Brand guidelines are an essential part of establishing worldwide graphic standards for any large company. When they are done right, they're an effective way to propagate the corporation's standards to remote markets. Unfortunately, when they contain errors, those errors are almost impossible to correct in a systematic way.
Brand guidelines are a top-down or hierarchical means of propagating the corporation's brand. One design firm sets the standard, the standard is approved by head office and then distributed to subsidiary designers. There are two weak points in this structure that can lead to branding errors, if not disasters.
The first weak point is at the graphics company that creates the standard. Brand guidelines are a lot of work and many hands are required to meet the deadline. All too often, tasks that are deemed "less important" are farmed out to junior designers and approval of their work can be perfunctory under pressure. Even when senior people are working hands-on with specifications, their familiarity with all the end uses of the guidelines can be hazy or rooted in old practices that are no longer relevant.
Vulnerability number 2 is at the approval stage by the client business. This is a yawning chasm, because there is often a huge knowledge gap between the designer and the client. More often than not, the client looks over the pages, gets all impressed and loses any sense of critical analysis of the content. If there are errors in the document, they are unlikely to get caught here.
Brand Guidelines must include RGB
One of the ways that I discern expertise in a design company is by how they specify RGB equivalents for the colors in brand guidelines. As with many aspects of the design world, color specification had its roots in defining standards for print applications. The dominant model was and is the Pantone Matching System and it's poor brother in process color, the CMYK equivalent. PMS and CMYK numbers have been the main modes of color specification in brand guidelines for decades.
RGB equivalents to Pantone specs are relative newcomers to the party. They've really only become commonplace in the last 10 years. RGB colours are vital to web and mobile applications, but they are also the native color model for Microsoft Office. Even Adobe Acrobat, when queried as to the color of an element, reports back in RGB. Let's face it, the digital realm is RGB and the digital realm is the future. So let's get it right!
Getting it right sounds easy, but there is no universally accepted equivalence between Pantone or CMYK and the RGB color models. It's notoriously difficult to compare monitors with ink swatches. Each software vendor has come up with their own conversion tables. Adobe provides swatches for 10 different versions of Pantone colors. Between coated vs uncoated, process vs solid and color bridge vs solid to process EURO, its amazing anyone gets any colors picked at all! The RGB numbers that you get out of these models is all over the map. I've seen blues that were supposed to resemble the rich deep blue of PMS 286 that looked more like a robin's egg!
The RGB in Brand Guidelines Can't be Invented In-House
Even worse is the plucky designer (I've spoken to more than one!) who tries to make up their own RGB colours by invented new combinations on their monitor. They either forget, or have never learned, that Mac displays and Windows monitors show very different results, and that in the Windows world, color uniformity is only a theoretical dream. The colors you pick on your Mac monitor are guaranteed to look different on your client's PC.
Needless to say, this is a hazardous way to pick colors for your client's web site and office documents. I've seen it too many times: a Pantone 486 that looks like salmon on the web, a Pantone 116 that comes out lemon in Microsoft Word. This is not a brand identity, this is brand suicide!
If anyone is listening, I'd like to suggest a solution that has worked well for my company and my clients: the Pantone Color Bridge swatch books and Pantone Color Manager software. It's not that I'm an avid fan of Pantone, but I have found that the RGB values are, on average, across platforms and displays, closer to the appearance of printed PMS colors. It's also a simpler process than trying to choose from a multiplicity of software color models.
With the books, there's one for coated colors and another for uncoated and you have the reference swatch right in front of you while working. With the Pantone Color Manager software, you have access to all 11,000 Pantone colors and their RGB equivalents for a very reasonable price.
If you have a branding color horror story, or a suggestion for a superior RGB conversion table, please feel free to comment. I'd love to hear from you!