“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 Manchipp
Simon 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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  • New sofa... February 7, 2018 at 9:21 am

    Ohhhhhh men after my own heart. I feel totally vindicated.
    After twenty five years on the job I’ve successfully managed to avoid going any where near the dreaded (so scarred I can’t even write it). I blamed my dyslexia (my bad spelling and lack of skills in this dept). What did I learn? That I should have put a needle in my eye but on the plus side, i’m not actually that bad at spelling. I also discovered that the master brand guidelines that I followed in the first place had so many incorrect uses that I rewrote them anyway. I have to go incognito on this one as I did get paid for doing this and i’m glad to have the money in my pocket. Those brand guidelines bought me a new sofa and that rocks! Sold my soul to the devil…

  • nikc February 7, 2018 at 11:27 am

    Interesting discussion but then again, not. The people interviewed in this article are the ones writing the guidelines – or causing them to be written based on their design. But of course no-one would expect them to follow them, – never-the-les, these guidelines are extremely imporant for companies to keep their brand together. Any in-house design team worth their salt will know how to be creative inside the companies brand guidelines. ha!

    • Daniel February 8, 2018 at 11:54 am

      Agreed. I’ve worked at the coalface of sorts, as a in-house designer for a cosmetics brand that was based in another country. The brand guidelines, while they were clumsy and poorly written in places, generally were very helpful and made my life easier. I wasn’t there to express myself creatively through the lens of another brand, I was there to maintain the standards and elevate where possible. Brand guidelines meant less guesswork…

  • Tom Redfern February 7, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    Client: We MUST have some brand guidelines!
    Me: Sure, here they are, all well designed and easy to follow.
    Client: I want it to look like this.
    Me: But that goes against the brand guidelines!
    Client: Shut it! It’s my business and I’ll do what I want.

  • Edv February 7, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    Industry leaders saying they hate brand guidelines. It appears they’re are biting the hands that feed them. I’m guess NB studio didn’t issue any refreshed brand guidelines for there recent and lovely work on Crowne Plaza? Sod it do what you want, use Comic Sans, its banging!

    • Simon Manchipp February 7, 2018 at 10:14 pm

      Hi Edv.

      Thanks for your reply here (and thanks to everyone!)

      Just for clarity. I think Everyone here was asked to comment on this question. (Well. I was)

      “Which brand’s design guidelines would you most like to see published and why?”

      I’m certainly not saying that smart, contemporary brand guidelines are useless! We develop lots of them for lots of brands daily.

      But the old ‘traditional’ approach of generating a big PDF full of rules not tools seems to me to be out of step with the needs of modern brands and business.

      Sorry for any confusion.

  • Richard February 7, 2018 at 1:43 pm

    Whenever I develop guidelines, no matter how clear, simple, concise they may be, no matter how much effort I put into problem solving and taking risk out of the implementation equation, the first thing a client (or their over enthusiastic designers) always does is mess it all up. “A white logo looks great on lemon yellow with a texture added and I’ve been really creative with the images – you’ll just love it”

  • mike dempsey February 7, 2018 at 5:56 pm

    The seeming passion for recreating long gone heavy duty corporate identity manuals, (to give them their correct title) is a bit dotty, and let’s face it, mostly aimed at geeky graphic designers to slip under the bed with all those other recently produced facsimiles for nocturnal consumption. They’re bloody expensive too. And after they have been thumbed through, just like those old originals, will be tucked away on the Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving System to gather dust.

    The idea of a bunker proof identity is long gone. No designer worth his or her salt would want to be handcuffed to someone else’s creation. Fine if they are for use by an in-house company studio, but the replication of the same old, same old becomes depressingly dull.
    Corporate identities (or brand manuals if you must) always need to have elbow room built into the mix to keep creative innovation alive.

    • Simon Manchipp February 8, 2018 at 11:06 am

      Spot on Mike.

  • Chris February 8, 2018 at 3:01 pm

    I work in-house in the charity sector so I’m coming from this a little differently. I find brand guidelines hugely important to make sure everything that is being produced is consistent for the person who is getting the information.

    Though you are restrained in the colours and fonts to use, you have the opportunity to be creative in other ways. It’s quite relaxing and exciting when working on a project to know that colours and fonts are not a concern and instead you can see how far you can push what you are creating.

  • Andrew February 9, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    This article is so bizarre. Everyone interviewed seems to be talking about brand guidelines. The design systems listed in UXPin’s Adele are not brand guidelines – they are entirely different things…

    Whilst I agree brand guidelines are not the most affective way of documenting the intentions of brand usage the conversation should really be about the Design Systems within Adele, which in my opinion are very important and excellent ways of documenting interface design conventions and UX patterns.

    • nikc February 15, 2018 at 9:46 am

      Design systems like this come from the same place as brand guidelines – but for a slightly different set of ‘creatives’, our colleagues, or those of us who work heavily in digital (and who doens’t these days! 😉 ). They take away guesswork (lke any good set of branding guidelines) from the UX/UI pices of projects. They speed up the project timelines manifold. In fact, at the place I am working for, we are building our own design system, taht will incuse our company brand guidelines. so that site will be the ‘truth’ for our brand. Easily adapted by third parties into projects they complete for us, easily used in-house, and most of all, easily amended, updated and maintained as a living document!

  • Gary Ludwig February 11, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    Sadly, it’s the kind of self-absorption demonstrated by some of the commenters that reinforces the need for guidelines. Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but I thought as designers we were supposed to put the needs of our client’s business ahead of our own amusement. This isn’t saying there aren’t bad guidelines out there, but if you accept an assignment you should also accept that there may be conditions under which you have to undertake the work. Believe it or not, your client may have strategies and objectives that are even bigger than your ego.

  • Nick quinn February 11, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    But Adele seems focussed around pattern libraries, which a re pretty tedious but can be very effective. Let me point to the obvious success story – Material Design. Remember how pants Google’s design system, or lack of, before Material design.

    Also, they’re all heads of major companies, and you can bet every one of them is selling in ‘ the absolute necessity’ of brand guidelines to all of their clients. But you can’t help but agree with their points of view on how boring and probably underused guidelines are. I enjoyed this article.

  • Dan Dufour, Brand Strategy Director @ the Team February 12, 2018 at 9:39 am

    Couldn’t agree more Simon. Not even Brand Geeks like me want to read volumes of War and Peace. Give me a brand world, operating system, brand framework or whatever we want to call it that enables creativity rather than just compliance.

  • Ant February 12, 2018 at 12:30 pm

    Designers who ‘hate guidelines’ appear petulant and self-absorbed. Adele is a celebration of system thinking. Businesses need designers to join things up and simplify the complex. Organise ambiguity and create a drumbeat. Demonstrating what good looks now and in the future.

    For me, guidelines are an opportunity to share the thinking, the workings and the pitfalls. We should look to other industries, like engineering, where big ideas are only realised through collaboration.


  • Terry Moore February 13, 2018 at 5:14 pm

    A great creative idea and/or brand identity is not an end in itself; it has job to do, it needs people to manage it and it has to function in the real world. I believe ‘brand guidelines’, or to be precise, effective codification of the creative solution/design system in some form, is a critical part of what we do as designers and we fail in our responsibility to our clients if we don’t provide effective brand guidance tools and documentation.

    The views on brand guidelines expressed here are not surprising. It is designers who continue to churn out the next-to-useless 200 page pdfs, mindlessly documenting ‘clear-space’ and dozens of ‘logo don’ts’ and project managers in our industry who sanction this and regard brand guidelines simply as a ‘tick box’ deliverable.

    Designers should apply their creativity and ingenuity to the creation of brand guidelines and deliver fit-for-purpose tools for clients to manage their brand identity over time. If they are filed away or ignored, you’ve failed. For me, the measure of success is when the client’s in-house team (or other agencies) is inspired to produce great work, following your guidelines, applying the brand you’ve created for them, but you’ve not been involved.

  • DBM September 6, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    These aren’t brand guidelines, they’re digital design systems, and the people commenting on them are creative designers, not product or service designers.

    Talk about the blind leading the blind.

  • Scott September 6, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    Weird how you get a bunch of print or agency designers together to talk about a repository of digital based pattern libraries, which are very much not “design guidelines”, and none of them understand the purpose. But hey, I’m not a creative director, I’m just the corporate in-house person who makes sure the website works, so what do I know.

  • Scott Henderson September 6, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    These replies feel really self absorbed and dismiss the line of respect between those who actually do the nitty gritty in a creative format.

    P.s These are design systems not brand guidelines…

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