Where are all the Web-Based Style Guides?

April 7, 2010

The Digett team was discussing a recent project the other day, and the talk turned 'round to the style guide we were creating for the client. Now, if you've ever been in charge of maintaining or using a corporate style guide, you know they tend to inspire a mix of derision and fear.

I should know. In a previous job, I was responsible for maintaining the company's style guide—a 67-page, brightly highlighted, barely organized beast of a Word document that boasted poorly implemented in-text links as its most-cutting-edge feature. Sadly, I'd be willing to bet the only "advancements" many firms have over that are better asthetics and a PDF format.

Similarly, the guide we were discussing was to be delivered as a static, offline document. Though format wasn't part of the discussion, Mark, who tends to be a little more forward-thinking than myself, asked an interesting question:

Why aren't corporate style guides run on the web?

In other words, why do corporate marketing/communications departments continue to rely on Word, PDFs, or any other type of offline document or service? Why aren't they creating and curating these things using online tools? I have an answer for every question, even when I don't know what I'm talking about, but this one stumped me.

Privacy and security aren't issues—at least any more than they are for old-fashioned techniques. There certainly aren't any efficiencies in using offline methods. There's plenty of thought that could be put into this subject, but I can immediately think of a few web-based methods that would hold numerous advantages:

Do it with Drupal

Yes, I'm back to cheerleading for our CMS of choice, but for good reason. For starters, one could easily use Drupal's built-in user access controls, content types, and taxonomy capabilities to create a simple style guide involving several contributors. For different or specific functionality, you could even use book features or add wiki-like behaviors with other modules.

We did something similar to this with our own firm handbook; it's meant as a collaborative repository of Digett's own policies and procedures. Our own style requirements—few as they may be—could easily be included, if I ever get tired of housing them in my own noggin.

Still, deploying a Drupal instance might be a bit complicated for some and cost-prohibitive for others, whatever our arguments might be. Moreover, it may be possible to get similar functionality from another CMS that's a bit more friendly to those who aren't tech-inclined.

Online collaboration tools

Google Sites

We've used Google Sites for a couple of internal projects, and my own assessment is that it's a solution in search of a problem. Still, the price (free) and ease-of-use (it's Google) in creating a simple wiki could make it a good option for a corporate style guide.

Plus, it comes with the standard goodies seen on other Google offerings: user access/editing options, file uploads, calendar/video/doc embeds, and more. You'll also have a pretty powerful search tool at hand.

Basecamp

This flagship offering from 37signals has been an Internet darling for some time. Task assignment, file sharing, and time tracking are just a few of Basecamp features, though one has to wonder if this might be overkill for a simple style guide. Writeboard, a free (and less powerful) 37signals option, might also work.

I've just scratched the surface on collaboration tools, I know—feel free to suggest some below. At the same time, tell me if I'm behind the curve on this; if businesses are already on top of this process, I'd love to hear about the specifics. Does anyone have any experiences to share?