brand guidelines

From instruction to inspiration…

Debate has been raging in the design industry for some time over the role of traditional corporate identity guidelines for brands operating in our multi-channel, socially connected, device-driven world (buzzwords, buzzwords). The arguments against conventional guidelines are that they are little more than archaic, restrictive, rulebooks that limit creativity – ‘bibles of no’ as some people have described them. It’s an interesting debate and one in which we at Playgroup clearly have a vested interest.

In 1964 the Design Research Unit – Britain’s first multi-disciplinary design agency – was commissioned to help breathe new life into the nation’s neglected railway industry. The ambition was to change the public impression of British Railways by delivering a good (good not great, note) service and presenting an appearance of ‘smartness and efficiency’. A new symbol (the ubiquitous double arrow logo) and accompanying set of brand guidelines were developed. The objective, as set out in Sir Stanley Raymond’s foreword, was to “achieve consistency of effect over the whole system” and, he went on, “I am sure I can rely upon all concerned to see that our corporate identity programme is carried out with sustained enthusiasm and by the correct use of the Manual” (manual always had a cap M). The resulting British Rail Corporate Identity Manual consisted of four separate tomes; ring-binders incorporating numbered sheets with officious issue dates and covering every minutiae of a system designed to deliver absolute rigour and consistency. And it is beautiful.




But the days of the all-encompassing corporate identity manual are over. Who would read them? In a complex world, ultimate consistency is no longer relevant. In fact, driving a consistent approach is tantamount to advocating a restrictive, more generic approach to the visual identity. Over the past few years there has been a discernible shift towards branding that is more exciting, more dynamic, and that flexes and adapts. Rather than giving explicit instruction, guidelines should seek to be more inspirational – to illuminate what’s possible, rather than what is required or expected. They should invite creative people to do what they do best, to be creative.




Of course, we aren’t advocating a free-for-all, that would result in unmitigated brand anarchy (Branarchy™ as a strategist might call it). There have to be some ‘rules’. No two brands are the same. A succinct, well documented set of unambiguous rules allied to great visual examples is perfectly appropriate for some brands. Ultimately, creating successful brand identity guidelines is about setting parameters – clearly articulating which elements are fixed and which are flexible or manipulative. It’s about striking that balance between defined instruction and showcased inspiration. Not necessarily saying ‘no’ but allowing a few ‘maybes’ and a sprinkling of ‘why nots’.

So create a framework, define the principles, show the ingredients and invite people to play. You’ll be rewarded with a visually rich and distinctive suite of communications. We like to think that the work we’ve done for Unilever, PayPoint, King’s Cross and most recently the College of Policing is testament to that ethos.


PayPoint Brand Identity

Unilever Brand Identity

King’s Cross Estate Services


Written by: