writing a brand style guide

You’ll often hear branding wonks refer to style guides as if they’re some sort of magic formula, known only to practitioners of marketing dark arts. They can be complex, but in reality you can create your own simple version for your logo. Here are some tips.

Sometimes people refer to brands and logos as if they’re the same thing. They kinda are, but not exactly – your logo is what your company looks like to potential customers. Branding is how they feel when they see it used in a proper setting. When it comes to branding WITH your logo, there’s only one word you need to know.

Consistency.

From your logo usage to your website colors. From your Twitter avatars to your Facebook pages. Whether you capitalize this word or that, all the way down to what typeface you use when you’re capitalizing, or not capitalizing. Consistency breeds familiarity with your brand. Familiarity breeds comfort, not contempt as the old saying goes. Do you have to be an expert to write a style guide? Far from it. Anyone can do it, once you’ve figured out the things you’re going to be consistent about. True, some style guides are the thickness of War and Peace, yours doesn’t have to be but it will require a little understanding about some technical aspects of your logo. Let’s take a look at what you don’t want anything in your style guide to look like.This Spotify logo usage chart, part of their brand style guide, got out a few years ago and was mocked by the Twitter villagers for a while for its insane macro level details. While this graph deals more with what logo goes where, and is very accurate in that regard, it LOOKS like a degree in Astrophysics is required to understand it.

Which discourages people from using them.

Which is missing the point about a simple style guide – the one you’re probably going to need – which leads to inconsistency, literally the opposite of what we want to accomplish. The idea is to keep things robust and complete, but simple enough for anyone to follow at first glance. A brand style guide is a how-to manual of how your visual buts and pieces fit together.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Brand overview. The essentials.

The first thing we want to get is a handle on the DNA of your new business or startup. If you’ve had a logo designed already, that’s the info you gave the designer at the beginning in your creative brief. You can use that here. If you haven’t had a logo designed already, what are you waiting for? You can use the info you send to us. If you haven’t had the need, or desire, to jot things down about your new company, now’s as good a time as any. There’s some basics to begin with:
Your company mission: Strip all the verbiage you have down to as few words as possible. Why does your company exist, how do you want to change the world (in small degrees is fine) and where do you want to be if everything plays out.
Your company’s market: Try to figure out who your customers are or might be. How is your company going to make their lives easier. Speed, proficiency, pricing? These are all factors that will play into future design work, so handy to have.
Your company persona: If your company was to have a personality, what would it be like? Humorous. Edgy. Sleek. Authoritative. High class. Carnival barker. Probably ignore the last one, but you get the idea.
All of these things play into your company style, whether you’re doing it or hiring someone else to do it for you. Now we’re going to cover your logo, which while not entirely your brand, certainly an important part of it. Bedrock stuff.

Your logo assets.

In a previous life I used to design a lot of sports event posters and ads, and it never ceased to amaze me that sponsors – people who paid to be connected to the event – could never find high resolution or vector versions of their logo to slap on the ad or poster (here’s what a vector is.) They had gone to the expense and considerable effort to have one designed and paid to be an event sponsor, but when it came to getting that logo on the space they had bought, only had low-resolution JPGs or scans of business cards to send (yikes.) So here’s what we’re going to do – get the folder with all your various logo bits and pieces.

Now give it to every person in your organization who might get asked for it.

Any time you change your logo, make sure they get that one too. This way, regardless of who picks up the phone or answers the email at your office, they’ll be able to give a pristine version(s) of your logo to whoever’s asking for it. It’s critical that everyone has the most current versions of your logo too, as different variations floating around leads to inconsistency which as we’ve already noted, we’re trying to avoid.

Logo variations.

When it comes to your logo, you’re going to need a lot of versions, variations and permutations. Here’s a basic set.

1) Print color for neutral backgrounds – with Pantones and CMYK breaks.

2) Print color for dark backgrounds – your logo will need to sit on dark, even black, backgrounds from time to time so you’ll need a reversed version. With darker parts – your name for example – turned white, or with a keyline around the entire shebang. This needs to be in your corporate colors too.

3) Print black and white versions for neutral and dark backgrounds – you’re going to need one color versions of your logo (not necessarily to print as black but that’s how the artwork will be set up) for both types of backgrounds. These will (or should) be in vector too.
3) Web color versions for neutral and dark backgrounds – a web version of your logo as a JPG (which has a background) and the same thing as a transparent PNG (which doesn’t.)

There’s more finicky versions if you want to drill down some more, but this list is adequate to build a style guide around as well as to put in the file folders you distribute to everyone on staff. You’ll need to decide which logo variation you want to use in what setting, and unless there’s some real visual problems, that’s not actually as important as actually sticking to what you decide to put where.

Corporate colors.

If you’ve already had a logo designed and had colors assigned to it, those are pretty much your corporate colors. You don’t want to stray too far from these at any given point, consistent color use being as important as the logo itself. If you haven’t picked some colors for your logo yet, here’s a crash course that’ll help you pick ’em. Your style guide is going to need whatever colors you pick in several formulas:

1) Pantone mixes. These are the color swatches in the PMS Color Guide that are closest to the colors in your logo. Keep in mind that not all colors you see on a monitor can be translated to Pantone.

2) CMYK breaks. – this is the various percentages of the 4 process colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) featured in the various bits and pieces of your logo.

3) HEX numbers. Hexadecimal numbers are six digit number and letter combinations (preceeded by a hash tag) that tell any computer what color it’s supposed to be. These are code-based and universal. This is a real easy way to shunt color information around.

Complimentary color palette.

Now that you’ve sorted out what your corporate colors actually are, you’re going to need some colors that your logo works nicely with – complimentary colors as in helpful and harmonious as opposed to actual complimentary colors from a color wheel – and the point here is to keep it pared down to a limited number. Four’s a good target. You want them far enough in tone so that they don’t blend into one and other if used together. Think dark, less dark, neutral, lighter kind of thing. If color’s your bag, this is easy. If it’s not, there are color palette generators all over the web to help you out. You’ll need all the color formulas for these colors too. Then go back and figure out which logo variation works when sitting on what color, something the Spotify style guide chart we looked at earlier does to an exceptional degree.

White space.

This is a concept that’s often misunderstood but actually relatively simple. White space refers to the amount of room your logo needs around it, when sitting with other things like type or art, to look like it’s comfortable in its own skin. what is logo white spaceAny less than this and your logo may start to look uncomfortable – squeezed and squashed. If you’re a big player, people are more likely to heed this suggestion in external projects, but you can make sure this white space guide is consistent in internal projects regardless of how big or small your enterprise is. A critical component of your white space is that your logo be centered VISUALLY inside the bounding box it needs, not absolutely by software auto-center. Logos with icons sitting on top of text need to be nudged north a bit or they look like they’re sinking down the box. Words with hanging letters (round bits that stick out from the absolute edge so that they look centered) can throw things off a bit too. Another worthwhile thing to put in this section would be the aspect ratio of your logo – that way everyone will know how the X (width) and Y (height) relationship is supposed to be and don’t go squishing or stretching your logo when adding it to collateral design material. Our old house logo was too tall and skinny for years before anyone noticed.

Typography.

There’s probably some typography in your logo – either off the shelf typeface or custom letterforms – and you’re going to need some body font that works with it, be it on your business card, letterhead or some other paraphernalia. It can be the same font as the one used in your logo or tagline (though a weight variant is helpful) or it may be something completely different. It only has to look like it fits. You may want to pick two or three typefaces – one for body, another for large headers, another for subheads, but any more than this and your brochures and letters will start looking like pasted-together ransom notes. Decide which font you’re going to use where and stick to that too. Some things to keep in mind here:
1) Your logo designer may not be able to give you the fonts they used in your logo. If you don’t already own the family, you’ll have to buy a copy of your own. It’s often better to start with a font that can be purchased beforehand. Fontspring has a decent selection at very reasonable pricing.
2) Your license may prevent you from giving copies of these fonts to anyone who designs stuff for you down the road. They may have to buy a copy of their own and tack the additional charge onto your bill. Sure, they could use fonts that are in the same ballpark and they do own, but the idea here is consistency, and that may cost you a few bucks here and there.

Writing styles.

Another thing to think about here is some style guide rules to things you write, whether it’s on your website or in a brochure you send to customers. Are the headers bold or no? Do you capitalize each word in a header? Do you capitalize them all or use lower case on words like “ok” or “and.” Do you end a subhead sentence with a period or not? It’s all relatively straightforward stuff, but you’ll forget your own rules from time to time and it’s always helpful if you have it written down somewhere. See how a brand style guide comes in handy now?

Let’s put yours together now.

Your brand style guide.

Here’s a table of contents for a nominal brand style guide that will help you keep everything on the up-and-up.

1) Cover (let’s call it “your company” brand style guide.)
2) A paragraph that describes your company personality.
2) Logo versions – all the different logo variations and where/when to use them.
3) White space recommendations – aspect ratio and minimum bounding box.
4) Corporate colors with various configurations and formulas.
5) Typefaces to use and when to use them. Basic writing and punctuation style guidelines.
6) Somebody to call or email if you need the logo that this style guide is about.

That’s about it. You can drill down even further if you like, but this is a pretty good start. Your very own minimalist style guide for your very own company.

Now go be consistent with it.