I was hired by Armstrong Fluid Technology
’s Former Global Director of Brand Development, Bernhard Dietz, to create design standards for the company. Bernhard Dietz and I co-designed the design standards for Armstrong.
I was chosen for this project because I was able to present a comprehensive set of design standards that I had created for another business early in my career, as well as communication I created for an industrial company that demonstrated a combination of striking visual organization with a sense of play that would work well for companies with a tech/industrial foundation.
Bernhard envisioned design standards that would be much more substantial than what has become typical for corporate design guidelines. For example, if the section describing typography is often only two or three pages, Armstrong's new standards would have ideas creatively stretched over multiple large spreads.
The rationale for this was that engineers at Armstrong would disregard standards that were diminutive in scope, too easy to be filed away and ignored. The Armstrong Design Standards would have real weight, so much so that when completed they were showcased in the lobby of the head office for all to see.
This project was unusual for me in that it offered a generous timeline – close to a year to work almost exclusively on the project.
Each spread was considered an important design contribution to the whole and considerable attention was given to push the boundaries of how each section would exhibit the text and design elements.
Comprehensive research was undertaken to identify the best corporate design standards from around the world and consider what was included in them as well as the best writing style and level of design expertise that they employed.
, Astral Media
, the BBC
and Delta Airline
's design guidelines were expansive and very well-organized. The Government of Alberta
's guidelines used a modular approach to pagination (sections 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.0, etc.) that suggested new items can be added as the standards evolve.
One of the most refreshing approaches to design guidelines was created for Barbican
, a London-based performance centre. Barbican's guidelines document is black and white, with assertive basic shapes and a design language that could have been lifted out of a progressive West German or Swiss style guide from 1960. It handles the practice of using a small set of proportions as an element of corporate design that I did not see in other corporate guidelines. The design guidelines for Lloyd
's used generous expanses of colour, inspiring large type for section headers and casual, friendly language, such as "Worth a thousand words? Depends on the picture," that can be easily harnessed for corporate communications.
Ultimately, our guidelines document differed from the many used for inspiration in its deluxe treatment of imagery and design elements that spilled from one page to the next, making the section on typography several dozen pages -- which does not mean paragraphs of rules, but highly visual examples of typography, photography and colour, which the reader can spend time with and, hopefully, gain a new appreciation for design within the organization.
Wherever we could, we worked to ensure the communication for the various sections seemed immediate and important. We sought a balance by asking for input from people within the organization while not explicitly looking for ‘sign-off’, which could have delayed the launch of the project.
I was encouraged to push the envelope visually and intellectually, adding in features that described concepts in mathematical and engineering terms that I first had to understand before I could design for them.
The guide consisted of six core sections: brandmark, typography, colours, a proportion and grid system, photography and illustration. Each of the six core sections were defined as "C1, C2," etc. and each section richly demonstrated how the basic design categories come together to produce Armstrong's visual language.
The brandmark and typography sections have the usual features found in most corporate design guidelines, though our typography section includes a lot of very splashy examples that shows how far type can be taken in a design while still adhering to the broad rules. The colour section goes further than most guides in showing the opportunity for many combinations of the three basic colours allowed and even has a silver page with a die-cut to demonstrate how the colour grey can also involve the use of silver foil in the design. The grid system outlines in photography how a standard letter document can be folded three times to produce the grid proportions that serve as document sizes, while also featuring a pica grid for laying out text and imagery.
The photography and illustration section indicates the very important consideration of depicting Armstrong's products in the proper orientation: 30 degrees from the horizontal line on both sides, producing angled products that appear organized when seen as a family of solutions in a brochure or online. A professional industrial photographer helped us establish this orientation and we have used him exclusively over the past decade to shoot all of our products, from massive energy plants to small parts. In using photographs of people and places, the guide established the importance of using real people in natural, candid situations in photography, as opposed to stock images of people who are obviously contrived.
Navigational markers and pagination were designed so that loose pages can be added in the future. Bindery also had to facilitate this so we chose a four-ring binder that was custom-designed with silver foil stamping. Environmentally-friendly paper and binder were selected.
Application of the Design Standards
These guidelines gave the practice and standards of design a substantial presence within the organization, setting a baseline for future projects of all kinds. Several binders were eventually published and shared with the various marketing departments located at corporate headquarters around the world. Digital versions of each chapter of the guidelines were made available on Armstrong's Partners website or sent by request in email. Initially, I was hired to create the Armstrong Design Standards, but after completing the project I decided to stay to implement them across the design of the organization.
In school, I was intrigued by the early 20th century example of Peter Behrens, who gave the German industrial firm AEG a coherent design aesthetic that simplified and improved the look of the firm's products, graphic design and architecture into what today is still seen as an impressive case study in transformative corporate branding. I have tried to approach this kind of design leadership at Armstrong, treating every design project as an opportunity to set a precedent for improved design, visually or in terms of the processes that bring it to production.
In the past couple of years, I have been adding a new skill set to the practice of visual and experience design to Armstrong. Having recently graduated from OCAD's Strategic Foresight & Innovation program, I am bringing expertise in strategy and visual thinking to the organization. Perhaps one day some of these strategic frameworks and design thinking workshops can be likewise codified into a set of design guidelines that can further bring the benefits of design to all areas of organizational activity.
1. Design standards do not always have to take a standard form of 8.5 x 11, 20 or-so-page documents. A memorable, fun, large-scale creation can position design within an organization as a formidable influence to be consulted at the beginning of every project. A smaller-scale, one-or-two-page document, that lives alongside the larger standards, can be given to vendors as a reminder of everyday rules around logo positioning, core colours and typography.
2. Don’t accept vinyl for binders. Be resourceful and source a supplier that can build binders out of environmentally-friendly materials, like recycled strong-ply cardboard, that can be embossed or foil-printed. The result will have the appearance and feeling of much better quality.
3. Take an interest in proportionality as a subject in corporate guidelines. There is a lot of meaning behind the golden mean, North American and European proportions in paper sizes and the idea that design projects can share a family system of proportions. Our proportion system derives from an 8.5 x 11 or European-sized stationery paper folded multiple times to produce smaller divisions that can be used as an anchor point for designed pieces.
1. Be ambitious in the design and production of your design standards and set timelines that will allow something special to happen. The greater the guide’s presence, the greater its impact will be within an organization. Announce its launch at a major corporate event so that all employees are aware of it and recognize its importance.
2. Think about giving extra attention to the section on presentation slides if the organization has a habit of producing poor presentations. This is often an area where standards of design can be frequently flouted, particularly when there isn't clear guidance provided in the guidelines.
3. Like a strategy that has been delivered to an organization by an outside consultant, design standards may be sidelined and forgotten if there is no one in place within the organization to maintain control of that quality once the designer of the standards is off the scene. Ensure that there is always at least one person of influence within the organization who has internalized the design standards so that attention to them doesn’t drop off in the long-term.