Designing Imaginative Style Guides

(Living) style guides and (atomic) patterns libraries are “all the rage,” as my dear old Nana would’ve said. If articles and conference talks are to be believed, making and using them has become incredibly popular. I think there are plenty of ways we can improve how style guides look and make them better at communicating design information to creatives without it getting in the way of information that technical people need.

Guides to libraries of patterns

Most of my consulting work and a good deal of my creative projects now involve designing style guides. I’ve amassed a huge collection of brand guidelines and identity manuals as well as, more recently, guides to libraries of patterns intended to help designers and developers make digital products and websites.

Two pages from one of my Purposeful style guide packs. Designs © Stuff & Nonsense.

“Style guide” is an umbrella term for several types of design documentation. Sometimes we’re referring to static style or visual identity guides, other times voice and tone. We might mean front-end code guidelines or component/pattern libraries. These all offer something different but more often than not they have something in common. They look ugly enough to have been designed by someone who enjoys configuring a router.

OK, that was mean, not everyone’s going to think an unimaginative style guide design is a problem. After all, as long as a style guide contains information people need, how it looks shouldn’t matter, should it?

Inspiring not encyclopaedic

Well here’s the thing. Not everyone needs to take the same information away from a style guide. If you’re looking for markup and styles to code a ‘media’ component, you’re probably going to be the technical type, whereas if you need to understand the balance of sizes across a typographic hierarchy, you’re more likely to be a creative. What you need from a style guide is different.

Sure, some people1 need rules:

“Do this (responsive pattern)” or “don’t do that (auto-playing video.)”

Those people probably also want facts:

“Use this (hexadecimal value)” and not that inaccessible colour combination.”

Style guides need to do more than list facts and rules. They should demonstrate a design, not just document its parts. The best style guides are inspiring not encyclopaedic. I’ll explain by showing how many style guides currently present information about colour.

Colours communicate

I’m sure you’ll agree that alongside typography, colour’s one of the most important ingredients in a design. Colour communicates personality, creates mood and is vital to an easily understandable interactive vocabulary. So you’d think that an average style guide would describe all this in any number of imaginative ways. Well, you’d be disappointed, because the most inspiring you’ll find looks like a collection of chips from a paint chart.

Lonely Planet’s Rizzo does a great job of separating its Design Elements from UI Components, and while its ‘Click to copy’ colour values are a thoughtful touch, you’ll struggle to get a feeling for Lonely Planet’s design by looking at their colour chips.

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