Years ago, I took a massive solo road trip around the American Southwest. There’s a lot to see out there, and most of the big sights are National Parks, which means that with the price of admission came a copy of the well-designed brochure for that destination. Though they’ve changed a bit in recent years (a switch from Helvetica to Myriad, for example) they all adhered to the original, impressively-gridded system developed by Massimo Vignelli. The design accommodates anything a particular spot needs to convey, whether it’s a map, a montage of illustrated infographics, massive amounts of text—or all of the above. A design classic.
The Guidelines Book
We often do full-blown brand guidelines “books” for our clients. Generally they’re for extensive branding programs with secondary visual graphics beyond the logo or for larger clients with a lot to cover. That might include numerous subbrands or extensive information beyond the visual brand—things like mission statements or requirements for writing in the “brand voice”. An example with all those things is shown above, which we did with IfNotNow for Fielday.
Sometimes when building a new brand, the guidelines document becomes an important (or the first) opportunity to establish the look and feel. A marketing manager might use this as a chance to lay out a new manifesto, while the designer may use it as a chance to work out the design ideas for the brand. But this isn’t the guidelines’ strong suit, since any attempt to give the designer or writer enough to sink their teeth into runs the risk of making the piece bloated or distracting.
Back in the day, there was a reason brand standards manuals were so fat. It was often necessary for vendors outside the organization to recreate the logo from scratch, or work with scant resources (hardcopy sheets of the logo were provided within the guidelines binder to literally be cut out and pasted into layouts, as seen to the left, via The Standards Manual). And those vendors had to implement the brand on their own with little information beyond what was detailed in the book. Those days are long gone. Not only do infinitely scalable digital files eliminate the need for elaborate diagrams showing the construction of the logo, they contain all necessary elements (like color and type) and are in universal formats suitable for everything from illuminated signs, to CMYK printing, to embroidery. And in the current connected world, there’s no reason to guess or interpret: someone with the answer or an example is only an email or a text away.
Of course, guidelines documents can still become lengthy—if a brand’s visuals include a lot of tricky graphic treatments or special customized text that require some “How To”-like sections, for example. Even a document covering just the core identity can get long, but we believe in keeping guidelines documents as succinct as possible. That said, below is evidence that we’re still suckers for a cool—if not strictly necessary—logo construction diagram, as long as it doesn’t make things tough for a vendor simply looking to find a CMYK value or an example of the logo in use.
With this newfound ease of use, there are now more ways than ever for someone to implement a logo incorrectly—and more people capable of doing it. So there is definitely a need for some guidance. Luckily, in most cases, all the critical information can be conveyed in a pretty compact document. In fact, a one-pager should suffice for most brands just getting started. Not only does that make it easier to find important info, it means a guidelines document isn’t out of reach for a smaller client or a smaller budget.
We’ve become fans of the “cheat sheet” style illustrated here by the recent Girl Scouts redesign by OCD. It’s also become popular to imagine the one-sheet approach as a poster, like the two examples below. But expecting someone to hang this up anywhere in the office is unrealistic, so as long as it functions as an emailable PDF, it’s still effective. But the idea is sound: illustrate the core rules for correctly using the logo to maintain a strong brand. Introduce the logo and show its variations, the brand’s color breakdowns, and accompanying typography. These larger examples manage to squeeze in secondary graphics and some examples, too.
We recently established a very basic guidelines document that can be included with any logo we do. An example is below. It covers the essentials for using the logo without complicating the matter. We may find that it is too basic—perhaps merely saying what the “don’ts” are isn’t enough, and we actually need to show a stretched logo and a chrome-ified logo with slashes through them. But it feels like a useful document and can at least form the “v. 1” that a client can have fleshed out further down the road.
To see a random assortment of brand guideline examples we’ve gathered, visit our Pinterest page.
We like to bring our clients into the logo design process earlier than most studios. After a good long talk about the client’s goals, we brainstorm a ton of possibilities and share them. When we’ve established several to explore, we’ll go off and sketch (literally, like with pencil and paper) and then share those sketches. Sometimes these first two steps are combined—the broad brainstorming is accompanied by sketches—but the outcome is the same: the client gets to be a part of the ideation before a single pixel has been pushed.
Once the sketches are turned into a bunch of actual designs on the computer, we present them, and the client can take a couple of them into the refinement stage. We know sometimes it’s hard to choose just one! So we like to help them make a strong decision by offering to button up a couple options to consider.
Depending on the amount of back and forth, the complexity of the client’s needs, and whether other elements (secondary graphics, etc.) are involved, the process can take a couple of weeks or a month. But this basic approach remains the same.
Each month, we ask 6 questions of a friend whose creative work we admire.
This month we’re featuring creative director Tony Ruth. He’s worked with everyone from Coke to Microsoft and is currently Head of Concept Development at Cleveland Avenue, a food and beverage accelerator in Chicago.
1. How’d you end up doing what you’re doing now?
I went to school for product design, but it became clear in my twenties that my main skill was digital illustration. I was working on innovation projects, doing concept visualization for consumer testing and helping clients create opportunity studies around new brands and services. I spent a few years collaborating with one of my favorite clients to help her develop a corporate venture group for food and beverage startups — it was long term strategic study, lots of research, more than anything else we were designing an organization. It never launched, but she and I met some influential people and now we’re both in-house at a new organization that’s custom made to accelerate food startups.
2. Describe a typical day.
So I go back and forth between doing traditional creative direction — packaging design, restaurant branding, UX mockups — and this more amorphous thing that I’ve been calling concept development. Creative direction is pretty straightforward — we have brands that we own or are invested in that need immediate attention and it’s our job to get them into the next phase of growth: refine their messages, define their offerings, and build out the brand architecture to communicate with the right audience. Pretty standard. Concept development is the longer play: how do we even figure out what we should be investing our resources in? I’m in a lot of meetings with entrepreneurs who are showing us new food products and tech, with investors and corporate partners that have gaps in their portfolios or brands that are losing steam. I do a fair amount of spec work, building early concept pitches that visualize where a brand could go if we invest in it, or if we find the right partner to help accelerate it. It’s basically telling the story of what we believe is possible if the right resources are aligned, in order to get everyone who matters on board.
3. What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?
Literally right now I’m flying back from meeting with a company that has a radical new environmentally friendly technology that could cut transportation costs in the beverage industry by 80%, which is amazing and inspiring. They don’t need much traditional creative because their engineering is so strong, but at the same time, the impact of the product is so enormous that it merits crystal clear messaging. So that’s a highly meaningful project that’s mostly communications strategy. On the other side of the spectrum, we’re entirely redesigning a small beverage brand from top to bottom. It’s exclusively a graphic job, with no practical limitations on what we do, so it’s liberating and therefore a lot of fun.
4. What have you done there that you’re most proud of?
Just the fact that this place exists at all. We’ve been trying to build some version of it for five years now, and it never would have happened if we hadn’t met our founder at the right time and had this crazy alignment between what we were doing and what he was doing. More than any individual design projects I’m super excited when we get investment into a great small company with amazing founders who’ve been going it alone for too long and deserve support. Working with people who are building their own companies is a really positive experience, the enthusiasm is infectious and you really want to make their little company grow because you see how much it means to them.
5. What would you most like to work on (fantasy or reality)?
That’s hard for me to answer because I love working across new categories — I’m becoming a professional dilettante, looking at new things constantly, keeping a library in my head of all the things I find fascinating or viable and trying to connect the dots between them. Ultimately I’d like to be part of a roving concept design SWAT team, flying into the Aspen Institute or whatever to do concept sprints in collaboration with my favorite design buds. I’m kind of in love with the idea phase in and of itself, and with the act of collective creation. At the same time I’d love to own a brand entirely so that I can control everything and nerd out about tiny details.
Children’s books. I have a few in the works. Every couple of years I do a goofy side project with cartoons (you can search for Lunchbreath or Welcome To BusinessTown) and one of my immediate life goals is getting at least one of these books done and out in the world.
This is one of the most important tools in the studio: my trusty red Sterling wirebound sketchbook. And it’s just the current one—there are dozens of spent ones filling a shelf at the back of the office.
Now, I love my computer. Love it. But my sketchbook is where all my projects begin.
Computers can do a lot, but they can’t come up with ideas. Working things out on paper allows me to explore what the design should be, not what the computer can generate to fit the bill. Starting on the computer also plunges me right into refinement and details, before the big picture is established—I can burn a lot of time tightening up an idea that doesn’t deserve it. And having a few options that look polished tends to cut off the exploration and experimentation before everything has actually been tried.
The first step in any design project is, of course, thinking: pondering what visual metaphors could represent a company for its logo. Simply recording these ideas—good or bad—is one great way to use a sketchbook. For me, sketching is part of this brainstorming process. Then sketching takes over and I’ll blaze through page after page exploring ways an idea could work formally. Above are my sketches for the first round of concepts for the logo for DC restaurant Halfsmoke. None of these drawings is “suitable for framing” by any stretch. Some are truly awful scrawls just to capture an idea. Sometimes I’ll actually just write the company name down several times, approximating a typeface, to see how the letters work together or play off each other. That lead to the idea above where the lowercase L became the 1 in a “1/2” built into the logotype. Truly “messing around” with the words, letters, or symbols I’m considering always reveals something I wouldn’t have thought of unless I was working through it on paper.
The inherent looseness of a quick thumbnail sketch can also immediately validate an idea worth keeping or exploring further. You can see this happening with a few of the ideas above (the script, the flame) which ended up resolved enough that it was just a matter of scanning them in and tracing them on the computer to get the final version.
Below are some early sketches for Elevele, many of which show it was very much about playing with expressive opportunities found among the letters. Sure, I would have seen some of these opportunities by typing out the name in Helvetica onscreen, but pencil and paper made me think through the ideas more critically. And after working out a bunch of sketched ideas, I could immediately see which ones were worth bringing into the computer and which weren’t. Had some of these ideas been conceived on the computer, they might have looked more successful than they really are, due to the level of polish.
Beyond greatly aiding the ideation process, sketching has another huge benefit: focus. Simply being away from my phone and computer (or better yet, in a different room) eliminates the distraction of email (and Facebook, Slack, etc.) to allow for some good quality time concepting.
And I don’t just do this for logos. I sketch everything from magazine covers, to web sites, to things like the infographic below, which was done for Hyde Park Angels. (For the life of me, I can’t interpret exactly what’s going on in these sloppy sketches now, but it meant something at the time.) I could have taken to the computer right away—quickly drawing some icons and typing in the stats. But sketching in a case like this is almost like “rapid prototyping,” allowing me to quickly try things out to see where things need to go for them to make sense. And the broader perspective afforded by quick sketches lead to some interesting relationships among the elements.
As I pointed out in the post about our logo design process, sketches can also offer the client a snapshot of numerous directions before a huge investment of design time has been made. But for me, the best reason is simply that the conscious, deliberate act of scratching lines into paper brings a different perspective to shapes and formal relationships and always leads to unexpected discoveries.