The Elements of Style Manuals, Part One

It strikes me that there are lots of problems with style manuals, those definitive pieces of documentation that accompany a completed design solution: Clients want them to be a comprehensive set of full-contigency bylaws governing the usage of the designs they’ve paid for, but they frequently balk at the necessary time and expense that’s necessary to produce anything so complete. Designers want to deliver a sound set of pliable guidelines that will continue to do justice to their work, but even with a capacious budget, they can’t possibly provide enough all-encompassing logic to stand in for design talent absent from a client’s payroll.

These conflicting circumstances usually result in style manuals full of what I like to call ‘rote specifications’; thick booklets packed with granular details on sizes, measurements, colors and rudimentary “do’s and don’ts” for the usage of a design solution. Unfortunately, these are usually constructed to appearimpressive above all else, relying on the sheer quantity of detail to justify to clients both the full expense of the design process and to evince the apparent sustainability of the completed design.

At best, they’re superficial documents with limited usefulness; like blueprints for television homes, they’re interesting in their intricacy, but of limited practical value in real life. I’ve seen many style manuals that, while voluminous, were useful for only a handful of factual attributes: PANTONE colors, typeface specifications, and grid measurements, for instance, but little else. One could have easily been reduced these manuals to a handful of pages and they would have proven just as useful.

Style Manuals throughout History

In the larger arc of producing documentation for design systems, we’ve fallen a long, long way from the days when Paul Rand would devote enormous personal effort — under commission, of course — into producing truly informative corporate manuals for clients like IBM. A generation of designers like Rand felt it their duty to provide documentation that imparted not only the facts of their design solution, but the story of them as well. Rand’s manuals discussed the creative genesis of what he delivered, providing a narrative backdrop that helped his audience understand the brand and, as importantly, the responsibility inherent in handling it. Instructionally, they went beyond simple specifications to also provide conceptual guidance for decision-making within the language of his design; in contrast to nearly every style manual I’ve seen or produced in my professional career, they’re educations in and of themselves.

Of course, they were also didactic and perhaps unrealistic, and viewed today, they can be seen as artifacts of an era with a pronouncedly greater belief in the power of graphic design to improve not just profits, but life, too. I won’t argue too strenuously that we should return to those ways of thinking, but one thing to note is that even with the nontrivial effort that used to go into style manuals, these didactic and idealistic messages were meant for an audience that truly understood the power of design. This is different from today’s audiences, who are frequently untrained and uninterested in learning not just how to do good design but why to do it as well.

Design Documentation Is for Designers

When Massimo Vignelli produced his famous and astonishingly detailed Unigrid system for the U.S. National Park Service — a solution that provided a practically mathematic formula for its usage — it was intended to be used by people who, if they were not designers, were well-versed in design themselves. Of course, they could hardly all be Swiss-educated designers, but at the very least, the Park Service saw it as their own responsibility to instill a sense of design excellence among their creative staff through continued education. The message to today’s design buyers is that no style manual can stand in for having a fully-fledged design competency on staff.

Even a strong in-house design team amounts to only half of what’s required to ensure the reliable implementation of a newly delivered design solution. The other half is an institutional recognition of the value of graphic design, specifically manifested in the willingness to pay for the time and labor required to produce a clearly articulated, fully instructional style manual. To characterize this kind of enlightenment as prevalent even back in the golden age of corporate identity systems (roughly, some thirty or forty years ago) is probably grossly inaccurate, but in today’s market for design services, it’s probably no exaggeration to say such enlightenment is relatively scarce. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for clients asking their design vendors to spend a full-third of a project life-cycle on documentation, which is clearly what would be needed to produce better documentation.

There’s more design being produced today than ever before, more practitioners calling themselves designers and more companies looking to design as a tool for gaining a competitive edge in the marketplace. And yet the quality of our design documentation has not risen in accordance with that increase in design prevalence; in fact it’s declined markedly. That’s a shame, but sadly I don’t have a remedy with even a hope of reversing that trend. Rather, on a more modest scale, we do have an opportunity to incrementally improve the style manuals we’re producing today, as unambitious as they are. I’ll write about that in my next post on this subject, later in the week.

  1. Long Time Listener, First Time Caller.

    (ok…not that long, but you get the picture)

    Thanks for the insightful and thought provoking (and timely!) post.

    Looking forward to the next installment.


  2. My idea of a style manual for web designers is not really written documentation (PDF, Word, Powerpoint) but rather HTML prototypes. Some things will need to be explained on paper but I think most of it can be communicated through code, CSS, image directories, etc. HTML prototypes can also be reused. If you have some kind of global control on layout and specific CSS styles, changes can be easy in the future.

    I understand your post is not entirely about web style manuals but this works for me as a web application designer.

    Great post!

  3. Thanks for a great read. I’m just about to get started on a manual myself now, so the timing couldn’t be better, either…

  4. This is such a good point. Consumers demand a user manual on how to use something they buy – something that the cheaper products usually skimp on. The fact that clients are ignoring this piece of the design process is like never getting the user manual. Sure it looks great out of the box, but are you willing to risk breaking it by not paying a few extra bucks?

  5. I agree totally with your analysis. With redesigns and brand refreshes being so popular lately, I doubt that many companies would focus on delivering a strong long-term message. I am too young to remember an era where coporations invested in style manuals, what has changed since then?

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