Rules are a part of life. We followed them implicitly on the way into the office this morning, whether it was yielding at a crosswalk or deciding to stop at a red light. Without a common set of rules, society would fall into complete chaos. (There are plenty of cheesy movie plots to prove this point.)
Why do we need rules in design?
Every designer also implicitly follows rules. We work within the bounds of timeless guiding forces, like typography or color theory. Rules don’t limit designers; rather, they provide designers with common ground.
Rules also shape how we mold brands. As both architects and builders of branding, we are directed by guidelines that help establish consistency and harmony in our work.
In the digital space, following guidelines becomes even more important. Most brands have dozens of online expressions. Shaped by our websites, social media, and apps, managing this infinite pool of expressions can feel daunting. When things go wrong, they tend to go very wrong. There’s nothing like firing up your computer to discover a colleague has gone rogue and now the brand typeface is Papyrus.
The answer to this headache comes through a thoughtful digital brand system.
What the heck is a digital brand system?
A digital brand system is a collection of purposeful design components that convey your brand expression across all devices. Traditional brand elements, such as logos, color, and typography, compose the foundation of this system. Layered on top of that are the necessary elements that make up interfaces and interactions.
Think small: Everything from UI controls to the motion that makes up these experiences is contained in a digital brand system. And then, think big: All of the tangibles and intangibles users experience from our brands online are included in a digital brand system. Whether that’s a user buying a pair of shoes or applying for an undergraduate degree, there are numerous brand touchpoints they experience to accomplish a task online.
A successful digital brand system encompasses more than just brand guidelines. Where guidelines offer tailored advice, a system offers a methodology. Guidelines can successfully contain an existing brand. However, they lack the ability to account for an evolving system of new additions.
We’ve all encountered short-sighted brand guidelines. Even as an experienced designer, that phrase just makes me bristle. We start a project and then get the sneaking suspicion that the brand architect had a last-minute power trip before finalizing the rulebook. One last chance to stick it to the man – and “the man,” in most cases, is the paying client.
These rules, without the necessary context, can feel debilitating to a lot of practitioners who are simply trying to create something new from an established framework. Such rules can also discourage the very thing they were engineered best to encourage: creativity.
How do we save our creative cultures from legalism?
Rules have a tremendous potential to educate. A speed limit sign loses its value when drivers stop paying attention to it, and the sign is no longer an opportunity to educate drivers about highway safety. This philosophy can easily be injected into our digital brand systems.
These systems will naturally be held up by rules and guidelines, just like the nature of the disciplines behind them. Pivoting from legalistic guidelines to future-proof inspiration requires creating more than just rules. Instead, we must provide thoughtful resources. When design is teachable and accessible, it becomes a collective endeavor.
What this requires of our teams is to no longer be the brand police but to be a helpful guide resourcing all those using the digital brand system in their work. We accomplish this by creating guidelines rich with the context in which our teams will be using them.
What this requires of designers is to think of the components they create as flexible, adaptive, and useful cornerstones of the digital brand expression. This requires research. It requires hearing from an organization and problem-solving in a way that allows practitioners to be a part of the creative process. Let’s stop reacting with more red tape.
Brands are living, breathing ecosystems that require thoughtful, empathetic architects and engaged contributors. Inspire your organization by helping them navigate the complexity well. Creativity will be the natural byproduct.
Jeremy will be presenting the edUi 2017 talk, Break Your Own Rules: Creating a Digital Brand System that Encourages Creativity.
Hero image credit: Brendan Church.
About the Author
Jeremy Cherry is relentlessly optimistic about the power of design to make the world a better place. After cutting his teeth in the agency world, he brought his easy smile and contagious positivity to Journey Group, where he leads the digital design practice. Jeremy lives by the words “a better way is possible” and brings a wide range of skills and clear vision to every assignment. Hailing from South Boston, Virginia, he currently lives, works, and explores in Charlottesville.