Brand Guidelines – do rules just stifle creativity?

Heidi Lightfoot wrote an article for D&AD this week, boldly suggesting to ‘Ditch the Brand Guidelines’ and although that may sound scary to some, we agree with her. To some extent.

Having a Brand Guidelines document is a useful way to ensure that all communications (visual in particular) is cohesive and portrays the desired impression of the brand. It can be beneficial to have a colour palette to refer to and to know which typeface to use where, for example, but some brands need a wider view. The black-and-white dos-and-don’ts approach doesn’t work for everyone.

A growth in personalisation and expectations of engagement on a more personal level means that brands often need to give more. Heidi talks about the rise of a ‘brand world’ as a style guide that can be used internally and externally to detail all aspects of the brand.

It’s like creating and knowing the character around your brand – more than just a ‘brand personality’. If your brand was a person, what would it like? What wouldn’t it like? What would its fashion sense be? How does it act in different moods or how does it talk to different people?

Heidi says that:

We now judge the success of a brand not by its ability to manage its brand mark but in its ability to be recognised without its mark. Success comes in capturing the essence and spirit of a brand; which requires a broader range of assets delivered by ‘style guides’ rather than ‘guidelines’.

Or, as Mat Heinl puts it, it’s about giving guidance rather than guidelines.

Building a ‘brand world’ is about offering guidance for different situations and providing the tools to create communications that are ‘in character’, in the form of inspiration rather than a set of rigid rules.

Even if not everyone notices it, what you get as a viewer is a general impression. It’s not rigid or static, but it’s coherent.

-Mat Heinl

The Whitney Museum’s identity below is a great example of how a brand doesn’t need to be precious about its logo always looking exactly the same for it to be instantly recognisable. This freedom gives so much more room for creativity with the designs.

The Whitney Museum responsive W brand identity

As part of the brand world for Gordon’s Gin, they demonstrate different uses of The Boar’s Head adapted for different events which they are involved with. This helps to reinforce the partnership with each event and helps to give the brand a bit of depth and character.

Gordon's Gin The Boar's Head brand identity

Of course, no two brands are the same and different clients need different things. Approaches like these won’t work for everyone. While I don’t believe that the ‘traditional’ brand guidelines outlining strict, easy to follow rules is near redundant, I agree with Heidi to some extent that it can sometimes act like a ‘straight jacket stifling creativity’.

A good designer or agency that works to understand your brand inside out shouldn’t necessarily need a list of to dos like this to be able to create something that is in-line with and enhances the desired personality. I think building a brand with a recognisable ‘essence’ at every touch point is something every brand should aspire to and in doing so can help build memorability and customer loyalty.

Get in touch if you want any advice or help building a brand world!