Is a Design House-Style Really Necessary?


In my previous post I mentioned that I was currently developing a website and as part of those developments I wanted to look at introducing a house-style. It seemed like a way to introduce consistency and, for the less web-savvy CMS editors, make editing easier. With anything like this I try and research what is already out there and to see what other organisations have in place. After a bit of Googling, I didn’t find much out there, yes there are some guides out there but some focus too much on the copy and some are just brand identity guidelines, neither of which I was after. I started wondering if a house-style is necessary?

For me, a house-style should aim to make life easier for copywriters, designers and developers. Let’s face it, people move jobs and take their own set of standards with them, but if a guide is in place it means that the person picking up the reigns can easily pick up the styles in place and move forward with them. It also means that if you have a CMS with multiple editors it’s easier to make sure all the pages they edit have a level of consistency.

While I know that companies have branding guidelines these aren’t always the easiest thing for the everyday Joe Bloggs or Jane Smith to understand and then implement if they are trying to edit a leaflet template or add to a webpage. I have found branding guidelines to be more outward facing documents rather than inward facing, managing the brand from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

Have a look at the following examples and you can see a clear difference between who they are aiming at and what they are covering:

  • • NHS Brand Guidelines. This is an extremely thorough online resource looking at guidelines for print and web although it only lightly touches on copy and content. But for such a large organisation, it provides a clear and easy to use resource for inward and outward facing users.
  • • Arts Council. Covered in three modules, these branding guidelines and house-style guidelines are available as PDF downloads and while a PDF might not be the most innovative way of displaying the content, each document is extensive yet understandable.
  • • Twitter Style Guide. Taking a house-style a step further and applying it to your social media does seem to be the next logical step. While this guide might not cover branding on Twitter, it does have some useful starting points for twitter etiquette.

Why I think a house-style is necessary…

A house-style can’t work as a document in itself. It can’t be the only method of training for editors, users, external stakeholders. It also needs to be combined with training and best practice in design, development and copywriting/editing. I’ve read a recent interview on .net magazine which I think sums this up better: content strategy. For me, I can imagine a house-style document complimenting, and working with, a content strategy.

Therefore, I think a house-style is necessary if you relinquish any control over creating or editing any web or print work. Everyone has their own ideas of what looks good (and what doesn’t!) and, if they have a basic knowledge of html or of Photoshop, they might add in a sneaky inline style to try and overwrite a particular colour or font-size that as a designer you purposefully created.

It’s also a good way to provide an overview of even an evaluation of what you’re doing and why to managers, directors and your colleagues/clients who are outside of the design and development process and in an ever-changing climate it can help ensure a consistent, and effective, website and print during changes of design/development staff or when out-sourcing to a new digital agency.

It is also about ensuring consistency and that as the web/print team you remain in control. But on the other side of the coin does this then stifle flexibility and freedom?

Question Mark Post-It image from Shutterstock.

….and why I don’t

A brand doesn’t stay stationary, it continues to evolve. A website isn’t static it should also be updated or the thought of how to update it should be there. Designers are always thinking of new ways to layout print work to effective target their audience. Doesn’t a house-style get in the way of this? It creates a series or rules to be adhered to, and depending on the level of detail in the guide, it can potentially be restrictive. Tying a designer’s or developer’s arms so that they can’t introduce their own ideas and try and move things forward.

Not only does it stifle creativity by having designers adhere to guidelines that they might not have created it also means that any change to branding, layout, additional development features will all lead to a new version of a house-style. They might also need to be signed off by all the key stakeholders who initially approved the house-style, slowing down the speed at which changes can be made and introducing red tape where none is needed.

Getting off the fence

OK Written Post-It image from Shutterstock.

Personally, I’d like to think there is a halfway point between the two viewpoints above. I don’t want a house-style that is long-winded and that bores everyone to death before they get to the end. I want something concise, easy to implement and that takes into account design, development and copy. Easier said than done, maybe. But we’ve come so far since the first website, and even since the first website I created back in 2004, maybe it’s time to get more creative with a solution than just a plain old PDF or static web page?

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