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What a Style Guide Can and Can't Do For You

What a Style Guide Can and Can’t Do For You

Early in my career, I did a lot of freelance work for SF agencies. I can’t tell you the number of style guides that were sent my way in preparation for new projects. What I can tell you is that they were substantial documents. I received style guides for major car companies, spirits brands that were sold around the world, and digital companies with names that are now used as verbs. And the amount of detail was directly correlated with how well-know the brand was.


That makes a certain amount of sense. What’s the point of a style guide? To set parameters for individuals designing for a brand that is too large to monitor every single use of its logo, collateral design, and every other thing that’s meant to represent the brand. As a brand designer, I respect the desire to control the branding as much as possible.
However, for brands whose names haven’t made the transition from pronoun to a verb, I think we need to be realistic about what a brand style guide can and can’t do. 

CAN: Set rules for visuals

Designers are curious by nature. And designers also come with a certain level of “my way is better” if they’re any good. Could be true, but if a design doesn’t work within the brand style guide, then it may be a better way, but it’s not the right way. I’ve sent suggestions to companies before and said, “In the future, you may want to consider this as an evolution for your brand.” But the truth of the matter is, there are always a lot of great solutions within the confines of any well-done brand style guide. Setting the rules for the visuals is an essential role of a brand style guide.

CAN: Give direction and examples of brand voice

The concept of brand voice is more widely understood and is gaining weight in style guides as content marketing becomes more and more prevalent. Having some direction around the types of things a brand would and wouldn’t say is hugely helpful. Whether a brand’s content is quippy and playful or stoic and serious should match the personality of the brand as much as the look and feel should. There’s nothing worse than being pulled in by a charming online ad that promises one thing and then ending up on a landing page that delivers the opposite. A well-developed style guide should be able to help. 

CAN’T: Predict every possible scenario

There are just too many scenarios to predict and plan for every single one. From a visual standpoint, there may be a really unique advertising opportunity or a channel that wasn’t previously part of the strategy. And a different approach may be required. That doesn’t mean you burn the style guide and move on in a different direction. But it does mean the style guide can only take you so far. There may come a time when you’ll reach the end of the path and have to start forging ahead unguided. We see this a lot with the brand voice as well. Unless the agency that developed the brand style guide has written some real-world examples of the voice in action, there’s going to be a lot of exploration required. A couple paragraphs of aspirational copy aren’t enough to guide the writing of a website or even a brochure.
So use those style guides and use them well. But going into it knowing that, like every tool, there are limitations.

Brandt Hoekenga is the Founder and Creative Director for TIV Branding

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TIV Branding is a boutique branding firm in Sonoma County, California. We specialize in building brands by using traditional, social and digital channels in unison. If you would like to discuss a project or find out more about how we do what we do, please email us at info@TIVbranding.com.