How to Make a Style Guide
The purpose of a style guide is to define who you are as a business, and to establish a set of visual and tonal guidelines ensuring consistency in your brand image. Taking the time to research, brainstorm, refine, and identify each element of your brand will not only save you time in the future, it will also elevate your image of professionalism to your clients, communicate cohesiveness to your audience, and establish goal-oriented intent behind your actions. Below, I’ll take you through each component of a style guide, and the steps involved in building a successful and cohesive brand image.
Establish Your 'Why'
Before you start diving into the visuals, it’s important to establish what's at the core of your business. Figure out your why. What is your purpose as a company? Why do you do what you do?
It’s very easy to settle on a ‘why’ that is actually a result. For example, if you are a photographer, you might say that your purpose is to take meaningful photos- when in truth, a meaningful photo is really a result of your purpose. Ask yourself WHY you want to take meaningful photos? Repeat this exercise of asking yourself ‘why?’ until you feel you have gotten to the root of your driving purpose. A great video explaining the difference of intentions and actions is Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, which I’ve linked here.
Mission and Vision Statements
Once you’ve established your purpose, expand around that idea and come up with your mission and your vision. Your mission should define what your core actions are as a company. Driven by the intent behind your purpose, what will you do in order to fulfill your ‘why’? Going back to the photographer example, you might say your mission is to collaborate with your clients at every step in order to fully embody their tastes, personality, and emotion- resulting in the delivery of meaningful photos.
Lastly, your vision should define what your legacy will be. What is on the horizon for your company, what will you always be working towards? Think bigger than a 1 year or 5 year goal. What will be the one thing, inspiration, or concept that you want to leave behind? I've linked a great article diving in to the purpose of mission and vision statements here.
Identify Your Ideal Client
The next step is to identify your client. Who is your ideal client? What is their personality like? Try to imagine yourself working alongside someone who truly embodies everything you want in a customer. Brainstorm adjectives, character traits, and values to describe this person. It may be helpful to attach a name, as if you are describing a real person. Take your time to brainstorm, and fuel your process with research about similar companies/competition, and what the clientele is like out there.
Tip: A great place to gain some perspective is looking at your competition’s reviews to see customers’ thoughts on what they liked and didn’t like, to get a sense of the kind of clients that are out there. This can help you define the traits that set you apart from your competition, and positions you within your market. What is the edge you’ve got over everyone else, that will make your ideal client choose you over others? Remember to not think about quantity of clients- your goal here is to define who your most idealistic client is.
Set Out Your Core Principles
Next, it’s time to identify your core principles and tone as a company. Brainstorm different elements that define you as a company. These should be directly related to your why, your mission, and your vision. For example, ‘I offer the best possible quality’, ‘My process is rooted in communication and collaboration’, or ‘I always act in the best interest of the client’. What are the guidelines to which you act with your clients, that best represent and communicate your core values?
Think about the tone of how you’d like to communicate with your audience. This will influence your phrasing for all types of communication- including social media, website content, or promotional content. Do you want to be open, laid back, and friendly? Or do you want to be lively, bright, and bubbly? Ask yourself how you want to communicate with your audience. Some great exercises to define this are brainstorming adjectives of how you’d like to be described as a company, and making lists of words you like/don’t like.
Now that you’ve established your why, your core values, and your tone, it’s time to get to the visual elements. (It’s important to establish all of the above before diving into the logo, colour palette, typography, and imagery- as all the visual elements should communicate everything you’ve worked on thus far.)
Design Your Logo
The logo is a crucial part of a company, and time must be spent on developing a visual icon that will communicate what you stand for.
Whether or not you've got some ideas floating around your head, do some research into your competitors. Ask yourself what you like and don’t like about other logos out there. Pull inspiration of logos that you admire, and determine what aspects you like and why. Focus on shapes, text, colour, size, and composition.
Once you’ve done some research and have established a good starting point, sketch out some ideas. Play with manipulating different elements, such as size, composition, and adding text. When you’ve got an idea you like, further develop and make variations of your single idea. You essentially want to exhaust yourself of all the possible outcomes. A great book to reference for this step is Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming by Ellen Lupton.
Once you’ve established your design, it’s time to think about some guidelines. How large should the logo be on print media? On web? Does it have colour to it? If so, define the situations in which the colour logo should be used, or when the black and white version should be used. Have minimum and maximum spacing guidelines. Try to think about every possible situation in which the logo may be used in print or digital, and what aesthetic decisions you will have to make when creating content. You want to establish all the guidelines now, so you maintain consistency in the future. A great idea is to look up style guides for companies, such as Apple, Twitter, or Adobe, and scroll through their PDF’s to see what parameters they have set out for their logos. It gives you a good sense of how in-depth these guidelines can go.
Set Your Colour Palette
When establishing your colour palette, again do some research into the competition. Strive to not copy, but instead to determine what you like and don’t like about different colour combinations. Doing some research into the emotions associated with each colour may also be helpful to you. Ensure the emotions you evoke with the colours you use complement the core principles and tone you want to communicate with your audience. For example, if you want your tone to be bold any punchy, go for brighter colours such as red or orange, and stay away from light pastels or neutral tones.
Identify the colours you use by all colour codes (RGB, CMYK, pantone etc.) so your palette can be implemented in a number of digital and print media. At this stage, you should also set out guidelines for usage. Which colour will be used in which situation? Are some exclusively for the logo, the background, or headline text? If you’re just starting out, these guidelines may shift as you design your website or products- just be sure to update your style guide once you’ve got your main rules set in stone.
Next is typography. Determine what fonts you’d like to use for your Heading, Subheading, and Body copy. Think about how the type of font communicates your core principles and tone. If you want to be fun, bubbly, and lively, should you go with a Traditional Serif or a Hand-written Calligraphy font? Fonts play a huge role in your aesthetic communication to your audience. If you’re interested in reading more into it, pick up Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton as a helpful resource for this step.
As your browse for fonts, experiment with key words you anticipate you will use on your website, with product packaging, or on your marketing materials.
I also like to establish 1 or 2 specialty fonts, saved for promoting things like sales, limited edition items, or other special offers. Again, establish guidelines for when to use which font, size minimums and maximums, justification, and/or kerning and leading manipulation.
Think About Imagery
Lastly, it’s time to think about imagery. With all the work you’ve done, your images should reflect your core values, your mission, your tone, and your colour palette. Pull inspiration of examples of images you like, and images you don’t like. Establish some guidelines for composition, lighting, usage, and/or content. Make a mood board of these do’s and don’t’s that you can refer to in the future.
BONUS: Add Social Media Communication Guidelines
With social media being the main platforms some of us do our marketing and promotions, it may be helpful to establish some communication guidelines for each platform. Determine what kind of information you will share on each platform, the frequency you will post or communicate with your audience, and if your tone or language will shift from platform to platform. For example, your Twitter account might be more relaxed in tone compared to your Facebook page.
It's important to go through this branding exercise to really establish who you are as a company, and position yourself in your industry. Refer back to your style guide frequently, and ensure your team members understand the foundation and intent behind your actions, communication, and visual aesthetic.