Brand bibles, stylesheets, manuals of style — whatever the moniker, style guides are vital for any and every business. We’ve written about style guides a couple of times before; you can see those posts here (why you need a style guide) and here (why style guides are important). Both of those posts touch on the ‘whys’ and ‘whats’ of having a style guide, but skim over other aspects — for example, how to put such a guide together in the first place. Where should one start?
Here are a few of our top tips for compiling a style guide that accurately reflects you and your brand without being overwhelming, confused, or irrelevant. Do let us know if you have any tips of your own to add.
1. Always keep purpose in mind
George Orwell famously penned a set of six rules for concise writing. They tackle verbosity (long versus short words), voice (passive versus active), simplicity (jargon versus plain language), originality (overused metaphors), and more. Specifics aside, Orwell’s key message was that writing has a purpose, and should always aim to be clear and concise in order to best deliver its message. The same is true for your style guide — the guide itself doesn’t need to be a piece of prose or even in-keeping with your brand voice. It needs to be usable, so ensure that it is clear, concise, and relevant. If you mostly deal in design, then prioritise that part of your guide. If the key element of your printed products is a particular tone or voice, then clearly define that part as a priority. A style guide should eventually cover everything, but should be tailored to your business.
2. Make it usable for anyone, even if they’re unfamiliar with your business
It’s important to remember that your guide isn’t simply another admin document you “probably should” throw together — it should be usable by anyone at any time, and will save you time (and therefore money) if it is. At Giles Publications, when we work with a client we also request a copy of their style guide, so we know whether they use UK or US spelling, whether they like a personable or professional tone, whether they use ‘per cent’ or ‘%’… the list goes on. By sending a copy of your style guide, anyone you work with won’t need to constantly call you or go through excessive rounds of edits to produce a satisfactory result. To achieve this level of usability, don’t use in-house jargon and phrasing without defining it (avoid completely if possible), and try to approach it from an outside (neutral) perspective.
3. Consider both the small details and the bigger picture
As well as dealing with the specifics — one or two spaces after a full stop? — also include a brief explanation of who you are as a company, what your aims are, what your products do, who your customer is, and what your brand values are. For example, a punctuation and jargon guide is essential, but so are guidelines for writing and editing copy at a general level. By understanding your demographic and end goal (for example, to get young professionals to buy your shoes), your copywriter will have a better grasp of the purpose of what they’re writing. This is essentially a way of providing an in-depth company brief to your writer without you needing to do so every time.
4. Consider web and print separately
Just as writing and design are separate elements of your output, so are web and print. Content that was originally designed for print should be reworked and adapted when published online (and a style guide should contain your guidelines for doing so). This is flexible and entirely up to you and your preferences; for example, some write in a more snappy and succinct way online, as attention spans are lower on average, while others write longer and pack in additional information and resources as there is no limit on length (for tips, see our posts on writing for web versus print, and how to produce winning web content). For design, reconsider your colour palette for digital output, as they may display slightly differently on screen than on paper.