Make It Sticky, Not Pretty

Shortly after college I used to moonlight as a consultant for various user interface design projects. Once when I explained my side gig as a consultant to a friend, he asked if I was helping to organize closets. “Consultant” is a pretty general title and is often associated with high fees in return for a value that’s opaque at best. The concept is open to misunderstanding and derision. The most important thing that all consultants do by definition is bring an outside perspective. For many clients and organizations, this would be impossible to get otherwise.

We almost always meet an organization or client at the brink of extreme change. Whether they’re about to take stock of all the objects that they own or are rethinking their entire communication strategy, clients come to consultants for their domain expertise and experience. The point of hiring an outside consultant is to use them to increase the value of a particular internal team or type of work to the organization. Often this is through building something together. When successful, the transformation that an organization undergoes has lasting consequences.

…buyers of transformations seek to be guided toward some specific aim or purpose, and transformations must elicit that intended effect. That’s why we call such buyers aspirants—they aspire to be some one of some thing different. With transformations, the customer is the product! The individual buyer of the transformation essentially says, “Change me.”

— Pine & Gilmore

The danger or fear when a project ends is that a consultant is taking all their knowledge with them—that the transformation collapses in upon itself and the benefits dissipate. Too often the artifact, such as a new website, lasts for a little while but the thinking is lost. The organization reverts to its former ways, and the value of the external expertise is lost unnecessarily. Style guides are a way to make all that went into making the work—sticky.

A great style guide is often part user manual and part philosophical treatise. A style guide or similar documentation should not be judged on its beauty as an artifact, rather on the extent to which it aids the intended audience. Why did you make the decisions you made? How can someone make informed decisions going forward? Style guides establish authority and a position that helps readers address ambiguity.

The most famous style guide of the moment—although most people don’t think of it that way— is Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up. In two-hundred pages, perhaps two are about the what and the rest explain the why. Her book is clearly effective since over six million copies have been sold worldwide. She’s enabled a movement through a specific process that she’s she’s honed over the past fifteen years of her career in organizing people’s spaces. Her style guide helps readers reset and make better decisions about the things they acquire going forward.

We make style guides to demonstrate what led us to the decisions that we made throughout the project.

Within design, style guides are often an afterthought. They’re confined to the dry language of standards and manuals that no one wants to read. At best, style guides are creatively implemented as UI toolkits and conversational websites with unique navigations. While all this experimentation in implementation helps developers implement front-end design faster, consistency still pulls the focus. A UI toolkit doesn’t help an organization make better design decisions. The focus on implementation also over emphasizes style-guides-as-deliverables. The style guide stands in for the design process itself and fails as a tool for future decision-making.

At Mule, our style guides help our clients make decisions without us. Here’s an example of how we’ve explained the value of our style guide to a client:

A design project is a series of decisions that culminates in a coherent—yet dynamic—design system that lays the foundation to support the growth and progress of your organization over time. Mule Design collaborated closely with the [client team] to build the [client’s website and design system] based on insights gained through internal and external research. This style guide documents the design decisions made in that process.

We can’t exactly predict what will happen the next six months or five years. Throughout the design process, we left space for the unknown and for what’s to come. The design system put in place will grow with your organization.

The [client organization’s website] is a communication tool. Its launch is a hypothesis put to the world. This guide will help you make great design decisions going forward.

Shifting organizations to this point-of-view is the easy part. Shifting designers who feel invested in the aesthetics of style guides as Artifact is difficult, because for some reason, the aesthetics of the guide itself mark the design firm that creates it. Style guides that only stand in for a process feel intangible. Ultimately, this overrides the utility. You need something that provokes action, not something to be admired.

Because there’s this convention to produce a beautiful document even though you know it’ll be ignored, we at Mule are still exploring ways to create useful and effective documentation for people who might at first find it unsatisfying. We’ve made wikis, websites, PDFs and keynote presentations to get our point across. We believe that the medium can work in accordance with the message.

Maira Kalman’s mother’s closet is pictured above. Kalman also happens to have illustrated the most recent edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style—the goto Style Guide for every great writer.