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Sometimes you just have to learn the rules and break them

Designer and resident rule breaker, Victoria Pinnington, takes a journey through the world of brand guidelines. 

Brand guidelines, book, manual, toolkit, style sheet, whatever you want to call it as designers we’ve all delved into this meticulous world. Having worked with a number of businesses and organisations to help create guidelines, it can be a bit of a balancing act, putting in enough information so that everyone understands, yet allowing the flexibility to encourage and inspire and not be a straightjacket for creativity. Throw in the blurred definition and expectations of what guidelines are, limited budgets and the mix of skills held by users and it’s quite a challenge.

A World Of Inspiration

It’s a common misconception that the production of guidelines is the completion of a brand, when in fact they are just the start of a journey.

As we’re all experiencing on a daily basis brands are becoming increasingly multidisciplinary and adaptive. No longer is brand application as straightforward as a letterhead or poster.

Whilst it is arguably the most recognisable element, a brand is much more than a logo. A brand must embody the principles of a company and signify a lifestyle choice that users want to be a part of. With this comes increasing demand for brands to be recognised and experienced through colours, fonts and imagery. The personality of a brand must have meaningful impact and has never been more important regardless of the media or outcome.

With this in mind if we are asking our consumers to live and experience the brand - guidelines should only be produced with this in mind. Creating a brand world, rather than guidelines provides a great balance between guiding and proving tools to create and inspire. Should be an extension of the brand.

Rules Are There For A Reason

Yes, rules are there for a reason and no one wants to see their brand pulled apart, however if your guidelines become a never ending list of restrictions, designers will not feel inspired or engaged. When creating guidelines our role as brand guardian should be enough to provide structure and content that includes as much personality as possible. Creative, skilled people want the freedom to design and make so we need to put the excitement into it, using guidelines as a platform to really bring your brand to life and engage the user. Design teams are increasingly working across different sites or even time zones so we need to police it in some way.

For me the ultimate endorsement for successful guidelines has to be seeing what others do with it. The new and innovative things we’d be proud of and the ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ moments. Here are five examples that will have longevity, engage designers to keep producing new and innovative designs.



Comprehensive and of course fun this brand book looks good enough to eat. It’s all about living the brand, with each page carefully considered as a unique way for the personality of the M&M’s brand to have impact.


Norwich Cathedral

Clever, witty, on brand and inspiring, is this the holy grail of brand guidelines? Embracing the move to digital technology and not letting it inhibit creativity. The days of creating the beautifully printed brand guidelines may be long gone but this hasn’t stopped them creating a digital brand guidelines where no hard copies we’re ever produced, however it’s visualised as a pocket bible. Something you just want to pick up.



Actively encouraged to experiment with layouts across applications. Different parties picking this document up due to the diverse nature if whats on display.


Gordon’s Gin

Refreshing to see a brand world that is re-energised for creatives. Mood boards providing a snapshot into this brand world that you can immerse yourself in.



Simple yet effective, MailChimp is a great example of branding being much more than design. They put the user experience at the heart of their brand. As this example from it’s Tone of Voice section of it’s guidelines shows it’s interactive layout gives you a sense of how a user might feel in each scenario and how to speak to the use.

International Day of The Girl

To coincide with The United Nations ‘International Day of The Girl’ which happened on Sunday and the release of the film ‘Suffragette,’ we spent some time thinking about the female focused brands that we can’t help but admire.

Stella McCartney

A recognised and committed advocate for empowering women within the fashion industry, McCartney uses her brand to bring important values to the forefront through collections that champion and empower women from different backgrounds and situations. From the Noemi Tote, a hand bag collection made ethically in Nairobi enabling a female dominant workforce and manufacturers to develop creativity and power. To a mastectomy bra to tackle cancer stigmas and create designer underwear that is available to everyone, McCartney adopts an inspired and inspirational approach to business.

Gentlewoman magazine

A biannual magazine full of style and purpose. Beautifully crafted, each issue feels like your holding a little piece of luxury, making it a far cry from your traditional glossies. The Gentlewoman is an ideal read for women needing empowering inspiration, with each edition featuring interviews with talented, hardworking role models. It celebrates diversity, intelligence and natural beauty and has featured a diverse range of cover girls, from Angela Lansbury to Beyoncé.


A high fashion brand that dares to challenge perceptions of what models should be. With the iconic Phoebe Philo at the helm, Celine has redefined the world of fashion advertising by choosing females with an inspiring background to model their collection. By using Joan Didion as the face of a campaign at the age of 80, Celine tapped into her status as writer and thinker to celebrate timeless style and substance.

Taylor Swift

Look beyond the music and you’ll find a gifted marketer. Not only is she adored by fans but enchants the media. Whether she’s publically challenging Apple on their unfair use of her music or uniting women across the world with her 1989 tour, which saw a host of female idols join her on stage, Swift is a brand that has become increasingly hard to ignore. 

This Girl Can

While Nike and Adidas manage to inspire those already active within sports, they can often alienate those who are yet to get started. This Girl Can (whose foundations lie in our IWIYW Campaign) brought us a portrayal of an active life in all is jiggling glory. Through a simple identity, supported by thought provoking campaign elements it struck a chord with women everywhere who wanted to explore their own potential and get active.

Victoria Pinnington, Senior Designer. 

Be Part of The Furniture

Earlier this year True North moved into a brand new office space. Ahead of the move, the team were asked to think about how the agency could create something beyond the traditional ‘change of address’ card and instead develop something that would engage and be remembered by clients, collaborators, colleagues and friends.

Following discussions, it was agreed that the purpose was not only to alert people to the move, but also to showcase the new space. Each member of the team was asked to contribute an idea with a vote being taken on the one that best fulfilled the brief.

The winning idea not only allowed us to share the news of the relocation and showcase the space, but also enabled us to do some good. We decided to give our stakeholders the opportunity to literally become part of the furniture by holding a charity auction, letting people place a bid and put their name on an item in the office. All the money raised through this auction would be donated to Manchester based charity Mustard Tree, who work with the City Council, the Probation Service and the NHS to provide life support and promote sustainable solutions through (amongst other things) the provision of food, clothing and training to those in need in Manchester.

The new address would be 24 Lever St and so, 24 items were carefully selected, each one with the potential to hold a plaque baring a name.

Creatively, we wanted to make this auction as realistic as possible and so created an auction guide, which would be mailed to potential bidders ahead of the auction. Taking inspiration from the publications of well-known auction houses, the Be Part Of The Furniture guide combined traditional features with the True North Brand identity.


Copy was an important element in the creative as it needed to sound authentic and traditional whilst maintaining personality. The copy style was inspired by descriptions in auction guides, however it was important to combine this with a tongue in cheek tone that felt humorous and approachable.


As this was a campaign, the creative and tone of voice needed to be flexible enough to sit across many different touch points, such as the eBay page where bids would be held as well as through email correspondence which would guide people through the auction.


When the auction ended and all bids were in, we had managed to raise over three hundred pounds for the charity. And we’ve now made our new home as much yours as it is ours.

Book and Cover

To coincide with Manchester Literature Festival, Artwork Manager Ed Dunsdon celebrates the power of book cover design. 

Can the electronic tome offer you a visual hook in the same way as it’s printed adversary? Surely, clicking through icons is a less enticing experience than gazing at cover designs before you on the bookshelf.

The intrinsic value of the book jacket design is that it stirs your imagination even before you turn a page. It is what will always keep the book lover or “book fetishists” buying the printed, instead of the pixelated.

Despite the proliferation of the e-book the printed page still attracts the reader, and the importance of the jacket design is as significant as ever. The skill of the designer to interpret the text and to produce a visually captivating and intriguing frontage is highly regarded by both author and publisher alike. The task of the ‘translator’ (as Associate Art Director at Alfred A. Knopf, Peter Mendelsund prefers to be called) is to select a “unique textual detail that, as the subject matter for a book jacket, can support the metaphoric weight of the entire book.”


With the march of the e-book, designers of physical books have to raise their game “I absolutely think we should seize the initiative and make the best books we can” says Suzanne Dean, the creative director of Random house - the only designer to be included in The Booksellers list of “100 most influential people in the book trade”.


When conceiving an idea for any design, the creative must reduce the complexity of a Brand or a story into a bold, concise, visual statement. To appreciate the simplicity of a well designed, minimalist cover is to understand and appreciate the simplicity of the logotype. To stir the mind until the light comes on and the pieces fall into place is the desired aim of any logo creator or book cover artist. “By holding back information and being quietly suggestive, readers are invited to fill in the blanks and interpret for themselves” said designer David Pearson.


When designers find themselves, as consumers they very often make the judgement on the aesthetics of the cover before ever reading the introductory blurb. With the advent of the electronic page the purpose of the printed book has gone beyond that of merely a story to be told and instead the book itself has become a possession to be cherished and displayed as if it were a painting or a photograph. The cover also helps us to define ourselves, in a similar way to the album sleeve, evoking nostalgia and reminding us who we were and how we want to be perceived, consciously or subconsciously. It is a projection of our own personal tastes and aspirations.


This is very evident in the appeal of the book series, the collectables and the matching sets. As soon as we become conscious of the material and the autonomy to consume we collect ‘stuff’. We collect stamps, game cards and tea towels, things that match or go together. Publishing is no different and a series of books will gratify the reader as consumer and collector.

The brief for the designer is to produce an effective series that is true to the classic brand and identity whilst enticing the reader to connect and collect. The cover design affords the opportunity for the publisher to re-release and repackage popular books. A novel that hasn’t changed its tale, but can become a blank canvas for each generation of designers, who can use their own visual interpretation to breath new life into the story. Life that is hard to find on a screen.

Putting A Man On The Moon

At the height of the space race, JFK visited NASA. As he toured the complex, meeting engineers and astronauts to discuss their work, he met a man, overalls on and broom in hand. “What do you do here?” the President asked. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon” replied the cleaner.

This encounter demonstrates the importance of internal brand engagement. Why? Because it is your people who are the biggest asset for your business and brand. Everyone, from the bottom to the top, is responsible for shaping it, for developing it, and delivering it.

It is quite common though, for businesses who spend big on tactical advertising to then under-deliver on their promises due to disconnected employees. It is here that the brand is eventually weakened by those responsible for communicating it. In any business, but especially where that employee’s interaction with customers and other stakeholders is important, the value of employees’ brand advocacy is self-evident. In our experience, investing in internal brand engagement goes a long way to address this.

Companies must also recognise that this isn’t just a project for the HR department. Often workplaces look to ensure an ever-present feel good factor, but a happy workplace doesn’t equal a passionate workforce. So, addressing a lack of brand knowledge, compliance and delivery understanding is crucial. Without this, not only is a lack of inspiration to deliver the brand likely, but it’s not even clear what the brand even stands for.

One company that clearly recognises the importance of getting this right is Virgin Media. Ashley Stockwell, Managing Director of Brand and Marketing, says “you don’t turn a company into a Virgin company by putting the logo above the door”. Rather, by taking the approach of building the Virgin brand among its employees, Virgin Media regularly appears at the top of customer satisfaction surveys. In an increasingly price-driven, commoditised market, these victories make a real difference.

So, how do you ensure genuine brand engagement with employees? You build a ‘culture’ that supports your strategy and helps deliver your brand. Here’s how:


Ensure your brand positioning is clearly de?ned. It’s just as important for internal brand engagement as it is for external consumers.


Involve employees and brand the process. A good example is IBM, who engaged its entire global employee network in ‘Values-Jam’ - a re-examination of the company’s values. Having employee partake in the process greatly increases their buy-in, and by branding this dedicated programme of activity, deliverables and ways employees can get involved, something more tangible for all is created.


Actually launch your brand internally; drive employee awareness and commitment by helping them understand the credibility and reality of your brand’s aims.


Invest in an ongoing, two-way engagement process. Simple brand guidelines can so often engender only rigidity. It’s much more effective to use your brand as ongoing inspiration. Ultimately, don’t let the effects of all your hard work subside!

Enterprising Brands

While many are familiar with B2C branding, we think the role of branding in B2B is often maligned. Most businesses recognise the need to invest in innovation, R&D and sales, but there’s a great chasm between this and the focus, budget and resource put aside to develop a B2B company’s brand. But many B2B enterprises could benefit from a good branding.

In fact, Interbrand’s 2014 ‘Best Global Brands’ included B2B giants IBM, GE, Cisco, Intel and Oracle in the Top 20, all of whom have been putting brand at the core of business activity for decades.

One of the chief advantages of investing in a strong, compelling brand is that it provides a focal point for your organisation, even in times of rapid growth or diversification. In fast moving markets, the core belief or idea behind your brand can be the only thing that retains any meaning or value with both customers and employees alike.

Take GE. This vast, complex organisation has used their brand to create order and coherence. Their brand idea of ‘Imagination at Work’ cleverly unifies a hugely broad organisation - making sense of their diversity - and has inspired 85 ‘imagination breakthroughs’ attributed to an additional $25 billion dollars of revenue for the business.

Turbulent financial times also highlight the importance of your brand. Add this to constant technological revolutions, and those without a strong identity (think: Kodak and Compaq) lose their seat at the table. Business today must be more adaptive and dynamic than ever before, and a strong brand allows companies to keep their credibility and reputations even while undergoing significant change.

One of the most powerful examples of this in the B2B world is IBM. Predicting the commoditisation of computing hardware, IBM shifted their core offering to business and infrastructure consulting, all the while remaining ‘IBM’ because they still want ‘To build a Smarter Planet’.

No matter how much salesmen and account managers would have us believe B2B relationships are wholly dependent on their persuasive expertise, even to be seen as company worthy of another’s time requires the relevance of your company to be obvious. This is where having a consistent brand idea and message, creatively and intelligently articulated and presented across everything you do, pays dividends.

It’s also worth noting how, for many enterprises, it’s not always differentiation, quality or even price that’s the most important criteria when selecting who to do business with. It’s trust and reliability.

Research by Lippincott shows 39% of business buyers’ choices are driven by brand, compared to 27% being driven by price. So in the complex business ecosystem where one small failing can bring down the whole supply chain, businesses need to have a reputation for delivering; that is to say a strong brand.

In conclusion, while we often hear things like ’Branding isn’t relevant for B2B’ and ‘Business is all about relationships’, these arguments fail to acknowledge the understanding of ‘brand’ today. It’s so much more than corporate identity and consistent marketing communications.

If companies invest, brand can be the organising principle which creates focus and coherence for management, motivates and inspires employees behind a common goal, and increasingly raises awareness and differentiates your offer with your customers.

With the challenges faced by many business this era, B2B branding is coming into its own.

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