Branding Guidelines: When to Break the Rules or Redefine Them?

Hi Everyone,
I am looking for some input/advice on building Branding Standards and Guidelines. I’m currently putting together new branding guidelines for my company. I know a strong brand relies on consistency of branded elements—ie. colors, typography, photography, voice, etc. I understand that the further you stray from the guidelines, the more fragmented and diluted your brand image becomes, so I don’t want to do that. But since I’m building new guidelines for the company (it’s been way overdue), I feel like I have an opportunity to have a sort of fresh start. So my questions are—

When is it appropriate to stray from branded colors or fonts? Is it ever appropriate to stray from brand guidelines to use special colors and fonts for:

  • Themed pieces, ie. seasonal ads,
  • Designs inspired by historical art/design (like Art Deco, dadaism, etc.)
  • Special advertising pieces, like a quarterly print publication, infographics

Since I’m building these new guidelines, should I just build these exceptions into the guidelines and define them?

Also, is it common to have different standards for print and digital? For example, all primary fonts and colors will always be consistent throughout, but maybe print guidelines may have a few extra secondary colors or fonts for flexibility in its wide variety of print assets.

There’s a lot of information about how to build branding guidelines and standards, but I haven’t found much information that talks about when to break these rules.

I see so many amazing graphic designers making incredible art and there are all of these wild design trends and techniques being used—so how do you apply some of these things while keeping on-brand?

Any resources, links, or advice is greatly appreciated!

Thank you for your time and knowledge!

I could write about 500 paragraphs on this, but nobody would read it, so I’ll keep it short.

The unique needs of the organization should be factored into what kind of flexibility is needed in branding guidelines. There’s no set rule, and sometimes, in the best of situations, that flexibility and experimentation itself can become part of the brand.

What many designers working on these kinds of projects fail to consider, however, is the culture of the organization for which the visual brand is being developed. The very same branding strategies can turn out well or turn into a catastrophe depending on who will be implementing those standards and guidelines.

A company already comfortable with design standards and with the right structure and right employees in place can do quite well in interpreting the standards and making good decisions based upon them.

A company with an aesthetically challenged management and a culture that doesn’t understand and appreciate good design will make a complete mess of those same standards.

What I’m saying is that it’s important to take a hard look at the organization to see what’s realistically practical for the implementation of whatever standards you design.

Developing a set of brand guidelines involves more than just imagining the ideal end result — it also involves developing a realistic strategy for implementation that takes into consideration the capabilities of the organization itself to interpret and implement them.

If you’re developing branding guidelines for an organization full of great designers who understand the importance of visual consistency, by all means take advantage of that in the branding guidelines by providing the necessary freedom for them to use their talents within the parameters you set up. If that’s not the case, you need to consider that as well.


Thank you so much @Just-B for your response. I actually WOULD read your 500 paragraphs on this topic :wink: But your abridged version gives me a good sense of what I should think about!

Any advice on how to “sell” why certain colors outside of the primary branded colors should and can be used? Most people within our organization don’t have a strong sense of design language so I need to explain it in a simple way.

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