What is a Website Style Guide?

by Oct 15, 2020Design

So you’re redesigning your website, or perhaps creating one entirely from scratch. This is a monumental task, and if you’re not a seasoned web designer, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Where exactly should you start? How can you ensure that your site turns out perfect? Should you tackle the project yourself? Should you hire responsive web designers? There are just so many elements to consider and so much to do.

Often in web design projects, the very first step you should take besides brainstorming and planning is making a style guide. These little documents are a huge asset for you and your design team, ensuring that your new website maintains consistency.

And where there’s consistency, there’s beauty and visual harmony.

What Are Style Guides Used For?

A web style guide is a document that lays out guidelines for designers to follow. It’s a way to see the assets and design standards associated with a project all in one place, which for any large undertaking is extremely helpful.

Considering how simple and easy it is to create these, you might underestimate them. But they’re far more useful than you would think. Various types of creative projects make use of them. You may come across branding style guides, UI style guides, or even style guides for writers and content creators.

When you fuse them all together — branding, UI, graphic elements, and writing style — you get a website style guide.

No designer likes trying to work off of nothing. A style guide functions as a central hub giving access to various premade assets as well as guidelines for how to properly implement these things. When they get lost, they’ll have this document to turn back to for guidance.

And it’s not just for ease of use. It also ensures that your web design stays uniform. Your website is the face of your brand identity. You don’t want its style to be all over the place, full of obvious inconsistencies and looking like it was sloppily thrown together.

You might think it doesn’t matter if you sometimes space out elements differently or don’t take care to use just the right hex code for certain colors. But your visitors will notice, and it will certainly look unprofessional.

There are intricacies to web design that are impossible to memorize. A style guide keeps everyone on the same page, prevents confusion or errors due to vague guidelines, and lets people know the right and wrong ways to use your assets in your brand and rebranding strategy.

Why is a Style Guide Important and Who Needs One?

Web design projects large and small could benefit from the implementation of a style guide. It saves time, ensures consistency, and helps designers get on track. This is beneficial whether your team is dozens large or just a handful of people.

Working on a project by yourself? You’re fully in charge of ensuring that your brand stays consistent. Aspects such as writing voice may come naturally to you, but it’s easy to forget to use the exact same color or font in certain situations. A style guide will help remind you.

For small and large teams, it’s even more useful for keeping uniformity. The more people you have, the more likely someone will make a branding mistake and you’ll end up with inconsistencies. A style guide helps avoid this, and makes auditing after the fact easy.

And while your team may be small enough to not strictly require a style guide now, it’s likely to grow in the future. Maybe you’ll bring on another designer, or hire a third-party company to take over part of your project.

If you already have a style guide, the process of onboarding design teams will go much more smoothly. Clear guidelines help everyone understand what’s expected of them, and that leads to fewer mistakes and better efficiency.

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What Should Be Included in a Style Guide?

If you want to create an effective website style guide, you need to know what goes into it. How does each piece play into design? What are the elements you’ll need to cover?

By knowing this and gathering up the relevant information, you’re already halfway towards finishing your style guide.

Visuals and Graphics

Creating stunning visuals is key to a successful web design project. You want to create visual harmony with every color, font, and photo you use. Create a style guide with clear design rules to keep all these elements coordinating well together. Here are a few ideas for what to include.

1. Colors are a major part of any design, and the core of a pleasing aesthetic. If you want your website to be beautiful, it’s all about the colors. Read up on color psychology in web design to get an idea of what website colors will convey the right mood.

Once you’ve got a good idea, draft up some palettes to use. Design a few website mockups trying it out. If it looks good, include the palettes in your style guide. If you use colors in certain areas (buttons, typography, etc), make sure to note where they belong.

And don’t forget to include hex codes! These make it easy for your designers to pick the right color in HTML or their graphics program.

2. Fonts are another area you’ll want to consider very carefully. Typography makes or breaks web design, and you need to get it right. Choose appropriate fonts for your body text and headers and note where and when to use them.

3. Logos are prominent parts of many style guides, as brand logos often come with variations, and with them the dos and don’ts of implementing them. When should designers use other versions of the logo? Any illegal colors or presentation styles?

Some websites also have guidelines controlling image assets (maximum/minimum size, filters to apply, what types of photos are accepted). Make sure to mention this as applicable.

4. Patterns, backgrounds, and graphics add depth to your branding. If you have any reusable assets, lay out when to implement them here.

Website and UI Elements

Here’s another visual aspect you might forget to take into account: UI design. Web design tends to be more focused on the big picture, but UI is all about perfecting that small-scale experience with images, animations, and interaction states.

Just like graphic design with colors, typography, and backgrounds, UI design needs to be consistent and harmonious as well. Often it’s not the gorgeous visuals that make a website memorable, but the pleasant user experience of navigating a well-coordinated interface.

Think about this: How many pixels lie between the header and text? The text and the sidebar? Between each element of the navigation bar? These things matter! If you don’t stay uniform in your spacing, pages will look sloppy.

Many sites use grids to standardize the layout. If you do, make mention of it.

UI design also involves website elements like buttons, checkboxes, dropdown lists, forms, and more. How do these look? Do you have certain CSS styles you use? What are the different interaction states (hover, click, error)?

Displaying the various visual elements in use on your website’s interface will likely take up the most space in the style guide. There’s a lot to cover. Here’s what you might want to show off:

  • Buttons
  • Input boxes
  • Forms
  • Checkboxes
  • Radio buttons
  • Progress bars
  • Search bars
  • Pagination
  • Accordion menus
  • Dropdown menus
  • Avatars
  • Tooltips
  • UI icons / Favicons

Writing and Tone

Making a website isn’t all about the visuals. Your brand is more than a logo; it’s a personality. It has a voice, and you want that voice to be coherent and consistent across all of your digital marketing assets. This aspect isn’t 100% needed in your style guide, but your marketing team will appreciate it when syncing up marketing assets with website language.

Study other websites in your niche. How do they present themselves? Are they bubbly and upbeat? Elegant and professional? Conversational and humorous?

You don’t have to stick exactly to the proven formula. But you wouldn’t expect a seller of children’s toys to present themselves as brusque and no-nonsense, or an expensive fine jewelry merchant to be overly casual as if they’re not taking their work seriously.

Think about what fits your brand and your industry. How do you want to look to others? What do you think potential customers would like? What is most true to your company’s values?

Figure out your target audience and what appeals most to them to achieve your website’s marketing goals. Age, gender, and geographic region all factor heavily into how you should address your audience.

When fleshing out a general brand personality, consider the following issues:

  • Formal or casual appeal?
  • Do you want to steer clear of complicated technical terms and concepts to appeal to a wider audience?
  • What do you think about incorporating humor? What kind of humor is acceptable?
  • Are there certain words or commonly used terms that should be avoided (e.g. swearing, slang/jargon, etc)?
  • What are some things that are absolutely not acceptable and should be avoided?

Also mention grammar and writing style. Do you use a manual such as the APA? Do you prefer active voice? Is it acceptable to address readers as “you”? Should authors refer to themselves as “I” or “we” (such as “we recommend this…”)? Do you use the Oxford comma? These are just a few possible considerations.

How to Create a Website Style Guide

Once you’ve collected the information you need to create a style guide (visuals, UI design, writing, etc.), it’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to present it.

If you’re still in the information-gathering stage, now’s the time to do lots of research. Study other websites as well as your own brand. Balance what’s expected of businesses in your industry with what’s true to your values.

Working with an existing website? This is a great opportunity to locate inconsistencies and figure out how to unify the existing design.

Now is the time to create sketches, wireframes, mockups, and moodboards. See what colors feel right and experiment with fonts and other aspects of design.

When you’ve got a good grasp of your brand’s style, it’s time to start thinking about how to put together the guide. You’ve got a few options here: you could design a static image or PDF, or even create it in HTML and put it on your website.

The latter is desirable as it allows you to create a living style guide, one that changes and updates as your project grows. It allows you to see website elements and interaction states live as well. Changing a static image after the fact can be difficult and doesn’t provide that benefit.

Either way, take a look at these resources for creating a website style guide template to get you started. A tool that is gaining serious attention in recent years is the Canva Brand Kit.

There’s no right way to make one, but generally try to keep things simple and to the point. Style guides are primarily image-based and often don’t need much explanation.

And remember: making a website design style guide should be one of the first things you do, not the last.

Consistent, Beautiful Web Design

Nobody wants their website’s design, brand image or reputation to be all over the place. Consistency is key. It lets your visitors know that you can be trusted, and that you care about maintaining your image.

So when you’re approaching your rebranding strategy, a style guide is the best way to ensure that, no matter the size of your team, you’re staying on track. The hardest part is making one; once that’s done, tweaking it is very easy if you ever decide to change things up. The small time investment is more than worth it when tackling your website redesign.

It keeps your style consistent, it gives you, as a website owner, an overview of your image, and it makes your designers’ lives easier. Start with a style guide and your next design project will go much smoother.

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