Why Your Small Business Needs a Brand Style Guide and How to Create One Right Now
I can very well imagine what the beginning of your business journey feels and looks like: wild ideas flying around, gazillion things to be done, a to do list with the length of the Amazon river, and the suffocating feeling of having no time to do it all! Oh, I’ve been there and I know how terrifying this time can be. But also know how empowering and exhilarating it is when you reach your first blissful Aha!-moment of clarity.
When you’ve just taken the first few steps of turning your passion into a teeny-tiny online empire, you most likely just have a logo and a header to open your Etsy shop. At this point a brand style guide is not on the top of that to-do list I just mentioned. You probably feel that your time is better spent on product creation and reaching out to people and not on tweaking your brand.
And you’ll be perfectly right.
But today we'll talk about why your small business needs a brand style guide and how to create one as you go.
When you’re just starting your business, you should be focusing on creating value and connecting with real people, not on how perfect your brand looks.
And yet, the emotional impact your brand has on your dream customers is crucial for spreading your message and getting your business off the ground.
So today I’d like to make it easier for you to gather your brand elements, make some ground rules and take control over the emotions your brand stirs up in the people you want to serve.
Let’s start with the ‘what?’ and the ‘why?’
What is a brand style guide?
A brand style guide is a document containing all visual (and sometimes non-visual) characteristics of your brand. A brand style guide is:
a collection of all your brand elements.
a rule book on how your brand attributes can and cannot be used.
a manual for other people who might need to understand the look and feel of your brand.
A brand style guide usually looks like this:
Why do you need a brand style guide?
There are many ways your small business can benefit from having a brand style guide handy. Staying consistent is the most obvious, but the following three are even more convincing:
A collection of all your brand elements will save you time when you need to look up a color or find a suitable image for when that Etsy header we mentioned earlier needs to be updated.
As a business owner you have to take every single decision day in day out. Creating a brand style guide allows you do decide what the rules are just once and avoid decision fatigue.
As your business grows you might want to get help and delegate some things. Having a clear brand guide will help others understand how you want your brand to look and feel.
How long should it be?
If right now all you have is a logo, then start there. Open a new file, put your logo on top and write down a few basic rules on how it should and shouldn’t be used. When you decide on your next brand elements (your colors and fonts, for example), do the same.
One page is enough when you’re just starting out. As your business grows you might need to add pages and create a PDF booklet with all the rules you come up with. Start small and grow organically from where you are today.
You don’t need special software to create a brand style guide
To see all your brand elements in one place, to experience your brand design as a whole, you need to put everything on a white surface. You can use Illustrator or Photoshop (I've added a brand style guide template to the Library, you're welcome ;) ), Canva, or even Google Slides, Docs, Word or PowerPoint. It doesn’t matter what app you use, the goal is to put your brand design elements in one place and see the bigger picture.
The beauty of making your own rules
Collecting your visual elements in one place is only half of the story. The other half is creating your rules. Here are some questions to get you started:
When should you use that element?
How shouldn’t it be used?
What are the best examples?
If you make a decision once and write it down, you don’t have to make it over and over again. And when you need to decide 5643213 (a lot of) each day, that’s one less thing to worry about.
What to include in your brand style guide?
You can include everything and anything that you feel is relevant to your business, but I'll walk you through the main elements you can start with. And don’t worry if you don’t have them all—just add them one by one, it's OK to start small.
Your logo, no matter how simple, should be on top of the document. Create and add alternative logos and a submark you can use when you have limited space to work with (for example, on one line navigation, square profile images, etc.)
Pick six primary colors and add them to your document. For most online (or onscreen) purposes you’ll need their HEX values (they look like this: #12AB34), so find out those using a color picker in any design app or the ColorZilla picker in Chrome. Write down the values in your document.
If you plan to work with lots of print, do a research and find the CMYK values of your colors, too.
I like to repeat the whole process with a secondary palette. I call it supplementary neutral palette—you know, soft greys and pastel colors to match your main palette and melt your heart.
You can read more about colors in branding here: How to Choose Your Color Palette - Part 1: The Theory and here: How to Choose Your Colour Palette - Part 2: Pick Your Colours
If you have a logo that isn’t completely hand drawn, you probably have a font or two already. Don’t use your ‘logo font’ for anything else but your logo. Pick two fonts that look good together with your logo, but don’t clash or look too similar to it.
For more on how to choose your fonts, visit this post: How to Choose and Combine Fonts for Your Brand
As your brand evolves, you'll start using more patterns, textures, icons and illustrations. Add those to the document and describe the way you want to use them.
Your best option when looking for photos is to shoot your own. (If you are a photographer, that goes without saying.) However, when you’re just starting out and need to do 37 other things by the end of the day, each day, you’ll be perfectly justified to roll your eyes at me with a “Lina, have you lost your mind! Let me show you my to do list, and then tell me to go shoot photos again! *glaring face*”
Yeeeah, I know. I deserved that. And yet, if you decide that shooting photos is something you’d like to do at some point, Chaitra from ItsPinkPot.com has a great iPhone photography course you might find helpful (no affiliate links here, I just love her work).
If you decide to use stock photos, here are some ground rules that you might want to consider:
Pick your style first. Before downloading every photo that catches your eye, make sure you decide on a feeling your brand should evoke in your dream client. Look for that feeling when browsing through stock photography, not just for pretty photos.
Always, always, always make sure the photos you intend to use have a proper license that allows you to do so.
If you’re using free photos, make sure they are really free. Unsplash.com is a great place to start and I’ve made a little collection featuring my favourite 10 girl photographers on Unsplash.com.
Invest in premium stock photos. I love bundles and I’m always on a lookout for a specific style and feeling on Creative Market. I almost always go back to the same photographers, as they match my brand style.
As I said earlier, you can add anything to your style guide if you feel it's important to your brand. Here are brand elements that are often included in brand style guides:
Your website is your online home, so including screenshots of it might help you decide if it fits your whole brand look and feel. But as far as I can see, adding a website to the brand style guide is mostly used for design portfolio purposes.
If you have a moodboard or inspiration board you can include it in your brand style guide as a trigger of the feelings you want to create for your ideal customer. Just make sure you have the right to use the images on that moodboard, if you decide to share it with others.
This is rarely included in brand boards that are used for visual purposes only (the ones you find on Pinterest). However, it’s a very good idea to add them to your brand style guide since how you talk and write is a huge part of how your brand is perceived.
Make the rules on the language you use. For example, I have a strict no-potty-mouth policy. So on my website, in my videos and on my social media profiles no swear words can be used, neither by me, nor by you. Also I have a positive wording policy: I’ll say “it’s good”, and not “it’s not bad”. It means more or less the same, but I like positive affirmations not negative negations.
How to create your brand style guide right now (7 steps)
Before you start, imagine the way you want your customer to feel when coming across your brand, either on your website or social media profile. Write 10+ key words that’ll define and describe your brand style guide.
Make a list of all the elements you have and all that you need to create.
Collect all your brand elements in one folder.
Create and collect the elements you don't have, but feel you need right away.
Open a blank file in whatever app you feel most comfortable working.
Place your elements in your document, write the rules about them and save it all.
Go through your 10 key words again and make adjustments to your brand style guide to the feelings you want to evoke.
So, it's time for you to get to work. And remember the wise words of Miss Marie Forleo #ProgressNotPerfection. Get the free template and start making your own brand rules.
Do you have a brand style guide? If yes, how do you use it and how does it help your business? If no, why not and do you feel you need one? Let me know in the comments below.