The term “style guide” can mean different things to different people in different professions. Traditionally, however, it usually refers to publication guidelines.
Journalists, for example, follow usage and punctuation rules as outlined in The Associated Press Stylebook. Book publishers usually adhere to The Chicago Manual of Style. Academic papers in the social sciences—at least in American journals—follow the style guidelines set by the American Psychological Association.
These guidelines cover things like how to refer to organizations and places, how to cite sources, and how to use commas. The goal is consistency. A newspaper article in The Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, Texas could be edited according to rules similar to those for an article in The Baltimore Sun.
A corporation or large organization can have its own publication style guide as well, which helps keep its brand, identity, and message consistent across any number of media.
For example, the University of Pennsylvania has a web style guide. As a university with a lot of moving parts—different schools and departments that, to some degree, operate independently of each other—Penn ensures a high level of brand consistency with its style guide. So when anyone within the university, or someone working on behalf of the university (such as an outsourced web design company), publishes content—say, a new website or page—guidelines have already been established. These guidelines address approved colors, logos, branding standards, general content, and other details.
But what about small businesses? Do they need style guides, too?
Your business might not have the crafted image of an Ivy League institution like the University of Pennsylvania, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have just as much control over the way your brand is transmitted to the world. You should create a style guide, especially if you have several employees who are involved in communicating externally, or if you’re thinking about hiring a third-party firm to develop your web presence or market your business. Keep in mind that your style guide will probably be on a much smaller scale. We’re talking something that might be, at least initially, as short as one printed page, which outlines the set-in-stone aspects of your business’ style.
Branding. Let’s say your business is registered as Southern California Decor, but in terms of how you want to market your company, you’re always referred to as SoCalDecor, which is always spelled as one word. List all the specific ways your brand should be and should not be displayed and referred to, including trademark usage and abbreviations (e.g., do not refer to SoCalDecor as “SCD” unless “SoCalDecor” is previously mentioned in the same paragraph).
You also want to create consistency in your choice of colors, fonts, logos, and required elements such as slogans.
Tone. Let’s say your business has a lighthearted image. You might want to reflect that image in the design of your website, as well as in the language used on your web pages, media relations materials, and printed collateral. Write out a description of how your brand should present itself externally.
Usage. What kinds of phrases do you want to associate with your business? For example, are your staff members landscapers, or “yard architects”? Are they sandwich makers, or “sandwich entertainers”?
As your business grows, your style guide should grow with it. And don’t forget, the next time you’re working with a web designer, copy writer, or marketer, be sure to tell her, “Here’s my style guide. It’s important that you follow my branding guidelines.”