Why you need a style guide

One of my most loved corporate documents has to be the style guide. Sure, strategic plans are full of important information and often directly impact the day-to-day operation and success of an organization, but the style guide holds the key to how those strategies are communicated beyond the management team.

A style guide defines how your organization looks, sounds and feels.

A style guide defines how your organization looks, sounds and feels. Logos, fonts, colors, messaging (such as mission statements and taglines), stationery examples or downloads (such as business card and PowerPoint templates), and visual imagery (icons, glyphs and photos). Increasingly, these guides also include items such as voice & tone, content display (such as when to use a graphic or video instead of text), customized dictionaries, or even web and app user interface.

Your style guide is a consistent look and sound that helps build credibility and authenticity. Nowadays, these guides are found online, easily accessed by staff and content contributors in every corner of your organization.

Communicating a consistent brand is relatively straightforward in a small shop/ When your organization has multiple people communicating your messages from numerous locations, consistency gets trickier and the need for a written style guide more important.

Why bother with a style guide?

Without a style guide, your customers may see and hear mixed and inconsistent messaging which can cause confusion and diminished credibility.

Take a look around your organization and think how a customer would navigate your facilities, or through your marketing materials. Do all the touch-points have a similar look and feel, or does it seem as though they were developed for different organizations? Will a visitor question if they are in the same organization’s space or store, or will they have the comfort in knowing they are in the right place?

Another reason to develop a style guide is to keep your communications team from funneling approvals for routine collateral material through their already busy department. With a style guide, other departments can draft signage, ads and web copy, while staying on brand.

Swedish for On-Brand

A style guide ensures Ikea signage looks and feels the same in Hong Kong as it would in Stockholm. Photo credit: TripAdvisor

One of my favourite examples of a consistent brand identity is Ikea. We all know the blue-and-yellow big-box store famous for its flat-pack furniture. But one of the keys to its success (besides that little hex key you get with a new bookcase) is its simple and consistent branding. No matter where you go in their stores, their catalogue, or online, the fonts, colours and language are all the same. The tone and voice are also consistent, which provides the customer with confidence the item they are considering buying is a genuine Ikea product.

And even though Ikea’s organizational structure is broken into many departments and divisions, those divisions are invisible to customers. The restaurant looks and feels the same as the child-minding area, which looks and feels the same as the kitchen department. Their style guide makes it easy for the marketing person in each division, at each store, in every country around the world, create point-of-sale signs, email newsletters and flyers that precisely fit the company’s style and brand.

Where do I start?

Okay, so now you’re thinking about creating a style guide for your organization. Where do you start? It doesn’t need to be expensive, or part of a larger-scale branding exercise. If you have a logo, the designer may have created a visual identity guide that shows how to use the logo, the colours and fonts. Use the visual identity as your starting point. If you don’t have a visual identity guide, you can include that portion in your new style guide.

(and if you are considering rebranding, ensure a thorough style guide is included as part of the RFP)

MailChimp makes their Content Style Guide free to download and re-purpose

Set up your style guide framework online — most corporate intranets can accommodate a wiki, or you can password protect one on your external website (that is a good option if you use external communication and graphic contractors). Create the headings and start filling in the sections: most communication departments already have much of the information somewhere, though it could be buried in email instructions sent to someone at some point, or as design markups on a recent campaign. MailChimp has made their corporate style guide available on GitHub as a fully downloadable and customizable guide, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

There may be tough decisions around what goes in and what stays out: be ready by tasking someone with the authority to make those decisions. If you anticipate a lot of internal strife around style guide options, or you simply lack capacity, consider hiring a consultant who can help navigate the complexities and keep the process on track.

Suggested style guide section options:

  • Brand identity (logo, colours, fonts, stationery and signage templates, as well as legal and copyright information)
  • Editorial guidelines (exceptions to the CP Stylebook, spelling conventions for your organization’s structure, facilities, etc., examples of how to handle complicated or unique wording, grammar examples, and tips for writing for specific platforms such as the web and social media)
  • Imagery and photography (icons, glyphs, arrows, graphics, and guidelines for using and crediting photos)
  • Web elements (front-end style guide – or pattern libraries, code style guide, online forms, buttons, and anything else that constitutes your online look and feel)

Let us help you find your style. Get in touch.