Design Theory

Working With Brand and Design Guidelines


Sometimes, particularly when you work with established brands and companies, you may encounter a set of brand or design guidelines. As a developer who might be working on a website without much design help, this can be something that you can really use to your advantage, guiding you in your design decision making.

What are Design and Brand Guidelines?

Brand guidelines are usually provided as a set of documents which set out how the design elements for a brand should be used. Often created to be used by designers within a company, as well as external design teams, they exist to provide consistency to a brand across all mediums.

You might find details about the way a brand's chosen typefaces should be used, the colour schemes available to you (and how they should be used), even how much space should be given around the brand logo.

From MailChimp's Voice and Tone
From MailChimp's Voice and Tone

The best brand guidelines cover more than just visual design elements. They also offer information about the style of content, or tone of voice to be used, expressing not just visual presence, but values and personality too.

Guru Brand Design Guidelines by Naomi Atkinson Design

Part of the Guru brand guidelines, designed by Naomi Atkinson Design, displaying the brand's colour scheme.

Working With Colour Schemes

In most brand guidelines you'll be provided with a colour scheme which the brand uses throughout its various offline and online media. This can be a solid starting point when picking the colour scheme for a design - and whilst it may seem a little limiting to have a set colour scheme already provided, don't be afraid of pushing what you do with these colours and experiment in combining them in different ways than are already used.

Bluegg Brand Guidelines for Charter Housing

Part of the Charter Housing brand guidelines, designed by Bluegg, showing the brand's colour palette.

Working With Strong (or Weak) Brand Guidelines

Depending on the type of project or clients you have, you'll often be faced with a varying strength of brand identity that you're going to be working with. Don't think that the size of a company can dictate how strong or weak a brand will appear to be. Often the strength of a brand - and subsequently its brand and design guidelines - will differ greatly depending on the level of work put into the brand initially.

Brand Guidelines for Locality by Naomi Atkinson Design

A part of the Locality brand guidelines, designed by Naomi Atkinson Design, displaying the correct logo usage.

Working with strong design and brand guidelines is great for designers. They provide a head-start on creating a design that is relevant to the brief, engaging, but also very brand-accurate. Strong brand guidelines enable you to simply take them and then represent that brand in the best way you can in a different form (on the web).

New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual from 1970
New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual from 1970

However, sometimes you might be faced with working with brand and design guidelines that are weak - whether that means they are incorrect, offer the wrong advice or technical information (such as the wrong colours or typeface info) or simply aren't very consistent with the message the brand tries to convey.

Charter Housing Brand Guidelines by Bluegg

A part of the Chart Housing brand guidelines, designed by Bluegg, displaying how the logo should be used.

When you feel like you're in a position where you've been provided with weaker guidelines to work from, or if you feel like there could be improvements made to the brand and how it is represented in your design, simply talk to your client. Clients are open and I always prefer to work with my clients rather than for them, so communication is key to this. Tell your client about your concerns and have some suggestions ready for the way that the brand image could be improved through ideas for your design. Sometimes, particularly if a client isn't creative or tech-savvy, they may not have realised that there was a problem until you say something to them yourself.

Pushing the Boundaries

When you're working with brand guidelines, don't be afraid of pushing the boundary of what you can and can't do with the guidelines you've been given.

Don't be afraid of speaking with your clients and seeing what can be pushed a little further in the guidelines you've been provided. Quite often, clients are willing to listen and will give you an idea of how much you can bend the rules. As long as you have solid reasons behind the changes you want to make, then no client should outright dismiss your ideas. Saying that, they can always still say no, if they feel it strays too far from their known brand style.

Really, when working with brand guidelines think of that as all they are - a guide to help you along with the way you represent a brand in your designs. It's important you don't feel restricted, in terms of your ideas or your creativity - instead see guidelines as a small platform that can help you create a more brand-accurate and refined design.

Brand Guidelines for Exocad designed by Naomi Atkinson Design

Brand Guidelines for Exocad, designed by Naomi Atkinson Design, displaying the typefaces used in the brand.


Why not approach this from the other side of the desk? Take a visual branding template (such as this one by Graham Smith) and see if you can build guidelines for an existing brand? Take the familiar colours and typography from a well-known multinational, then slot them into the template. You'll soon become aware of the way in which their brand is being controlled behind the scenes.

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