What Is A Style Guide & Why Is It Crucial For A Business?
When you see a white tick on a pair of sneakers, you instantly know who made them. This is no small feat—Nike have invested millions into their company’s branding, ensuring that their style and personality are indisputable, and would never be mistaken for Adidas or New Balance or any other clothing company.
When a company firmly establishes its branding, it keeps it consistent by creating a style guide, and enforces its use for anyone creating customer-facing content. But what is a style guide, exactly? And how can it help you to establish and reinforce your own company’s branding?
What is a style guide?
A style guide is a document that outlines your brand’s styles, so that you can keep your branding consistent. The document tends to include usage rules for logos, colours, typography, language, and image use. This is known as a brand style guide, and differs from traditional style guides that deal mostly with writing and language rules (like the famous APA Style Guide).
A brand style guide is essentially an instruction manual for anyone that creates customer-facing collateral for a company. It provides clear guidelines on how things should look, feel, and sound, so that your branding is coherent across each of your marketing channels.
Why does this matter? People love familiarity. It makes them a little more confident in the world. When we recognise something familiar, our expectations have been met, we understand what we’re experiencing, and feel as though we’re in control of their lives, not just apes on a celestial rock that is hurtling through the universe at 67,000 miles per hour (yikes). When your brand identity is strong, you’re fulfilling an ongoing promise to your customers: this is us, and we won’t surprise you by changing (not drastically, at least). The result is a memorable impression that enhances customer loyalty, and ultimately, your bottom line.
“Brands are essentially patterns of familiarity, meaning, fondness, and reassurance that exist in the minds of people.”
Style guides help you stand out from the crowd. Australia has about 2.5 million active businesses on its books.1 The USA has roughly 32 million. That’s a lot of companies to compete with, especially when so many of them use similar logos, colouring, and typography. If your branding matches your competitors, a customer will probably struggle to distinguish you, and every bad business decision your competitors make are suddenly yours too. In the eyes of your customers, your brands are an incoherent and unrecognisable ball of mush, but by developing a style guide, you can slowly create your brand’s identity with a perceptible look, feel, and personality that people remember. It’s a crucial document for forming and fortifying your brand’s identity.
When marketers, web designers, and partners have clear and coherent guidance on how to create content, laid out in an easy-to-navigate document with a table of contents and plenty of headings, their ability to stray from the company’s branding is diminished, and there’s a greater chance of them producing something that fits. There’s also less oversight needed from managers, who can be confident their team members are producing content that is on brand.
A style guide is useful for creating content for any customer-facing channel, including:
- Your website
- Product packaging
- Social media
- Blogs (both writers and designers)
- Email signatures
- Business cards
Brand style guides are usually created as living PDF documents that are stored on a shared work drive. But they can also be turned into functional websites, which can be an easier way to access the guide and navigate the information through easy-to-reach menu bars. Creating a website takes a lot longer though, and requires more resources.
Every company can benefit from a style guide, but they should ideally be created when first setting up a business. When you’ve come up with a business name and your logo is designed and ready, the next logical step is to create a style guide that will inform your website design, your product packaging, and any other collateral you need to create.
Components of a style guide
These are the key components of a style guide, and why they are important to include.
Twitter’s logo guidelines. Image from Twitter
Your logo is the face of your brand. It’s the one thing that people recognise more than anything else, which is why it should remain consistent across your company’s branding.
The style guide should outline the acceptable versions of your logo, it’s sizing, and the amount of white space that should be used around it. It can also help to provide some visual examples of what is not allowed with your logo, like changing its colour, orientation, or any other butchery that will spoil the consistency of your branding.
Deloitte’s colour guidelines
Light is how we perceive the world, which bounces off objects and washes them in colour depending on the object’s chemical composition. Colour is one of the ways we identify things—just take a look at the awesome image below from Lego.
Image from I Like To Waste My Time
You’ll probably recognise these characters as The Simpsons, and all you needed was a handful of colours. This illustrates the importance of a consistent colour palette for your company’s branding.
Your style guide should outline the colour palette that team members can use in their designs. It’s good to be specific too—lay down colour rules for text, buttons, backgrounds, blocks of colour, dividers, and any other design elements you can think of. Showing examples of what you mean also helps to drive the point home.
Each colour should include its identifier for the web (HEX and RGB) and print (CMYK), so no mistakes are made by designers.
These typography guidelines are a good example from Slack’s style guide
We use words to convey our messages, so you’ll find them in pretty much every piece of marketing collateral. As with logos and colour, typography can quickly become a discernible characteristic of a company’s branding, and must remain consistent to bolster the brand’s identity.
The style guide must describe the fonts that can be used, their weight variations, and the horizontal and vertical spacing (known as “kerning” and “leading”) between letters and lines. It should also recommend font sizes for every major marketing channel used by the business, including the website, adverts, and product packaging.
A simple photography style guide from The Creative Pastor
A picture tells a thousand words, which is why images are so tricky to get right in style guides. A poorly chosen image can send the wrong message to customers, and your brand identity is slightly tarnished with characteristics that you don’t want to be associated with. For this reason, it’s absolutely essential to be clear on the types of images that can be used for your brand.
Images include photography, illustrations, icons, and videos that can be used. Because imagery conveys feelings more than anything else, these are some recommended areas to cover:
- The moods you’re trying to convey, like happy, serious, or determined
- The values you want to express, like hard-working, kind, or adventurous
- The types of people you want to use, like relatable, quirky, or unusual. You can also talk about the types of clothing they wear if necessary.
- The environments to be used
- Any preferred graphic design styles
- The general composition of the imagery. For example, you may want to avoid whacky and experimental compositional styles like Jackson Pollock’s art.
- The illustration styles that are acceptable (bold, solid lines, use of perspective, etc.)
As with the other elements in your style guide, you should include plenty of examples. In fact, imagery is the area where you should provide the most imagery and the clearest guidelines on their usage.
You should have a basic understanding of image copyright law too, and even list some safe sources for your brand’s imagery (like Shutterstock).
A snippet of Mailchimp’s huge content style guide. Image from Mailchimp
We’ve dealt exclusively with visual elements so far, and to round off a style guide we need to cover one final and important area: language.
The language section describes how your brand should sound, and also covers your various standards around the following:
- Voice tense (active or passive)
- Regional spellings
- Units of measure
You’ll want to explain the tone of voice you use when writing (e.g. assertive, casual, etc.), and include some examples of how you would say something compared with how you wouldn’t say it. Similarly, you can include a list of preferable words and undesirable words to make things nice and clear.
Brand style guide examples
Here’s a list of some excellent brand style guide examples, with a mixture of PDFs and websites.
What is a style guide—summary
Style guides are useful to companies of every size and age. From the smallest startups to the biggest conglomerates, they tell your content creators exactly how your brand should be portrayed, allowing them to reinforce a clear identity that is recognised and cherished by customers. A style guide allows you to create ultra-sharp branding across every one of your marketing channels, and build an army of loyal customers who will happily fly your company’s flag.
- Counts of Australian Businesses, including Entries and Exits, July 2017 – June 2021, Australian Bureau of Statistics
- Todd Kehoe, 2019, Counting the number of businesses in the United States – Albany Business Review, Biz Journals