Graphic Guidelines 101: Hire A Designer To Do Your Homework


I’ve seen the good, the bad and the very-very ugly of graphic guidelines over the years. I’ve seen single page suggestions, and I’ve seen PDF tomes, which for the sake of the environment I hope never reach printing.

As a SMB who is looking to start from scratch or revamp their visual communications, you don’t need extensive graphic guidelines right now, and maybe ever. To start you need a brief document that maintains a font hierarchy, color scheme and maybe icon style. Logo variations, photography expressions, and infographic aesthetics can be considered after you know the fundamentals are working.

The point of graphic guidelines is to maintain a cohesive visual style throughout all your marketing deliverables, from your website, app, business cards to packaging and event displays. The idea that staying cohesive in all your marketing efforts, shows your company has an illustrated voice, and easily allows a user to jump from your website to print documents to confirm that they are yes indeed, still learning about your company.

The idea that you must stay cohesive is a idea that works if you’re looking to establish your business. But going off the rails and not following any structure is always a wise idea. I suggest just not to blend these two. Either stay on the path of your style, or go wild. Going wild will probably drive better results, because being different = attention. But going wild might also scare away your customers. So this decision must be discussed between you and your designer.

As I state in 2 bad scenarios below there’s problems with jumping in with graphic guidelines, and the ideal scenario is to research your competition first before putting a PDF together with color codes.

The Bad: Spend Money Now, and Save Later

You’ve looked around online and you see graphic guidelines are a helpful tool to have. Having a strong visual structure that details how your business communicates visually allows you to sketch an identity online, plus it gives you a direction to work with as you start or revamp your marketing.

This strategy is cost-effective, as you spend money now with an expert designer to save later. You hire a seasoned graphic designer, and he or she puts together a PDF loaded with macro and micro guidelines on how your business should communicate in vectors and fonts.

Moving forward you can work with entry-level or low-cost creatives by giving them firm standards to follow to maintain a cohesive style.

The Very-Very Ugly: Save Money Now and Cross Your Fingers

You’ve looked around and see how having a strong visual style helps sketch out your identity online, but in this scenario you bypass spending money now and find a designer with a low-hourly rate to develop your graphic guidelines. Yes, you hire an inexperienced designer to handle how your business will be viewed by anyone with internet connection.

Gambling, you might get lucky and get a designer who puts together a professional style, or you get a PDF with poor standards, ridiculous fonts and stolen stock illustrations. Now if this happens, DON’T USE THIS. If you go this route, I suggest finding an experienced designer who is willing to consult you for an hour and get their feedback on the guidelines before you start actually using them.

Many don’t reach out to an experienced designer, and use this document loaded with poor choices as their visual literature. The downside is all your future work that follows these standards will likely burn-out eyeballs, but also the day when you do start using more experienced designers, you’re going to find out your standards are most likely not tailored to your audience.

The Good: Researching Competition Before Creating Graphic Guidelines

Both scenarios above are common, and here’s what neither scenario covered. No one has done their homework, and researched your competition! What? So...a designer just made up colors and fonts and hoped you liked them? Yes. That’s what happened. Oh, and I forgot to mention, both scenarios were probably rushed and completed fairly quickly like most projects. So, the idea of research was tossed out of the design process early on.

If you have 5 extra minutes, I wrote a full article about researching your competition here: Be Awesome, and Learn How To Advertise Better than Your Competition

The point is, before you start spending money figuring out if Gotham or Comic Sans is a better choice for your business, you need to know what works and what doesn’t. A designer can do this for you, by basically prowling through your competitor’s websites, social media channels and online platforms. Seeing comments, likes, shares and thumbs-down is a helpful tool to see what has worked for them and what hasn’t. From this point, then you can build out a single page or encyclopedia of graphic guidelines you want to follow in your visual communication.

Chris Brock