<TFM> 1.8 The Importance of Style Guides

<TFM> Number 1.8
About TFM | Archives | Number 1.8 (originally published August 2001)

The Importance of Style Guides

The need for oversight and consistency for web site content was reinforced on 11 October when the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued
a news release with the file name “skyfall.htm”.

The name of the release (Chicken Little – the sky is falling?) overshadowed the news it contained — which was a very general warning that the U.S. might experience terrorist attacks over the course
of the next few days.

Had the FBI Public Information Office (PIO) had a style guide that outlined naming conventions, this faux pas would not have happened. That the FBI PIO did not
have such a guide is apparent from reviewing news release file names. Some are dates only, some are dates plus a word or name, and some, like the one in question, appear to have been named at the whimsey of the author.

The PIO office was swamped with calls about the file name. In reaction, they renamed the file (101101.htm), but they did not put a referring link on the old name. Thus the old file name yielded a “file not found” error.

History and Purpose
Emerson observed that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” However, design consistency (words, colors, graphics, layout) is a mainstay of print communications — and has been at least since the days of Strunk & White.

Perhaps style guides originated with academia, because bibliographies and citations are covered by the APA Style Guide, the MLA Style Guide, and Turabian Style Guide.

On a more commercial note, the bibles of newspapering are the Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style.

According to the folks who wrote the style guide for the University of California-Davis:

“Stylistic consistency lets the reader concentrate on the content without being distracted by variations in spelling and punctuation from one page to the next. And it’s an invaluable tool for editors, who often edit material intended for a single publication but written by several people. Having a style guide to consult keeps editors from having to reinvent a rule every time a new publication (or a new writer) comes along. And adhering to an agreed-upon style gives each campus publication a ≥voice≤ that harmonizes with those from other departments, schools and colleges.”

But What About The Web?

There are several areas where web style guides serve an important function.

  • A style guide can impose consistency on such things as color, design, use of logos, punctuation (do we use a comma before the “and” in a sequence).
  • Web style guides serve as institutional memory in an era of the revolving door of employment.
  • Web style guides can help a company meet its legal responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Companies may also find style guides useful for distributed authoring of intranet sites.

It is not often that style guides venture into the minutia of file naming conventions, probably because many communications professionals simply “don’t think about it.” File naming convention comes out of the tech side of the web — the software development side. Nevertheless, both the the Federal Communication Commission and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development have published their conventions.

Another overlooked (technical) aspect of web style guides is the policy regarding default contents pages for web site directories. Had the FBI web site conformed to standard web site naming convention, it would have been very easy for a site visitor to reach the table of contents page and find the new file, after it had been renamed. Instead, many people thought that the news release was a hoax.

Bottom Line

Style guides for web sites are as important as they are for an organization’s publications or advertising materials. In addition to the traditional communications-related content,
they should include guidelines on technical aspects of the medium that affect usability and site visitor satisfaction.

Resources and Citations