The Importance of flexible brand guidelines for lasting impact

Early in my career when I would be handed a set of brand guidelines, my first reaction was always that of a kid opening a new present—I couldn’t wait to explore what was inside and discover how I was going to “play” with the fonts, colors, and other graphic devices to bend them to my will.

Often times, however, that optimism and enthusiasm would slowly fade, page by page, as I studied my design directives. Some brand guidelines were so comprehensive and restricting I essentially became a production person and not a designer at all—just a pair of hands with the technical know-how to push pixels.

In several instances I was asked to “break” from the guidelines because even the employees were tired of seeing the same brand assets day in and day out—and that was telling. If the employees were getting bored with the brand, so was their audience.

I realize, of course, that brand guidelines are essential. I’m not trying to diminish their importance. They provide a consistent, unified, and codified set of rules that provide designers and other creative stakeholders a common visual and verbal language to work within. This ensures that you give your audience a cohesive experience.

But design should always be tailored to a specific problem. And herein lies the problem with rigid brand guidelines in a day and age where brands are experienced across global audiences and multiple print and digital channels. You simply can’t “pre-design” for everything.

So how do you solve for this? Leave your brand guidelines too sparse and wide-open you reap inconsistency. Make your guidelines too strict and the brand quickly becomes stale. Therefore, you must allow for flexibility in your guidelines that allow for experimentation within a system.

A system governs the brand outputs, rather than provides a rigid and absolute library of outputs for your designers to use. A system allows flexibility, but also a means to critique all creative decisions by providing not only the “how” but the “why” behind all of the items in your brand toolbox. Allow your team to dial certain things up and down within that system. Also allow them to explore adding new brand assets within that system. For example, if you make “patterns” a part of your brand system, provide rules about how to make those patterns—but don’t limit your designers to a predefined set of patterns.

This flexible approach to brand guidelines can add a richness to the brand while maintaining a coherence. This also allows the brand to remain fresh over a longer period of time so your employees, your communications team, and most importantly your audience can continually be delighted by your brand’s experience.

Gone are the days where brand guidelines can be too restrictive. As you build your brand, consider the why and the how behind all of the rules you set in place. Then, with a flexible design system in hand, set your brand free.

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