Building better brand guidelines

Keeping your finely-tuned brand looking and sounding consistent with an ever-changing mix of suppliers, internal teams and individual stakeholders can be a complicated and time-consuming task. We know! Luckily, there are more and more digital tools available to make your life a lot easier.

But which is right for you? Selecting the right brand guidelines approach is a key step in successfully communicating your brand, both internally and externally. Let's take a look at some of the best strategies and tools available today.

NASA brand guidelines. How we did it in the old days.

Online brand repositories

Many companies invest in online brand guidelines tools due to a broad spectrum of users, from marketing teams who interact with the brand frequently, to those in HR who might only need the logo on occasion. Online brand guidelines are instantly updatable, can be more user-friendly than a "traditional" PDF, are easily communicated by circulating a link, and are great for users who just need some basic information. Their disadvantages include potential complexity when scanning for specific information on a webpage, and there are typically recurring monthly costs.

There are a few different options for developing online brand guidelines. For most control and scalability, a custom microsite is often preferred by larger organizations. A custom site can be nested within the corporate domain, gives the most flexibility in design of the brand guidelines and can support brand evolution indefinitely (if designed well). It certainly requires higher upfront investment, but potentially leads to lower ongoing maintenance costs.

Alternately, a team might opt for an off-the-shelf solution, which will typically allow for semi-customization with colors and typeface, but locks the team into using a predetermined layout and architecture that may be limiting. Leading examples of off-the-shelf solutions include Frontify, BrandFolder, and Lingo.

Frontify. Good stuff, if you want a packaged solution.

Frontify is currently top end of the market in off-the-shelf online brand guidelines solutions. They offer the most flexible premade online guidelines, with over 40 premade content modules to select from, some of which are only available for the Enterprise tier plans. Frontify’s brand guidelines can integrate with an optional digital asset manager and a limited dynamic template tool.

BrandFolder’s brand guidelines offering, BrandGuide, is designed to supplement their larger digital asset management (DAM) solution. BrandFolder has the most robust dynamic template solution, which can support both print and digital workflows.

Corebook is a new offering in the space. Its ability to host background images and animations provides for visually richer brand guidelines. It also has a helpful micro-navigation feature that allows linking to specific areas of each page.

Lastly, Lingo has a brand guidelines tool called Brand Style Guide which is also designed to work with their own digital asset management solution. Lingo’s tool features analytics and Figma integration, and a limited set of content blocks but enough to cover all the necessities.

But as noted, online brand guidelines are not ideal for all purposes and end-user needs. They're not practical for communicating dense amounts of information, such as extended specifications needed by some production teams. They might also not be the preferred format for people who need to reference the same information frequently, such as color formulas. With external vendors it may not be possible or desirable to share certain brand information through creating new logins to your brand center. Lastly, you might have specialized brand information that isn’t for such a broad audience that it warrants creating a whole new section of online brand guidelines, but for which you still need documentation. These are all use cases for PDF guidelines.

PDF guidelines

One major advantage of "traditional" PDF guidelines is that, once they are created, there are no monthly maintenance costs. A second advantage of PDF guidelines is that they are in book format (the longer ones), and (while it’s easy to take for granted) a book is a technology. Over hundreds of years we have created conventions like pages, tables of contents, page numbers, and indexes that parcel out information into digestible chunks and make it easy to locate within the larger whole. A certain type of expert user is good at finding information within books. Added to that, we now have hyperlinks which add a more sophisticated layer of navigation and make moving around in PDFs even easier. PDF guidelines are better for when there is a lot of detailed information — more than is easy to display on a webpage. 

A disadvantage of certain PDF guidelines is that those who are not expert users can find long or specialized PDFs overwhelming, so their distribution should be limited to those who are the correct audience, for instance production artists for guidelines with specifications, or a signage vendor for signage guidelines. Another disadvantage, that can affect fast-evolving organizations in particular, is that PDF guidelines cannot be instantly updated the way a website can when brand information evolves, so you have to be careful of old versions of the guidelines persisting.

Main formats for PDF guidelines include one-sheets, specialized guidelines, brand guidelines, and extended guidelines. The one-sheet is a single-page PDF that typically is intended for distribution either internally or to vendors who only need the basics on how to use the logo. This typically shows logo versions, clear space and minimum size, color formulas for the colors used in the logo, and a few do’s / do not’s. Specialized guidelines are focused on a specific topic, such as trademark guidelines or signage guidelines. These are often in PDF format because they are not of general enough interest for them to be posted online. Brand guidelines contain the fundamental brand information, usually the same information as is posted in the online brand guidelines or a slight extension of it. Often companies like to have a PDF version because some users prefer to access the information in PDF format or to have PDF backup if the online version becomes unavailable. Extended guidelines are a significant extension of the guidelines content, typically including detailed specifications on how to execute the brand system.

Figma. Powerful, collaborative and efficient.


A newer innovation Supermoon is increasingly employing is to build guidelines directly into Figma, the popular UI design application recently acquired by Adobe. Distributed digital collaboration is key to how we all work today, and Figma is designed specifically for that. It is an incredibly powerful tool when used well, in particular for digital product teams and digitally-driven companies.

Figma allows designers to load core strategic visual identity elements like brand colors and typography into reusable UI design system components such as button styles, graphical elements and icons, which can in turn be further iterated on and exported by developers when approved for digital production. Building your brand guidelines directly into Figma can therefore create an efficiency by removing the need for separate UI guidelines documentation.

A key feature of Figma is that by revising the "parent" or original component, all other component instances are automatically updated in real time. This vastly reduces the risk that users are exposed to an outdated example of the element or asset. Of course, controlling the process is more accessible to people who know how to use Figma expertly, and access permission may be restricted, so having a PDF version at hand for non-Figma users can still be important.

Figma provides a level of free access, handy for reviewers who don't need to get their hands too dirty. Licenses are needed for team members who are designing screens and pages in the app.

Bringing it all together

Most companies today benefit from the combination of online brand guidelines and a PDF guidelines document for the reasons detailed above. Digitally-focused companies can additionally create efficiencies from a guidelines system built in Figma, so that they can utilize brand components built natively into the file.

Within the digital space there are numerous options, and the landscape is ever changing. We're more than happy to discuss your specific situation and brand management needs, to determine what solution (or combination of solutions) is most effective for you.

Feel free to reach out to our ED for Brand Management, Hannah House, for further advice. She's happy to help!