For the love of Style Guides
I don’t remember how or when exactly I learned about style guides. But I remember that it was like one of those things, that you’ve been struggling to describe for a long time and finally learn the words to talk about it. It was like finding out that a utopia that you’ve been longing for actually exists!! Yes, it was that beautiful .
Let’s take a step back.
Growing up, people around me would call me an artist. I’ve always been a visual person and I do have the talent for drawing or art in general. I am creative, at least above average. But being described as an artist has always made me uncomfortable. I have lots of friends and colleagues who really were what I’d describe as “artists”; spontaneous, full of ideas, acting on their daring ideas, almost random. I envied them.
I’ve always been very calculated and a meticulous planner and can rarely be spontaneous or even dare to start an art piece based on “how I feel”. It made me confused, it made me feel less of a “creative”.
Describing myself as a designer rather than artist was my first step to solving my identity crisis (I like to be dramatic, you’ll get used to it). Design is a process, it has defined steps, it’s planned, it’s calculated, just like I like to be.
But even within the design process, especially the visual design part, I got lost sometimes. There are always so many possibilities, so many colours, so many different scenarios, so many awesome ways to do things.
Pages from the Cisco brand manual, describing logo usage.
My next step towards finding order was branding. There are a lot of things that I love about branding (more on that later), but one of the things I loved about creating a brand was the order and consistency that it brought to a project, to design. We define things and these create the foundation of the brand, and things automatically spring out of that. I remember working on my first brand manual, oh the joy! I put so much effort into it, the brand was not “creative”, it was rather safe, but I just kept going with creating brand assets. I loved every bit of it.
So how can I not love style guides..? For me it was like branding for interfaces at first, and once I started creating them I realized there’s so much more. Style guides were expanded to become complete design systems, containing not just the visual style guidelines but also pattern and component libraries.
The process is often described as creating the lego pieces that can be assembled into almost anything later on. So beautiful. And efficient! If you spend the time creating those pieces and guides early on, the process of assembling them is much more efficient than trying to create screen by screen or design by design from scratch.
Some “creatives” seem to be afraid of style guides; they worry that they would limit them, present boundaries or limitations to their creativity, their spontaneousness. I personally believe that the limitations can push you to be creative in less obvious ways, that an organized inventory of components can give you more time to think about ideas rather than the pieces, but I totally get that not everyone would have the same passion about style guide…They should still use them though!
I can’t work on a project without a style guide anymore. At the beginning it’d seem like a separate deliverable, cause let’s face it not all projects have the time and budget to spend on a style guide. But now even when it’s not asked for, I find myself creating it in the background; putting it together as I go, it’s just become an unavoidable foundation for any design. And I don’t even want to avoid it, I enjoy every second of creating it.
Here are some of my favourite style guides & design systems: