In the last few years, there's been an enthusiastic revival of old-school brand guidelines; for example, the popular reboots of the NASA and New York City Transit Authority standards manuals, both thanks to Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth. I'm a design librarian and archivist with Letterform Archive, and it’s exciting to see this revival translate into increased interest in the Archive's deep collection of old three-ring binders full of program assets for some of the most recognizable brands, such as Coca-Cola, Nike, and Apple
In large part, our identity manuals collection came to us as a generous donation from Professor Dennis Y. Ichiyama. We are home to more than 300 standards manuals that he collected from the 1960s to the 1990s while teaching visual communication. (He’s currently an instructor in the Art & Design department at Purdue University.) For forty years, he asked companies, nonprofits, and government agencies for their brand guidelines for his students to use as reference. Black & Decker gave him an entire class set from which he’d assign projects. They were an important tool in teaching his students how to work within constraints — a crucial skill for young designers to master.
Keeping with that spirit, these binders are available to our visitors and often requested by design students and professionals interested in visually communicating as a brand and in what makes a system cohesive. However, my favorite thing about these manuals is that they are sneaky vessels of inspiration. They teach users all the rules, so they can understand how to break them the right way. Here are some of my favorite ways to get inspired by guidelines.
Notice What’s Different
Standards manuals typically include specifications for logos, typography, colors, and stationery. Depending on the organization, sections for packaging, signage, and uniforms are also included. These segments provide structured rules for implementing each asset to create a visually cohesive experience for the organization’s audience. In short, they build brand equity.
The logo section instructs designers on sanctioned uses of this critical asset; for example, how big the icon should be on a page and where it should go in relation to a brand’s wordmark. Can it be outlined or turned upside down? How much space does it need to breathe? This is where you find out. Typography will mandate which typefaces are approved and when and how to use them. The color section sometimes includes page after page of the deeply satisfying perforated rectangles of Pantone chips to include with artwork when sending it off to the printer.
Building equity into a cohesive brand is a big deal, but it doesn’t have to be as rigid as some standards manuals would have you believe. The introduction to the United States Information Agency Design Manual reads:
“The purpose of this Design Manual is to assist USIS officers to produce visually effective program material. It is not intended as a book of hard and fast rules. The great variety of cultures with which USIS officers must communicate makes uniformity of presentation impractical. Variety does not mean, however, that we should compromise on quality.”
This is precisely why I’m a big fan of the USIA Design Manual. Where other agencies include strict constraints around logo usage and at least one page showing examples of what not to do, USIA features 11 of its at least 18 sanctioned versions of the “star motif” symbols for use.
They also request that designers send in their versions for the record, promising that “particularly handsome examples will be published in supplements” to the manual. What makes this manual different, and what I find inspiring, is that it spends a considerable amount of energy creating a system, explaining the elements of that system, and outlining how to use those elements, and then it teaches users how to think more creatively.
Find the Humor (and the Hope)
While commonly requested and a favorite of our staff, Chermayeff and Geismar’s New Profile for PBS is not technically a brand standards manual. It’s the announcement of the public television network’s new symbol. In five rows of simplified content, Chermayeff and Geismar show the context and progression from the old PBS look to the new one. Row three says, “cosmetic surgery.” They call this piece a “new profile”, not a “new symbol.” They are making light of their work, aligning it to giving PBS’ everyman a nose job. It’s funny. But this booklet is also profound. It turns “everyman” into “everyone.” Removing gender from the symbol’s colloquial name and facing it to the right makes this mark inclusive and looking to the future.
Imagine a Bigger Picture
One of the most thorough standards manuals in our collection is also from Chermayeff and Geismar: the 1980s Graphics Standards for NBC. The darling of this branding masterpiece is Steff Geissbuhler’s logo. (Read more about that here.) Each divider showcases a creative use of the iconic peacock — embossed, printed in full color over foil, or die cut — encouraging designers to envision big uses of singular assets. I think one of the most striking division pages is the black-on-white pattern. The simplified version of the peacock is repeated in a way that evokes tissue paper, shopping bags, or envelope lining. Despite being one of the most modest implementations of the logo in the manual, it’s dynamic. Imagine all of the collateral you could make with that reduced pattern.
Learn the Story
Wherever there’s a rebrand, there’s a story. Understanding the logic behind how organizations create and position their visual brand is a great creative exercise — and it might give you a new perspective on your own projects. Do you remember the introduction of AirBnB’s new logo, the “Bélo,” in 2014? Though it was met with mixed reviews online, the rebranding story is compelling, earning it several design awards, including a renowned Cannes Lion. The inverted heart doubling as an A is intended to represent the company’s value of belonging through visually combining four meanings: people, places, love, and AirBnB.
In the Archive, one example of the importance of the story is Abbott Laboratories. George Nelson & Co. redesigned the Abbott logo at the end of the 1950s. Today, this major player in the healthcare space still takes pride in their mark—and they should. The geometric A is iconic, and it reads to me as classic instead of tired, even at 60 years old. At the time of their rebrand, “it was not deemed necessary to have a design manual printed,” according to a 1983 letter from the company’s art director to Professor Ichiyama. Instead, the company internally to announce the change by releasing a brand booklet and an eight-page color insert in an employee publication called Pharmagraph. The booklet uses massive color spreads to show simple concepts (like the alphabet, international symbols, nature, and chemistry) that were intensely considered by the design team.
Ultimately, they landed on the geometric A formed from a stylized version of the snake usually coiled around the staff of Greek mythology’s Aesculapius, a demigod associated with medicine and healing. Versions of Aesculapius’ staff are represented in several hospital and medical organization logos, including those of the American Medical Association and American Cancer Society. The design team constructed a recognizable use of the brand’s letter A with visual elements evoking two of the brand’s major values: math and science (geometry) and medicine and healing (Aesculapiu’s snake).
Many Letterform Archive guests express that they don’t always know how to communicate the story behind their work — why it's important or worth an audience’s time. The Bélo and the Abbott A work whether or not you’re familiar with the ideas behind them, but I bet those clients would have gone a different direction if the stories hadn’t been so conceptually strong. If a logo isn’t inspiring to you, be inspired by the design thinking behind it, and what you can learn from that in advocating for your own work.
We look forward to making our brand guidelines available again to the public as soon as we’re able to reopen in our new location. In the meantime, please consider supporting our move campaign.