Designers and clients have mixed views on the benefits of having a style guide for an organisation's communications collateral. Why's that? Well exponents love 'em because they bring order out of potential chaos, helping to reign in the potential 'home-made' designers from trying to include kittens and clipart in publications. Detractors see a style guides as a restriction of creativity and a draconian, corporate bible, that does not fit their needs and hinders their expression. Thing is, a good style guide should remove all of these reservations and provide a platform for creativity and consistency – so that everybody is a happy bunny. What does a style guide do? What makes them good? What makes them bad? Read on...

The good

A good style guide deals with the basic principles of brand communication and its application. It covers the basic graphic representations of an identity scheme, tone-of-voice, mission and vision statements (if they are relevant), and provides a consistent platform for expression. How they do this depends on what sort of organisation you are. Waitrose has very different requirements compared with Google. A charity might need flexibility when dealing with reports and specific campaigns. All can be achieved within a good style guide. I'll give my two-penneth worth, based on 21 years of experience.

The bad and the ugly

One mistake to my mind is that style guides are designed 'of the moment'. I have come across so many that employ templates for publications that fitted a certain style at the time. Solid, curved shapes and images on white backgrounds were massively popular eight years ago. Now they look dated and very restrictive. The problem comes when an organisation signs up to these restrictions and has to live with them for years on end. Senior management don't see the need to set budgets to address these issues and the marketing departments end up saying to designers 'we have a style guide, but you don't need to follow it too closely'.

The ground rules

There are some guidelines that should be in place that can last years and not affect the rest of the communications suite. In the 1980s everybody picked Dax as a font, it was the 'Sail by Awolnation' of the time. Which is fine, but as time strolled on, Dax become clichéd. After a solid corporate identity review (and that is not brand by the way) the positioning of the logo, its spacing, usage and relevant size to the publication helps create a suite of documents that may change over time, but still has an identity look. The aim being that if you put a 1980s document next to a document designed in 2017, they still feel like they come from the same organisation.

Fonts and colours

Gone are the days, almost, when we needed 'professional fonts' and 'web safe or local fonts'. What that means is that users can now install and work with their own corporate fonts. The style guide would read 'Use Dax wherever possible, or Helvetica/Arial if not available' We should all be working from the same typographic style. Now colour is an emotive issue. I hear 'I hate our corporate palette' as well as hearing 'there are lots of colours in our palette to choose from'. One of the key mistakes is assuming your readership know why you use one colour to indicate what a document is, or what a section in a document signifies. 'well all our policy documents are yellow'. Great, but I doubt your readership will know that. Don't rely on colour to categorise anything and don't include a scheme like that in your style guide.

Online, digital and all that

How long have we had he internet and e-comms as part of our corporate world now? It's a while anyway, but still most style guides don't include robust guidelines for websites, micro-sties (should they ever be needed), e-newsletters and email footers. There really is no excuse these days – except for one thing – the passage of time... Once again style guides need to allow for change and need to be updated. This is a great tool for looking back into the past at your own organisations websites: Include digital assets in your style guide and update them regularly.

Time marches on

Now, if you have the basics right in your style guide, little or no change should be necessary for years. Unless you re-brand. I've used style guides that are 20 years old and the basics still apply. But a style guide, like the company it supports changes over time. Navig8 is a design agency that provides more or less the same service as it did when it was established in 2000, but the way we provide our services, how we do it and who for has changed immeasurably. We have to move with the times. And so does a style guide. Too often these guides are treated to a three or five year review and at considerable cost. That is not the way, review often, in small steps and at minimal cost.

Social media

Most organisations engage in social media these days. They might feel they have to, rather than it being beneficial to their business. If you sell nuts and bolts it is hard to see the value in social media – you never know. We have a client that sells things with plugs and leads and they have a healthy following. Having good templates and styles for social media posts make a huge difference to engagement. A simple style template, perhaps with a twist, makes a post 'belong' to the brand. Any good style guide should include relevant guidance – no kittens allowed unless you sell kittens!

We'd like to update it ourselves

And you are welcome to do so. With a good style guide and some basic user knowledge, clients can create their own assets. We produce templates in InDesign, Photoshop, Word and PowerPoint. It is not necessarily the templates that need policing, it is how they are used, how the language is applied and what imagery is put in place. A good style guide will guide the non-professional through the process and deliver professional results. 

Website, blog and SEO

Nobody can be an expert on every aspect of design and marketing. That is why agencies have bods who deal with specific skills. These bods can help steer the non-initiated through the quagmire and help them produce quality content. If your organisation has been through an SEO strategy process, this should underpin the content the admin users will create. You need this more than you know. I'll tell you a secret; our marketing bod gives us a list of key words for our blogs, then they are reviewed to make sure we have done it right! And it works.

I know, you want to update it yourselves

Templates are all the rage, either in Word or InDesign. Clients like the idea of updating things themselves to save money. I'll set aside the disasters that could and do raise their ugly heads when people blunder around using templates and move on to how best provide templates as part of the style guide. Word templates in their true form are notoriously difficult to use and set up. What you may think is easy to set up, isn't. The best solutions include an embedded graphic as headers and footers and type styles. Word is good at handling shapes, you can overlay text on the shapes and it looks quite professional. You can embed a few table styles but anything more can become unmanageable. Word is what it is, and it will never produce professional publications. InDesign will however, but you do need to know what you are doing. For our clients we set up master pages, sample covers and stylesheets that control how the typography looks.

I realise this email is getting a tad long and there is much more to be said about style guides and their place in corporate comms. So I'll write a full blog and send you guys the link in our next issue. Until then...

Style guides can be as short as two pages and run to huge volumes, British Rail's manual an to 23 ring bound volumes: To produce them you have to do the design work for each item, so they relatively expensive, but in the long run you save on design time. If you want one, you know where we are.

If you'd like to discuss updating your style guide,