A brand book usually holds instructions for using certain elements. Colors, logo, branding, technical terms, social media strategy, use cases or even company communication and values can be explained inside. Think of it as an FAQ – a document that holds solutions to the most common questions and pitfalls. I want to show you how it’ll save you time, what common mistakes to avoid and useful shortcuts to get your ideas across faster.
Why should you have one?
After years of working as a lead graphic designer on a project, I noticed that I have to provide the same information to different people over and over again. Every new team member, new partner, new project needs the same basic information, for example, the visual guidelines for our company. Sometimes I have time to explain how to use the company logo in depth and give helpful suggestions. Other times, I get an urgent request Friday evening for the logo file for a print house. All I can do in that situation is to provide the file and hope the other department handles the details.
Sometimes the minimal effort will work and you’ll get the desired result. Or you can try to ignore the small inconsistencies and errors that can result. It's one thing to see a new team member use the wrong color for your logo or misspell the company name. A small inconvenience when there are only a few people involved and they are within easy reach. It's another thing with partners all over the world and remote work. This kind of approach can do serious damage. It takes time to correct and revise, to then explain and show the right thing to do. In the case of our rushed print order, we got our merch with the logo positioned off-center and in the not-quite-right shade of blue. You wouldn’t want to represent your company with that kind of product. It screams “We’re sloppy and we don’t care!”.
Don’t gamble with these easy to optimize processes. A well thought out document and neatly arranged files project confidence and reliability. It’s a window to your work process. People will judge you based on how you present information about your company or project. Being prepared and having a collection of files related to the task saves you time. Would you rather work with the person who gets you the right file format half of the time and needs constant poking, or the person who takes charge and is always prepared?
Instead of wasting time by repeating the same instructions over and over again, just sit down once and gather them together in one place. That way, they are available even when you’re not there and someone on your team needs access to that information. Just keep the files in the cloud and share the link. It’s fast, efficient and well worth the initial time investment.
How to motivate yourself to make one?
At this point, most of us will nod and think “Great idea! I should do that someday.” Committing to something is the hardest part, so here are some tips to help you start.
If you have established any pillars for your company or project, things that everything else is based on, then you already have what you need. There’s a certain magic in writing things down or gathering things together. Just starting a simple messy document and folder with everything is a step forward. No need to be fancy, devise a system or think too hard. Just start! Open a document and write a header, a few sentences, a paragraph. Just start! Do you have a key image like a logo or cover? Drop it in the same folder. You can add to that folder later as your needs grow or change.
Gathering all brand-based items in one place is a huge first step. One company I worked with had at least ten folders scattered around with bits and pieces of their logo and brand details. Since they didn’t have a set place for them, they just created a new folder to share every time an urgent request came in and then forgot about it. All these new folders cluttered the already complex file system, making other things harder to find. Avoid this mistake – gather it all in one place and stick to it.
Don’t feel like you have to turn that brand book into a booklet or fancy-looking presentation. Keep it simple at first. The most powerful force working against you is complexity. It will plant doubt and anxiety into your efforts, making the task seem drawn out, boring and unmanageable. You’ll eventually convince yourself that you don’t need it and you can manage without. Trust me, I’m writing from experience here. Start simple!
Creating a brand book is also a great chance to reflect on the choices you made. Writing down and gathering together all related information allows you to see it at a glance and evaluate it. Often times you might discover new opportunities or correct mistakes. Colors don’t look good together, you’re missing the names of your key fonts, you’re having a hard time explaining what tone your images should have etc. The best way to better understand something is to explain it to someone else. This is your chance to take advantage of this fact.
A brand doc can serve as a great way to onboard people and teach them what you’re all about. What you want and don’t want. It makes for a great starting point for any discussion related to your company or projects.
To get inspired, you can look up brand books of other similar projects and companies. Just remember to keep it simple. Here is a great example of explaining concepts from Google Material Design:
What should be inside?
Let’s break down the document in to three size types: minimal, medium and master. Choose one depending on how committed you are to this task and what your needs are at the moment. A master doc with every file related to the brand is great for breaking in to smaller, shorter documents. But if you’re not up for it and need motivation to start – go for the minimal format first.
Some things you can start with:
- Color palettes and fonts
- How to use or recreate your logo in different environments and sizes
- Tagline, key words, communication tone
- Copy and content style
- Social media strategy and voice tone
- Examples of correct and incorrect usage
- Business card, header and banner design
- On-brand images and photo guidelines
- Supporting graphic elements like decorations and separators
A great way to communicate direction is to include key words. Like playing charades, think of the feel and aim of what you’re describing. Is your company fun, serious, specialized? Is your project mass appeal, focused, playful? Include at least 5 keywords as a start.
Provide building blocks before complex ideas. The colors and fonts before the logo. Key images and important visuals before mood boards and similar visual identity from competitors.
For projects dealing with text, it’s important to define how you communicate. Different audiences require different approaches. A tech company will benefit from a dictionary style document with common technical terms. I remember many meetings where technical details were discussed and the conversation devolved in to clarification sessions, since different people referred to the same objects and concepts with different words. This problem is made even worse if you communicate through text messages like email.
Think through the way you communicate. What’s the proper way to refer to your company or abbreviate terms inside and outside the team? The way you convey messages, reflects your values. Is it okay to make jokes, use profanity, ignore messages etc?
Always include how not to use your idea, show how bad your red logo looks on black and suggest using the white version. How using your logo font on paragraph text makes it hard to read and suggest using the complimentary font. Most of the time this is much more informative than best practices alone. Don’t just include obvious or egregious misuses either, most devious mistakes are small. Try to include mistakes you or others have made in the past.
What NOT to do?
Unless you’re aiming to get someone acquainted with every small detail of your brand, share only the appropriate amount of information. There is such a thing as information overload. The print house doesn’t need to know your newsletter design. That’s why after gathering information, it’s good to separate it for different use cases.
On the other hand, don’t get hung up on creating the perfect document. A finished flawed document is better than an unfinished perfect one.
Designer special – don’t go overboard with being vague or fancy. Like saying your brand wears a Gucci watch or providing mood boards without clear instructions. Or adding too many decorative elements that overpower the contents. Too much unrelated information can make a document look tacky and confusing. Remember that the goal here is to provide clarity and understanding.
Don’t make people extract images from your documents – it’s a terrible and inappropriate way to share them. For visual identity, include the logo and key images in different formats and large dimensions in the same folder as your brand doc. Documents serve to give instructions, images and other resources are separate building blocks.
Now that you know what a brand doc is and what it can do for you, go out and create. Remember, just start!