Creating Variety Without Breaking Your Brand

Brand guidelines exist for a reason: to help an organization maintain a unified and recognizable look. But unified and recognizable doesn’t mean each and every piece you produce has to be nearly identical. Afterall, a little variety keeps things fresh and interesting.

When it comes to regulating their brands, some organizations are stricter than others. There’s usually a reason for that and it’s not to frustrate designers. Or, maybe it is. As designers, we love change. We want to do something new and different.

But great graphic design is not always great BRAND design.

Consistency and repetition are key to building memorability. And chances are you’re your team will get bored of a style or a color just as your audience is starting to associate it with your organization.

Narrow brand guidelines help build and maintain that recognition. They are especially useful for:

  • Large organizations that need to present the same image everywhere
  • Organizations with limited time to devote to design – fewer decisions means faster execution
  • Staying on track when staff changes
  • Working with outside creatives
  • Saving time deciding what’s ok on every project

So how do you inject variety if you’re working within narrow brand guidelines and find yourself limited to specific colors and a couple of fonts? This is the question we have to ask ourselves everyday — whether we are developing a brand that can last over time or working within guidelines created by others.

1. Stretch your typography

When you’re working with a tight brand, you’re probably limited to two fonts, maybe three at most. But you still have some tools at your disposal: weight, capitalization, and size.

In addition to bold and italic, many fonts have comprehensive sets that include thin, extra light, light, medium, heavy, black, narrow, wide and more. Look for ways to use the full font family or play with styling and proportion to create variety within your brand’s rules.

Even with tight brand guidelines, some narrow brands will still allow for a different font to be used for an event or other special case. Think of these more like a micro brand or a logo rather than a new font in your toolbox. This way, that dramatic font look can act as the highlight it was meant to be and not spill over into day-to-day use.

One of our clients, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society keeps a very tight brand. They handle nearly all their creative in-house but invited us to develop their annual appeal in 2021. While their overall marketing materials strictly adhere to their two-font brand, their designer creates distinctive typography for the annual flower show to support its theme each year.

We, however, had to stick to the rules!

2. Work your colors

You might not be able to change the colors (that is, until you’ve reached the point that you’re ready for a secondary color palette). But you can absolutely change up how you use the colors you do have. One way to do this is to vary how color is used. Try going heavy on the color, filling large areas or creating color blocks. Or go the opposite way and lean into white space, utilizing your brand colors as accents.

Your guidelines may allow for creating tints of your brand colors (lightening a color so it appears paler), which further expands your possibilities. If you’re brand is lacking a neutral, think of black, white and gray as colors to increase your options without reducing the impact of your core colors.

It’s not enough to have a list of colors in your brand guidelines, you need to think through how you want them to be used. Some brands require their secondary colors to be used sparingly, PHS uses its colors at full strength, mixed together and in big, bold ways.

A designer can find interesting ways to make either path work, but not considering this will lead to your overall material looking erratic.

3. Rethink space

One area that is usually left open for interpretation in brand guidelines is layout. How the space is used in design – whether on page or screen – can usually be varied from piece to piece without breaking the brand.

Behind all design is a grid. The margins and columns make the vertical grid, but there is a horizontal grid too.

You can break up the space symmetrically or asymmetrically. Weight can be placed on the top, the bottom, left or right using images, colors, or text.

This is where you can take the colors and fonts you have been given and make creative choices in scale, in positioning, in how much or how little content fills the space. This can make each piece interesting while having all work hang together as a whole.

And remember, that is the goal.

Small changes in layout, font style and color use can help bring a fresh look to pieces you do year after year — compare these spreads for PHS’s 2020 annual report to the 2021 annual report and see if you can spot the tactics we used to vary the style without breaking their brand.

Need some help keeping your collateral fresh within narrow guidelines (or creating those guidelines)? Give us a call at 267-468-7949 or drop us a line at