[Podcast] Mastering Brand Guidelines with Hamish Smyth

[Podcast] Mastering Brand Guidelines with Hamish Smyth

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Join us and Hamish Smyth as we unravel the crucial role of brand guidelines in achieving brand consistency, recognition, and trust.

We’ll explore the key elements of successful guidelines and gain insights from renown brands, plus learn how to avoid common pitfalls and create brand guidelines that people actually use.

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Plus, we introduce the ground-breaking “Standards” tool transforming brand guidelines for the better.

This episode is a must-listen for all seeking branding excellence!

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Transcript (Auto Generated)

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding, the only podcast dedicated to helping designers and entrepreneurs grow brands. Here are your hosts, Jacob Cass and Matt Davies.

Hello, and welcome to JUST Branding. Today we have Hamish Smyth with us. I mean, Hamish Smyth, it’s Hamish Smyth.

We’re just joking before that. Hamish is an Australian-born New York-based designer and the co-founder of STANDARDS, which is a design tool that helps you build and grow brand guidelines online. Hamish also runs ORDER, which is a Brooklyn-based design office specializing in brand identity and STANDARDS manual, which is an independent publishing imprint focusing on the preservation of graphic design history.

He’s also had a six-year stint working for Pentagram under Michael Beirut, where he was an associate partner. But today we’re going to be discussing brand guidelines and his brand new tool STANDARDS, which I’ve been on the waiting list forever. This tool allows brands to co-create, share, and live update their brand guidelines in an instant.

So welcome to the show, Hamish or Hamish.

Thank you, Jakob and Matt.

I’m not insolent, you Hamish, right? This is totally Jacob. I’m just Matt, right?

You know, me and Hamish are getting on. Jacob’s just winding everybody up. I’m just being a bit cheeky.

He’s in a funny mood.

We were talking about my name is, I don’t have a common name in the US. I’ve lived here for 13 years and it’s, I get a lot of Hamish or Hamish or Hamish, nothing but Hamish. I say it now, I’ll take anything.

It’s all good.

All right. Well, we’ll get straight into this one. We’ll dive right in.

So brand guidelines. Could you share a little bit about, you know, what they are and why they’re so important for brands?

I guess at a high level, you know, there’s subsets of every profession. And one of the subsets of graphic design is branding or brand design, I guess you could call it. As you know, it’s a fairly large subset of graphic design.

When you’re branding a company or rebranding a company, often for the larger ones or medium sized ones, the final deliverable that you’re going to give to the client after you’ve sort of got everything approved and they like the direction things have gone, you often end up giving them what we call a graphic standard manual or a brand manual or a standards manual. There’s a lot of names for it, but I’ll probably use all of those names today, but the deliverable is often this manual.

Sorry to interrupt, when I was writing the questions, I kept going in between like standards and brand guidelines and brand style guides. What do I use here?

We’re confused ourselves, don’t worry. Plus we have a company called Standards and our book company is called Standards Manual, so it’s the nightmare for our campuses.

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I also came across that and I was like, what is the difference? Had to do a bit of that.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

So it’s confusing and then over the years they’ve been called different things as well, but essentially what this document is, and it’s usually now a digital document, it used to be a printed binder in the past, usually a binder so you could update it, but this brand guidelines that you submit, usually along with logo files and assets and things like that, it’s sort of like an instruction manual for the brand to take on as you sort of leave them, which you typically sort of hand over this stuff and probably finish your engagement with the client. The intent of this document is to sort of be like an instruction manual for them to be able to carry the branding onwards and either keep it consistent as they do their business or grow the brand and change the brand. But it’s supposed to be a set of instructions, rules and guidelines that dictate sort of how the new look and feel should be carried out in different areas of the business.

So you might have, for example, most guidelines will have some, if there was a logo redesign or something, you’ll have obviously, here’s what the logo looks like, here’s how it should be used, here’s how not to use it, here are our colors and here are our fonts and typefaces. That’s sort of the core elements. And then it depends sort of on the business.

You might have, here’s how you need to use it for social media, here’s how you need to put it on a truck, here’s how you need to put it on a hundred other things. So that sort of really depends on what the business is and their application needs. And guidelines can vary in length.

It can be a one page thing that just says, here’s the real core elements, or it could be a 500 page document that details every single little detail of something. And there’s some examples online of guidelines across that spectrum. But yeah, in short, it’s sort of like the instruction manual or almost like a recipe book for brands.

And the key word you said there was consistency, right? So why is consistency important for brands?

And we’re talking from, you know, branding’s a large topic and encompasses, you know, the marketing of a company as well and things like that. But I’m a designer, so speaking to that side of things, the consistency on the visual side is one of the sort of easiest ways to build a brand is to repeat your image over and over again in people’s mind. And if you, you know, if you did your logo differently every single time, that’s gonna be harder to wedge into people’s minds as your brand.

So, you know, if the Nike Swoosh was drawn differently every time, we would probably still recognize it today that’s because they’ve used it consistently for, you know, 40, 50 years. But if they came out of the gate with a different logo every week, it might not be such a recognizable logo. Though consistency, you know, that’s a very sort of course example, but being consistent in your brand is, it’s sort of one thing that is easy to do most of the time for high level things, harder to do when you get into things like marketing and social media and things like that.

And it’s becoming harder and harder, I think these days to keep consistency across, you know, the huge sort of surface there of marketing and channels and branding channels that we have. In the old days, you know, you just had to make some business cards and letterheads and, you know, put the logo on a truck and you were kind of good to go most of the time, maybe some uniforms. But today, you know, it’s much harder to be consistent.

And that’s why the guidelines can help with that. Whether or not they do, it’s sort of up to, I guess, you know, a few factors. But one of them is how well they’re written and laid out and, you know, constructed by the design team.

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But probably the bigger factor is how willing or how much the design team who’s taking them on actually understands them or wants to carry them out. And that can be a big factor as well, is that, you know, it’s, you can write the best guidelines in the world, but if the people taking them on sort of don’t want to read it or stick to the rules, then they’re not going to be useful.

Don’t you think that’s like notorious though? Hi, by the way. Designers are notorious, aren’t they?

You know that in-house designers are sat there going, oh, I’m not using these. I’m not being dictated to by some external agency who think they know better than I. And when I put it in the real applications, like PowerPoint, you know, these are never going to work.

And so inevitably, I’ve found that what you’ve said there, you know, I’m a business consultant, particularly in brand, and I find frequently that kind of attitude. So I’ve got a question on that. How do you think companies can best mitigate that?

And just one other sort of segue, I find this happens a lot when, particularly when there’s like a business that’s cross border, right? So they’re operating in different regions. So let’s say the US team pay for the rebrand, and then it’s gonna go across to the European teams.

And there’s always a little bit of, wow, that’s what they do in the US. But over the years-

Yeah, yeah. They don’t understand.

Yeah, there’s a vice versa on the way around. So the question I guess is, how can businesses mitigate that, seeing as consistency is so important, as you’ve mentioned?

Yeah, very good question. I think one of the best ways I’ve seen it, I’ve seen brands roll out in many different ways. I’ve often been on the other end, I’ve been the jerk of the agency who’s writing the rules, knowing that somebody’s not going to want to stick to this stuff.

I’ve written really, in my early years as well, probably, and I’ll get to your question directly, but in my early years, I wrote some really strict guidelines that you must use this type size, that this tables and tables of meticulous things. We thought we were being really smart, and then I bet you no one even cared, and probably was just like, I’m never using that. Then I’ve written really, really simple ones as well, where it’s just one page and it just has the very basics.

Sometimes, maybe that’s more successful. But I think what to mitigate the inconsistency, the best examples I’ve seen or the best rollouts that I’ve seen, is when the design team is brought into the process early on, basically. This sounds pretty obvious, but bringing them in, especially if it’s an in-house team, let’s say, bringing them into the process.

And look, that might be difficult if you’re dealing with a European office and a US office, for example, in-house. But if you can bring them into the process and actually get their feedback, have their voices heard, all of those sort of cliche things, if they can actually say to you, oh, we’re never going to need to put it on that, or we really need help with putting on this, that can really help with the buy-in and mitigating that inconsistency that might come. But I think you’re right.

I think a big part of this is that often teams in-house will sort of have these things dumped on them where maybe the CMO or the CEO has commissioned some big agency to do a rebrand, big agency talks with the CMO and the CEO and does this process. Then design team at the X company, I won’t say X, now that doesn’t work. Design team at Y company gets this PDF dropped on them and they’re told to roll this out.

I would be frustrated if that happened to me. So I understand why people don’t want to or there’s some backlash to these things. So I think just bringing people in if possible always helps.

Yeah, I think that’s super smart. The collaborative approach is the best solution in my mind to educate teams along the way as to why things are a certain way, which I think is good, but also allows you to feed back into the process, which why wouldn’t you want that to happen? And I think that the best thing that that does is it also gets buy-in from those teams, right?

Because they feel involved in the process. They know that they’re not leading the process, but they’ve at least had a voice and a seat at the table. So I think that’s really smart.

I agree with that. I’ve seen that work well.

Yeah, for sure. And I think I’ve also seen or attacked if we’ve used a lot of orders, not just delivering guidelines that describe the logo and the colors and everything, but actually including in the guidelines, the rationale for why the branding looks the way it is. And that stuff’s usually presented in the early presentations to the people commissioning the work, but often the design team doesn’t get to see that stuff.

And so including those things can really help as well, even if they’ve been brought into the process. But especially if they haven’t been brought into the process, just having some pages in the guidelines explains our logo looks like this because it’s based on our logo from 30 years ago or whatever. And just having a bit of that can help too.

So, but yeah, the probably the gold standard is bringing people in and even bringing in not just, you know, the design lead or the CD, but actually bring in, you know, the junior designers as well, even if it’s just for one session to go through things.

Yeah. Can I just add something to that? And I wonder what your thoughts are on this.

So as a sort of, I get involved a lot in strategy work and there’s always a question in my mind as to when we go through to execution and the creatives take the thinking forwards and this, you know, there’s kind of this sort of blend between the strategist world and we’re looking at things like competitors, positioning in market, distinctiveness, things like that. And then the creative world and the two obviously have to go hand in hand. And then there’s this bit of me that thinks when we get to the guidelines, like how much of the sort of the brand strategy and the thinking around, you know, the positioning of the brand and the competitor set and why we want to stand out and the difference and all that stuff.

How much of that should go in? What are your thoughts on that, Hamish?

My thoughts are all of that should go in. Maybe not in an extremely detailed way, but I think the findings of that work should definitely be included. The strategy to me is key.

I mean, if you don’t do that part of the process, you know, you’re sort of a cake decorator, really. You need an idea for the cake first. So who’s the cake going to, you know?

You wouldn’t want to design a wedding cake for a bar mitzvah or something. But I think including the strategy is super important, but also just, you know, from a broader sense of branding, I think doing that strategy work is important. And I learned that at Pentagram when I worked for Michael B.

Root, who’s really good at this, and we didn’t employ any strategists on the team. We had a couple of people we worked with who were really talented to come in, often for sort of very corporate work. But we sort of included strategy as part of our work.

And, you know, Michael would sort of just make that part of the design process. And that’s sort of how we did it. You know, we were never sort of just immediately sketching out, you know, logos were the first step for us was getting on the phone with the client, talking to them and figuring out what their problems were.

And then coming back to them and saying, here’s where we think what your issues are. Here’s how we think we can fix it from a strategic point of view. And then we would go into design from there.

So, I mean, just, I think, yeah. So including that in the guidelines, I think is critical because, you know, again, the people who are going to go forward and do the work should have that background. Otherwise, they’re sort of, you know, they might have the right ingredients, but they don’t have the full recipe.

I’m stuck on this metaphor.

In my career, I was often given a style guide, but there was also a brand book, right? The style guide was more for designers, and then the brand book actually had all the marketing and strategies behind it as well. Do you think it should be separate like that or should be all together?

I think they can be separate, but, you know, they should be delivered at the same time, or, you know, they should look the same, or if it’s a digital thing, if it’s a PDF, let’s say, argue that they’re much better together. And now with digital guidelines, again, I would argue that they’re much better together, or you have, you know, sections of a website that has that. I don’t think separating them out helps that much.

I have seen it done successfully in a physical form where you have maybe, you know, a box that has two books in it printed the same, and they look really nice. And, you know, sometimes you do a digital guidelines plus a physical version, and separating out a brand book in that case can work. But I think it really needs to go with the style guide and go with it.

So I get why people separate it, you know, it does make the document, to make the document really long, but I think it’s all one thing and it all should be considered.

Let’s talk about what’s inside these. We’ve talked about logo fonts and colors and the basics, but what do you think are the essentials today in the digital landscape?

Obviously, a big one that’s changed in the last 10 years or 15 years is video and motion just becoming a common element in branding. Sound as well, which goes hand in hand with those, but it’s rare to see a large brand today utilizing some form of motion and having that in guidelines in a PDF is difficult. So that makes a good case for having them on the web.

But there’s really, people are getting also into generators, custom-coded generators for things where you can actually input some values and it will give you an output that is like a background for a poster or a social media post or something. So that’s really cool to see as well as these sort of more advanced generative tools that are coming up. But there’s still the basics.

I mean, most guidelines still have print specs and print color specs and stationary and things like that, because you still do need that stuff. But it goes right through to now applying to, we have on our website, ZipLine is one of our customers and they do drone deliveries in Africa for medical supplies. And so they have guidelines on how to put the logo on the drone’s body and how you should print out a sign for a drop center, a drop zone and things like that.

So it really depends on what the company is doing and you can end up with some kind of crazy stuff and guidelines. I have next to me, the NASA guidelines from 75, which if you do do the video, people can see that. That one has probably the coolest application ever, which is the NASA logo on the space shuttle, in my opinion, anyway.

Who designed those names? Was that Paul Rand, was it? Or who did those?

I’ll hold this up again. This is the book that we did a republish of, it’s a standards manual. So this was designed in 75 by Richard Daney and Bruce Blackburn.

And Bruce passed away a few years ago, sadly, and Richard lives in Napa. And he’s seen this go from conflict through it. If you know the backstory, this logo was rescinded by NASA, the worm.

And in 93, they rescinded that, or 92. And a couple of years ago, they brought it back and it’s now on the rockets and stuff again. So he’s seen that full circle, which has been great.

I saw something recently, another, a new logo, just like the last couple of weeks as well.

Oh yeah. I think it was, it was a bit confusing. It’s NASA Plus, which is their streaming service, but the plus looked like a star and it wasn’t, it didn’t look enough like a plus in my opinion.


And so I think a lot of people thought it was a rebrand.

It was like, this is another NASA logo, redesign.

Some people were freaking out, you know, but I think it’s just for their sort of streaming service. Yeah. Sorry for the crinkle paper.

All right. Well, as we’re on this kind of like topic, so what are some examples of successful brand guidelines in your eyes?

I think over the years, there’s been many, you know, the ones that we’ve republished, the NASA guidelines. And the other one I have here is New York City Transit Authority, Graphic Standards Manual, if you want the full name. It’s a big boy.

This one, you know, it’s very successful. It has, you know, full scale graphics that you would actually cut out and, and or photograph and reproduce quite so big. That’s sort of, there’s plenty of examples of old ones out there.

There’s some interesting ones out there too. One is sort of not design related as much, but DC Comics did a style guide in 1985, I think, or 82 and then 85. And it was called the DC Comics, you know, style guide.

And it basically contained how to draw each of their characters and what pants own colors to print for their hair and Superman’s cape and stuff like that. So the style guides don’t just have to be graphic design, you know, it can be anything. And, you know, there’s, there’s sort of parallels in architecture as well.

It’s, you know, it’s similar to how architects will hand over documents. They’re a little drier, but yeah, some of the other great ones out there, the British Rail had an excellent one in the, I think 70s or 80s, which one of your countrymen, Matt, republished a few years ago. There was a Swiss Rail classic one, I think, by Armand Hoffman, might be wrong there, but in recent years, it’s harder to see a lot of them because a lot of them are sort of behind closed doors.

I think Starbucks actually has a really good one. They have a custom website. If we’re talking modern terms, they have a great one.

It’s a very simple website. Anyone can go there and look at it, but on a sort of more complex example, IBM brand team has a really comprehensive guidelines. Covers digital products, physical products, everything in between.

And I think that’s public as well. And that’s sort of a shift as well recently is guidelines being public, which we really like. And we’re into the idea of sharing all this stuff, which we’ve been doing without publishing.

But yeah, it’s been cool to see those public ones that people can learn from. But yeah, there’s a lot out there, a lot of good ones.

And what about digital guidelines, web style guides, for example?

Yeah, for the digital products, you mean like for apps and things. It’s funny, it’s sort of evolved into its own profession really in the last less than 10 years, really. I mean, I was looking the other day when Figma came out for some research on something, and I think it was 2016, they had a closed beta.

And it’s only for about seven years ago. And then I think I used it late 2016 and obviously caught on since then, but in 2015, only eight years ago, we were still designing websites in Photoshop. And just since then, or other, or Sketch, I guess was out already, but a lot of people were still using Photoshop.

And really since then, a whole profession of product design and design systems for products has opened up. And that’s a whole other can of worms. And it’s not one that I’m really an expert on, but there’s some great products out there that help you manage those systems.

But Figma itself is sort of where I think most people keep their digital systems. And with their extensive component system, and now they have, I forget the new thing, but variations on components, and it’s getting quite complicated and powerful.

Different modules and blocks and rollers and interactions, large size, small size.

It’s amazing what you can do.

Yeah, they’ve killed it.

Yeah, I did a stint at a corporate FinTech, and we had a whole product team who specialized in that. And I sat on, there was a brand guardian panel, right? So if anyone wanted to bring out a new element, right?

It had to go through this panel. Honestly, I just was so bored, just sat there with these poor designers coming up going, I need a new button, I need a new rollover. And then we’re like, no.

Honestly, it was really odd. I didn’t last there long. But the thing was, you can see that, particularly when you get into digital product design, how that’s important.

But I know that’s not what you’re talking about here, but I guess it’s an extension of the guidelines, isn’t it? Because we want to shop consistently, create consistent customer experience. And digitally, that’s something you can manage.

But as you say, I think if you look back into retail, if you look at things like franchises like McDonald’s and stuff, they’ve always been very cautious and careful to create environments, to create signage, to create experiences that are, wherever you are in the world that you have a similar customer experience. And that doesn’t, I guess the message here is that doesn’t come by accident, right? These things take design.

That’s why designers like us exist. And guidelines are a key part of that.

It’s true. I mean, McDonald’s is a good example. And I’ll go back to the digital thing as well in a minute, but these things don’t happen by accident.

And maybe we’re just making ourselves feel better as designers. But I think the subway book, for example, like when we brought that out, you know, details how to design all the signage in New York City subway, which if you’ve been in New York, it’s all Helvetico, black and white, and with round circles for the lines. It’s all very simple.

And when we brought it out, our friends who weren’t designers were sort of like, what is that? Like, what the hell is that? We’re like, well, it’s just, it’s a graphic standards made for the subway.

And they’re like, but why would you need that? And so I think we forget that a lot of people don’t realize that work goes into, a lot of work goes into these things behind the scenes by unknown designers, really. And you’re right.

It doesn’t have by accident. And I think a lot of people, regular people don’t understand that. And that’s okay.

It’s just like, if I was an engineer for sewers, I’d be thinking about the sewer pipes under our feet every day, which no one else does. So it’s just, you know, the nature of everyone’s profession. But yeah, I think people don’t realize that there’s a lot of work goes into it.

And then McDonald’s, for example, has had, there is a Star Guide going back, I think, to the early 70s, which we have a copy of digitally. And it’s very consistent. It’s very well designed.

They also have a collection. You can find this all online. A lot of it’s on Flickr.

They had some really great corporate design, annual reports throughout the 60s and 70s. And I think the early 80s, they kind of lost their way, I think, a little bit. But, you know, it’s not just having good guidelines.

It’s taking design seriously, I guess, is the big point here. And, you know, these days, there’s not many companies you can point to who are really successful that don’t take design seriously. Everyone talks about Apple, but since Steve Jobs returned, they really took design seriously.

And, you know, their brand is incredibly strong from walking into a store to opening even the smallest product they sell. It feels like an Apple product. And that’s branding, that’s design, that’s everything.

And so I think companies who take this seriously have been doing so for a long time. And yeah, most people don’t realize that. And yeah, McDonald’s is, you know, they’ve been a hyper successful business for many reasons.

One small reason of that is their brand consistency. That’s to work in conjunction with other things. But yeah, it’s a big, important thing.

That’s great. There’s some great examples there.

I’m just nerding out about brand guidelines.

The subway guidelines, when I saw that, I also didn’t realize the extent of how much went into it, just like how many subways there were and like how many small signs there were, large signs, like people’s distance from each sign and how to actually navigate someone through a labyrinth of subways and not get lost and easily find their way in or out. It’s a pretty complex problem.

Yeah, I mean, signage and wayfinding, I’ve worked on a lot of that and that’s almost its own profession within design again. And yeah, I got to work on a project called Walk NYC. You might have seen Jacob around New York, the printed maps on the streets.

They’re physical maps, they’re not digital. They’re behind glass and I got to work on that with a bunch of other people. I sort of designed a lot of the look and feel of the map, along with City ID, Matt in Bristol, very close to you.

And that project, we had to think a lot about, when you’re doing signage, you have to think about distance of view distance. There’s going to be people walking right up to the map. There’s going to be people looking at it from 100m back, 300ft back.

And so there’s a whole ton of other things that you have to factor in. And the subway design, for example, is great. They start with strategy.

I mean, it begins with sort of a hierarchy of a passenger and what their decision tree is. And, you know, it’s like, I think the first thing is, where do I want to go? And it’s like Brooklyn, Queens.

I think the example is like they’re in Manhattan. It’s like, I can go to Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx via subway. And then from there, it’s like, okay, from there, you have to pick another route.

And so that strategy then flows into the signage design. And they thought about exactly where to put the information. And this goes for every wayfinding project on the world.

You can’t just put signs everywhere and give everyone all the information. You really have to think about, all right, a person’s here. They’re probably getting their baggage.

They’re going to want to next know where the exit is or where the taxis are or where the public transit is. You know, you really have to, it sounds simple, but you have to think that through at every location and have enough signs that it’s informative and you can always see one, but not too many signs that it’s overwhelming. So yeah, that’s a whole other thing and a really fun area of design.

And again, that’s, that emerges into architecture as well, because then you’re dealing with how to fix the signs, how they fabricated. So anyway, getting sidetracked on that one, but that’s a fun area.

All right. Well, last question before we get into your tool standards. So I just wanted to ask about how often brands should revisit guidelines.

Yeah, it’s a good question. I think revisiting them depends, you know, if you’re a corner cafe, you probably, if you have a guidelines, it should be simple. And you probably don’t need to revisit it very often, but if you’re a, you know, international conglomerate selling widgets or something, you probably want to be revisiting that for every market you’re in, you know, on a very regular basis and updating it, you know, constantly as, as, you know, markets shift and as, as culture changes and, you know, things like that, updating it is important because if you, if you sort of let it get static and stale, it can, it can sort of, you know, decrease the consistency with, with which you can roll it out, but also can end up looking like stale work or things like that.

So it really, it’s a hard question to answer because it depends sort of on the, on the company and the team. But for many businesses, yeah, updating it regularly is, is a useful thing. Yeah.

That wasn’t a great answer. Sorry.

No, no, it was good. It was good. It does depend.

I think that it’s, it’s hard, isn’t it? Because every, every business is different. Every team is different.

Every customer journey is different. And, and, and so you’ve got, you know, it does depend on the, on the business. But one thing that I think is important to maybe discuss is, is, there’s the guidelines, which we’ve been thinking about, but there’s the training slash induction slash onboarding into them through the teams that are going to be using them.

And, and so one thing I wonder if we could just spend a few moments on is, is that because I think what I’ve seen is that when, when a new brand, you know, brand identity, new brand strategy direction is launched, right? There’s a lit big fan fanfare in most businesses, you know, the CEO gets involved and everybody gets on a platform and, you know, parades around and then they build a logo and everyone applauds. And we go, yes, this is it.

And then three years later, like we’ve completely forgotten about all of that. And we, we now, you know, you start to see splintering. So what I’ve done as a consultant is, is try and I try and put in why, you know, what we call cadence, which is where like there’s a regular revisiting, not necessarily changing, but just a regular check-in with the teams that are required to utilize it.

And, and, and, and that, that discipline, I find, it’s like what you were saying, Hamish, around businesses that take design seriously also take the execution of that design very seriously and they will invest in, you know, professional development that makes sure that if there’s a new starter in the design team, they have got all the resources, the training, the videos, they know what they’re doing and they’ll bring them up to speed swiftly. They won’t just chuck a document at them and say, that’s it, you know, there’s more to it. I wonder if you had any thoughts on that Hamish, have you got any sort of recommendations to businesses when they’re sort of implementing these things, not just initially, but then on an ongoing basis?

Yeah, businesses who take design seriously and you’re right, what I really mean by that is that not just accepting or doing a rebrand, that’s not taking it seriously. It’s actually the execution of it. It’s all in the execution.

The initial phase might be bringing in some consultants or an agency or whatever, all building out as is coming out, building out an in-house theme to do a rebrand. And that can be even better than the agency approach these days. But the execution is everything.

And so I think one successful route that I’ve seen is sort of having somebody at a larger company, having somebody sort of in charge, maybe not as intense as a brand guardian panel, but having somebody kind of be the owner of the guidelines. And I don’t want to say like enforcer, but you do sort of need to police things a little bit. But I think as well as policing it, you need to, like you were saying, you need to train people on it and actually get them excited about it, bring them up to speed on it.

And that’s why I think having interesting guidelines is important too. They shouldn’t just be a dry instruction manual written out, here’s what to do now, sort of thing, step one, step two. It’s an opportunity to really tell the brand story and to design it beautifully and get people really pumped about designing stuff for this brand and showing them how cool it can look.

So at Order and when I was at Pentagram, we put a lot of pride and time into designing the guidelines with the hope that people would take it as an inspiration piece in a way. And not just a document, a dry document. So yeah, I think that’s important is for designers to make them inspiring, to actually put some time into it.

And don’t just copy the last one you did. You know, actually make it feel unique. And then internally, I think it’s important for somebody to take ownership and for teams to reference things often.

And if they’re not working, change it or expand it and actually make it a useful document, not just something that you look at once and then toss aside.

Les, this is a good segue into standards, right? So standards is your new tool. Can you just share a little bit about it, how you came about building this tool as well?

Yeah, sure. So standards, not to be confused with standards manual, our publishing company, standards is essentially a way to, or it’s a design tool to build brand guidelines online in one sentence. And people have been doing online brand guidelines for a while, and there’s some tools out there that do that, but it’s clear to us for a while that guidelines needed to move to an online format.

It makes a lot of sense. And I think most people agree that, PDF is difficult to handle. If you make a change to it, you have to send a new version.

You’ve then got two versions. If people even open it in the first place, if you can make it under 20 megabytes and attach it to an email, it’s probably going to look cruddy. And then if you have to link out to it, no one’s going to open that.

But having it as a website just gives you an advantage straight off the bat that it’s easier to use. You can bookmark that and reference it easily in the browser. And so what we wanted to do, what we found was that none of the tools out there really gave us the control, the design control that we needed to build guidelines online.

And we could custom build these websites, of course, but that’s quite a lot of work and quite a lot of money and time that goes into that. So we wanted to build a way to do it without coding, but also something that had a lot of things built into it that makes building them easier for designers. And if the genesis of it really came when there’s three companies involved, there’s Order, which is myself, Josie Reed, partners at Order, and also Standards Manual, and three friends of ours who run a studio in Seattle called Shor, Joseph King, Pete Schilling and Julian Strait.

And they’re kind of a digital product studio. And Jesse and I have been talking for years about why is it so hard to build brand guidelines as a website? And clients were starting to ask.

And so we started looking at what was out there and nothing really met our standards, pardon the pun. So we decided to start building one on our own. But the idea for it came years and years before and we were both working on guidelines.

Most days we’d have some bit of a guideline to work on. At Pentagram, I remember just typing out color swatches for the 100th time, CMYK, RGB, manually typing in colors. And I just remember thinking one day, this is so dumb.

The computer has the color on the screen and it’s a computer, so it knows the color. There should be a button to print out all the colors on the screen. To display it.

And so, you know, for years, I kind of, I was thinking there should be shortcuts for this stuff. So that’s a long way of saying that what we’re trying to build with standards is a way to build online guidelines rapidly, take a lot of the drudgery work out of it. But more importantly, I think reinvigorate designers’ passion for guidelines.

I think deep down, designers really do love brand guidelines. And I think we’ve shown that with the success of our book projects, that people love brand guidelines that are simple and done well. And not people, people don’t know what they are.

Designers love them, us weirdos. But I think we really want to reinvigorate that passion that people have for it. And I think it’s been lost over the years.

By the time you’ve done 20 guidelines, you’re like, here we go again. And you end up copying the last one you did, you kind of plug and play the new assets and call it a day and get rid of it. And I’m guilty of doing that.

And I think most people have. But I also remember the first guidelines I did when I was given that responsibility as a young designer at Pentagram. And I felt this immense sort of pride that I’d been given the responsibility to create the guidelines for how this brand is going to look in the future.

And this is going to be used by other people. I was so excited to do it. And I remember that feeling.

I think a lot of designers have had that feeling. And they’ve also had the feeling of the drudgery after you’ve done it a few times. So we want to make a better way of building guidelines.

And we also want to make, on the other side, a better way of receiving them and viewing them and using them. And that’s probably the most important thing is how they’re used and executed. But yeah, sorry, that was a long answer.

Maybe you can chop it up.

No, no, that was great. That was great. Yeah, you definitely, that was going to be my other question.

It was like, what was wrong with the previous model? And like, how did you get there? So you definitely answered that.

So where can people find the tool? It just launched. Where can people use it, start using it?

We have a, you said you’d be on the wait list for a while.

Thank you.

We put out a wait list about two years ago. We launched the beta a year ago. So you can now sign up for free and we’ve opened up sign up.

So standards.site is the website, S-I-T-E. And yeah, standards.site has a bunch of examples there that you can see of real customers who have used the platform and built out their guidelines online. And the end result isn’t branded by standards.

It doesn’t look, it just looks like a website, but they’ve all used that platform. We worked with Gretel in New York from an early stage in the product and they were rebranding RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, which is a prominent design school here in the US, art and design school. And the work that they were doing kind of synced up with, as we were building standards, and we got to work with them on building out the guidelines and ironing out a lot of the problems that we had and making it better.

So that’s an example you can see on our site, but yeah, you can sign up at standards.site.

And I want to shout out another tool, because you mentioned color swatches, and I just came across this tool for Adobe Illustrator that allows you to run a script and it’ll export all the CMYK RGB and colors for you in one click.


Yeah. Finally. So if people want this, it’s a free script from Victor Balthus.

He runs typedesignclass.com, and you can find the free script there. So I just use it. It was brilliant.

I wish I had that 12 years ago.

I wish I would have saved many, many hours of time. So yeah. Type design class.

Excellent. Yeah. There’s so many great tools out now for design.

Yeah. There’s tons of great Figma plugins and Illustrator plugins now too. And there wasn’t in the past, or there was a few, but you know, or maybe I wasn’t using the right ones, but it seems like now there’s a lot of just excellent plugins and things.

Be careful though, you know, I would say to people, like don’t rely on plugins for everything, you know, use your head.

Yeah, totally. Totally. Well, on that note, I think we’ll wrap it up here.

So thank you so much for your time and sharing, or creating this tool and sharing your knowledge around style guides, our brand guide.

It was great to chat. I appreciate the questions.


Can I just say before we close, Hamish, if anyone else wants to follow up or getting to contact with you or anything, is there anywhere they can do so?

Yeah, for sure. We have contact for Standards on our website, or personally, I have a website, which is my name, which is Hamish Smyth, so hamishsmyth.com, and I have links out to all of our businesses there. Order.design is our studio, and standardsmanual.com is our publishing.

That should cover it. Thank you.

Amazing. It’s been great having you on. Thanks for coming out sometime.


It’s been great, guys. Appreciate it. Thank you.

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