What makes a good brand guideline?

Over the last six months, I honestly don’t think anyone has seen or analyzed the usage of more brand guidelines (or manuals or book) than me. Not only have I researched the topic for endless hours, but I’ve also contributed to building a lot of them and analyzed every single guideline produced in Brandpad. This is my totally subjective take on what makes a good one.

Example from the Airtime template.

Accessible.

First things first, for a guideline to be valuable at all it first has to be used. I’m sure that sounds redundant, but if you really think about it, making something that is as easy to start using as possible is half the job when it comes to guides. For every small point of friction in making use of the identity, the less chance it is that people will actually do so successfully. Thus, accessibility is essential for brand guidelines in particular. Accessibility can be achieved in a dozen of way. It doesn’t really matter what the format of the guideline is, the important thing is that it’s within arms reach when someone needs it. If it’s not, they’ll wing it instead.

Simple.

Visual identities are often anchored in intangibles that non-designers don’t grasp fully. That’s fine, most good identities have deep concepts. However, the more complex the ruling and guides for that identity is, the less chance it is that people other than the original designer will put them to use correctly. Imagine a key account manager updating a keynote presentation. He just wants to know how not to fuck up. The guideline should simply help him with that, while understanding that he doesn’t have the same eye for visuals as the designer. Generally speaking, I see that the more straight-forward and direct the rules are, the easier it is for others to adopt them. Try to avoid custom ruling if possible, i.e ruling that applies only to very specific cases. Based on the data we have from the guidelines on Brandpad, there is no doubt that there is a correlation between ease of use (we call this brand usability) and usage. And if you’re like me, we can assume that the more a guideline is used, the better the outcome.

One-stop.

“A single source of truth” is one of those terms that have been thrown around a lot lately. Deservingly, maybe. Being the only thing you need to reference when working on something makes it easier to get people to adopt it. The more touch points involved, the bigger the chances are for something to go wrong. Actually, I’d even say that the chances increase per touchpoint. If I had to use four different systems to send an email, I’d probably call instead. It’s the same for guidelines. For instance, getting files from one place and having to reference another document on how to use the files you just got creates a spot of friction. That spot often causes people to skip the last step in that process. For an identity, this is usually one of the biggest reasons for misusage; people simply have to put in too much effort to do it right.

Updated.

To be honest, none of these factors really matter unless the guideline is kept up to date. Having a guideline that contains the wrong information (typically an older version) or wrong assets simply defeats the purpose of having it in the first place. It will impact the audience’s willingness to use it and it doesn’t take more than one or two times wrongs before people stop trusting it as the place to go. Making sure the identity is kept up to date and consistent through new touch points, content, material, etc. is also key to creating a successful brand, so laying the groundwork for easily keeping the guideline up to date is often valuable in the long run.

All in all.

All in all, a good guideline bridge your intentions (as a designer) together with the ease of use a non-designer needs, and makes it almost impossible to use the identity in the wrong way. It’s easy to find, clear and trustworthy. If you believe that using the identity as intended is important in creating a successful brand—you should also believe that good brand guidelines are important.

Brandpad is a brand guidelines system made for designers and studios that are passionate about brand identities. If a tailor-made, digital brand guideline sounds like something you and your clients can benefit from, you can try out the system for free at www.brandpad.io.
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