Brand guidelines — the bible for a brand. Consistency is the key when it comes to relaying a brand’s message across the various different media that it could be presented on.
It’s as relevant and essential a practice today as it has always been. But there’s potential trouble afoot, a thorn in the side of brand designers and guardians. What happens when a single media stage becomes impossible to treat as a single entity?
Brands and, more specifically, their guidelines have been evolving as new outlets for said brands are invented. Large brands have to consider all these various endpoints — small-scale print, large-scale print, video/television and the web being the most common. However that last one doesn’t play brand ball like the others do, especially as of late. Print and video are 100% controllable in terms of the final deliverables. In print, inks, stock, in fact all elements of the design process can be controlled, giving the brand nowhere to run. The same is true for video, with it’s fixed safe areas, ratios and colour reproduction. The same used to be almost true of the web at one point, if you take a thin sliver of it’s short history — specifically the bit after it became possible to have fine control over web page layouts and just before the wide-scale adoption of CSS3.
Most respected web designers would currently frown at that period now, with it’s table-based layouts and spacer GIFs. But in terms of a brand’s visual language, there was no better time. Web developers would pride themselves on getting a web design looking identical across several browsers on several different platforms — that was holy grail of web design and development back then. If your site looked the same in Internet Explorer 4, 5 and 6 and Netscape Navigator your job was done — you’re a good web designer, and the brand’s visual language was safe.
Fast forward to the present day and what is broadly believed to be great web design is something very different. Now it’s good practice to pander to the user’s browsing technology — a practice known as responsive design. It brings a fresh challenge to designers. Now, instead of making a site look identical across various browsers, the key is to play to the browser’s strengths. This approach makes total sense. The browsing landscape has never been so diverse — not only different desktop browsers as there have always been, but we now have numerous mobile devices, tablets, netbooks, etc. We aren’t so much having to think about what piece of software the user has, but what capabilities their software and hardware have.
Responsive design is about creating a design that is fluid in terms of it’s presentation — it will change depending on the user’s software/hardware capabilities.
To sum it up, dowebsitesneedtolookexactlythesameineverybrowser.com. This practice could potentially put web design on a collision course with traditional brand guidelines. It is most apparent when you look at how responsive design would suggest you approach the differences between old and new browsers using what is known as progressive enhancement. Lets take the example of the humble rounded corner.
Support for the CSS needed to put rounded corners onto a box is quite prevalent now with the exception of Internet Explorer (versions 8 and down). Unfortunately IE still accounts for a hefty chunk of the browser market — therefore a large number that would not see CSS rounded corners. Responsive design proponents would say that if a browser can’t natively do something then it’s no big deal, let it fall back to a default (in this case, square corners). It makes total sense, if you discount any brand visual language. Something like rounded corners would be integral to a brand’s tone of voice as much as the colour palette is. In my experience it’s tricky to sell in this dynamic approach to design to clients and brand guardians although, to me, it makes a lot of sense.
Rounded corners (used here to simplify the argument somewhat) is one of the more basic examples of modern web techniques that can not, without adding extraneous mark-up, script and imagery, be achieved consistently across all delivery methods. So do brand guidelines have to evolve as the web has? Do we build these differences and other modern web techniques into guidelines? After all, there is so much more to web design now than just web pages and layout, and all these elements become part of the fabric of a brand. For example, animated interactions as much as colour can relay a tone of voice, but they certainly aren’t universally available to the end-user. So do we simply not use them, opting for a consistent, lowest common denominator approach for all, or do we let those users that can view them experience that part of a brand’s language? I don’t see why not.
Luckily, this particular issue of progressive enhancement is getting smaller with most browsers now playing ball with the majority of advanced style and interactive elements available to web designers, but the web isn’t a still millpond — at times it can be white water rapids, and brands need to ride them rather than build dams to hold back the flow. The sooner they embrace responsive design the better, giving their customers a more delightful experience, no matter the technology they use to interact with them, as well as giving web designers a fresh challenge to replace the out-dated practice of consistency across platforms.
This article originally appeared on Design Assembly.
Photo credit: Flickr user kaibara87