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It cannot be overstated: Every brand needs a visual style guide.
As a company existing in the digital age, you likely have media and branding spread out across several channels, from social media, to sponsored content, to your owned domains, not to mention whatever exists offline. While an ad you ad run on Facebook doesn’t have to (and often shouldn’t) look exactly like a print ad that you run, they should at least look congruent. You want consumers to recognize your brand across every channel. This is crucial to solidifying your brand identity and establishing a greater share of mind. Otherwise you lose the combined effect of the branded media, which might lose you to competitors with more recognizable identities.
Having a style guide can also simplify your workflow. And it makes design, whether it’s done in-house, with an agency, or with a freelancer, much easier down the road.
What is a style guide?
A brand’s style guide is a set of design principles and rules that work to create consistent visual messaging. It applies to everything the brand distributes, from the website design to print collateral to advertising and even social media.
A visual style guide sets the visual tone of a brand, so that anyone with access to it can jump in and design something that matches what customers and fans are accustomed to.
If you don’t already have a visual style guide, this is the time to start working on one. The good news is, it’s easier than you might think! Here are a few tips for getting started.
Start with the essentials
It makes sense that most of your style guide should be visual in nature, so that it’s easy to see exactly what design elements should look like. The exception is the first small section of the guide, which should explain what the guide is about and give a quick overview of how to use it. This is important, as the guide might be circulated with agencies and freelancers who need extra context to get started with branding work.
Your intro section should include essential information, like:
- A synopsis of the company (mission, industry, customer type, etc.)
- A short description of the design philosophy
- A preview of basic design, such as the logo or website homepage
- Table of contents for the logo, color palette, fonts, and imagery
- Considerations for print and digital applications
- Contact information for the brand manager so users know where to direct questions
It may sound simple, but a solid style guide is the key to keeping the team visually focused so that your brand materials always look like you. The logo is the most important place to start.
Whether you have a single logo that’s universally used, or multiple versions used for case- or platform-specific reasons, the visual style guide should provide examples of how to use – and not to use – the logo appropriately.
This includes a number of factors:
- Size and placement rules (some brands specify that the logo always has to be at the left top, for example)
- Color usage that outlines when a color, versus black and/or white, should be used
- Primary and secondary logo examples and usage (many brands have a second, more simplified logo for social-media profiles or places where the logo will be used at icon size)
Color and Typography Palettes
Color and typography should each have their own sections in your visual style guide, complete with use cases. Both menus should include just a handful of options – two to three colors and an equal number of typefaces – to keep palettes manageable.
You probably don’t need a lot of text for this section of the style guide. Include a swatch palette that shows each color option (and acceptable tints). Make sure to spell out actual color codes and mixes so that designers can match the color if needed. Include RGB, CMYK, Hex, and Pantone.
Create a hierarchy for the color palette, as well. How should each color be used? There should be a primary color, secondary color, and a color for text elements or shaded boxes.
The typography palette works a lot like the color palette. Show typefaces and how they should be used. This includes everything from size, kerning, line spacing, and color.
Create a typographic hierarchy that shows styles for headlines, subheads, body copy, and how to use variations like bold, italic, and underlines. Ensure that size differences between these are distinct enough that styles can’t be easily confused.
When it comes to typography, your brand might have slightly different typography palettes for print and digital projects. Make sure to include both typography palettes with clear notations as to which one is print and which is digital. As an added bonus, include a chart that shows which typefaces get swapped in print versus digital projects.
Icons and patterns can be tricky design elements, but they aren’t so intimidating with clear guidelines.
Icons are an important design element that provide contextual support for copy and content. Think the phone icon next to your business’s phone number, and the more branded elements that symbolize the processes unique to your business. These small images can also serve as visual cues for elements such as links to social media or guide the user through a design. Icons are likely a big part of your digital presence, and you want to ensure that icons aren’t randomly used (or designed) for every new project.
Create a palette of icons just as you would for color or typography. Pick a size and style that matches your brand identity and aligns with audience expectations.
Even the type of photos you include in the design should have a visual style. Creating a consistent feel and mood for images can connect a user to your brand with just a glance. A company like Spotify does this exceptionally well by primarily picking images of people and then applying a duotone filter to all of them. They also use consistent sizing and text treatments on every image.
When it comes to developing a photographic style, include information about:
- Crop guidelines
- Color usage
- Size guidelines or aspect ratios
- Specifications for placement in print and web projects.
- Outline of exact sizes, when necessary (such as the size of banner images for your website)
One method is to consider the always and never imperatives, so that your designers have elements to look for and to avoid. Finding something in-between is easier than being faced with an entire library with no concept where to start. For example, never use images with a filter pre-applied. It might seem prescriptive, but highlighting certain key things to avoid will simplify the process for designers.
Remember to include elements for your website or mobile app in your visual style guide. Create a separate section that details how to handle elements such as buttons, navigation, forms, animations, links, and hover effects.
This is often the most forgotten aspect of a visual style guide — and a section that is critical to creating consistent user interaction. Buttons should not only look the same in every instance, for example, but they should always behave the same. This includes everything from what happens when a user hovers their mouse over a button, to the way it looks, to what happens with a click. Consistent user interface tools make for a smoother user experience.
Because of the nature of many of these elements, a digital version of the style guide is best applied here. Consider adding a hidden page to your website for internal users to refer to. You can even include links to downloadable templates or examples that serve as a starting point for users.
Provide Plenty of Examples
It’s called a visual style guide for a reason. Make it visual so that it’s easy to see what your brand’s style looks like.
When it comes to visual examples, many style guides include sections for ways to — and ways not to — use design elements. Stick to only the good examples. The reasoning for that is because, once someone has seen an example, they remember it. Imagine that same person is working on a post for social media later and remembers seeing something in the guide and replicates it, only to discover after the fact that it was actually an example of what not to do.
Keep it short
A visual style guide does not have to be long. Many of the elements described above only take a bullet point or an image to show. For some brands the style guide is a page on the website or PDF circulated internally. For others, it can be a booklet or even just one sheet of paper.
The one-page style guide should be the goal for most brands. That way you know you’ve created something simple and usable. If your guide will span multiple pages, consider adding a cheat sheet to the front of the guide with key elements such as logo style, color, and typefaces — or alternatively, a menu that hotlinks to individual menu items — so that users have something to refer to at a glance. Your creative team will be more likely to consult the guide if it’s easy to find, understand, and use.
Some brands needs multiple guides
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for a visual style guide. Depending on how your brand markets itself, multiple guides might be an ideal solution.
Consider guides for print, online, mobile applications, social media, video, and content marketing. While each will have a similar look and feel, specifications can vary widely among these different media and distribution channels.
If you plan to create multiple guides, establish an overall visual style guide and then create specific guides for each channel the brand will use regularly. Remember to be as flexible as possible, particularly with digital elements, because specifications and the landscape for design change rapidly. Using video and high-resolution images is a prime example of how specifications keep changing (e.g. what used to be the web standard for photos, 72 dpi, has been pushed aside for images that are optimized for retina displays).
Get started with your visual style guide
Think of a visual style guide almost like a cookbook for your company’s design and branding. Every section should include a “recipe” for design success with all the ingredients needed to make it happen.
Use simple language and lists when you create the guide, and polish it by practicing what you preach: Design the style guide to match the style referenced therein. Remember, when you tell a visual story the design should always match the narrative.
It’s never too late to create a visual style guide, even if you didn’t do it with the launch of the design. Once you know what your brand’s visual style is, try out Shutterstock Editor. It’s packed with powerful, easy-to-use design tools that can help you create consistent branding across all of your digital content.