I had a chat a few weeks back with a friend who works “client side”, seeking some advice. Her point was one I’ve come across a bit over the years, working in agencies and working with clients.

My friend is a marketing head and had brand guidelines to work from. She’s got a pretty clear communication need, and it’s tied into a business metric so she’s got to do something that engages.

Her next task was to put her brief to a couple of agencies on her business’s roster when she caught up with them next, just to get their feedback.

She felt there was a need to do something outside of the guidelines’ guidance for this job to really work, and yet felt tied to the guidelines. She was in an unsure middle ground where the guidelines didn’t help her communication needs.

Whether its “the guidelines were too vague” or “the guidelines are too restrictive” this is a common story in communications world.

I had one big point here which I went through with her, but I’ll share with you as well.

Brand guidelines are are just that: guidelines for a brand. They are there to guide, to point the brand in the right direction.

Brand guidelines provide consistency wherever possible.

But brand guidelines are not rules. Nor are they laws.

Brand guidelines are (usually) far from exhaustive in what they cover and address.

At the core of them should be a clarity of the idea, the concept of what your brand “stands for”, how it “feels”, give examples of how to place and lay out the logo, the font to use, the rules and relationships between the brand elements, the colour palette (usually with CYMK references). All that stuff.

Brand guidelines help you design when they can.

At the bottom level they are there to set the scene and give you some elements for your brand to work with.

Maybe people expect too much from brand guidelines. But there is another bigger problem: People read them too literally.

The best guidelines have an opening page that give an overview of the feel of the brand (and maybe tell the story of how that was arrived at), and how the brand can connect with the brand’s audience, talking about things like language and tone. What follows? The guidelines, usually for the logo.

A lot of people say that digital as a medium (or a mass of mediums) is where brand guidelines often fall short. Short-minded.

Brand guidelines don’t usually cover a lot of other mediums, especially moving image (such as television) and anyone who specialises in PR would have their take. But then they are brand guidelines. Brand guidelines are usually designed with print work in mind.

Your brand and how it manifests and is represented across all mediums is important. But your brand is much more than just logos, colour schemes, and taglines.

Your brand defines how you talk to your audience (and/or your target audience) and that could never be a constant. There needs to be room for adaptation and improvisation on where the brand is going in and those driving it need to be comfortable, confident.

The moving image is a great example, maybe the greatest, potentially most powerful example, where an ad can tell a story that gets across the brand, with the logo probably just popping up at the end along with the campaign message. But the ad will still present the brand in an interpreted way.

And there are times when hacking, breaking the visual rules is something I’d accept and push for if it connected with audiences.

(I’ve had several client job like this recently where we needed to speak to an audience through a web presence, but a solution that was “heavily branded”, as per their actually quite thorough guidelines, would have been more off-putting than engaging. So we all agreed to capture the essence of the brand in the overall language design.)

I am not saying this as a ‘designer’ who doesn’t want to be bound by rules others have set down. I have worked with handed down guidelines and I have worked on creating guidelines - there has to be respect for decent guidelines.

A lot of the time the commonality brand guidelines provides shared understanding and approaches. They do provide a common thread, as you’d expect good guidance to.

If there is a point where the brand guidelines do not serve a purpose as something that is oft-referred to, then is it time to relook at the brand and what guides them - even if that is putting down “Anything goes”?

What I am saying: Know your brand and know your brand is something beyond just being a logo and a strapline. Understand how you talk to your audiences and potential audiences. Take guidelines as a starting point to explore relevant ideas, within those guidelines, around those guidelines and outside of those guidelines. And I ask that whether you’re using them - or if you are creating them in the first place.

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