Your style guide’s missing something — and it’s big

What’s incredibly important to any brand, and usually left out of style guides, brand books, and identity guides?

Hint: we often call it “the King.”

And no, it’s not Elvis.


Suuuuuurvey says … !

Here’s the tweet that sparked this line of thinking.

While I love the crowdsourcing of nomenclature, something about the winning answer (so far) kinda got to me.

The thing is, I’m a content strategist.

And there’s something I rarely see in brand style guides: voice, tone, and editorial guidelines.

That kills me for two reasons:

1. We’re always saying content matters.

And yet, when we get down to brass tacks, the rules around content always seem to get left out. How can we say content matters, then leave content guidelines out of our brand books?

2. The term style guide has historically referred to editorial style.

Just say style guide and anyone with a content background is thinking Strunk & White, Chicago, Associated Press. So now, design has not only left content out of the equation, but also co-opted the term!

Now, you’re probably wondering: where does he get this idea that brand style guides don’t cover voice, tone, and editorial standards?

Well, in part it’s experiential. I’m just recalling tons of instances of seeing so-called “style guides” that dig no deeper into content than what a heading or a button should look like. (And if experience has misled me, I’m eager to be corrected.)

But I’ve got something a little more concrete:

Whole lotta style guides goin’ on.

That’s a full-screen shot of styleguides.io, with no filters applied. It was 12MB before compression. Check out all those style guides!

Now, click the Voice and Tone and/or Writing filter buttons.

But not so many on voice and tone…

Yeah. Not so many style guides to check out now.

When we get down to brass tacks, the rules around content always seem to get left out

The 3 pillars of the web

Boiled down to its most fundamental elements, every website consists of 3 core elements, each of which maps to a different digital product discipline (or set of disciplines):

  1. Design, led by designers
  2. Functionality, led by developers
  3. Content, led by copywriters/editors/content strategists

Every style guide you look at on styleguides.io packs in tons of design and functionality guidelines. You’ve got CSS standards to follow, grid systems complete with code, interaction models, typographic hierarchies, color swatches — every detail of look and performance seems covered.

But where are the guidelines about words? How can we leave out one of the 3 core elements of any website?

Even some of the websites that do cover content do it in a vague and cursory way. Just take a look at:

While the last is, admittedly, fairly robust, it’s still one page of high-level guidance in a sea of much more detailed content.

Now, I’d be remiss if I omitted some of the standouts here. MailChimp has (justly famed) guides for both voice and tone and writing style. The British government, whose focus on content design puts the U.S.’s newborn 18F to shame, has an amazing style guide. And Envato’s Tuts+ does a solid job uniting voice, tone, and editorial style in one site.

But these are the outliers. The standouts. Which means that in a 3-pillared world, most websites are about to fall off their stools.

The value of content in digital design

Much has been said of how product designers and others in the web world should care more about content.

Oliver Reichenstein has famously called out that 95% of web design is typography (and thus, most of the web is written content).

There are superb articles on the power of microcopy.

37Signals has even famously—and quite rightly—declared that copywriting is interface design.

Hell, I’ve even written about how designers can improve their copy and why content should always lead the design process.

And yet, despite this ongoing narrative, concepts like voice, tone, and style continue to be ignored when brands think about enshrining their code, design, and branding practices.

But why?

I wish I knew. Because until we give content its due, the world will still be plagued with confusing, poorly written interfaces; awful content marketing; and worst of all, the dreaded ALL CAPS.

Okay, we’ll still be plagued by all those things. Just, hopefully, less so.

The value of content for brands

The value of a media company will be predominantly tied up in its brand; the amount of incremental revenue or reach that content can derive from being associated with that company. This will not depend upon another layout redesign or logo refresh. When content is atomized and accessed far from the publisher’s site, the content itself must act as an expression of brand. Its style must be a fingerprint, an instantly recognizable promise of quality that can inform, inspire or engage.

–Tony Haile, The Facebook papers Part 4: What’s a publisher to do?

Today, it’s become almost pointless to differentiate a business as a “media company.”

We’re all publishers, and we always have been. Because we crank out blog posts and infographics, videos and whitepapers. Because we publish ebooks, webinars, and podcasts.

In a world where people may very well not encounter our content within our “owned” ecosystems — our websites, fora, etc. — design can’t save the day.

Let me repeat that: Design will not carry your brand in this “omnichannel” age.

Content will.

Of course, design will play its part, because infographics, videos, and other visual content are just that. Content. And they’ll need to speak in your brand voice and tone too.

And that’s why your voice and tone guides and your brand design guides need to live together.

Not convinced content should be part of your brand’s guidelines?

Okay, then I’ve got 3 words for you:

Just do it.

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