Working within style guides

One of the best tools in a content designer’s arsenal is the style guide. It’s a really useful document that can help democratise good content and elevate your brand’s voice across every output.

As an industry we’re building more understanding and confidence in design systems and content style guides. But can these be too restricting or are they opening up new avenues of creativity?

An illustration of a man at a desk, holding a pencil and piece of paper. He’s looking down at a laptop on the desk. There are bits of paper and shapes floating around his head.
Image from Vecteezy

Getting started with style guides

Firstly, developing your own style guide is a really useful exercise if you haven’t already. Even if you’re the only content designer at your company and you’ve just started, it can be a good way to record decisions you’ve made and things that work already.

Many other content designers have covered the hows and whys of style guides. But something as simple as a one page Google doc will do to begin with. As you get across more projects and talk to more colleagues you’ll find it fills out.

Once it’s in a usable format, start sharing it with colleagues — even if it’s just fellow designers or product people. It’ll give them an idea of the standards you’re creating, how you came to those decisions and where information is still missing. Once it’s out there other colleagues can contribute or suggest updates.

Just remember, it’s always a work in progress — and remind your colleagues of this too!

From no style guide…

I’ve worked at various companies with different levels of content maturity. Some with more established style guides, others with nothing at all.

More recently I worked at Brandwatch as their first UX writer and content designer. They didn’t have a content style guide for Product. So one of my first jobs, alongside the Product Design team, was to build out the content style guide within their new design system.

This gave me lots of opportunity to flesh out ideas, look at our user research and put content design principles into practice. However, it was also hard to police content across a whole product on my own. It was also difficult to advocate for best practices across lots of different departments.

…To a big style guide

Now I’m at HMRC. As part of the UK government, HMRC has strong content maturity and well-established design principles. The Government Digital Service (GDS) has put lots of work into building out the government content style guide and other departments, like HMRC, have contributed in the years since.

But is there room for creativity and genuine ‘design work’, or is it now ‘design-by-numbers’?

In some ways, I think it can feel like that. It can feel like our role is to advise from the style guide and there isn’t room for much else. But with so many content designers across different projects, all working from the same style guide, questions have inevitably come up. There are differences in opinion and times when research shows us something else works.

Sometimes a particular service has a certain type of user. They may have different, specific experiences or context. So adjusting your content or breaking the rules of the style guide in this instance could be a big part of what makes your service usable.

I guess it’s naive to think a style guide could cover every eventuality. There are so many pages of content, messages, emails, forms, examples of microcopy and so much more out there. It would be impossible to cover off every word you could use, every turn of phrase.

For example, some of HMRC’s messaging around late tax payments doesn’t follow the usual GOV.UK rule of contractions. Contractions are great at making your content more human and friendly. But when dealing with serious problems (like not paying the tax you owe) that can have worrying consequences (fines and legal repercussions) your content shouldn’t be chatty. So having our content more straight and direct is better suited in this instance.

Therefore I think you need balance. You can’t have a strict style guide that never deviates. It should be changing all the time with updated user research and experience informing it. There would also be no need to hire content designers and writers — most people can follow a guide!

But a style guide can’t answer all the questions. There are situations and scenarios that need creative thought and a wider knowledge of readability, understandability and how users interact with your product. This is the expertise of a content designer. Not just to follow a guide, but to ‘design through words’. We take into account user needs, business needs and the tricky nature of language. I’m not sure the absolute essence of this can truly be recorded. But without a style guide, content designers (and others) across the business would deviate from how the company speaks to its users.

It’s this combination that makes content design work — personal experience and expertise coupled with the style guide, the collective knowledge of the company (and some handy user research too). So rather than relying on one or the other, it’s these things together that’ll give you the best content for your users.

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