Brand guidelines. If you’re in the industry you know why we need them. If you’re a client, or new to the industry, you know they sound important but you might not know why they’re necessary. I thought I would share some thoughts on why we need brand guidelines, and how we can build them a little better.


Building a new brand can be very daunting as you work alongside an agency or a freelance designer to develop, build and bring your vision to life. When you receive the final files you’re excited for what the future holds, but there are a lot of pieces to work with and you’re not entirely sure of how to proceed with it. This is when brand guidelines come in handy. In a nutshell, it is an instruction manual for how to turn your brand from a collection of mismatched pieces into a recognizable brand.

We exist in a world where people have the power to make a lot of ugly. Computers mean that everyone can make anything, which is amazing, but it also means that Ken from Accounting can add a drop shadow to the logo because he likes how it pops off the page. Brand guidelines set rules so that this doesn’t happen.

Brand guides are like the Last Will and Testament of your brand because without it the kids are going to disagree with each other. A brand guide provides the tools, rules, and precedent for how the brand will live on without the original designers there to hold its hand.

Brand guidelines exist, in my mind, for two key reasons:

  1. To bring order to a world full of chaos and bad taste
  2. To establish building blocks for a brand to eventually grow and become self-sufficient

Once finalized, a brand guide shouldn’t be open to interpretation. Rules should be upheld so that the brand continues to look as clean and considered as when it was originally designed. Remember, a consistent brand is far more recognizable and memorable if it doesn’t look different every time you stumble across it, and that recognition makes audiences trust you more.

With age things may slowly shift towards what is naturally easier or logical for your company, and revisions can be made, but these decisions are to be made down the road following serious thought and caution.

For the designers

Brand guidelines have a tendency to be perceived as dry rulebooks, but in many ways they represent the first real breath of life for a new brand. Purposely making ‘wrong’ versions of the logo is fun though as designers we owe it to ourselves and our clients to make brand guides that are compelling and inspiring.

Lead by example

Brand guides should reflect the brand’s look and values in such a way that the reader immediately understands what makes the brand special. With that in mind, every brand guide you create should be a little different from the one before.

Compare NASA’s 1976 Graphics Standards and MailChimp’s 2016 Brand Assets. A veritable 60-page bible versus a short webpage of logo no-nos. Each is a reflection of the brand’s needs, values, and personality: NASA is scientific and long-winded, MailChimp is humorous and simple. NASA is the star of the show and needs to be given the weight it deserves, whereas MailChimp strives to be almost invisible, a footnote in their client’s newsletters.

Embrace the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all brand guide template that works for everything. Know what makes the brand unique and take the time to tailor each element of the guide specifically for them. Use it as an opportunity to stretch the brand’s wings and test out your design elements. At the end, you’ll find you know the brand better than you did before.

Don’t be a helicopter parent

Your brand baby will eventually become independent and not need you anymore. The client might start breaking some of your rules and it will mildly irritate you. This is normal. Take a step back and reflect on why those elements are changing. Perhaps your rules were not clear enough, or you overlooked how your type system could be simplified, or you didn’t provide enough flexibility. Maybe they have terrible design taste and know not what they do, but try to learn something from it and move on.

There is a lot more to know about brand guides, especially as they become increasingly digital, but I encourage you to seek out brands you admire and have a peek at their brand guidelines. You’ll find that the good ones are both informative and beautiful design pieces, qualities that we want to apply to every brand that we create.


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