Anyone who’s been to a strip mall with a chaotic sign post has witnessed design without rules and guidelines. Store signs are displayed in every typeface, color and decoration imaginable—anything to help “make the store sign stand out.” Each attempt to stand out ultimately gets smothered by the overall pool of visual loudness. While a certain amount of uniqueness helps people distinguish one store from another and make sense of the information, order and consistency help give structure and format to the store list. Maybe one rule is each store sign must be a painted wood panel. Or, maybe the sign post is laid out according to the store locations within the strip mall (north, east, south, west)—some guidelines to help viewers make sense of the content and choices in front of them.
Visual style guides help place the necessary boundaries around what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable in adding and growing content and visuals to the overall system. They’re most often used as a compass upon which to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of new content needs.
1. Maintaining Visual Consistency Helps Users Make Clear Choices
Imagine being in an airport in a foreign country where you’re trying to navigate your way through to your next flight. Things are unfamiliar, visuals are new, and you’re looking for symbols and labels you recognize to find your way through the chaotic space. Now imagine that all the way finding symbols are inconsistent. It says, “Gate B” in large blue sans serif type in one hallway, but is script and bright yellow in the next hallway. Not only would it be confusing, but it would also feel like you might be in the wrong place. Our brains need a certain level of consistency to feel as though pieces connect and feel part of a whole. In the same way, digital brands need consistency in order to build trust, confidence, and clarity from their audience.
2. Style Guides Facilitate Consistency Across a Variety of Brand Touchpoints
Major brands have done this for decades. Brands are not simply a cool logo and a pleasant color palette, they are living and growing entities that connect with people in many different ways. So the need to create guideline documents to ensure the brand feels the same across packaging, clothing, sales materials, advertising, and even vehicle design, for example, is extremely important. The extent of how brands deep come into contact with people is examined by Saul Bass in his brand refresh pitch for Bell System (AT&T).
Saul Bass’ pitch is so deep and broad it’s staggering. His team explores the Bell System brand as it is applied to virtually every touchpoint. During the presentation, he continually reminds the viewer of the need to build a solid framework for the visual expression of the brand. Although this pitch isn’t a traditional style guide document, it does prove the need to build a rational and dependable visual reference guide and shows what happens when brands are left unattended.
3. It’s A Reference as a Brand Grows and Evolves
Style guides are meant to maintain control over visuals and content writing as a brand or website expands and grows. Brands and digital domains aren’t static, they are constantly evolving and moving with their audience. The need for new materials, domains, videos, social media responses, and visual assets is inevitable. And in order to keep up with these demands, style guides provide a reference source to return to as new pieces are created.
4. Visual Style Guides Allow Multiple Contributors to Develop New Content with Confidence
Many of the websites and digital entities we produce aren’t simply launched and set on the shelf. This typically causes anxiety in the designers and developers who have poured hours into creating a website or digital brand that functions well and is visually appealing. We sometimes lose sleep thinking about what could happen when we hand the keys over and let go of our creative product. But, ultimately, marketers need to be able to maintain and develop content after the launch of a website or digital brand, often without the direct guidance of the agency or team who originally created the website. This is where the rubber meets the road for visual style guides. These guides can serve to protect the visual design and content integrity of the website. It’s important for visual style guides to not only cover rules pertaining to the existing site, but also foresee potential future additions. The guide is also not simply a way to translate the visual guidelines to the marketers, but it also allows the brand stakeholders to disseminate these guides within their organization, so multiple content contributors (be it in-house writers, or designers, or outside contractors) can participate while remaining consistent with the overall tone and feel of the brand and website.
This is not to say that visual style guides can solve every problem that arises as content grows and websites evolve. But, good ones should have a considerable forecasting of the future. Digital agencies are still required for sections that grow beyond the initial templates. Good style guides should encourage new content rather than suppress it. Marketers shouldn’t feel restricted when writing and developing new content or visuals. They should feel confident they have the support they need as they fill the websites with new (and consistent) content.
Visual style guides aren’t built overnight. There’s a lot of information to consider and include within the document. Depending on the need, they can range from a one-sheet synopsis to a hundred pages. As agencies and marketing teams build these guides, it’s helpful to keep the process iterative. Start with the basic visual elements (logos, and logo usage, color palette, typography, photography tone, textures/patterns, and voice and tone of copywriting), then add elements as you need. This is a great time to begin to send the document around the company to build culture and energy around the newly refreshed brand and begin instilling the precedents for maintaining the brand.