Design

A Guide to Building Style Guides: Efficiency Guaranteed

Tanya Sinha
February 24, 2022

As a designer, we all have been there, dealing with inconsistencies in our process and designs. As nerve-racking as it is, it has helped identify a core problem: lack of set guidelines. It can be resolved by making some tweaks to your design process. Starting by setting up a style guide.

Designers love to have a free hand on the canvas. This is great, it encourages creativity. However, the time spent making minor decisions does not seem justified. Starting every page from scratch will lead you to design based on the frame of reference you are in at the time of designing that page. This is exactly what leads to inconsistencies. These could be simple things like different inline heights, colours, font sizes, etc.

Does this reflect a lack of effort by the team, or does it indicate a lack of a style guide? In this article, you’ll learn how to make a style guide for your project.

Why should you care?

  • Guidelines: Guidelines for type, colours, voice & tone are set. These give your brand a visual differentiator.
  • Save Time: Less time spent debating different visual options or reviewing past examples.
  • Onboarding: Easy to onboard new designers. This means fewer “quick calls”.

Let’s get the lingo right

These terms are interconnected but they are not synonymous — Style guide, Pattern Library, and Design system.

  • Style guide: A set of guidelines designers must follow when they are designing the product or a component of the product.
  • Pattern Library: A ‘library’ of reusable elements such as icons, components (Avatar, Buttons, Input boxes), and a combination of components (Navigation, Dialog box, Forms). A library is made using the style guide.
  • Design System: This refers to a wider ecosystem than just the visual aspect of the product itself. It includes a style guide, a pattern library, documentation, code, and more. It dictates how the product functions, and interacts.

Now that you know the terminology, let’s go over what you’ll need to get your style guide up and running.

Getting Started

Start with research, understand your user group and brand values. Your decisions while building the style guide will be inspired by this. Get those creative juices flowing with a playlist and coffee.

Note: Each step of building a style guide is a subject in itself. To not digress I’ve added a ‘dig deeper’ section for you to... dig deeper.

Step 1: Make a spacing system 🛸

Justapracticalexampleofwhythespacingisimportant. That is not gibberish, that is “Just a practical example of why the spacing is so vital". Proper spacing ensures better information consumption for your users and a spacing system ensures consistency.

Start by selecting the right base unit. I use 8px as the base unit. It is scalable and provides a comprehensive range of options to build a visual hierarchy (also because apple and google suggest). Next, create variants in your base unit that get space in your spacing system.

Do this by using multiples of the base method as it is easy to remember, and creates asymmetry. Overall, 6-8 values in your system are adequate. It provides enough alternatives and keeps decision-making time minimal. Another point is to ensure adjacent values provide enough visual distinction. For example, choose between 40px or 48px, but not both, as they are visually similar.

⛏ Dig Deeper: A harmonious spacing system for faster design-dev handoff

2. Set up the grids 🖥

While creating a grid, you need to ensure the margins, and gutters follow the spacing system created in the previous step.

responsive grids

⛏ Dig Deeper: Figma: How to build responsive and scalable grids for web-design

Step 3: Create the typography Scale 🖊

Almost 85% of your screen at any given time is text. Yet, typography is an element that blends into the UI; unless not done well. A robust typography system helps with:

  • readability
  • accessibility
  • visual hierarchy
  • brand personality.

Choose a typeface that works with your brand tone. A wrong typeface can change your brand’s voice from fun to boring and from professional to amateur.  It is also essential that you set styles for all the possible text variations in advance. This includes H1, H2, H3, Body, sub-headings, and button text. Remember that Visual Hierarchy is determined by font size, weight, line height, and tracking.

typography scale

⛏ Dig Deeper: Typography in User Interface Design

Step 4: Build the colour palette 🎨

Colours are unarguably the BEST way to communicate with your users. With colours, you can grab their attention, alert them before an anticipated event, or provide assurance about a completed task. However, with over 16 Million hex codes, inconsistency is inevitable if there is no single source of truth. So how can you choose the best colour palette?

Primary Colours: Start by defining the primary colours. These colours familiarize users with your brand. They are used through your product, and across all platforms to enhance brand awareness.

colour palette primary

Accent Colours: Next pick accent colours that aid the primary colour palette, break from the monotony, and grab attention where required.

colour palette accent

Neutral Colours: Lastly, fix the neutral colour palette, which, like an old friend doesn't fight for the spotlight and lends a helping hand where needed. These are perfect for background and disabled states.

colour palette neutral

System Colours: A lot of designers don’t consider system colours. Therefore, the developers have to take it into their own hands and define these. No offence to the developers, but supersaturated red does not go with pastel brand colours, as even a noob will agree.

The system colours you need to define are

  • Red for error
  • Yellow for warning
  • Green for success
  • Blue for information
system colours

Extended Palette: How many times have you changed the opacity of colour to create a balance? Now imagine how many times another designer has done the same. The probability of having the same opacity for the same purpose is low. Not to forget the new HEX codes that are generated from those (Thanks to colour pickers).

As the product scales, new shades of the base colour prop up. This is how the evil seed of inconsistency creeps into your system. To avoid this, it is prudent to define variants of the base colour, even if you may not need them right away.

With the help of tools like the Materials palette generator, you will be able to create an extended palette for your primary, accent, and system colours.

colour palette extended

Champion the cause

A well-made recipe is no good if no hungry stomachs aren’t fed. All the teams (design, marketing, and development) need to be well acquainted with the style guide to maintain a consistent brand image, across all platforms. Be a champion of the style guide and promote it shamelessly. Educate the team with a fun presentation, talk about it during stand-ups, and bring it up during QA. Put a face to the style guide (yours) and be present to help the team with questions or receive feedback.

Best UX practices for a high-quality style guide

As designers, we can all agree that a product is worthless if the user experience is not as pleasing as the user interface. With a style guide, we cater to two user groups — your team, and your product users. To ensure both groups have a pleasant experience here are a few practices to bear in mind:

Easy Access and Layout

Your style guide must be presented in a way that is easy to navigate, understand, and is aesthetically pleasing. Also, ensure that it is housed in a file that can be easily accessed by all teams. I recommend using a Figma file and dividing each element on a separate page. The option to manage and share styles empowers the design team to use the style guide more efficiently.

Naming Convention

Setting a naming convention ensures everyone in the team is speaking the same language, literally. Collaborate with other stakeholders to come up with a naming system that works for all.

Guidelines

Add guidelines on how each element should be used, this minimizes decision-making time while becoming easy to comprehend. A well-documented guideline includes a short description, the do’s and don'ts, and practical examples.

Accessibility

With tech reaching people all across the globe, your product shouldn't become a barrier for anyone to use. For a truly engaging user experience, your designs need to follow accessibility standards.

Responsiveness

In the current tech scenario, one can’t predict what device their user will use to interact with a product. This is why it’s always a good idea to build something that supports all devices. Build a typography system that adapts to the different viewport sizes to create a more meaningful hierarchy and layout. Also, add guidelines on how the spacing system should be used on different devices.

Conclusion

A style guide helps you and your team save time and build more consistent products. However, building one shouldn’t be overwhelming. Start with what is necessary for your team, and scale it gradually. Keep your team updated about progress, and have fun while you're doing it.

From one designer to another, building the style guide is one of the best things you do for yourself and the team. Another is building a design system, but that’s for a different day. I hope you enjoy building style guides as much as I enjoyed writing about them.

Happy designing!

Next Steps

Get inspiration from some well-made style guides:

If you found this helpful, join the conversation over on our Twitter and LinkedIn. We would love tips on style guides from you!

About the Author

Tanya is a UI & UX designer at Wednesday Solutions. She dedicates roughly 20 minutes of her day to perfecting the texture of her coffee. She loves everything that has to do with problem-solving, Figma, and design systems.

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