The style guide design dilemma

There is a conundrum that plagues designers regularly, and we need to get it off our chest.

If you’re in a sizable office, take a sweeping glance around and no doubt perched next to a Macquarie dictionary and outdated reading material will sit a style guide.

The hefty guide is a definitive rule book that outlines everything a designer can do, and can’ t do, in every possible scenario.

From colour, spacing, size and relationship between elements, everything is accounted for.

Just like it’s fellow bookshelf companions, the style guide had its moment in time where it was needed.

It served to define a brand’s style and assisted organisations, in particular global entities, to stay consistent wherever they were doing business.

Yet in a modern age designers are finding the guide can lead a brand to remain stuck in that moment, even 10 or more years on, and an outdated brand is about as effective as a dusty dictionary.

While budget pressures may lead organisations to believe the guide can be a magical cure to save future branding costs, a dated and disengaging brand will fall flat.

If a brand expression is governed by a guide that is no longer relevant it can’t be dynamic nor respond to different environments, modern communication platforms or the evolution of consumer’s expectations.

Creating a brand is no longer simply just designing a logo and accompanying signage.

It now encapsulates a user’s full experience, in a physical and digital realm.

In particular, as we pass into a predominately digital world, which is fluid and responsive, the millimetre level command and control over elements or an overarching typeface is irrelevant.

Whatever the medium, the brand story journey begins with a solid and well developed foundation.

An expressive story that may have many layers, but at the core it never really changes.

Think about brands like Uber, Air Bnb or Instagram.

Since their inception their style and user experience has never been locked down by a specific set of rules and has instead continuously evolved.

But has their definitive brand story changed? Has their loyal following dropped off? Have they lost their brand as they evolve accordingly with their context?

Definitely not.

A brand needs to be constantly developing to stay relevant and exciting.

An expensive style guide that will take a huge chunk from your budget could be better spent developing a powerful brand expression, and continuing to layer it as the world around us inevitably evolves.

A style guide does have a place in the realm of design, but it will never take the place of a well thought out and constructed brand strategy.


Daniel Carroll

Daniel is a founding Director of Clarity and has been the driving force behind the success of Clarity’s creative team. In his career he has been instrumental in the design of hundreds of visual identities and his work can be seen on a huge range of platforms – from high profile annual reports to diesel trains.