When you think of brand guidelines, you probably think of the basics: fonts, colors, guidelines for logo usage, and more. But creating a fully robust brand book involves the development of design guidelines that anticipate a wide range of potential use cases. What are your default icon and illustration styles? Are there sub-brands, and if so, when and how should they be used? What’s your brand’s personality and voice? And — perhaps most importantly of all — what does the brand communicate to your audience about your business?
A thorough brand book should answer all of these questions and more. It should provide guidance on your brand story and promise. Your brand book should articulate this through exposition about your company as a whole, along with a set of tactical guidelines that allow your brand to produce consistent creative content that highlights your organization and drives success for your business.
Here are the indispensable categories that any strong brand book needs to address.
1. Colors and Fonts
While these are distinct needs, we’ve condensed them here simply because you knew they’d be in this list. Colors and fonts are rudimentary — but essential — hallmarks in the development and design of a visual brand. What would Coca-Cola be without its signature red or its distinctive swirled typeface? Or Facebook without its blue, clean wordmark (and yes, the app is still keeping the blue)?
A brand’s colors and fonts say just as much about its goals and values as its logo does. (More on logos below.) Because of that, they must always be chosen strategically. Your guidelines should also explain the hierarchy of usage for each color and font within your brand, and under what circumstances each selection should and should not be used.
Color theory is typically a strong consideration when selecting brand colors. Even if it’s not your primary driver, it would be a mistake to ignore it. Do so, and you risk misrepresenting your brand to the people who can make or break it: your customers.
2. Logo Variations
The development of your logo is a critical process. It takes a considerable investment of time, resources, and budget. Once you’ve put in the work to develop the logo that strategically accomplishes your goals, you need to make sure it’s used consistently and appropriately in order to protect that investment.
You should have different use cases for your logo and its variations, and you’ll need to establish which is appropriate to use in what situation. Some cases will warrant a grayscale logo, while in other situations you’ll want your brand color(s) to shine. Sometimes the logomark may stand all on its own; other times you’ll want the mark to accompany your brand name (wordmark).
To present a composed impression of your brand, ensure that your brand book is very clear about the appropriate use cases for each embodiment of your logo. This way, your team never needs to wonder what format should be used.
3. Icons and/or Illustrations
You know those stock icons and office photos you’ve been using as your company gets off the ground? It’s time to ditch them. If you’re ready for a brand book, you’re ready for custom imagery.
Why? There are 2 main reasons stock imagery isn’t a good fit for most brands.
First, it’s been found that stock images may be completely ignored, adding up to nothing but wasted space and wasted expense.
The other is that (depending on the licensing) stock images can be used just about anywhere, by anyone — including your competitors. One study found that a single stock photo was used in more than 175 places around the web! There’s nothing unique about that. Because of this, that image on your home page or your pitch brochure is never really yours, and it never really only stands for your brand.
Your brand book should establish custom icon and illustration styles that represent your brand. Once chosen, you can go on to develop a workbench of assets that your creative partner can use across collateral. This ensures all your visual content stays on brand while also speeding up brand asset development and design in the future.
Several brand book elements come together on 1 sample page. Check out our ebook about visual languages for more examples!
Whether or not photography is a signature component of your brand, most organizations will make use of photography at some point. That’s why it’s important to know what style and subject of photography aligns with your brand. Do you feature people, or uninhabited scenery — or are both okay? Are your photos in grayscale, color, or do they incorporate a brand-colored overlay?
In the case of custom photography, your photographer will need to know how your brand is best represented through the medium in order to set up the shoot. That way, they can make the proper choices in lighting, location, models, post-production editing, and so much more.
And while we don’t recommend the use of stock imagery of any kind (see the previous section!), if you do choose to use stock photography, you still need these guidelines. You’ll quickly find that many photo collections depict the same subject, but with dozens of variations in color, angle, lighting, saturation, and more. Making stylistic determinations at the last minute will prolong your hunt for the perfect stock photo — and could lead to an ineffective choice.
5. Data Visualization
Data visualization merges science and art, creating something that is both visually pleasing and factually accurate. However, there are just as many opportunities for creativity in data viz as with any other element of your brand. Likewise, there are just as many reasons to set a unified look and feel for your data visualizations.
In many cases, this won’t focus on which types of charts and graphs you do or don’t use. That’s because each type of data visualization has its own best use cases, and it’s likely that most or all of them will prove useful at some point. So instead, focus on the style treatments of your charts and graphs. How will your colors and fonts translate? Since your core brand colors aren’t likely to be enough to effectively display large data sets, what other colors, shades, and gradients will you allow outside of your core palette?
Once you’ve established these guidelines with your visual communication partner, consider having them create editable templates of charts and graphs in your brand style. These can then be adapted to represent unique data sets for each report you produce, without having to create new visuals each time.
This mood board includes examples of data visualization that are consistent with the overall branding. Check out our ebook about visual languages for more examples!
6. Voice and Tone
While a strong visual brand will capture your audience’s eye, the right CTA or tagline will keep them interested. Even in a highly visual world, what you say and how you say it are just as important as how you show it.
Where to start? The Content Marketing Institute wrote a great article to highlight how to begin identifying your brand’s voice, which represents the overall personality of your brand. Your brand book should also consider tone(s) — that is, the variations on that voice according to different situations. Think of voice as your everyday vocabulary, and tone as the differences between how you talk to your parents, your boss, and your best friend.
These guidelines allow you to have myriad writers across teams and even across the globe. They’ll all be considering the ultimate voice of your brand, from blog posts to site copy to customer service emails.
7. Cross-Platform Asset Planning
Every unique platform — LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and on and on — has its own dimension requirements, image guidelines, character counts, and more. If you’re not planning for your specific platform with each post, you’ll find yourself with a mountain of required edits prior to being able to publish. Outline the particularities of each of your key platforms, and how you post for them, up front.
The phrase to note here is “your key platforms.” If your brand has solid reasons never to venture onto a particular platform, you can skip it in the development and design of your brand book. Instead, stick to the core platforms where your core customer lives.
Some key components of your social posting guidelines include:
- Main idea — what content should posts on this platform focus on?
- Visual emphasis — which types of visuals dominate your posts on this platform, and why?
- Restrictions — what are my dimension, character count, type-on-imagery, and other limitations with this platform?
Your usage of each platform may also dictate other components to include to help guide your team when posting for social media.
Beyond Brand Book Design & Development
Remember that a brand book is just that: a book that establishes the face of your full brand. But there are times when a specific campaign in your brand requires a stretch — a new product or service offering, a special event, or something else. For those instances, you may develop a unique visual language specific to that campaign. It draws inspiration from your brand book, but builds upon it to help set the campaign apart. Check out our free ebook on visual languages for more information.
Above all, your brand book should serve as a comprehensive reference for the lifespan of use for your organization. Dedicate time to making the right decisions, and documenting those decisions thoroughly. You won’t regret it, and neither will anyone who touches creative work for your brand.