Why your organisation needs a style guide

Many organisations, especially those involved in the media or publishing industries, have a ‘house style’—a way of writing that is particular to that organisation and is set out in their style guide. The style guide’s purpose is not to determine what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, but rather to serve as a reference point if there is any confusion and to ensure consistency across the organisation’s brand. Your style guide will lay out how to articulate the brand voice you decided was appropriate for your audience during your strategic planning.

There are two types of style guides. Visual style guides are aids for designers and contain things like your brand’s colours, font, logos and templates. Content style guides contain details of your organisation’s preferred spelling, terminology, voice, and word usage. Style guides can range in length from a few pages to an entire book; for example, the Australian Government’s Style manual for authors, editors and printers, which is the basis for all Australian government writing, is over 500 pages long and is extremely comprehensive.

As well as providing consistency across your organisation, style guides are also useful if you’re working with a freelance editor. Providing your editor with a style guide will speed up the process and ensure their edits are consistent with your brand.

Your style guide is a living document, so it should be updated regularly to take new usages into account. It should be easily accessible within your organisation, whether it’s produced in hard copy, published on your website or stored in a shared drive.

Visual style guide

Visual style guides set out all the elements related to your brand’s appearance, presentation and design. This allows you to ensure consistency across all your publicity material, whether physical or online, even if you’re working with different designers. Your visual style guide may include:

  • Logo size and placement (and how not to use the logo)
  • Colour palette (including hex codes/RGB for web use and CMYK/Pantone for printing)
  • Fonts (for headings and body text)
  • Any iconography or patterns that your organisation uses in its design
  • Photography style (including examples for reference)
  • Graphics style (including examples for reference)
  • Web-specific elements (such as navigation buttons or error pages)
  • Content templates.

Creating a visual style guide is a specialised skill, so it’s best to work with a graphic designer on this. Your designer can prepare a style guide as part of working with you on your overall branding, including designing your logo. If your organisation is likely to produce a lot of publicity material, a visual style guide is vital to ensuring brand consistency. The quickest way to appear unprofessional is to have a variety of fonts, colours and styles across your brand.

Content style guide

Style guides for written content contain details of the way your organisation expects its content to be written. These may include:

  • The version of English spelling that your organisation uses (e.g. American, British, Australian, Canadian)
  • Which dictionary/thesaurus should be used to check spelling or usage (e.g. Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Macquarie)
  • Preferred spelling of words commonly used by your organisation (e.g. Asia-Pacific not Asia Pacific)
  • Use of inclusive language
  • Any specific points of grammar, such as active voice
  • Specialised punctuation, including the use of bullet points or numbered lists, and the organisation’s preferred use of hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes (but not punctuation that should be commonly understood, like the correct use of apostrophes)
  • Formatting
  • Accepted acronyms and abbreviations (which ones are acceptable without spelling them out in full)
  • Terminology (how organisation-specific terminology should be explained)
  • Words that should be avoided
  • Capital letters (especially if there are organisation-specific proper nouns)
  • Headings
  • Numbers and measurement
  • Tone and register (casual, informal, formal)
  • Brand voice
  • Reading level
  • Phrases
  • Methods of citation
  • Any stylistic devices unique to the organisation.

Style guides can be structured in different ways, but the main thing is that they have to be easy to navigate. They’re not designed to be read cover-to-cover; rather, your writers will use them as a resource that they dip in and out of. For this reason, they need to have a clear table of contents and ideally an index as well. If you’re publishing it online, the contents page should be hyperlinked to the relevant sections.

The other important thing to note is that you don’t have to develop a guide completely from scratch. There are a number of comprehensive commercial style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (which is over 1000 pages long) that you can use as the basis for your organisation’s style guide. Think of the contents of your style guide as being in addition to the comprehensive guide, rather than repeating things from it. For example, most Australian government departments have their own departmental style guides based on the official government Style manual for authors, editors and printers. The convention is to first consult the departmental guide and, if it doesn’t contain specific guidance, to then consult the Style manual. This way, you’re prioritising your brand-specific style, but can still give your writers general guidance through the use of a commercial style manual. Many of these manuals, such as Chicago, now also have extensive online support. Developing your style guide this way will also allow you to keep it short (ideally no more than five pages), meaning that it is more likely to be used.

When developing your style guide, make sure you consult the people who will actually be using it—your writers and editors. They’ll be able to tell you if there are different usages in the organisation and help you select the most appropriate. Have a plan in place to regularly review and update the style guide, and a method for keeping track of possible changes in the interim. Your style guide is a living document and will need to adapt to evolving language, such as words going in and out of fashion or changing in meaning. This is especially true in organisations that deal with technology or media, where language changes fast.


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