Digital style guide a Dodo or must do?

Style Guides, you either hate them or love them. These tomes are either crammed to the brim with techniques and tools you rarely use and are antiquated approaches for designers, or form the very DNA of a design system that can be adopted to every piece of brand work you and your team will ever churn out on the fly. In the age of digital transformation the digital style guide still persists as a chicken and  egg problem. Agencies are often approached with requests for help creating guides either from a branding perspective that translates across its offline and online creatives, or created solely to address digital work. Teams could be traditional, digital or more likely with mixed skill sets – traditional (ATL, BTL) and digital. Each team has its own learning curve and requirements and probably a different guide that goes with it.

While style guides are definitely lighthouses that light the way for consistency in interpreting the brand tonality, values and design language, you may wonder what comes first. The work that has to be designed and put into the world, or the digital style guide? Sounds like the chicken or egg paradox? The truth in this case, I personally think is simple. If you don’t have work that is established as brand canon, there is no way you can establish a design language playbook for future assets. Style guides can use base work to extrapolate how a design ethos is translated into different collateral. Whether it is an emailer, an email signature or the kind of material that needs to be created for social media. But if there is no base work, that starting point that encapsulates brand vision, a random designer gets to play God in defining what your brand visually stand for and sounds like. Besides if you haven’t seen one piece of creative work that defines your brand, how will you really know how to distil your brand essence into future work and what it looks like, even if it slaps you in the face?

Once you do have a brand essence, its core values and understand how it sounds in your head and looks like, it’s easier to work with agencies to give them direction to craft a style guide that codifies this. So this could likely be after you’ve worked with your agency on some work for the brand. After a successful brand re / launch campaign perhaps. The style guide then informs future work and it goes on to act as a guide for converting this brand ethos across different markets. Or if you are an umbrella brand, it helps distil some of the parent brand values to the individual product brands, while giving enough leeway for each of those brands to carve out its own unique brand values. Obviously there a some really good examples of these guides out there. American politics churn out some nice guides, like the one of Obama’s election campaign or Hillary Clinton’s PantSuit.

Format the first hurdle

If you have ever thumbed through a style guide for a brand you will notice that a lot of time and effort goes into defining parameters. Brand colour palettes, logo treatments, font styles are all common place. If you happen to have a nice glossy printed brand guideline book, it makes for a great table top reference that one can delve into time and again like a dictionary.  This is the format that most design style guides shoot for. So you would think.

Is this the perfect format for newbies who really need to understand the design language? Perhaps not, but if care is taken it can be written and presented in an engaging way, it can fill this gap. By and large however if you have stepped into an agency or looked at your in-house team, you will notice that people are so pressed for time that rarely pull out the style guide that often. Now there are only two possible reasons for this. One, the style guide has done its job well and ingrained its basic design principles in the mind of the design team from the get go, or it’s just an inaccessible format to page through. Even more so if the style guide is a PDF. If you can’t search it quickly, designers are unlikely to spend time scrolling around endlessly trying to find the style palette they need for the work they want to create.

I personally think we should embrace a design system pack and move beyond just creating a Style Guide. A pack would encompass the guidelines at it core but be layered with the assets and tools to check that the style guides are adhered too. We’ll come to that in a bit.

Designed for designers

More often than not, style guides are designed by designers for brand managers and not designers. There is some irony in this if the brand manager has never done a single piece of design work in his life, he is still the person who signs off on the brand style guide.

Perhaps today we need to go a step further in designing a style guide that is truly for designers. In its very essence style guides need to evolve from being a guide, to become a style package. Think of a designer’s workspace. Whether it is a front-end designer or back-end developer, the style guide needs to fit perfectly into their existing workflow and not be intrusive. So perhaps instead of just PDFs think of design palates with your brand’s colour swatches that can loaded into Photoshop. An accompanying font pack so everyone has easy access to and uses the right fonts. For developers, have code snippets that can cut and used. Say for example the footer code of that email that needs to be send out that doesn’t really change. Today’s approach focus on designing elements more so that guides for complete pages. So design tiles and palates have found ground to be included as the bedrock for future designs. You can’t quite anticipate what you’ll need to design next after all.

Digital Style Guides designed for digital work

Today there are digital style guides are built for developers. Search the web and you will find a myriad of examples. These are websites in their own right that outline each of the element is. Some of it I think even uses live code as the basis for the style, adapting to the live code as it changes.

In such websites each element of a brand’s online presence is defined with examples of the code that is needed to create it and the way it looks like in the front end. These style guides exist as online repositories that are easy to navigate. As technology changes they can easily be updated. They are accessible to all people who have the required URL. They are searchable in a manner that eliminates having to thumb through chapters to find what you are really looking for. Their copy paste function makes implementation that much easier. Some of these go one step farther, using the style guide itself as an example of a brand communication. Uber is one such example.

The next step

While digital has made numerous leaps and bounds over the years, not much of this has trickled down into digital style guides. Today teachers have access to plagiarism checkers. The same technology perhaps could be tooled to evaluate content for brand tonality. We should be able to upload art work and have checks such as logo placement be evaluated by computers. The simplest way to achieve this perhaps would be to overlay a machine generated brand style grid that is super-imposed over the uploaded art work. AI, machine learning and voice search could be used to create an easier to access repository of guidelines. The only thing stopping this investment is having a brand that will budget for the same. This is a brand that is going to be growing leaps and bounds, has big expansion plans and will need to have a robust guide in place so that all its stakeholders are quickly brought up to speed and are on the same page.

Some examples of style guides & resources

  1. A nice collection of guides at
  3. The Boy Scouts of America
  4. BBC Gel (The design language of the BBC)
  5. Material Design by Google
  6. Uber


Flying High

Flying IndiGo: An insight into the marketing genius that makes Indigo Take to the skies

If you are planning on flying somewhere within the country these days, your choice of domestic airline is likely to be IndiGo. With a television commercial that stands out from the rest of the competition, and the fact that this is an airline that prides itself on being on time, Indigo is the way to go. The airline is touted to be the youngest airline in the Indian sky with the most awards and commands 27% of the market with over 355 daily flights.

I happen to travel by this airline last weekend for a quick hop to Chennai. One of the first things that you notice when you get to an airport is the fact that the Kingfisher check-in counter is relatively empty. Next in line being Jet Airways. The biggest lines to be seen however are queued up at the Indigo check in counter. Packed flights and long queues, signs of an airline that is not only prospering but has managed to garner brand loyalty amongst frequent fliers (without a flying points program as well I’d wager.) While I personally found the seats to be kind of cramped, there were several things that caught my eye from a marketing perspective.

At the beginning of the flight when you are getting strapped in and the air-hostess goes through the various routines, you may notice that the captain makes it a point to introduce the crew, telling you where they hail from and what languages that they know. This is a nice touch, especially when you hail from a country that has different languages and many first time fliers. One thing I would like to see them add is to have the flight crew being introduced in each of the languages that they know. Could be a bit time consuming, but if done well it adds a reassurance to any of the people who speak that language. One of my friends once told me that the best way to break the ice is to speak the same language.

One thing I couldn’t quite fathom was the use of an angled walkway to board and de-plane. Personally I thought that a normal staircase was much more comfortable and was glad that they used the same at the rear of the airplane. Descending the ramp with heavy baggage is no easy feat, especially if you happen to be an elderly person. True I expect wheelchair bound people can be wheeled up the ramp more easily. Whether that was the motivation, or whether it was to increase the speed of boarding, I can’t quite figure.

The in-flight literature – ‘Hello 6E’, from a copywriter’s viewpoint is quite a delight. Each product on offer is preluded with a witty headline that leads the reader in. For example the page with T-Shirts are captioned ‘Addicteed’ and the scale model has ‘Model of a modern global airline’ as a headline. True some can argue that this may be wasted on the common man flying on these flights, I on the other hand think that this is a clever way to carve out a memorable niche. In fact while I do not remember the actual copy, I recall there was something witty on the staircase that boards the aircraft as well! Added to this is the use of the brand’s characteristic font in all its communication whether it is the in-flight magazine or the cover photos on Facebook or print ads.

Behind every seat you will find that the seat cover ends with a  toll free number. Users are requested to use the toll free number or website for any customer complaints. It is interesting that a visit to the facebook page of the brand revealed that the company does not solicit any kind of customer complaint on the wall. This is a bold step and a very good way to ensure that just brand communications and offers are pushed on the FB wall. With a respectable 17000 odd fans talking about them, they must be doing something right.

As the brand matures I think they will find more ways to carve out a niche for themselves. Right now the company is focussed on getting its product and service right, and kudos to them for achieving it.

Sole Searching

Here’s a company that has thought out of the box, using the box. Over the weekend I embarked on a quest to find a new sole. This took me the length and breadth of Colaba Causeway, ducking into most of the major sport shoe retailers. For the past couple of years I have been quite brand loyal to Nike. The reason – it’s so damn easy to get shoe sizes of 11 and above in most Nike shoes, something not that easy elsewhere. Once upon a time this was true for Reebok, and Reebok used to make some really nice looking shoes then. But alas those days are over and all that’s left are the fond memories of my first and only pair of Reebok’s

So why did I decide to dump the Greek Goddess for the prancing Puma. For one its sale season and the only pair of shoes that I did like from Nike was the last pair and that made me a little uncomfortable. The last two Nike’s that I have owned somehow haven’t last as long as the pair I had before that. Could it be quality is dropping? Another thought was that as such both shoe makers were getting their shoes made in Vietnam.  I decided that it was time to take a bold new step and settled for some interesting looking Puma slip-ons, which strangely enough remind me of another battered pair of Nikes that I have.

What was also interesting about these shoes is the box that they came in. I have grown accustomed to the plain yet colourful designs of the Nike shoe box that isn’t much worth a second glance. So it was quite surprising from a packaging and promotional point of view what the company has pulled off with its box. For one there is a size comparative scale that compares different international foot sizes and juxtaposes this against everyday objects.  What’s more is the space of what is essential a pivotal fold, the company has managed to cram in ideas of how to recycle the box. Neat to say the least and definitely made me look at the box much more than I usually would. I also then subconsciously register the fact that there is a URL on the box (which I should check out). The end result: Kudos to that copywriter and designer who thought out of the box to make an outstanding shoe box.