Presented by Brandpad: how to create successful brand guidelines, with Koto, Barkas and SDG
Hello, and welcome back to The Finishing Line, presented in collaboration with the digital brand guidelines platform Brandpad. Over the course of six articles, we are talking to the creative industry’s finest about what is often seen as one of the most challenging, fiddly, frustrating and complicated elements of brand design: getting it over the line. For part four, we’ve spoken to designers and directors at the London office of branding studio Koto, Oslo’s renowned creative agency Scandinavian Design Group (SDG) and Copenhagen and Stockholm-based design practice Barkas to discuss the creation of successful brand guidelines. What’s there to consider? How do you keep them up to date? Keep reading to find out.
“Creating simple to navigate, clever understanding of the brand is key,” Barkas’ Partner & Digital Director Didrik Persson tells us, “that way anyone can get the idea of the brand before they jump into very specific rules,” discussing the best practices behind making digital brand guidelines as accessible as possible. “We find that it’s most important to communicate the essence of the brand in a digestible way,” he adds, considering that – no matter the size or scale – multiple hands, eyes and minds will work with the brand assets handed over by a studio.
“Considering the audience of the specific guidelines is key to the success of a brand guideline document,” Creative Director at Koto, Joe Ling, agrees. “It’s easy to create a beautiful document full of vibrant brand applications for the internal team,” he suggests, “but how useful is that to the printer making a run of 100 ‘Kiss my SaaS’ slogan t-shirts for an upcoming tech conference,” looking to prioritise who really needs what. “The beauty of digital guidelines,” such as online platforms like Brandpad, Ling adds, “is the ability to tailor content to specific users by including an interactive facility,” enabling users to access the information they need easily in one single space.
Considering the audience of the guidelines is key.
“We work with different levels of detail, so we don’t overwhelm with information,” Barkas’ Founder & Creative Director Mike Wittrup tells us, agreeing with Persson and Ling’s key considerations. “It’s a simple principle: the right information to the right people,” he remarks, “we want guidelines to motivate and inspire rather than feel like rigid rules,” suggesting that making guidelines overly complex – stuffed with superfluous information – makes rolling out a brand identity both unclear and unmotivating. After all, executing a brand is a creative process, relying on imaginative thought alongside transparent instruction.
“A good guideline should tell a story, adding on bit by bit as you read, starting with the brand concept,” Designer at SDG, Vetle Majgren Uthaug, remarks. The Oslo-based design agency use Brandpad to streamline all of their brand deliveries, finding its intuitive features to be essential to their process. “I believe that a designer needs to immerse themselves in the brand and the conceptual reasonings,” he continues, highlighting the necessity for designers to have a sense of ownership without being overwhelmed. “A good guideline should try to provide that with a clear description and visualisation of the concept,” Majgren Uthaug tells us, “by the end, the guideline should have conveyed a story about what the company is.”
The transition from PDF to digital brand guidelines has been a game-changer.
Beyond the concept, however, is what Barkas’ Senior Digital Designer Mafalda Remoaldo defines as “the nitty gritty,” which functionally needs to become part of a brand’s “day-to-day process” and procedures. “When the guidelines are ready to go, it’s important to find the best way to onboard the client,” Remoaldo explains, “and find someone who will advocate for it internally, aside from us,” ensuring they are comfortable and, importantly, familiar with the guidelines. “I’d say the rule of thumb for us is to deliver what we call a ‘single source of truth,’” she details, “that everyone can trust and follow.” That being said, the issue that next arises is one of progress: in our rapidly evolving digital landscape, how is it possible to keep brand guidelines truly up to date?
“The transition from PDF to digital brand guidelines has been a game-changer,” Ling contextualises, “gone are the days of multiple versions of PDF guidelines with different content in circulation,” burdened by big file sizes and static pages incapable of translating motion. “In 2023, there is no excuse for guidelines not to move,” he adds, with services like Brandpad offering immersive, informational interactivity throughout documents – easily modified without the need for exporting and sharing PDFs. “At Koto we easily update our guidelines without even having to supply a new link,” Ling details, “these easy tweaks and updates with low logistical difficulty only open up more possibilities for the use of guidelines,” keeping up with high-speed company environments where – as Majgren Uthaug suggests – “clients sometimes work with a combination of in-house designers, freelancers and other agencies,” culminating in a complex ecosystem.
“With tools being more digital and guidelines being more collaborative,” Persson summarises, “it’s for sure become a lot easier,” he adds, “with no more local versions or inaccurate rules floating around,” instead replaced by platforms appropriate for contemporary clientele. “Brands are living organisms that will evolve over time,” Remoaldo explains, “so having digital brand guidelines will allow for that to happen faster and in small increments,” ensuring every part of any team is reading from the same hymn sheet. “After a project like this,” she concludes, “we usually get more opportunities to collaborate too because of the openness to iteration that comes with it,” benefitting not only the current project they’re working on but their future projects too.
Continuing our conversation with the talented team, we turn our eye to what makes brand guidelines actually good, the place (or absence) for ambiguity and how to design with longevity in mind.
The explanations have to hit a Goldilocks zone, not too much and not too little.
HB Simply put, what makes brand guidelines good?
VMU Show don’t tell. The explanations have to hit a Goldilocks zone, not too much and not too little. I usually avoid going into very complex descriptions and explanations with pixels and millimetres unless absolutely necessary. I also avoid the extensive list of do’s and don’ts. I establish the do’s by visualising every attribute as clearly as possible throughout, while don’ts are essentially anything that doesn’t follow the guidelines.
I also believe that design systems and layout guidelines are criminally underrated. They are oftentimes developed as an afterthought at the end which can create negative ripple effects in previous applications of the identity. I believe responsive, clear and flexible design systems are a lot more valuable than specifying every conceivable layout scenario a designer might stumble upon.
By doing the latter you create a sort of paradox with too many layout examples and design options, you get a sense that everything is possible. And if everything is possible, you don’t really need rules to begin with and the brand loses distinctiveness. And if you add pixels and millimetres on top of that you end up with a very confusing and complicated guideline.
DP Clarity. Simplicity when needed and in-depth when needed.
MW A strong brand idea and design principles are crucial elements as well, as it gives a meaningful foundation and makes the reasoning easy to understand, acknowledge and appreciate. The world is moving at the speed of trends and culture, if you as a brand play in that space, it’s important with flexibility to stay fresh and relevant.
MR Catering it to the client’s needs, stating how to apply the brand in the most simple and clear way as possible, and creating space for it to grow naturally over time. Good guidelines are guidelines that people feel capable and motivated to use.
JL At Koto, we don’t believe brand guidelines should be a stale instruction manual for how to use a brand, with strict rules and telling-offs for not following them, discarded after one read and never looked at again. We believe they should feel inherently part of the brand and seen as a source of inspiration, rather than an instruction manual. They should be full of artefacts which show dynamic and interesting ways of pushing and pulling a brand identity to flex in different ways, so whoever is using the guidelines can open them and find inspiration for whatever task or brand application they are creating.
What separates good guidelines from great guidelines is a continued investment. That first batch of inspiring brand artefacts in a delivered brand guideline document from the agency will only be inspiring for so long. The best guidelines are continually developed by the people who actually use them, internal teams, adding their own new and compelling ways of using the identity so the identity continues to evolve and develop over time. Creating a brand guidelines document which is truly living and breathing and one that is continually updated is what guarantees guidelines continued relevance to an internal team, but also should extend the lifespan of an identity.
HB What place does interpretation or ambiguity have in digital brand guidelines?
DP We’ve started to work with two layers, one that is more timeless and solid. A base. And one that is a bit more open to change and diversity in terms of expressions. We find that brands should be consistent to a certain extent and then they should be free and open to play around.
MR Even when guidelines are thorough, people will still have questions or interpret them differently. That’s why we include an onboarding session to present them and do a workshop around the fundamentals. It’s a great way to get people excited and it makes it less scary to embrace the new rules.
VMU I believe the brand concept allows for this. Some properties of a brand will always be somewhat ambiguous and in constant movement. Some continually require new and unique outputs from the brand. A great example of this is the brand’s tone of voice, or advertising campaigns. Which oftentimes have a limited life span, as they usually tackle contemporary subjects and trends. Examples like these will always be left up to some form of interpretation, but should always be in line with the client’s strategy and brand concept.
Other attributes are more technical and static for long-term purposes. Like the typography or the colour palette, which are a lot less ambiguous to ensure brand consistency across all application areas.
It all depends on what purpose the different attributes and properties of the brand have. Which ones solve contemporary challenges, and which are viable for the long term.
There’s no need to spell out every single rule in excruciating detail.
HB When imagining the future of a brand you’ve handed over, do you think it's important to have guidelines that offer the space for change as time goes on, or, do you believe that explicit clarity is key?
JL The best guidelines leave room for flexibility. The old-school rule book approach to brand guidelines is a relic of a time when agencies and internal teams struggled to collaborate effectively, or even build any kind of working relationship. The quality of internal teams today is incredible, and it’s taken a long time for branding agencies to drop their arrogant viewpoint that internal teams need hand-holding.
There’s no need to spell out every single rule in excruciating detail, or to forbid even the most minor deviations from the norm. Nobody needs to be told to avoid showing the logo upside down, or not to change the logotype to comic sans, or not put a sombrero on top of the logo, times have changed. At Koto, we have the pleasure of working with some of the world’s biggest brands that have internal teams that are as good, if not better, than most agencies. The relationship between the agency and the internal team should embrace collaboration and contributions to the guidelines from both sides. I can guarantee that if agencies relinquish the shackles on their guideline documents and see them less as rulebooks, and more as sources of inspiration, the brands they have created will be infinitely better brought to life and embraced by internal teams.
DP Yes, giving space and a certain room for evolving is important, with that being said consistency is still key.
MR Both are key. Clarity is what we always aim for, but inevitably the brand will need to evolve and adapt to new circumstances. So, it’s oblivious to imagine that once it’s delivered, it’s done.
VMU Handing over a brand without having been able to implement it yourself is always intimidating, because in its implementation is where a brand sinks or swims. Preservation of the brand’s overall aesthetic expression is the most important thing in my opinion. So the crucial elements that define correct aesthetic expression should absolutely be explicit and clear. But like I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe in exemplifying every single imaginable application either.
I keep coming back to the brand concept, which can be evergreen if strong enough. A brand with a strong concept based on a solid strategic foundation can absolutely be evergreen. It ensures that a major future rebranding is unnecessary, while offering space for change and growth. By staying true to it when developing new elements or changes you are a lot less likely to misstep.
HB When it comes to creating accessible, straightforward digital brand guidelines, what challenges have you encountered, and how did you overcome them?
VMU Creating the brand guidelines usually marks the end of a long process of developing a visual identity as it’s always the final part. It forces you to summarise everything and make sense of all the complexities in a simple and clear way. Sometimes I’ve found it also functions as a reality check for some decisions that have been made throughout the process, whether it be demands from the client or internal. The inconsistencies and compromises stick out like a sore thumb and require some backtracking to solve.
Other times I can discover shortcomings and deficiencies when trying to solve a design challenge. Especially when implementing or creating examples for the guidelines. This means we have to identify and develop whatever was overlooked, or wasn’t relevant at the given time.
Again, this is where the brand concept is king. By going back to the initial concept, we can always make sure the necessary evolution we do and the changes we make are on brand.
DP It’s always a balancing act on how deep into rules you should go and when. While it’s important it's also most important that the designers understand the idea of the brand before they dive into details.
MR I think the biggest challenges are also what – once solved – can make brand guidelines great. I’d say it’s particularly challenging when the client has a big and diversified group of people – creatives, copywriters, marketers, external collaborators and people who don’t work with design at all. It’s tricky to attend to everyone’s wants and needs and find the smoothest way to integrate the new system once it’s done.
Brandpad is a brand identity cloud-based design software. From guidelines to rollout, Brandpad is stacked with features, making all brands easily manageable, with precision and control.