The year was 2009. And it marked the last time we developed an actual printed and die-cut licensing program style guide. This highly-immersive piece was created for Hasbro’s The Littlest Pet Shop lifestyle licensing program to announce the brand’s new “paw print” creative strategy, which we established as a unique and ownable way to differentiate the brand from all other competitive licensed and non-licensed brands in the marketplace at the time.
This particular licensing program contained four different trend themes. And, the creative strategy, which was engineered to accommodate any trend, could clearly be identified within the design elements we created for each theme. However, explaining the new creative strategy – its foundation, the rules for its implementation, and the variety of ways in which it could be interpreted – was a complex endeavor. With this in mind, we leveraged paw print-shaped die-cuts, section divider tabs and other paw print-inspired verbal and visual devices within the style guide’s elaborate design to present the new creative strategy to licensee partners in an immersive manner.
Looking back on this effort, it begs the questions: Could this same experience with the brand be pulled off as effectively and successfully today, with most style guides existing only in digital form? Is the PDF style guide format too homogenized to be as immersive as the highly-engaging, printed style guides of the past?
The printed vs. digital style guide tradeoff
The advent of the digital style guide document brought with it significant benefits. Printing, die-cutting and shipping were eliminated, saving considerable time and money. A digital style guide could be published and delivered to licensee partners within minutes of completion. Subsequent modifications and addendums, which would typically render a printed style guide obsolete, could be made to the digital document and the updated files could be redistributed to partners almost effortlessly.
Over time, however, something was lost along the way. Instead of being viewed as a portal through which licensees would enter the world of the brand, the style guide became a mere content delivery system. Style guide page templates became simple, minimalistic designs, void of brand personality. Some brand owners – those with large licensed brand portfolios – took this sterile approach to an extreme by establishing a single style guide design template to be used for every one of their brands. Certainly not even the least bit engaging by any stretch of the imagination.
Style guide page template and navigation design
The digital format essentially leveled the playing field for those of us who design style guides for licensed brands. Other than the potential for changing page size and proportion, the format is essentially always the same. However, most brand owners need the page size to be the standard sizes used in each market so they could be printed and kept in binders for trade shows and quick reference off-line.
So, how do we establish a distinctive experience for each licensed brand in a digital style guide? The experience licensees have with a licensed brand within a multiple-page PDF is driven by the page template and navigation system design. Our approach to style guide page template design is not unlike our approach to licensed product package design, which is rooted in establishing a unique design architecture derivative of the most iconic and highly-recognizable attributes associated with the property. For a cinematic property, maybe the page template design leverages elements from the location of a climactic scene. For an animated series, maybe it’s based on design language from a reoccurring sequence within the episodic formula. For lifestyle brands, it could simply be a visual evolution of the trade dress and overarching design aesthetic.
Storytelling through equitable visual brand assets
Style guide page template and navigation design typically walks that fine line between under designed and over designed. It needs to have enough visual presence to bring licensees into the brand’s world, yet not so much as to overpower the content it is presenting. Incorporating design architecture, fonts and a color palette associated with the licensed brand is what will connect with licensees on an emotional level while they work their way through the digital document in a linear fashion. Well-conceived navigation with the proper communication hierarchy lets licensees know which section of the guide they’re in at all times. Sections could be color-coded, or leverage iconography or textures that align with each section’s content, establishing a visual theme that is not only functional, but also tells the brand story in an engaging and compelling manner.
A strong example would be the style guide we designed for consumer product licensing program for The Nut Job 2, the sequel to the globally successful animate feature film, The Nut Job. Our solution for the style guide page template design takes cues from the film’s climactic scene, which takes place in a ramshackle amusement park. Each section of the style guide is introduced with a title page, featuring the color-coded section name revealed in spotlight, and surrounded by string lights and carnival pennants. Each section’s page template maintains its color palette and features weathered signage with missing lightbulbs and hand-painted graphics to bring the viewer into the story. Wood panels painted in stark white ensure that the section contents aren’t overwhelmed by the template framework.
Pages from each subsequent section feature the same design, with only the color palette, section name and sub-navigation changing to reflect the contents of each respective section.
A softer, more discreet example would be our page template and navigation design for the trend-based design elements sections of the Hatchimals style guide. For each trend theme, the template is exactly the same. However, the color palette shifts to that of each theme, and the navigation incorporates iconography found within each theme’s design elements.
Being immersive through unexpected design
Every licensed brand is different and has different needs. With this in mind, it’s important to break frame and avoid a formulaic approach to style guide design. Doing something unexpected with the design – whether it’s overarching or just one aspect of the entire style guide – will make the experience with the brand more immersive for licensees.
The style guide we developed for ZAFARI, a CG animated children’s television series about a group of “misfit” animals who live in a secret valley at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro needed a unique way to convey its unique messaging to licensee partners. Our solution was to incorporate a handful of teaser pages at the beginning of the style guide, before the table of contents, to introduce licensees to what’s truly unique about ZAFARI, then show how this uniqueness is brought to life through the licensing program’s creative strategy within the style guide’s introduction.
The onus is truly on us, as licensing program design experts, to be distinctive within the limitations of the digital format when creating the experience that licensees will have with the brand. It is our job to make the journey from front to back cover as captivating and memorable as possible.