I’ve just completed a set of comprehensive brand identity guidelines for a client, so with this fresh in my mind I thought we’d take a closer look at… you guessed it! Brand identity guidelines, what they are and why they’re a good investment.
You’ve invested a great deal of time and money developing your brand, defining your core values and how to communicate them to your audience. You’ve hired a designer, got that fab logo, really nailed that brand essence – now what? Without a clear direction for implementing your brand’s visual assets, it’s gonna be challenging to maintain that all-important cohesive look over time. Cue our humble hero: the brand identity guidelines!
What are brand identity guidelines?
They are what it says on the box: a set of guidelines to ensure correct use of a brand’s visual identity. They play a crucial part in keeping your visual communication coherent over time, especially if your brand identity will be implemented by others – like, say… an employee, a virtual assistant, a design agency, or a print shop. So it’s kinda like a user guide for your brand; sometimes it comes in the form of a printed document, but often it’s a PDF or an online directory. Regardless of format, it’s a system outlining how the individual design elements should be put together in order to create a unique and recognisable look.
What will you normally find in these guidelines?
No two brands are the same, and so the content and extent of the brand identity guidelines will vary greatly depending on each brand’s requirements. Some only need the basics…
- The logo and any logo variations, sub marks and icons
- Colour palette, complete with all the different colour codes (Pantone, CMYK, RGB, HEX etc)
- Typography, outlining which typefaces to use for your brand
…while many require more complex guidelines that really go into the finer details, outlining things like:
- Logo placement and safe area – this is important to avoid “crowding” the logo with other elements, placing it too close to other elements on the page
- Where/when/how to use the different logo variations – in certain situations, the primary logo might not fit, so it’s important to have other options up your sleeve
- How to use any additional design elements, like illustrations, icons and other decorative elements that work alongside the logo to complete the brand identity
- Detailed guidelines for which typefaces and font sizes should be used in various settings, like headings, sub-headings, body text…
- Design examples – you’ll often find detailed instructions for what a business card or letterhead should look like. Or your presentation slides. Or your apparel. Or… yeah, anything really. Again: totally depends on the complexity of your business’ needs.
- Image style – using photos and/or illustrations can completely change the look and feel of the brand identity, so it’s important to stick to one distinct look
- «Tone of voice» – a brand identity does not consist solely of visual elements; how you communicate verbally and in writing is also an important part of the brand’s personality
Whenever I design a visual identity for a client, I always deliver a basic one-page brand board as the very minimum, even for my entry level packages. Why? Because inconsistency is one of the worst things you can do for your brand. Your website, your Instagram feed, and your business cards may all look stunning – but if they look like they come from three different companies, they’re still not doing your brand any favours. A brand board presents all of your brand’s visual assets on one page, for when you need that colour reference, or you’re struggling to remember what font to use. It gives you an instant overview of your brand’s look and feel, and will act as a guide to help you stay consistent. You’ve probably seen them on Pinterest, gorgeous displays of logos, fonts and colour palettes. But a brand board is more than just eye candy – it’s a basic roadmap for how to use your brand!
For many startups and small businesses this will be enough to start off with, but if your budget will stretch, I absolutely recommend investing in more detailed guidelines from an early phase.
Why do you need brand identity guidelines?
Well in short: they help you keep your brand consistent. It doesn’t matter if you’re a solopreneur or a large organisation, in order to establish trust and credibility it’s crucial to maintain the same look across all touchpoints. Without these guidelines, you run the risk of completely changing the brand message in a flash – just because someone didn’t know how to use your logo correctly, or what fonts to use. That sucks!
They may very well save you money, because any designer you outsource to won’t have to spend hours researching your brand and digging for fonts and colour codes. I think both you and the designer will agree that their time is better spent actually designing!
They’ll also help you save time if you’re DIYing your marketing materials, because you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time you crack InDesign open or log in to your Canva account. You already have a clear recipe to follow!
The word consistency is one that often comes up when we talk about branding.
That’s because to communicate your brand values effectively, you have to be consistent. If you change your logo’s colour to make it fit a certain setting, you’re instantly making it less recognisable – and if this is repeated over time, each time with a slight variation in the appearance, you risk weakening your brand.
Your brand identity guidelines aren’t there to be a pain in the arse and a barrier to creativity, but to ensure effective and correct use of your brand’s visual and verbal elements, so that your brand comes across as coherent and professional. Always. That’s how you build a strong and recognisable brand over time!
A good set of brand identity guidelines include more than just a brief overview of logo variations and colours. It defines and sets a clear direction for how to use the brand’s individual elements together, and perhaps even more importantly: how not to use them.
The guidelines will be useful for anyone communicating something on behalf of the brand, and removes the risk of a conflict between personal preferences and the pre-defined brand style.
It’s in human nature to want to put our own mark on things, so if Vera VA feels like adding a touch of hot pink to your muted colour palette it wouldn’t be the first time someone’s personal taste got the better of them, if you see what I mean!
But jokes aside, I want you to think of brand guidelines as a toolkit, not a straightjacket. It’s not all strict rules and no-nos. A brand is a living creature, and it can (and should) develop as time passes, adapting to changing circumstances. The brand identity guidelines should allow for this change, within certain boundaries.
You might be thinking “but Petchy, my business is tiny! I don’t need complex guidelines!” Right now you might be the only person to use the brand’s visual identity, and having such detailed guidelines could feel a bit over the top. But have you considered what happens when you want to expand your team? What happens if your trusty designer is suddenly unavailable and you need to find a new one? Or if you hire a VA (virtual assistant) to deal with your social media accounts? Just like that, you have more people on board, people that probably don’t have any prior knowledge of your brand. This is the time for those brand identity guidelines to shine! How nice would it be to be able to just hand it over, removing any doubts or confusion about correct logo placement, what fonts or colours to use, or how to formulate written content?
Spoiler alert: Very nice, actually!
I need one of those guideline things! Where do I get one? Brand identity guidelines are most commonly designed as part of the logo and identity design process, or a rebranding process. Just starting to build your brand? Perfect timing! If you already have an established brand, but lack that overall consistency? No worries, it’s never too late to implement brand identity guidelines.
What you could do is to approach a designer and have them create a system around your existing brand elements. If you’re a bit all over the place when it comes to the colours and fonts you use, they should be able to narrow it down for you, or if you have folders full of slightly different logo variations and you’re never really sure which one to use (so maybe you create yet another variation…. These things can snowball fast!) – those are the kind of things a designer could help you with.
So, to recap: Brand identity guidelines are
- The equivalent of a user guide for your brand (anyone who has ever tried to make sense of a piece of IKEA furniture without the assembly instructions will get what I mean here!)
- They help you use your brand’s visual assets in a correct and cohesive way
- They help you stay consistently on-brand, so you can build brand recognition and trust
- They are extra helpful if you are bringing someone else on board to work on your brand, like a new designer or a VA
- They can range from a one-page brand board to a literal book with every detail spelled out
Before we round off this episode, I want to point you in the direction of my brand board template. It’s totally free, and can be edited to replace the placeholders with your own brand assets. The brand board has sections for your main logo, secondary logo(s), colour palette, typography, icons, brand imagery, and other visual elements. Add the elements of your brand and then use it as an at-a-glance reference to make sure all your collateral stays on-brand!
Warning: When you see all your brand elements together like this, there’s also a chance you’ll think “uh-oh… this doesn’t really look all that cohesive after all…” If that happens: don’t panic! It’s a good thing! Because now you know about it, you can take steps to put it right.
Get the template here – and as always, if you decide to use my template, I’d love it if you shared about it on Instagram using the hashtag #branditwithpetchy