Brand Guidelines: How to get the most out of them

When executed well, a brand’s guidelines are an essential tool that facilitates consistent and effective application of its visual identity. The problem is when they’re not done well, they do the exact opposite.

I was recently asked to read through one of our clients’ newly created brand guidelines and invited to offer opinions on how they might be improved. I was happy to accept, and doing so made me realise that I think a lot about brand guidelines – certainly more than would be healthy for anyone not working in the realm of branding and design.

Like many designers and creatives, I interact with brand guidelines on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis. They’re a regular feature of almost every project I’ve ever worked on, and at this point, I’ve seen enough of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly to notice more than a few common trends in how they’re executed. When done properly, they’re an essential part of a brand’s toolset – facilitating consistent application of its visual identity across a range of applications and formats. The flip side is that when they’re poorly executed, they quickly become a hindrance, a confusing blend of cast-iron rules and creative ambiguity that hampers the ability of creative teams to work effectively.

So, I'm going to share some thoughts on what makes brand guidelines an impediment rather than a boon to the brands, designers and creative teams that work with them and – more importantly – how to make them more useful to ensure consistency and discipline in your communications. 

Observations - the challenges

The expectations for guidelines are wildly ambitious. 
Brand guidelines aren’t a magic cure to fix problems with a brand’s identity or to “make the creative better”. They’re a tool, functioning best as a reference point for design and creative teams to maintain standards of execution for the brand identity. Expecting them to do more than that is most likely going to lead to disappointment and a wasted budget.

As with any tool, they’re only as effective as the people using them.
I can give a hammer and a saw to 10 different tradespeople. One might build me an artisan rocking horse, while others will struggle to fix a squeaky door hinge – but I wouldn’t correlate the outcome with the tools in either case. Likewise, you can’t expect to hand the same guidelines to a global creative director and an in-house junior designer and expect equivalent results.

They’re becoming increasingly bloated and over-complicated.
Is a technical document – intended to aid the execution of visual identity standards – really the right place to keep the more esoteric and strategic aspects of your brand’s foundations, positioning and strategy? Is that information useful to the intended audience? I’d argue not.

There’s a practical argument for keeping everything in one place, but the reality is that it usually leads to overbearing, over-complicated documents that are difficult to navigate and make it a chore to find the information a design team needs to perform effectively.

If they’re a labour of love, they’re often laborious to use.
Designers can be guilty of taking an inordinate amount of pleasure in relaying the most minute details of a brand identity. In a sense, you can’t blame them – it’s attention to the little things that make good designers great – but there comes a point where too much information becomes, at best, restrictive and, at worst, confusing. There’s a lot to be said for conciseness, allowing users to find the information they need quickly. Nobody wants to sit and read 100+ pages from cover to cover in the hope of stumbling blindly upon the correct pixel values for a button’s rounded corners...

Who’s enforcing them?
Guidelines are effectively worthless if nobody is responsible for ensuring that the design output meets the standards outlined in the document.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
There’s often some standardised content (colour values, font choices, etc), but I’d argue there are just as many considerations to be made that are tied to an organisation’s unique internal makeup: How many people will use the document? Are they all designers? What level of education and training will they have? Are we looking to inspire high-level creative thinking, or simply ensure our emails use the correct tint of red? Assuming you can simply drop generic content into a document and produce bespoke, tailored design work is hopeful at best and naive at worst.

Some thoughts - the 'solutions'

Interrogate your needs before you put pen to paper.
It helps outline the purpose of your guidelines as early as possible. Who are they for? What do you want your audience to do with the document? Identifying what you need the document to do gives you objective aims to benchmark its success against.

Define how much content you need.
Is this a quick-fix troubleshooting guide for day-to-day comms delivery, or a deep dive into the brand that inspires creativity from external agencies and partners? Outlining the answers to these types of questions should help map out relevant information to meet your objectives while avoiding bloat and scope creep later down the line.

Agree to a stance on flexibility versus rigidity.
It’s helpful to decide if you want designers to follow every instruction to a tee, or if you trust them to make informed decisions and – within reason – bend the rules a little with your brand’s identity. There are pros and cons to both attitudes, but at the very least, you can assess the content in your guidelines through the lens of how strictly it adheres to either approach. 

Identify a suitable format to deliver your content.
Is this a one-and-done document that you’re confident will be set in stone and won’t change any time soon? Then a PDF or printed format might suit your needs best. Is it likely the content will need to evolve and change regularly over the short to medium term? Then perhaps a digital delivery might make more sense. Maybe you want every single person who ever comes across your guidelines to have the ability to change the document at will with no means of tracking the master copy. Just drop it into PowerPoint, I guess...

In all seriousness, while there’s always the cold reality of budgets and time frames to consider, there’s also a false economy to creating fixed, rigid documents that, while cheaper in the short term, consume excess time and budget to update in the long run.

Wireframe, paginate and iterate.
Rather than diving into page 01 of 100 and working through the document in painstaking, linear detail, try to draft content in broad brushstrokes across the whole document. Planning and iterating on the content helps identify where information is best placed and gives you a feel for the entire project rather than getting caught up in minute details and missing the bigger picture. You’ll naturally get into the details as the project progresses – but with a better understanding of how the document functions and (hopefully) fewer big mistakes or glaring omissions to address at the last moment.

Identify who’s enforcing your brand standards.
As I mentioned earlier – guidelines are next to useless if nobody’s ensuring the work you’re producing adheres to the guidance they contain.

Finally, don’t stick them in a drawer and forget about them!
One of the most common mistakes I see from teams is assuming that once the guidelines are signed off, they are set in stone. We’re not talking about the Ten Commandments here; brands and businesses evolve, grow, and develop over time. It stands to reason that their guidelines should reflect that.

Don’t be afraid to let the dust settle; live with them for a while, then reflect on where they could be improved or streamlined. Running a comb through your guidelines now and again will help to ensure they’re as relevant – and as useful – as possible. And if you’d like some help doing that or just a second opinion, the team at Good would be more than happy to offer some assistance.