“I hate brand guidelines”: views on documenting the design process

A new website called Adele showcases the design systems of famous brands such as BBC, Audi and Buzzfeed all in one place, as a resource for designers to see how these companies built their websites and visual identities. Creative directors share their thoughts on graphic guidelines.

Hamish Smyth, co-founder, Order

“I’d love to see the McDonald’s 1970 McDonaldland Specification Manual: I’ve seen it floating around online, but it seems pretty rare. It’s a style guide, but for characters and physical things like The Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, strange playground equipment, and, weirdest of all, an old man called the Professor wearing a robe and white gloves. It’s fun and a little bit disturbing at the same time – kind of like the food.”

Scott King, freelance graphic designer and professor of visual communication at University of the Arts, London (UAL)

“I have a great fascination with Butlins, particularly from the 1970s. I have at least 100 of the official postcards by John Hinde’s studio. They are amazing and I think they really were the public face of Butlins for a very long time, for millions of people. However, what really fascinates me is the ‘in-house’ print – it is consistent in that it always uses the same logo and colours, but everything else seems to have been designed at the nearest local printers. It’s deeply inconsistent, and that’s the charm of it – it’s all ‘sort of the same’, but not quite.

It obviously comes from a time before brand guidelines were terribly specific and sent in PDF form. The Butlins brand guidelines from the 1960s and 1970s look like they were described in a brief phone conversation or maybe over a few pints in the nearest pub, and that’s what makes them so beautiful.”

Dana Robertson, creative director, Neon

“Hmm, a site where you can study brand guidelines… why didn’t someone come up with that when I used to suffer from insomnia?! Obviously, I respect the passion and hard work that must have gone into this project, but seriously, I would rather gouge my eyes out with a spoon than spend my limited free time reading detailed instructions on how to position logos correctly and when to use secondary colour palettes.”

Alan Dye, director, NB Studio

“I hate brand guidelines. Yes the recent re-print of The Nasa guidelines was beautiful, Swiss and nostalgic. And Massimo Vignelli’s New York Subway identity manual is one of my all-time favourite pieces of design. However — I still hate guidelines.

As a designer, why would I want to roll out someone else’s work? Designing guidelines is probably one of the most long-winded, boring processes in the world, and they are then generally ignored or filed away anyway.

I believe guidelines (and it’s in the name!) are just a guide — something to be improved upon by the next person who reads them…

Imagine how much fun you could have with your Pantone references, fonts, tone of voice and imagery in making the Book of Genesis.

Page one: In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth. Page two: Applications of the void and darkness upon the face of the deep. Page three: How to let there be light: and there was light. Etc etc.

All of these guidelines are made to be broken, enjoyed and loved.”

Simon ManchippSimon Manchipp, founder, SomeOne

“The ancient adage of ‘no one likes other people’s kids’ comes to mind here. I really can’t imagine many things that would be as unpleasant as an afternoon trawling through other people’s brand guidelines. Although spending it with a cluster of other people’s particularly unpleasant children could be up there.

The elephant in this particular room is the fact that traditional brand guideline documents are rarely read by anyone — particularly the people who pay for them and even more so the audiences that these things have been designed to help.

In fact, so few people have bothered to give them more than a cursory glance, that a whole, new career was born, known as ‘brand manager’. The lamentable siege of instructions telling readers ‘DO NOT DO THIS’, ‘ALWAYS AVOID’ and ‘BE CAREFUL OF’ was never going to be a fun read.

Unsurprisingly, the costly follies did not last long before they were silently slid into a bookcase to forever collect dust and knowing nods from passing designers. These Bibles of ‘No’ are relics of a branding past that circled the holy trinity of logo/typeface/colour. Today’s more nuanced multi-channel brands are still regularly let down by a speedily published 200-page PDF at the end of a project in danger of going over-budget. These PDFs should be accompanied by a black armband and announced as dead on arrival. They are next to useless.

Now, of course, Adele’s site is a mix of new-generation guide mantras pumping out ‘best practice’ around tone of voice, accessibility and prototyping principles. Mostly, it’s a selection of pattern library depositories enabling developers to copy and paste. But it’s still a raggedy read.

As they are all digitally-hosted, I’d love to see the analytics published rather than another set of guidelines. That’s where we could learn what audiences are actually looking at. Then perhaps we could, as a creative sector, help others make the most of their businesses, rather than desperately dig up past designer notions of what rocks.”

What are your thoughts on freely available brand guidelines, and are there any guidelines you’d like to get your hands on? Let us know in the comments below.

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