Creating a brand guide is a super valuable exercise for any business — it’s a process that helps you really think through how you’re going to create consistency with your visuals and delves into the deeper, more philosophical aspects of your brand too — all the reasons your customers will care (and buy!). If you’re new to brand guides, let’s start with a simple definition:
A brand guide is a set of guidelines for how you’ll communicate your brand identity and values through words and graphic elements. It establishes rules that allow you to express your brand personality, purpose, and differentiators with consistency.
If you want to skip right to the information about the Brand Guide Template for Canva, just click on the image below. But be sure to come back because this post is going to walk you through creating one for your brand step-by-step. 👇
- What are the rules and non-negotiables of your brand?
- Why is having a brand guide important?
- Brand Guide Examples to Inspire (Not Intimidate!) You
- Can you DIY a brand guide?
- So, What Goes in a Brand Guide?
- Section 1: Visual Brand Identity Rules
- Section 2: Brand Philosophy & Messaging Statements & Brand Voice
- Once Your Brand Guide is Complete, Use This Pro Tip…
- Brand Guide Template For Canva
Note: The terms ‘brand book’, ‘brand guide’, and ‘branding guidelines’ are used interchangeably throughout this post — they’re all the same thing and I really don’t know why branding professionals (of all people!) can’t all agree on what to call things… but I digress. 😉
In my last post, I went into the nitty-gritty details about creating a brand board – which is an at-a-glance reference for your visual brand identity. You might be familiar with them because a lot of designers use them to showcase their branding work, and they look like this:
But your brand guide is all about the RULES and it’s much more detailed (and useful).
Usually formatted as a letter-sized document (landscape or portrait orientation), there’s enough space to really spread out and flesh out your branding guidelines with all the details you need to create a rock-solid foundation.
What are the rules and non-negotiables of your brand?
I know we all hate rules, but rules make branding easier and more effective… and even more fun. No guesswork, no re-creating the wheel, no stress!
Rules answer the question, “Who are we?”
But also, “Who are we not?”
If you don’t contemplate those questions in advance, it’s very challenging to create a clear brand message people can wrap their heads around. And we all need that because if they don’t understand, like, know, trust, and relate to us… they ain’t buyin’.
Whether you’re a designer looking to learn how to prepare a brand guide for your client branding projects or you’re branding your own blog or business, I’m going to break down exactly what goes into a great brand guide, the rules you need to think about to create brand consistency, and the easiest and fastest way to create one using a Canva template.
Why is having a brand guide important?
Having a brand book is immensely helpful even if you’re a one-person business. During the process of creating your brand guide, you’ll get clarity about how to communicate your brand (and how you won’t) so you can show up with consistency — through words, expressed values, and visuals.
SAVES YOU TIME
Probably the biggest benefit of this exercise is that you’ll spend less time recreating the wheel trying to create clever brand copy or visual designs — you’ll be grounded by the rules you set.
By spending a little time thinking things through in the short term — which creating a brand guide forces you to do — you’ll save ton of time going forward and make on-going brand-building (a.k.a. marketing) more effective too.
MAKES OUTSOURCING CREATIVE WORK GO SMOOTHLY
If you ever outsource design or even copywriting work? You’ll hand them your brand guide and check their work against it rather than crossing your fingers and hoping it works out.
If you’re a professional blogger and allow guest contributions? You can send contributing authors your brand guide to make sure they keep consistent with the tone of your brand in their writing.
And fun fact, creative professionals actually LOVE rules and guidelines.
There’s plenty of creativity to be found within boundaries and giving people “free reign” — while it seems nice in theory — is exponentially more difficult for creatives.
(Branding is not the same thing as creating art. We need information and problems to solve.)
When you’re doing your own branding for a small business, you’re emotionally connected. You get it. But people you outsource work to are not as intimate and familiar with your vision as you are. Your guidelines are what helps them understand.
KEEPS TEAMS ON BRAND
For larger organisations that have loads of different people both in-house and outside the company doing branding and marketing work, a brand guide is essential to get everyone up to speed and ensure they stay absolutely, positively on-brand at all times.
CREATES CONSISTENCY WHICH IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS
With consistency, the true power of building a brand kicks in: you’ll accelerate the process of building awareness and establishing trust and generate the good feelings that lead to sales. Consistency also inspires customer affinity and loyalty!
Are you convinced? Ready to create your brand guide? Awesome! I’m going to walk you through it and it’s going to be a piece of cake. 🍰
Brand Guide Examples to Inspire (Not Intimidate!) You
If you’ve never seen a brand guide before, that’s totally normal. A lot of people never do — not unless you are working with a pretty big company with an ace branding agency.
While brand guides are normally thought of as well-designed, show-stopping pieces that can take hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars (or more!) to produce, the reality is brand guides are for every business.
Around here, I’m all about stealing big ideas and making them accessible for the tiniest business — even if you’re a part time, side-hustling freelancer.
So let’s take a look at some brand guides in the wild to inspire you to create yours (or begin creating them for your clients!). But, don’t feel intimidated — remember, these examples took tremendous resources to produce and it’s mostly decoration! (Which is not as important as the substance).
Oh, I love me some Jamie Oliver. He changed my life when he taught me the secrets to making the perfect Eggs Benedict but I digress…
His brand guide is LOVELY to scroll through. Parts read like a storybook and other parts are expectedly technical, but overall it’s warm and friendly just like Jamie. You can view the full guide here.
LOVE TO RIDE
Love to ride is an online cycling community and their brand identity system is enough to inspire anyone to get off their butts and join them! You can view the brand guidelines here.
Who doesn’t have a I ♥️ NY t-shirt or coffee cup in their closet? And who knew this iconic symbol of New York City needed an entire book to make sure it’s used properly? You can check it out here.
Pretty lovely stuff, right? When you see it all together it’s easy to see how seriously they take this stuff and the results speak for themselves.
But right about now you may be wondering…
Can you DIY a brand guide?
Do you need to hire a team of designers and strategist to get you one of these beautiful brand books for your business?
Remember — the important thing is that you are doing the work to think through your brand story (visual and otherwise) to create a strong and consistent foundation.
It is not a “fancy or nothing at all” situation. Even a simple brand guide is hugely beneficial. (I’ve even taught people how to quickly create them using Google Slides!)
Developing branding guidelines can happen over the course of a year or more or it can happen on your lunch break – which is exactly how long it took me when I put together mine using my Brand Guide Template for Canva — which takes ZERO graphic design experience to use and their basic plan is FREE!
Right then. No excuses. You got this! 💪
So, What Goes in a Brand Guide?
Brand guide books can be incredibly complex or short and to the point, but at a minimum, you’ll want to create rules for your visual brand identity, document your brand messaging and positioning statements, and describe your brand’s tone of voice for written (and even verbal!) communications.
It may sound complicated but it’s really not, and can even be SUPER fun to put together! I’m going to walk you through my OWN brand guide that I created with the Canva template so you can see it in practice.
Just a note: This template is set up as an 8.5″ x 11″ document so it can be printed out and shared as a regular document for people to read. This makes it functional for you to use in your day-to-day.
Section 1: Visual Brand Identity Rules
While a brand board looks pretty and works great for reference, your visual brand identity (logo, color, fonts, graphic elements, image styles) need rules. Without rules for what to do and what not to do you can easily veer off course and wind up with a hodgepodge of misaligned and off-brand communications.
Let’s peek inside my brand guide, it’s easier to understand when you see it..
The first two pages of the book are just a cover and a section divider page, but you could also include a table of contents depending on how many pages the guide ends up being.
I usually just keep this pretty simple and use the dominant brand colors as a background color, but you could also include your logo on the cover.
If you’re using your home office printer to print this document, you might want to save some ink and keep the background color white.
Next up is the logo, because this is the symbol that represents your brand, so the rules for how to use it go first.
First I show the different variations of my logo. These days, it’s pretty uncommon that we can get away with just one version. Think about how your logo will be used in different contexts.
If you don’t currently have a logo, Canva comes with starter templates that will allow you to create one — they make it simple. But, it’s important to keep these things in mind…
A HORIZONTAL LOGO
This version is needed for things like website headers. Even if your logo was designed to fit in a square or circle, think about how your can create a version that will be readable on your website on mobile.
A “STACKED” OR SQUARE LOGO
By square I mean it’ll fit into a square (it doesn’t need to be “a square”). I always test any logo designs I’m working on to see if they work inside a square and if not, I rework them until it looks great. Every single time I’ve done this, it has improved the design of the logo and made it SUPER versatile!
A submark is used for things like favicons and profile photos on social media. It can be a standalone icon, the first letter of your business name, an element of the larger logo — but it must work in a teeny tiny space and be recognisable.
It’s really important to demonstrate how your logo will work in one color so you have a plan for how you’ll use it when you need things like embroidery, stamps, watermarks and overlays, low cost printing, and so on.
People get so focused on using their logo online that they forget about other things they may need and run into big problems when their fancy logo design turns into an ink blob.
In these cases, one color means one color — not grayscale, which is the result when a home printer uses just black ink.
Take this colourful logo, for example. When I see people using logos like this I cringe a bit because I can see the potential problems. When the gradients and shadows and highlights are visible it looks great! But when it’s in one color? It’s just not a successful mark… it looks pretty amateurish and I can even see that the shape itself isn’t smooth. Yikes.
I didn’t include this rule in my template because it gets a bit technical, but I want to explain it just so you know that most brand guides do include this.
Basically, the exclusion zone is how you’ll calculate the space around the logo so it doesn’t wind up too close to other objects.
This is often done by calculating the “x” height of the letters or some other element of the logo and then demonstrating the space around the logo in the guide.
But, you don’t need to get this technical. You can just include instructions saying “keep plenty of distance between the logo and other design elements and text.”
Here’s how Spotify does it just so you know what I’m talking about. (View their online branding guidelines here.)
Now, the rules you set for your logo may be very different from mine and that’s okay! There are a lot of ways to go about it, but the important thing is to be consistent.
Think about it like this… if you were to outsource graphic design work to a freelancer or virtual assistant, what would make you absolutely cringe if they did that to your logo? Include that in your guide too…
Color Palette & Rules
Even though your logo is the representative symbol of your brand, your color choices are the most powerful aspect of your visual brand. Color evokes strong emotions in people and can be a determining factor in whether or not people buy.
When choosing a color palette, there are a few things to keep in mind. Knowing the psychology of color stereotypes is a good place to start, but you want to consider personal, cultural, and contextual factors too…
- Is it appropriate for your brand?
- Will it allow you to stand out from your competition (or blend in)?
- Is it appropriate for your audience and cultural considerations?
- Does it convey your brand personality?
- Do you love it?
All of these things matter and it can be why choosing color is so difficult for so many of us.
But you don’t want to stop there, you also want to make sure that the color palette you choose will have enough contrast so it’s functional for you. The brand guide template is designed to help you put it to the test. You’ll need…
Color codes for all colors in the palette
You’ll want to include your HEX# (web), RGB (screen), CMYK (print) and if applicable, any spot or Pantone color codes so you can easily reference them when using the palette.
For spot/Pantone color, you’ll want to get that information from an analog swatch book. If you don’t want to purchase one, your local printer will have one you can look at. But, you may not need that — most small businesses I work with these days do digital printing which is CMYK.
You can get your color codes at Coolors.co Just plug in your HEX# and export as .pdf and you’ll get the RGB and CMYK values to plug into your guide…
One of the biggest mistakes people make when choosing color is not having enough contrast to work with, so in my brand guide template I provide a page to test drive the colors to make absolutely sure you won’t run into problems.
One way I do this is to demonstrate how color will be used when making a graph. This is usually a pretty good test of any palette because if it doesn’t work, you know that it may not be functional enough for you when you really need it to be (you don’t want to be searching last minute for some colour you can add just to get the job done).
I also provided a space to show how colored text will look on top of a background color — you want to make sure you have design options that will be super readable.
I also demonstrate how the brand colors will work when they’re used on top of one another which is something we do a lot when making social media graphics and other marketing collateral — is there going to be enough contrast to distinguish the two colors clearly if you overlap them?
Finally, think about the most important place you need contrast — your calls to action. Studies show that use of a contrasting color on buttons can boost conversions and sales, so you want to think about having a “call to action” color in your palette that contrasts with your other colors on your web pages.
You also want to make sure you have dark and light neutrals to contrast with your main brand colors for things like backgrounds.
While you do want to make sure you have enough colors in your palette to create things like graphs and charts, this doesn’t mean you have to use all of these colors all of the time.
In other words… you don’t NEED six brand colors. Or even five.
My branding is purposefully very colourful, bright, and cheerful, but for a more sophisticated or corporate vibe you’ll want to keep things more simple and subdued.
In that scenario, you can choose 1-2 main brand colors paired with a light and dark neutral and then include some “secondary colors” that will work for you when you need them.
In the example below, my client will only use two main brand colors with some complementary dark and light neutrals. But because she often designs reports for clients, I created rules for using her secondary colors (orange and magenta) sparingly.
Her brand identity is in alignment with the “Capable” brand personality dimension where mine is “Sincerity” — she needs to be a bit more formal and I can be a bit more warm and friendly. (You can learn more about your brand personality dimension here.)
Again, what matters most is that the colors you choose are both functional and appropriate.
Did you know that just like color, fonts have personality ? They convey a ton of visual information about your brand identity, so choosing and using the right fonts for your brand is worth putting some consideration into.
I always like to suggest that you start with defining your brand personality (what are a few adjectives that describe you?) and then looking at your fonts through that lens. Comparing my brand identity with my client’s example above again, let’s see which choice of fonts fits best for which brand…
Now, this is an obvious example — I wouldn’t ever use my quirky brand accent font for a client that worked in accounting, but I see people choosing inappropriate fonts for their brands all the time…
Too casual, too unprofessional, too delicate, and worst of all unreadable… there are all kinds of font crimes that happen so it’s worth it to take a beat and select carefully.
Here’s the best way I can put it: don’t just pick fonts you like, make sure they’re appropriate for the brand personality you want to convey and pleaaaasee make sure the fonts you use for body text are designed for body text and not display (you can always find this information out by reading the details about the font).
And if you don’t feel confident about that, play it on the safe side and choose something classic. Here are some examples of fonts that designers go-to over and over again in their work because they’re timeless and versatile…
For free alternatives of these premium designer fonts, you can grab my Font Dupe Directory — these fonts are free for commercial use and will make you look just as profesh.
Okay back to the brand guide…
How many fonts do you need for your brand?
As it is with color, the goal is for you to be able to create contrast with your type. To answer this question I need to first clarify…
A font is a style of type (bold, italic, light, regular, etc.) within a typeface. For example, Arial is a typeface and Arial bold is a font.
While you definitely need more than one font to create contrast, you don’t necessarily need more than one typeface. Make sense?
For example. Previously I used three different typefaces for my brand — Din for headers, Lota Grotesque for body text, and a script font for accents.
Trouble was, they were slowing my site down and I ran into problems when creating Google Docs (which I do a lot) and was always trying to find the perfect substitutes for the web.
Now, I just use one Google font for headers & paragraph text both online and off and it’s sped up my site and made my life easier. The KEY is to choose a super versatile font that gives you options from hairline weight fonts to super chunky extra black… with one typeface you can create loads of interesting designs!
Here’s what I mean… this is Montserrat (typeface) and its individual font styles range from thin to black and includes italic styles as well. “Jumping” at least two levels (e.g. Thin to Regular) allows you to easily create contrast between headers, body, and other text.
I still use a premium accent font, but those are used sparingly and mostly in graphics anyway. Depending on your brand personality, it may be worth investing in a high-quality accent font that has distinctive qualities that will help your designs stand out — some of the best options out there right now now can be found on Creative Market.
A caution: if you’re using fonts that don’t come with the free version of Canva, you’ll need to upgrade to the pro account. Then, you can upload all of your branding assets and create a “Branding Kit” within the software.
If you want to find a great Google font for your brand, you might grab my swipe file –I’ve categorised them by brand personality and I went through every single Google font to separate the wheat from the chaff.
As you can see, you can keep things SUPER simple (and free!) or you can go all-out with your typography, it all depends on your comfort level. For more information you can check out my complete guide to choosing and using Brand Fonts.
In the template I designate which fonts are to be used for headers, subheaders, body text and accents. Then on the next page, I just like to see it in action.
Image Rules, Patterns, and Supporting Graphic Elements
We’re nearing the end of the visual brand identity section but before we wrap this up, we want to put some thought into how you’ll select or create photography and other graphic elements.
Because my brand personality is “friendly” I want to convey that in my visuals so I stick to hand-drawn elements to keep things casual. I don’t want to use stock photography of corporate people or offices because that wouldn’t be the right vibe.
For you? It may be the exact opposite and that’s why this is so fun… each brand can completely unique, just like we are as humans. 🙂
Next I include any patterns, textures, icons and graphic elements to use when creating designs…
Finally, I include a section that shows examples of things I’ve created in the past that are good examples of things I’ve done with the rules created thus far.
Here, you can include examples like brochures, website layouts, advertisements, etc. to refer to so anyone working on design projects for the brand can see how things have been done in the past so you don’t veer too off course.
Now, if you’re just starting out you may not have examples, but your brand book doesn’t need to be set in stone — you can update it as you begin creating marketing and promotional pieces you think really nail the spirit of your brand.
And that’s it for the visual brand identity! Not so bad, right? Maybe I’m crazy but I actually think this is a fun exercise. It’s even helped me to see areas where I’ve not been consistent and strategic about what I’m doing so I can get on a straighter path going forward.
Now let’s go on to the next section!
Section 2: Brand Philosophy & Messaging Statements & Brand Voice
I like to include this in a brand book because so often, we create our visual brand and call it good, but your brand goes much deeper than that.
Included in the Brand Guide Template is space for you to concisely tell your brand story.
First up is the most foundational aspect of any brand — the brand purpose statement. This is the big reason WHY you do what you do that informs the rest of your messaging and even the very direction of your business.
What do you stand for? And even more importantly (because these are the things that set you apart), what do you stand against? Your brand values are infused in everything you do so it’s great to get clear about what they are.
How you’re positioned in relation to your competition: Who it’s for, what they need, your solution, key benefits and value, and how what you offer is unlike alternative solutions.
One word you want to own in the mind of your customer. This is the emotional reason for your customers to care about your brand. A great example of a brand with a clear brand essence is Volvo (safety).
A super short statement you’ll use in our brand copy to help your audience understand what you’re about. Whereas other brand statements may be used for internal purposes only (and inform other brand copy), the tagline is one of the most visible and powerful pieces of brand copy in your arsenal.
Next I include information about my target customer. This isn’t something you commonly see in branding guidelines but I think it never hurts to make your customer the hero of your brand story!
I start with a few key demographic bullet points like gender split, geography, income, etc.
Then, in plain language, I describe who they are, what they’re struggling with, what they desire and what keeps them up at night. This allows me to create a brand promise — which is the transformation I help them get and what they can expect.
UNIQUE VALUE PROPOSITION
Here, you’ll describe the key benefits and value of working with you as it relates to your competitors. I like to call this the “special sauce.” We all have a special sauce and it’s so key to shine a spotlight on whatever that is!
Finally, you want to think about the tone of your (mostly) written communications because along with your visuals, this is how people will come to understand your personality (which tells them whether or not they want to work with you, so it matters!).
- Will you use a formal tone? (Dear sir or madam)
- Will it be more casual? (Hey Julie!)
- Will you use slang? (What’s up?)
- Contractions? (We’ll vs. We will)
- Cutesy-pootsie and familiar language? (“Heeeeeey girl, what’s shakin’!”)
These are all things that contribute to the voice of your brand. It’s useful to put it your guide most especially if you outsource writing or allow guest content contributors. You’ll want to make sure anyone who represents your brand doesn’t show up with a completely different tone of voice!
And finally, I wrap things up with a closing page… but this is the end of the brand guide. Cool, right?
I have to admit that even though I do branding work for other businesses and I like to think I know a thing or two, going through this exercise for my own business reinforced for me that I’m crystal clear about some things (yay!) and there are some areas where I can tighten things up and be even more consistent.
Once Your Brand Guide is Complete, Use This Pro Tip…
For extremely well-done brand guides, things like logos, fonts, and supporting elements will be packaged up in folders and included in a master folder that includes the brand book itself. The folder typically lives in the cloud so it’s easily shared with any new employees, contract designers or marketing-communications professionals.
If you’re a small business, you can steal this idea that larger organizations use to manage their brands and keep all of your branding assets in Google Drive or DropBox to share with virtual assistants, designers, etc.
Brand Guide Template For Canva
Ready to create your own Brand Guide? Click here to grab the exact template used in this post. And if you need help making decisions about your brand, you’ll love the entire Brand with Confidence Toolkit — it comes with the Brand Guide template, a Brand Board Template and a treasure trove of resources to help you create an awesome guide for your brand.
You can use the templates for personal or commercial projects, so if you’re a designer, you’re welcome use it to add value to your branding projects without taking up loads of your time. Enjoy!
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.