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The Practicality of a Brand Guide on Graphic Design and Branding

This article discusses the functionality of a brand guide on practical branding purposes– the use of brand guides for creating marketing collaterals and graphics for a business.

Everyone is talking about design systems for web/ app/ UI/ UX design but no one really discusses the graphic design aspect. I would like to explore the discrepancies between a brand guide and design system, and how we can attempt to minimise the gap between creating marketing and graphic collaterals and branding itself.

Branding and Brand Guides
Firstly, let’s be clear here– having a brand guide does not equate to having branding. A brand guide is part of branding, but it is not branding. Branding is how the brand is actually carried out and portrayed to customers and consumers, while a brand guide is just a guide, a description of the brand characteristics- usually including the company mission, vision, visuals (and usage) such as logo, font(s), colour palette, and general identity such as tone of voice, how to make users feel, etc. (Of course, the depth of the details differ for each company.) If you can’t use the guide properly, or consistently, then you do not have “branding” for your brand. (Gosh the wordplays involved..)

Having a brand guide does not equate to having branding.

Brand Guides’ Limitations
From my experiences, brand guides have never been very practical tools for helping with creating graphic and marketing designs.

Graphic and marketing design is not as straightforward as web design because there’s more variety and option for creativity; especially when photography is part of the picture (oops, no pun intended).

Yes there’s (sometimes) concise descriptions of colours, fonts, types of graphics or images, and logos to be used, and even how it should be (or not be) used, but these information aren’t always practical commodity; it doesn’t help functionally in carrying out a consistent brand, especially when there are multiple designers involved under one branch. How so? You see, having a colour palette does not mean it will work or be accessible all the time, especially when used on images or different backgrounds and with different combinations. Having specific font choice(s) and combination does not mean it will be used the same way by different designers in terms of typographic scale, leading, tracking, etc.

The Problem with Brand Guides
I think the ultimate problem with brand guides is it’s a one-off document and it’s supposed to cater for every circumstances that might arise, unlike a design system that is flexible and always updated and only catered for (correct me if I’m wrong) the expectations of a website and/or app.

Brand guides offer the basic elements of a brand with too much flexibility or not enough. In most guides I’ve seen, the things that are mostly described in details are usually how to and how not to use the logo (i.e. don’t tilt it at an angle, don’t change the colours, don’t stretch it, etc.) But these are prettyyy basic design-courtesy. I hope.

Graphic design is a wide scope of work which spans the digital and print world and it’s no wonder it can be tough to rely on a fixed brand guide for the work that might be required.

So how much information should we define and how much actual consistency can we achieve when creating graphics for a business? Is a generic description or idea of a brand enough for graphic designers to deliver the correct messages and brand image to audiences? These are practical questions that are hard to answer, even for seasoned designers sometimes.

How to go about it?
In my ideal collateral design planning, I would choose to lay a firm foundation before working on stacking things up. If you can have a consistently “bland” brand and make an impact, you can build it up. But if your brand is all over the place, there’s no saving your brand image. The keyword here is consistent.

1. Brand Guide Target Audiences/ Users
Before anything, consider who the guide is for– is it for in-house designers, outsourced designers or even non-designers. Consider what is necessary information for each of these audiences.

Target Audience: A paragraph from a Brand Guide I received. You probably won’t be sending this guide to the advertising agency.

2. Types of collaterals
Building on from the foundation of a generic brand guide, think about the different kind of collaterals that will be required as a foundation. It doesn’t have to be extensively detailed, but it should be thought about in advance.

For example, the required social media content, posters and banners for digital space and for print. List out the recurring contents and the sizes of the templates so you know what you’ll be working with and what needs to be considered. Essentially you’re writing the answers to a FAQ no one asked for. And then refining it when someone does. 😅 Obviously, you’re not going to be able to predict every kind of graphic that will be needed down the road, so just focus on the ones that are necessary now. Basically the same way one would do with creating a design system (I assume), but in a different kind of complexity because it involves print and digital elements.

Essentially you’re writing the answers to a FAQ no one asked for. And then refining it when someone does.

3. Templates of collaterals
Consider the templates of these collaterals and the generic designs of each. This is the tough part; use similar elements like type placements, colour combinations and a flexible grid on different contents.

3a. Typography
Define the type ratio between text sizes. Two reasons why– 1) Unlike in web design, graphic design uses different font size for each design and it’s never really consistent– and it can’t be, since every project in itself is of a different artboard size. 2) Web based typography scale does not have enough contrast for graphic design.

So instead of defining base font size as 16px and heading as 2rem (2 times of the base font size), it should be set as 1:2. In other words, the base font is not fixed, unlike in web-based design.

3b. Photography & Images
Photography is a tough one– you either engage a photographer, use stock images or get your consumers to share their photos. All of these has its limits and difficulties, be it in time, pricing or consistency.

This could be a totally different post in itself since designers aren’t usually part of the photography team. But if you’re in a small company and have to take your own photos, take note of placements of object/ subject and whitespaces, as you do design. Consider using light instead of depth of field to depict dimension and depth because if not done well, depth of field sometimes causes a lot of distractions with objects in the background and it’s difficult to work with with text layered on top.

I believe post-editing should be kept to a minimum but once you take a photo without extra space around it it can be difficult to salvage. Though keep in mind cropping reduces photo quality unless your camera lens (and body) is superb.

3c. Style elements
Consider style elements like blocks, frames, any design elements that is not type or image. Things like logo placements, opacity, whether it needs a background if it’s placed on a complicated image or should the image be edited instead, etc.

4. Exporting settings
Exporting settings are also a potential thing to add, even though it’s not “graphic”, things can get messy if you have CMYK and Pantone print jobs on the same project. Other minor things that could be potentially included are things like bleed size and margins.

In Conclusion
Marketing design’s most important aspect is probably to be captivating, but as designers, we are not only creating loud designs, we are also creating solutions for a business by building a bridge between them and their audiences via consistent visuals and messages. Yes, be captivating, but be consistently so.

Flashiness is important for sales and marketing but consistency and brand image is important in the long run for a business. And as a business, one should always consider the long term goal.

TL;DR: Whatever you do, be consistent.

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Life, by designers.

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Esther Teo

Esther Teo

Human. Designer. Feels a lot. Thinks a lot. Writes sometime. https://esthertch.com

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