Breaking Your Own Rules

Creating a digital brand system that encourages creativity

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You awake in a cold sweat. Moments ago the bright blue lights pulsating behind you were so vivid. You got away this time, but next time you may not be so lucky. The Brand Police are still out there, and they are looking for any and all detractors to punish. Like an Orwellian dystopia, we’ve all felt the watchful eye of the Brand Police waiting for us to recreate a scenario deserving of the dreaded red X.

Brands at scale are difficult to architect well and harder still to maintain. Excellence is easily implemented when we devise the rules, but arduous to sustain when our guidelines are tested. Often, we take the approach of remedying the symptoms of a broken brand system while ignoring the underlying ailment.

Successful brands are personal. We can all remember our first Coke or our inaugural pair of you name it. We remember these moments because they meant something to us. Brands at their best build a collective experience.

Creating a healthy brand system should be as collective as the experience we hope they will foster.

We create ownership and innovation not by creating more red tape but by fostering creativity through a thoughtful system. However we must know the anatomy to understand how to craft its parts.

The Anatomy of a Digital Brand System

Most brands have dozens of online expressions. Shaped by our websites, social media, and apps, managing this infinite pool of expressions can feel daunting. When things go wrong, they tend to go very wrong. There’s nothing like firing up your computer to discover a colleague has gone rogue and the brand typeface is now Papyrus.

The answer to this headache comes through a thoughtful digital brand system. Ok great, so what does that mean?

A digital brand system is a collection of purposeful design components that convey your brand expression across all devices.

Traditional brand elements, such as logos, color, and typography, compose the foundation of this system. Layered on top of that are the necessary elements that make up interfaces and interactions.

Let’s identify the parts and ask the right questions…

  • Logos: How many variations of your logo do you use across your online ecosystem? Are the uses intentional?
  • Color: What brand colors express themselves online? Do your primary and secondary color palettes have web-friendly versions? What brand colors don’t work well digitally?
  • Typography: What typefaces do you use online? What are the technical limitations to your brand fonts? Do you have helpful fall-back fonts that are email friendly?
  • Graphics: What graphical expressions and patterns manifest themselves online? Is the aesthetic of what users experience a memorable moment or a jarring inconsistency? Do you have an illustration or iconography style?
  • Imagery: How does your imagery, still or moving, communicate your brand digitally? Do you have a consistent process to creating and editing media?
  • UI: What interface controls are hallmarks of your online brand? Is it easy for users to engage with your content? How consistent are these controls across the digital spectrum?
  • Responsiveness: How does your brand interact in the sea of infinite screen sizes? Is there a clear rationale to how components scale? Are elements of your brand considered in both large and small formats?
  • Motion: Is there a pace to your online brand? Are interaction cues and transitions consistent across your online expressions, websites, and apps?

This toolkit is the foundation of a digital brand system. On this framework we can layer on guidelines and resources. We can also layer on rich context that allows our teams to consider each component and its application well.

Rules: Do we even need them?

Rules are a part of life. We followed them implicitly on the way into the office this morning, whether it was yielding at a crosswalk or deciding to stop at a red light. Without a common set of rules, society would fall into complete chaos. (There are plenty of cheesy movie plots proving this point.)

Every designer also implicitly follows rules. We work within the bounds of timeless guiding forces, like typography or color theory. Rules don’t limit designers; rather, they provide them with common ground.

A successful digital brand system encompasses more than just brand guidelines.

Where brand guidelines offer tailored advice, a system offers a methodology. Guidelines can successfully contain an existing brand. However, they lack the ability to account for an evolving system of new additions.

Rules without the necessary context can feel debilitating to a lot of practitioners who are simply trying to create something new from an established framework. Such rules can also discourage the very thing they were engineered best to encourage: creativity.

Rules also have a tremendous potential to educate. A speed limit sign loses its value when drivers stop paying attention to it, and the sign is no longer an opportunity to educate drivers about highway safety. This philosophy can easily be injected into our digital brand systems.

The Art of Brand Maintenance

Pivoting from legalistic guidelines to future-proof inspiration requires creating more than just rules. Instead, we must provide thoughtful resources. When design is teachable and accessible, it becomes a collective endeavor.

What this requires of our teams is to no longer be the Brand Police but to be a helpful guide resourcing all those using the digital brand system in their work. We accomplish this by creating guidelines rich with the context in which our teams will be using them.

What this requires of designers is to think of the components they create as flexible, adaptive, and useful cornerstones of the digital brand expression. This requires research. It requires hearing from an organization and problem-solving in a way that allows practitioners to be a part of the creative process. Let’s stop reacting with more red tape.

Context gives users common understanding. We can’t simply suggest a rule; we must illustrate the benefits of this guideline in practice. Similarly, we have to show how this principle could adapt to its container. Though we cannot predict every possible outcome, we can create a system that can be easily amended, flexing to match its usage.

Different practitioners will need different resources. This is where education becomes crucial to ownership and sustainability. Creating accessible and clear case studies of the system in practice fuels the imagination for innovation. Comments starting with language like, “I see how we are using our brand green when we __________ , what if we considered…” can be leveraged to form change that addresses a growing set of needs.

The collective perspective our team can offer an evolving design system is invaluable. Allow users and team-members alike to litmus test whether the system accommodates these needs. The beauty of digital design is with some elbow-grease all systems can adapt.

Brands are living, breathing ecosystems that require thoughtful, empathetic architects and engaged contributors.

Inspire your organization by helping them navigate the complexity well. Creativity will be the natural byproduct.

This post was inspired by a post I wrote for edUI. Check that out here:


Jeremy is relentlessly optimistic about the power of design to make the world a better place. As Senior Digital Designer at Journey Group, he focuses on building intuitive experiences & meaningful brands.

Design w/ purpose.