The new guide in style

The birth of responsive design in 2010 changed web design and development beyond recognition.

Since then the industry has continued to evolve at an unprecedented rate, leaving those working within it always trying to keep ahead of the game, coining a new phrase for each new way of working.

However, like any industry that experiences a fast pace of change it takes time to adopt best practice. This can be seen currently in website design and development. Due to the number of people involved in the process, it has become much more difficult to accurately represent an organisation's vision of what its website should look like without having a framework or guide to work within.

The evolution of style guides

Website projects can easily lose their way - from an organisation’s vision for what they want the website to look and feel like to a design team’s opinion on how to deliver that vision.

Therefore, design teams adopted style guides as a way of making informed decisions about the look, feel, functionality and accessibility of a website. Style guides originated as a way of designers documenting what colours, fonts etc. should appear on a website. However, for the past five years they have evolved just like the industry itself and have become interactive and a ‘must-have’ bible for anyone working in web development.

Front end web developer Anna Debenham has become a champion of style guides, embracing their use and purpose especially for website design and development. In her pocket guide she sums up why they are being used so frequently by saying: “Style guides set a precedent, demonstrating how the designer or developer expects something to be done in the future.”

It can be argued that an interactive style guide is an essential lifeline for anyone working on a website. The move towards using such style guides has grown organically as a way of developers navigating organisations towards the best path to the most successful user experience. What started out as a PDF with dos and don’ts has quickly become an interactive document with explanations, a library of information, a fountain of code knowledge, a test bed and a place to share suggestions and make changes. Without the guide being interactive, companies face compromising its usability and subsequent adoption.

Saving time and money

Interactive style guides help to mitigate situations where project costs spiral out of control, opportunities to stand apart from competitors are missed and companies risk compromising user experience.

The most successful and trouble-free digital projects have always had a clear vision that has been adopted, from the start, by everyone involved. Style guides help to keep this vision front of mind and avoids misinterpretation. Addressing major pain points in design and development, their importance is growing daily. Without a guide a design project can lose its way or be plagued with mistakes, resulting in unnecessary rework and a waste of time and money.

Companies offering web development and design services are often under scrutiny to ensure they provide value for money. As website design and build becomes more commoditised it's key for professionals to convey why quality design and implementation will stand the test of time and therefore why it’s worth investing in. A great way of illustrating this is what is gained in terms of added value during such projects.

By creating an interactive style guide instead of building a site page by page, you are designing reusable components which saves time and of course money. The more mature a project gets, the more components you have and thus over time it becomes increasingly effective and efficient. However, it is important to note that a style guide is only one step in the process of web design and development. Before any development begins, design and user experience should always be front of mind to avoid any web pages looking disjointed.

Creating consistency and brand control

What has also been seen in web design and development recently is that the adoption of style guides helps to create a safe environment that breeds innovation and experimentation without the usual associated costs to a project. A guide stops people going out on a limb and making bad decisions. It also helps to create uniformity across geographical boundaries where web teams are working in different countries.

Many would argue that style guides are essential for every organisation; however they are paramount for brands as they have enormous value for brand control. Each organisation and brand uses them differently from the BBC to Disney, but that is what makes them work because they are as unique as the personalities of the brands themselves.

As the digital transformation of organisations continues, style guides are critical to ensure consistency and avoid confusion, but they are simultaneously a digital asset in their own right because they address major pain points.

A ‘live’ style guide is cost effective and can continue to be adapted as the website evolves and develops. Without such a guide the design, look and feel for a website could be lost in translation.

Tom Houdmont, principal software engineer at Box UK

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