Magazine EditorApproachable. Friendly. Trustworthy. Fun without being snarky. Ever see direction like this in a style guide? I have. I’ve even written some of those words.

Problem is, they are open to interpretation, and therefore not consistently effective. So, how can you communicate what you want to a wide and changing group of employees and vendors?

Here’s an idea. Use one or two magazines to help build your style guide. Magazines are widely available, and more importantly, they are tangible. You can reference a magazine for writing style, tone, typography, photography and overall visual design – all the things you would want in your own style guide.

Now, I’m sure there are doubters reading this who think there’s no way their brand – which is no doubt unique (and misunderstood) – could be represented by a magazine published by someone else. ‘What about Apple?’ I’m sure many will cry. Well, sure, Apple is Apple, and it’s been Garamonding and thinking different for over 20 years. But most brands are not Apple, so marketers should stop trying to be.

At my last company – which had been around for ten years and public for five – I was the third head of marketing and inherited a lineage that had seen three logos and two color palettes. And yet, we really didn’t have a style or a voice. Also, important details, like diagram style, had never been documented, so needless to say, we were all over the map.

I decided we were going to tackle a full style definition by looking around at various magazines. I consume a lot of them. My subscriptions include Fortune, Howler, Time, The New Yorker, and Sunset. When I’m on the road, I usually try to pick up one or two that I don’t subscribe to at the airport bookstore. Though I read the paper online, there’s nothing like the feel of a magazine, and the great layout, which was the genesis of my idea.

Starting the Exercise

To kick things off, I had my head of corporate marketing and my content marketing manager go to Barnes & Noble and pick up a bunch of magazines. I asked them to get a few business and technical magazines I thought might be good influences, but told them they could buy whatever else they wanted.

They then arrayed the mags on a long table in the marketing area, along with Post-it notes and pens. We asked the whole team to stop by, peruse the row of periodicals, and add a note to the pages they found interesting. Everything was fair game – writing style, type treatment, diagram style, whatever. A few folks got so into it they brought magazines from home that they felt had something to offer. Though we didn’t end up using anything from it, The Drake, a fly fishing quarterly, is really nicely designed.

Pop Sci Example Diagram

Figure 1: A great example of how Popular Science creates diagrams that break down and explain complex things. Credit: Lucy Engleman

In the end, we took a lot from Fortune. These days, Fortune writes quite a bit about technology companies, so we thought it had the right business-tech tone for our buyers – neither too technical, but also not talking down to people who were tech savvy. Our fonts and type treatment, while not a rip off, were inspired by Fortune’s blend of serif and sans serif in articles. We selected Popular Science, which I had read as a kid, to help define our diagram and infographic style. What caught our eye was the way the editors break down very technical topics using graphics, usually labelled with numbers or steps, to aid in understanding. We felt it would really help our explainer blog posts and ebooks.

In addition to a fleshed out style guide, I think my content team also took a lot away from the exercise in terms of just great writing, design, and storytelling. They were inspired to try new approaches to getting our story across. We even started putting a tombstone at the end of our ebooks and white papers.

How is it going? Well, I just had a vendor tell me he went down to a book store in Canada to pick up Fortune and Popular Science for this team. We were designing a new microsite and he wanted to give his designers a little inspiration. Success!