Working on multiple projects in complex teams, sooner or later you will encounter the term "style guide." The question then arises, if we have worked without it so far, is it even necessary? Try to answer the following questions:
- Do you design services for different devices (you must, because the audience is diverse, right)?
- Do you want your files to be prepared for future changes and application development?
- Do you want to save time (and money) during the design phase?
- Do you work in a complex team of designers, developers, and testers?
If the answer to any of the above questions is YES, then you definitely need a style guide.
What is a style guide?
A style guide is a document that describes the interface elements of a given application or service. It helps to maintain visual consistency in communication. It is worth mentioning that in the world of print, visual identity has been communicated for a long time. In digital products, this is a newer topic, but certainly worth getting to know better. Above all, the style guide is an "open" document that is constantly evolving and changing as the service develops.
It should never be a document created "for art's sake", because "it's cool to have", or "because others have it". Without understanding its specificity, and above all, without maintaining continuity and updating it, it can be skipped (which I definitely DO NOT RECOMMEND 😉)
What should a style guide contain?
As I mentioned, the style guide is a living document containing elements that make up the service, so it should primarily contain:
- logo - its size, layout, and any variations for the digital product (which means you should not include a visualization of the logo on letterhead paper in the document 😉)
- grid (the most important break points)
- color scheme (but always in context - what colors for typography, buttons, background, etc.)
- action buttons - both primary and secondary (it is worth indicating how text links or all other "clickable" elements should look)
- interface elements such as menus, forms, selects, inputs, radio buttons, checkboxes, tables, and all other repetitive elements that your application contains
When should it be created?
As a rule, the earlier, the better. But there are no hard time frames here. From experience, I know that (unfortunately, not infrequently) such a document appeared when the "fire was already burning." At the moment when the lack of coherence and the size of the project were already so significant that further interface development was cumbersome and burdened with additional errors. On the other hand, if we are at the beginning of the project, in the wireframe phase, where our application does not have an extensive visual identity (logo, brand book), we do not have to force ourselves to create a style guide at the same time. It is worth creating it (sometimes in a basic version) before the UI (User Interface) project stage and keeping it up to date so that during development, the elements contained in the project are reflected in the style guide.
Style guide from different perspectives
The style guide is not a cure for all problems, but it certainly improves certain aspects of our daily lives. Working in an extensive team, where everyone is responsible for their own part, communication problems (especially in remote work - the need to learn asynchronous work), product development or personnel changes, cause the product we work on to sometimes become "divergent". This always results in frustration, dissatisfaction, and ultimately generates increasing costs for the produced product.
If I am a designer...
I always reach for the style guide when I start working on a project. In fact, I open the document before I even name the file in the program 🙂
Thanks to this, I am sure that the new feature I am working on will be consistent with the rest of the project. If I use elements that are already in the application, I can easily and quickly copy them, which saves time. If I create a new element (in cases where currently available ones cannot be used) - I am sure that the "Don't Repeat Yourself" rule is not a phrase.
As a new member of the graphics department, I have easy and quick access to all application elements without having to browse through all the created files.
If I am a developer...
The style guide is a starting point for writing standardized CSS. If I see that a given module does not exist in the style guide, I can always make sure with the designer whether it really needs to differ from other existing elements.
If I am a tester...
Modules developed based on the style guide definitely have a positive impact on testing. If a given module has been tested before and is an independent module from others, there is a high probability that nothing will break in the meantime. And even if something does break, a quick fix will solve the problem on every page where the given module was used.
If I am a manager, owner, or business person...
Applications and services, or generally digital products, are often commercial. They have to earn money. The style guide can save a lot of time (and therefore money) with relatively little effort. Both on the production side of the project and later on in development.
Let's imagine such a situation...
- The business determines the need to introduce a new functionality
- We do not have a style guide because there was no space to create it
- The project team prepares the project according to business guidelines
- The project is implemented, but it turns out that the implemented modules were already written in another part of the application a long time ago, the file has become overgrown with cobwebs, and the project team simply did not remember that something similar had already been created (or something similar enough that a ready-made module could be used in this situation without reinventing the wheel)
- Testers have two modules to test
- When implementing the next functionality, questions arise - which module to use. And there's that temptation: "we have nowhere to check if such a module already exists, so let's create something from scratch?" 😉
- Finally: frustration for everyone involved in the project - "why does it cost so much if we already have something similar?", "why are you designing something that has already been done?", "we cannot remember every small element on the site" etc.
Multiply this situation several times, and we have quite a lot of additional work and mess... which ultimately, for the good of the site, will have to be cleaned up. We'll start with gathering the necessary information in one place - in the style guide.
And it could have been so beautiful...
- The business defines the need for introducing new functionality
- We have a style guide
- The project team prepares the project in accordance with the business guidelines based on the already developed elements of the style guide
- The project is being implemented. The module already exists in the application, so its implementation in a new location is smooth
- Tests pass with flying colors
- With the next implemented functionality - "Great! We have it almost ready!"
- Finally: joy and eternal happiness for everyone involved in the project 🙂
If I am a user...
"Why does the form look and work differently here than there?"
"I don't like it. Maybe it's some kind of fraud? Better uninstall it."
Although the examples given are a simplification, experience with many projects shows that it is not that big of a deal. Although, as I mentioned, a style guide is not the answer to everything and will not have the same significance in every project (in smaller teams and smaller projects, it is easier to "control" the visual aspect of the whole), it is definitely worth taking care of such a document.
Can you live without a style guide?
You can, but what kind of life is that 😀 I must admit that it is hard for me to imagine starting a new project or entering an existing one without a style guide. I definitely encourage you to try to create one (if you don't have it in your project yet) or point out the advantages of having one - if you are just starting out. And if you already have one - first of all, USE IT :), which should involve the need to update it.
A style guide should not be perceived as a creative restraint or a "whip on the designer", but as a tool that helps and streamlines our work. The world of digital products is demanding and extensive... so maybe it's worth looking in the mirror and asking yourself, "DO I REALLY need dozens of shades of gray in this application?" 😉