Monday October 17, 2005

Style Guides: Where Do They Fit In?

Bright Corner logo In my capacity as Visual Designer at Bright Corner, I have been able to add focus to the craft, process and workflow of visual design. Whereas in previous roles I have regularly bounced between rudimentary IA, Flash development, HTML/CSS development and ad-hoc art direction — often all within an hour’s time — my time at Bright Corner has allowed me to focus in on design. Now I get to think about interesting things like user experience, semiotics (thank you, Mark!), color, brand and typography, and how all of these things (and more) contribute to the visual design of a final product.

We recently came into a situation with one of our clients where we were tasked with developing a visual design comp for a brochure that could be handed off to and completed by the client’s in-house designer. The process for designing the comp was already a new experience for me; the Bright Corner design trio had participated in a day-long design exercise in which we took upon ourselves a set of often broad, sometimes specific design tasks which were swapped among ourselves over the course of the day. It was definitely a step outside of my Design Comfort Zone, but the process yielded some fresh and interesting results, the most interesting result being that I ended up with a design that I normally wouldn’t have arrived at on my own.

With the client-approved design up on screen, it was now up to me to provide direction to the client’s in-house designer as to how the final brochure design should unfold. The unique nature of the design process meant that a significant portion of the design — though definitely built upon sound principles — had been rendered intuitively. The challenge for me, then, rested not only in communicating the overarching concept and obvious design elements but also in discovering the structure and style that I had created.

As I knuckled down and documented the thoughts, concepts, and details that held this design together, it momentarily occurred to me that I was creating, in essence, a style guide. As the designer and I communicated back and forth, and more documentation and more focused directions came out of me, I realized that I was most definitely creating a style guide. Though my emails contained no images, my words were adding meat to the InDesign skeleton document that the designer was working from. Not surprisingly, I was learning more about the design the more I analyzed it.

In my experience, style guides have typically followed the completion of a project. Once the design is out of our hands, we address our concern that the consistency with which we designed a product continues to thrive in the hands of those tasked to maintain it. In plain English, we seem more concerned with using style guides as a means to do damage control.

What occurred to me (and this may be news to no one but me) is that a simple style guide can help designers figure out their intuitive choices and recognize both strengths and weaknesses in their work — before production begins. The simple act of explaining design choices to yourself can work wonders in bringing clarity, consistency, thought and purpose to your work. Just crack open a text editor and start writing. It need not be lengthy, just enough to galvanize your vision. My guide/email correspondences took about an hour, in all, to write, but I can tell you that it was well worth it.

Now circumstances have changed and the brochure is back in my court. Boy am I glad I took the time to write down my thoughts on this design! My deadline is tight, but I’m not too worried. I’ve already done most of the thinking I need to do. Now I just need to follow my style guide!

Commentary


Addison Hall » 4321 days ago #

I’ve written a brief style guide or two, but I’ve really gone through this process since I became involved with client relations. It’s an eye-opening experience to speak coherently about your work and explain why you did what you did. Typing out your reasoning is probably an valuable exercise in evaluating your own work—excellent idea.

chuck » 4321 days ago #

Sounds like an interesting process. I’ve never written one before, but I’ll be heavily involved in writing one in the next month or so.

Have you ever written a style guide “as you go” ? That’s what we’ll be attempting. Basically keeping a living document that we beef up as we progress through the development of the project. I’m wondering how it will work.

Haris » 4320 days ago #

Jared,
i wanted to thank you for all of your excellent feedback. You did an amazing job in communicating the design vision for the brochure. I am very lucky to have worked with such talent.
Fortunatelly, my work has taken me in different direction, however i wanted to wish you the best of luck in future endeavors in design.

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