfect compliment to say wireframes. Saving you hours and hours of design time.

Krishna Solanki
  • Krishna Solanki

Good read, some interesting thoughts, and definitely agree.. a style guide is just that - a guide!

Ekle
  • Ekle

thanks..good post !

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I am a web designer and I use HTML for designing the pages. This article discussing the problems with style guides are very interesting. I am so happy that I found this web site and have book marked the page for future use.

Radiant360.com
  • Radiant360.com

After reading this blog i should say this, you are a good writer as well. Keep writing such a nice and informative blog.
Web Design Agency

John
  • John

Very nice and informative blog. I have learned many things about style guides here. web design agency

Eric Dejuan
  • Eric Dejuan

Yep, I know all about the limitations regarding brand, teams, and guides. It's the reason I work alone frankly. The enjoyment of web design for me comes from creative freedom. Less pay, but more satisfaction. Forget the office jobs! - Eric, creative consultant for a kid friendly Dora The Explorer website.

Deelo Holdings
  • Deelo Holdings

Thank you for the blog. From the time one steps out of college as a creative, we come across restrictions to creativity in many ways, the boss, clients and yes the style guide. Thanks for clarifying what a brand guide is, just a guide.Unsubscribe</font>

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