Design Systems vs. Brand Guidelines: What You Need to Know

Huck Finch and Jazz
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Design systems and brand guidelines - why they're important to have a unified system for your brand identity, the difference between each of them, and how you can make use of your design assets for building your brand's identity.

Around the world, we identify certain countries, places, and cultures with their distinct traits, signs, symbols, and language systems.

For instance, in the US, we know that they use the English alphabet. They're called "The Land of the Free". Their primary colors are red, blue, and white, symbolizing the American flag.

In Japan, for example, they're popular for their white flag with a symbolic red circle. We know that their language is Japanese, but they also have three writing systems, Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana.

In the same way that cultures and countries possess different symbols and designs to identify themselves, businesses also operate on the same idea. In fact, they rely on these characteristics to connect with their customers and build a positive brand image.

A lot of designers and developers often confuse design systems with brand guidelines. In some cases, it's because each term is often used interchangeably. But the truth is that design systems and brand guidelines both serve different purposes, which is why it is important to understand the difference between the two.

In this article, we'll talk about design systems and brand guidelines, why it's important to have a unified system for your brand identity, the difference between each of them, and how you can make use of your design assets for building your brand's identity.

What Is The Difference Between A Design System And A Brand Guideline?

What are Brand Guidelines?

To understand what brand guidelines are all about, let's start with a definition. According to The Design Management Institute (DMI), "Brand Guidelines provide detailed instructions for designers on how to use and implement a company's brand assets."

Brand guidelines are rules for designers to follow when creating artwork that stays within the parameters of what you want your customers to see. It is basically like an instruction manual on how you want certain design elements (e.g., logo, typography, etc.) to look like. 

This way, all members of your design team can stay consistent with different visual assets. Such as print collaterals and website design, making it easier for them to maintain consistency throughout various applications and mediums where users may view or interact with your materials.

A brand guideline is composed of:

  • Logo
  • Color palette (including the primary and secondary colors)
  • Typography (font family, weights, styles)
  • Photography guidelines (if any)
  • Icons
  • Marketing collaterals such as postcards, business cards, etc.

In other words, brand guidelines are the set of rules governing how your identity should appear online or offline.

What about Design Systems?

On the contrary, DMI defines design systems as "An essential part of any successful product development process—whether web-based or not—is a design system: an organized collection of design patterns, modules, and guidelines for common interaction and visual elements that support the consistent user interface."

Meaning, a design system is like the foundation of your brand. It is an underlying structure that supports all visual assets and how they work together to deliver a unified experience for everyone who interacts with you, whether it's through your website or other touchpoints like social media channels.

A design system provides a framework and best practices for creating user interfaces, such as implementing the brand's color palette or using typography effectively to create a strong, cohesive, and consistent user experience.

In short, a brand design system is a collection of reusable components, front-end code, and design tools that can be used for future web development projects.

A brand design system consists of:

  • Clear rules and design principles
  • Visual design
  • Logo usage
  • Style guide
  • Code components
  • Design language
  • Schemes
  • Workflows
  • Pattern libraries
  • Code snippets
  • Detailed documentation
  • UI patterns
  • Interface elements

In other words, while brand guidelines serve as a reference or branding rules for designers on how to create various types of materials, a design system is the foundation that enables them to do so.

The Importance of Creating a Design System

We've already established that brand guidelines and design systems both serve different purposes, but why should you have one in the first place?

The fundamental purpose of creating a design system is to make sure your brand's message and visual components remain consistent. Having clear guidelines for everyone in the organization will make it easier for them to do their jobs, including delivering a product that meets both functional and aesthetic standards while upholding consistency throughout all user touchpoints—from email campaigns to social media posts.

In 2018, two-thirds of businesses had already recognized the importance of building design systems. This goes beyond just putting together style guides or asset libraries where designers get everything they need from color palettes down to UX design and UI kits to create different types of designs such as print collaterals or infographics without worrying about staying within certain guidelines.

Design systems are designed to support your brand's visual identity and maximize consistency and accessibility across multiple platforms and devices.

Now let's talk about how you can create a brand design system to provide an optimal experience for your customers and your product designers, developers, team members, and other external teams that may be involved.

Is A Design System A Style Guide?

No. A design system is much more than just a style guide because it considers your brand's entire user experience across different platforms, including both digital and non-digital mediums.

On its own, a style guide is just an overarching reference for designers so they can know how to use your brand's visual identity and typography. However, it does not provide detailed guidelines on the functionality of different components or how they work together.

A design system, on the other hand, is more than just a set of guidelines. It provides detailed UI components that can be used for future product development projects. It also includes a front-end codebase along with supporting documentation, so designers know how to implement these while also considering best practices for development.

Tips for Design System Success

Now that you understand how a brand design system is different from brand guidelines, it's time to learn the steps on how to create one. Here are some tips and approaches that will help ensure your success:

1. Start With Goals

Know exactly what you want to achieve and what you need to do to get there. Creating a design system is not an overnight job that can be finished within days or weeks—it takes time, patience, and effort.

Before starting the process, you need to define what its purpose is as well as who will be using them, so they are aligned with everyone else involved, including internal teams like developers, marketers, designers, partners such as freelancers, clients, customers, and even third-party agencies working on multiple projects across different business units all at once.

Knowing this would help ensure successful adoption by all stakeholders because they know exactly where these guidelines fall into place during their workflows.

2. Know Your Audience

Like any other design project, it's important to identify who you're targeting and the user experience. In this case, it will involve knowing which audiences need a design system to create relevant content across different channels such as email campaigns or social media posts.

There are three types of people you need to know during this stage:

  1. The content team will create the designs and other materials such as blog posts, social media updates, etc. This is where you'll come up with a style guide that includes information about how they should use your brand's voice across different channels for their audience based on what kind of content they're creating.
  1. The design team consists of product designers, developers, and other external teams responsible for creating products with your guidelines in mind, so it aligns not just with user expectations but also brand standards. They need to know where you want them to incorporate consistent design patterns into their workflows, including using certain typefaces or color palettes, determining what content they should include or exclude, and knowing where your brand's voice comes into play.
  1. The audience who will interact with the designs being created creates a consistent experience across different platforms. It is important to know these audiences because, this way, you can provide them with relevant materials based on their respective needs and preferences.

3. Build It Step By Step

The design and development process is a continuous process that involves various stages. Keep in mind to carefully plan out everything, including which tools or programs you'll use before jumping into creating them, whether they're wireframing or prototyping documents—this way, nothing gets missed along the way. If things don't go as planned, then seek feedback from everyone involved.

4. Identify The Gaps

It's important to identify every gap that exists within your current processes so you can plan ahead of time what needs to run a better workflow. When creating a design system, you need design tools or programs because they will help align everyone involved, especially if they are working on different channels across different digital products.

5. Provide Access

In order to create an effective design system that works for your brand, you need to make sure everyone can access it. Creating a central repository is the key here as this means all team members will have one place where they can find everything they need, from images and logos down to specific guidelines about text sizes or colors used in various contexts such as social media posts.

What Is A Design System In Branding?

A design system in branding is a set of guidelines that helps ensure brand consistency across different digital products and channels.

Brand guidelines are used when creating any campaign or project to ensure brand consistency. Conversely, design systems are used to create designs that can be implemented across different digital products and channels. The style guide helps define what your audience should expect from you. 

In contrast, design systems dictate how they should experience it in specific contexts such as emails or social media posts on various platforms like Facebook or Instagram.


It may sound like a lot of work, but creating an interactive design system can be easier than you think. However, it is important to remember that the more complex your design system gets, the more time and effort you'll have to put into it. 

Nonetheless, by following the right direction from start to finish, you'll be able to create a design system and initiate a digital transformation that will elevate your brand's voice and experience.

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