Brand guidelines vs. brand guidance: Building a tool that’s generative, not restrictive

Brand books. Brand guidelines. Brand bibles. Rules. Principles. Navigating the world of brand guidelines can be a bit daunting. Things look different when you’re on the client side of the fence, versus the brand agency, versus using guidelines as a freelancer. They can be a bible of rules or a beacon for creativity. Really just depends on what you need.

As we’ve built our brand, we’ve built our guidelines with a bias for ‘just enough, just in time.’ Why:

  • Building extensive lists of do’s and don’ts is a lot of work in and of itself
  • Rules are meant to be broken
  • We’re not done building our system

…but…at some point, you need to document in order to scale our team. We’re making a lot more stuff, with a lot more people, then when we started out back in January. So we started cementing a more solid version of our guidelines. They’re evolving. As is our brand. As are we all! Anyways.

Things we considered as we’ve been looking at building guidelines:

  • Who will use them?
  • When do they get changed?
  • How large is our organisation? How quickly is it growing?
  • What kind of design literacy exists in your organisation?
  • How tight is your identity system? What kind of designers will you be working with?
  • What gaps become apparent as freelancers use your existing guidelines or references? Where do they go ‘astray’ and how can you communicate your intent / vision more clearly?

Too often brand guidelines are written well before a system’s actually tested, and so the applications are designed for the brand guidelines. That’s silly. So we spent some time looking at what’s out there and what we need.

What’s out there: There’s heaps of traditional brand books. Then there’s the more interesting ones. The ones that don’t follow the rules. Interestingly, they’re from the companies that don’t necessarily follow the rules. Skittles is a cross between a creative manifesto and a brand book. Skype is heavy on introducing a new product, and what it can do for you.

From the more ‘out there’ end of brand books: Skype and Skittles.

What we need: we’re a relatively small creative team. We work with freelancers, but mostly on the relatively senior end of the spectrum. They’ve been part of building this identity with us. We’re an organisation that has a high level of support for an evolving brand. We want to build this as creative guidance as we build the way we present ourselves to the world, not police pixels and logo size…But in order to be flexible, you have to start from a shared understanding. So we need something in order to communicate the intent of this system and bring others in as we develop it.

Who can forget this brand book? I’ve thoroughly enjoyed TikTok rediscovering this.

When you can’t find good references, I find it’s a good time to question the premise. We used this as an opportunity to have a bit of a rethink of how we structure and write our own guidelines. After thinking / working on this for a few weeks, my lessons:

  • The tools you make to help guide creative expression are as important as the creative idea itself. The whole media is the message etc. If you get a book of rules, you’re going to play differently with an idea than if you’re given a list of question.
  • Consider the purpose and usage of your guidelines. If you have 400 suppliers using your guidelines, you probably need some tight rules. 4 freelancers? You probably need something a bit different.
  • Format matters. Because our brand is emerging, so are our guidelines. Managing a bajillion PDFs isn’t helpful for us — too easy for things to get outdated really fast. We manage ours in Google Slides — gives the team the ability to comment, ask questions, and link to work easily.
  • Socialising the purpose of the guidelines helps keep everyone on the same page: since last August, we’ve been talking about how brands evolve and change over time — so it’s not come as a major surprise to anyone that our guidelines are set to evolve too.

TLDR: When you translate all that richness of a brand idea to a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ — things get oversimplified. It’s par for the course. But I’d rather set our team up to grasp that richness and work with it, then force a distillation of principles for the sake of fitting on a slide deck. We’re doing that work now, and we’ll continue to share what we learn as we go.

sydney via seattle. believer. growth @futuresuper. ex strategy @forthepeopleau. experimenting with writing.