Brand guidelines are a design task

Visual identity guidelines are a significant design task.

Often I am asked what my main strengths are as a graphic designer. What are the couple things I am good at. If I want to keep it simple I say that I am good at developing visual identity, and packaging design.

The problem I tend to run into with that explanation is that people, even some other graphic designers, don’t seem to be able to grasp the importance or reach of a dialed visual identity. In particular visual identity guidelines. For me this becomes even more problematic when they ask what projects I am most proud of, or what would best illustrate my strengths as a designer. More often then not I point them to the brand guidelines, packaging and visual identity for this little brand called Xbox. Now I would never say I did this all by myself, I didn’t design the logo, I didn’t choose all the colors, it takes a village if you will. And I worked with an awesome team. There was a good deal of heavy lifting involved however. I designed countless mock ups, I helped the team with that green box, and the guidelines where very much my labor.

Visual identities are important things!

More often then not large brands need to exist across multiple touch points; print, digital, social media, retail, etc. It is vitally important for brands to look consistent across all touch points. That said it would also be near impossible to ask one person to execute across all touch points at a high level in a timely manner. It would also be a lot to ask of someone to art direct every team working with creating assets for the brand. As Alina Wheeler said in her book Designing Brand Identity

“Creating the brand identity is easy;
managing the brand assets well is harder.”


This is where brand guidelines come into play. At their heart brand guidelines are an instruction manual, a technical document to communicate what you can and cannot do with the visual identity assets of a brand. A recipe book for how to make the doughnuts if you will, and someone’s got to make the doughnuts. I find it particularly comical when designers thumb their noses at designing guidelines. Especially when the work they are used to doing is working from seasonal directives and the templates associated with them. Essentially the same thing as a visual identity guideline.

The problem as I see it is designers by nature want to make the next new thing. We birth these brands and then we don’t want to deal with the reality of being a parent. Many have never really had to build out a brand across, such a mass of touch points. Or their experience has only been being handed the recipe book and asked to cook. For these people I always wonder if they look at me as some nefarious character waiting in the shadows to crush their creative dreams. It could explain a lot. Being asked to design an instruction manual for other designers, being asked to make the posters examples, retail displays examples, website mock ups, templates, icons, diagrams, branding assets, and all the other material that goes in these tombs is a ton of work. Stretches of it are boring and unrewarding, your often building things that will never be consumer facing, and you often wonder if your needlessly providing guidance.

You already figured out the visual identity, it should be simple to build it out across everything, right? Why does a graphic designer need to be part of that process?

Well my friend did you take the time to think about the problem?

#1 If you want others to be able to work on the brand you need to provide guidance. Do you want to rely on one designer or team to design every aspect of this brand for the rest of its life?

#2 Your visual identity (if you did it right) is pretty flexible, but can only bend so far. How can your visual ID break and how bad is it if it does?

#3 Those who are not involved in the whole branding process, may see things a bit differently and not share your vision as to what is acceptable. What constraints are needed to make sure the visual ID always look good?

#4 Odds are something wasn’t considered, and wont be found until your in the mountain of work that is the visual identity guidelines. Do you want someone else to fill in the holes and just design something for the stuff you didn’t consider?

#5 You are speaking to designers, you need to present the information in a clear well designed way. If you don’t who is going to read the thing right?

Solving problems is the purpose of design.

When we begin to look at things through this lens, we are solving some pretty big issues with visual identity guidelines. We are also arguably doing the thing that will impact and steer the visual brand the most as it grows and evolves from a simple collection of branding assets. It requires being able to look at an entire branded environment from a forty thousand foot view, then being able to zoom in on individual branded executions to make sure everything is dialed and on brand. Visual identity guidelines are not a production task they demand a level of strategy and brand architecture well above the typical production job. They require a designer, a special type of designer, maybe even a unicorn to some.

If you would like to talk more about how I can help you with guidelines contact me on my contact page. I’d be happy to schedule an in-person consultation. Please leave any questions or comments you have below.

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