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How to incorporate a brand’s style guide without sacrificing personality

Brand style guides are a tool, not a barrier. Here's how to infuse creativity into client work while staying on-brand.
by Madison Blask • July 19, 2022
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Using a brand style guide without losing personality

Hey there copywriters, web designers, and brand curators! Come one, come all, and come as you are because today we are talking about that one tool that reigns supreme in the lives of digital marketing, that’s right: style guides.

The idea of following a brand’s style guide can be pretty straightforward. A style guide (or brand guidelines) is a set of rules that dictate how all elements of a brand should be applied in order to maintain their brand identity.

Designers are given a detailed outline of a brand’s preferred colors, fonts, logos, etc., and how they should be used. Copywriters are given a detailed outline of tone, vocabulary to avoid, grammar preferences, etc., and how they should be incorporated. But what can be startling to a web designer or copywriter when they begin a relationship with a new client is the sheer range of things covered by a style guide, and therefore how to go about interpreting your client’s design wishes.

If this is starting to feel overwhelming, don’t fret, I’m here to help you best incorporate your client’s style guide, without sacrificing your own creativity or personality.

Read the style guide before you start

Yes, you’re right, this one does seem obvious. But I am not too big to admit that I have skipped this step a time or two in my copywriting career (and gone on to regret it!), so it begs to be pointed out. Sure, reading the style guide is a no-brainer, but it is how you read the style guide from the start that dictates how your time creating for this client goes.

Additionally, we all enter new projects with an internal style guide of our own. Our internal guides all look different because they hold our personal design preferences and therefore, they contain our biases. For example, my internal (most natural to me) style guide would love to start each blog post with a picture of my dog and use interwoven Rihanna memes to drive home key points, but I have to sacrifice these biases for the preferences of my client. However, this does not mean that I need to sacrifice all of the aspects of my internal style guide, I just need to find the appropriate places to mesh my personal guide with that of my client.

“Our internal guides all look different because they hold our personal design preferences and therefore, they contain our biases.”

Katherine, our cofounder and CMO, has helped write style guides and used them throughout her career.

And this all starts with the initial reading of the guide. The complexity of style guides means it is crucial to spend time reading every word (even the sections that don’t explicitly apply to you: the more of the guide you read, the better understanding you will have of your client) and digesting the information, before starting the project. I always suggest reading a style guide with a notebook and pen in hand. Whenever there is a glaring style rule, something that is necessary to incorporate in the first stages of creation such as, “the only colors to be used are shades of green” or “all copy should be written in Olde English,” it is a good idea to make note of these guidelines as it will only create more work for yourself if they are ignored at the start and then implemented at a later time.

Know when to make suggestions- and when not to

Considering style guides are typically handed over to copywriters and web designers without being talked through by the clients, they are typically left open to your own interpretation. As the word “guide” suggests, these aren’t immutable rules, but pushing back on them should be a last resort, not a default.

More often than not, specifically pushing back on a style guide is not necessary because the creative nature of your craft allows you to work around them. However, this should be done on occasion, when you feel the guidelines aren’t working visually and you know they can be improved upon. This creative freedom should be applied liberally and with your best judgement. For example, if your style guide deems you should only be working in shades of green I do not suggest working exclusively in orange or purple. Similarly, if your style guide clearly states that all copy should be written in Olde English I do not suggest writing in Shakespearian, as you would be 400 years off target.

“Don’t let style guides hold back your creativity. They are a tool, not a roadblock.”

Remember, the most important rule of all, don’t let style guides hold back your creativity. They are a tool, not a roadblock. These style guides are put in place not to limit creativity, but to help a brand stay recognizable and consistent.