The pandemic and its aftermath have led to a widespread rethink. Governments, businesses, healthcare organizations, transport authorities—everyone has been talking about “the new normal,” discussing how their institutions impact communities and vice versa. What will the new normal be in the world of identity design? If trends prior to COVID-19 are anything to go by, perhaps it will involve a much more open approach, with companies sharing their brand philosophies internally and externally.
Many organizations have already started to make branding a public conversation by putting their brand assets and thinking online. In 2020, for example, Starbucks and Toyota published brand style guides on websites accessible to anyone. Uber’s 2018 rebrand by Wolff Olins arrived with a well-designed, dynamic site that gave insight into the company’s graphical motifs, tone of voice and more. And as far back as 2015, Cisco Systems led the way with its Interactive Brand Book site.
One of the most popular examples cited by designers is also one of the most extensive. IBM’s Design Language site gives visitors a deep dive into Big Blue’s design and development philosophy. It covers color, grids, logos, icons, illustration, photography, data visualization, layouts, animation and Carbon, its open-source design system for products and digital experiences. The biggest draw for design nerds is IBM Plex, the company’s open-source typeface. “The part of the site about IBM Plex gave me such an enjoyable experience. It’s a beautiful piece of work,” says New York–based identity designer Hamish Smyth.
A self-professed design geek, Smyth is uniquely attuned to how brand guidelines are presented. In 2015, he and business partner Jesse Reed reprinted the original 1975 NASA Graphics Standards Manual. It was a huge hit, reminding designers just how exciting identity design can be. Often, branding involves a logo, stationery, a website and maybe some van decals. For Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn, creators of NASA’s “worm” identity, the graphics didn’t merely go on a van; they went into orbit on the side of the Space Shuttle.
As we look at how brand guidelines are evolving in the 2020s, the NASA Graphics Standards Manual also reminds us from where identity design has come. Danne and Blackburn brought a design system to NASA that felt modern and well-reasoned, but consistent application was crucial. The printed brand books of the ’70s and ’80s formed the basis of success by creating familiarity through relatively static media like billboards, newspapers and television.
But in the 1990s, everything changed. The internet brought new ways for brands to reach their customers—email, websites, web advertising and, later, applications. Companies could update their visual language and messaging as often as they updated their sites. Brands became more fluid. In this new milieu, a printed brand book could easily be out of date before it returned from the printers.
Shortly after the internet became widespread, Adobe introduced the portable document format, or PDF. Need to tweak the logo? No problem. Just issue a new PDF. There’s a new rule on cropping photos? No problem. Just issue a new PDF. Printed brand books were replaced by PDF brand guidelines that could be updated, added to and redistributed immediately with no printing costs.
However, “no problem” soon became the problem. Organizations found themselves swamped with multiple versions of their own PDF brand guidelines. Employees didn’t know which set of guidelines to follow. This was compounded when, in a battle for consistency, PDF brand guidelines grew bloated with authoritative rules that focused less on branding and more on what not to do.
Something had to change, says Simon Manchipp of London-based branding agency SomeOne: “Traditional guideline PDFs are bibles of ‘no,’ pricey tomes of misery and admonishments addressed to well-meaning people who have yet to put a foot wrong—much like punching newly arrived dinner guests in the face. ‘Don’t do this, don’t play with that, and absolutely do not change that or you are dead.’ It’s grim reading.”
To address the issue of brand guidelines losing focus, both Manchipp and Smyth have created tools identity designers can use to create online brand guidelines for their clients. Manchipp’s solution, called Brand Cloudlines (brandcloudlines.com), is used by clients such as Domino’s Pizza, Madame Tussauds, The Natural History Museum and 3. When a brand’s icons are tweaked, they can be replaced on the server so that everyone can instantly access the latest assets. According to Manchipp, clients use Brand Cloudlines beyond branding—for example, to share approved external comms stories and to onboard staff. After all, brand guidelines often contain a company’s values, purpose and mission statement.
Still in development is Smyth’s venture Standards (standards.site). Like Brand Cloudlines, it enables designers to aggregate brand assets and usage guidance—something brand designers do for their clients, project after project—and semiautomate the repetitive elements of the process.
“Our aim for Standards is for it to save time. We anticipate reducing a process that usually takes days down to hours,” says Smyth. “We also want to move guidelines forward by using the power of the web and code to do things we haven’t invented yet, empowering designers to advance guidelines into the faster, more flexible and ever-changing landscape that branding is becoming.”
Standards and Brand Cloudlines are among a growing number of tools enabling identity designers to quickly and efficiently produce brand-guideline websites for internal use, and a growing number will share these sites with their audiences. But why do they want to? After all, brand books were once considered valuable intellectual property.
Claire Graybeal, an identity designer based in Denver, has been tracking online brand guidelines through her site Brandbase (brandbase.xyz). For her, sharing a brand story aligns with the values of many contemporary organizations. “The medium is the message, right?” she says. “A cool, open, delightful, forward-thinking brand guideline website equals a cool, open, delightful, forward-thinking company.
“But there’s absolutely a functional aspect to it as well,” she continues. “There’s a lot of strategic collaborations between brands, and software brands offer APIs where you can use their product on your own. It’s now more important for brands to use and understand the right way to design on top of other brands.”
The technology sector has been a major driver of this trend. Apple’s iOS guidelines and Google’s Material platform have been joined by open design systems such as Atlassian, Adobe’s Spectrum, IBM’s Carbon and InVision. Although they are aimed at developers, these design systems contain graphic design and UX components that overlap with the creation of brand experiences.
However, there’s more to it than tech. “With so many PR crises due to logo controversy, many brand stewards quickly discovered that open brand guidelines could alleviate the focus on solely the logo and share the logic behind the larger, dimensionalized system,” explains Forest Young, chief creative officer at Wolff Olins in New York.
When Young worked on Uber’s new branding in 2018, sharing it online was a strategic decision. The new brand added a halo to Uber’s stock market flotation and expansion into new sectors such as food delivery. “We designed the guidelines to be living documents, but they are still consistent with what they were in 2018, the most notable changes being illustration,” explains Young. “They are updated as needed. The industry has come around to embrace public-facing guidelines that exude transparency and quiet confidence. This new normal has encouraged teams to prototype on the brand system in plain sight.”
Tech, design and strategic factors all converged in the opening up of IBM’s brand. When design industry veteran Mike Abbink joined IBM about six years ago, Big Blue had a wonderful brand heritage thanks to the likes of Paul Rand, but no extensive set of brand guidelines existed. The IBM Cloud business had produced Carbon, an open-source design system. When Abbink designed IBM Plex, the corporation’s new official typeface, it was only logical to make it and the design language open like Carbon.
“After three years, we’ve seen no negative disturbance to our brand as a result of an open-source corporate typeface,” says Abbink. “I don’t believe we will see any downside to that decision at all. What competitor will use the IBM Design System and language to build their own brand? We love to think all that stuff is a secret sauce, but it’s not. Nobody can realistically take and build a brand like IBM with those elements—it would be ridiculous.”
According to Abbink, IBM plans to widen what it shares via an experience system that encompasses the design language, Carbon products, events, workplace design, design thinking, the use of AI and a community aspect. Other brands are going in the same direction. For example, customer service software company Zendesk details office design and events on its brand site Brandland.
“As Gen-Z moves into the professional world, brands will get a lot weirder and more referential,” predicts Graybeal. “What if a brand had an editable Figma file, and special community members with invite access could contribute to the brand guidelines? A strong brand has a strong community behind it, so I don’t think futures like that are outside the realm of possibility at all.”
Looking ahead to the new normal in branding, maybe community is the key word. Many of today’s brands, large and small, see themselves as part of the communities in which they operate. Others believe they are building communities around their brands. Either way, it suggests the next stage is for community members to play creative or curatorial roles as their favorite brands develop. ca