The best brand guidelines ever?

The award for the best brand guidelines we’ve seen recently goes to none other than Duolingo.

We can’t take credit, the latest rebrand was carried out in 2019 by Johnson Banks. Other credits, such as for the brand’s tone of voice and illustration are at the end of this article.

Let’s get into why we think they’re so brilliant.

duolingo logo png

Duolingo’s Brand Guidelines

The Duolingo brand guidelines emphasise the point that guidelines are not purely visual. Sure, they include the visual identity, but they’ve also considered the brand story, the tone of voice, and more nuanced sections like the “messages by audience” section, which is a brilliant inclusion that we rarely see.

All of the sections included in their guidelines are:

Identity: Logos, colour, typography, imagery, brand family

Writing: Brand narrative, voice, tone, Duo, style, glossary

Illustration: Shape language, characters, Duo

Marketing: Assets

Resources: Emoji

5 multicoloured boxes with the titles: identity, writing, illustration, messaging and resources.

Brand Personality

The brand personality section sits under their brand narrative section. It includes things like “if Duolingo was a celebrity, which would it be?” and “If Duolingo were a song” or a vehicle.

These kinds of comparisons aren’t just for fun, they’re a great way of comparing the brand to something people already know. Personifying the company’s values, and giving people something to reference. The celebrity they reference is Trevor Noah, “as he speaks eight languages, and as the host of The Daily Show, we count on him to speak the truth. Funny, accessible, and smart, he breaks down the news into language we all understand”. It’s easier to say “What would Trevor Noah do?” rather than “is it on-brand for us to do or say this thing?” Or get involved with a certain campaign or event, sponsor something, or whatever it may be.

We actually do the same thing in our brand workshops, at the beginning of a brand project. We talk about how we do it, and why it’s so important, here.


In their illustration section, under ‘shape language’, is simplicity.
It makes sense that they want to ensure the shape of their illustrations are simple, in line with many of their implied values. Duolingo doesn’t have their values plastered across their guidelines, they’re implied. Their mission is to make language learning easily available to everyone. They use simple language. Their app is incredibly easy to use. We like to say that a comedian doesn’t go around telling people they’re a comedian. They just make people laugh.

By outlining the simplicity element in their illustrations, they maintain consistency in their visual identity. They create something that’s always on-brand, and fully thought-through at every point. When speaking about their illustration style, they use a music analogy: “Simple songs can be powerful, but there is more pressure on each note to strengthen the song. The trick is to make each shape matter in the illustration”.

Another reason we like these guidelines. They’re a brilliant example of how simplicity is actually very hard to achieve. But simple is what we should all be aiming for.

Messaging by Audience

Sometimes, a brand has such a wide audience that they have to adapt things depending on who they’re talking to. When this happens, it’s important to outline exactly how the messaging is going to change, so there’s nothing to be left to interpretation.

In this case, Duolingo means different things to people of different geographic and economic backgrounds. For some, learning a language is a hobby. For others, it’s a ticket to more opportunities and a better life.

This is what brand guidelines are for – so that every word, every pixel, everything they do, is thought through, and is consistent throughout the entire brand.


According to Campaign, brand mascots and characters can increase profit and emotional connection with customers by up to 41%. On top of that, campaigns that are deemed emotionally led will generate almost double the profit of those that aren’t over the course of three years.

Duolingo’s use of characters creates an emotional connection amongst its audience that wouldn’t be possible without them. So having guidelines around the facial expressions of its characters is something that couldn’t be overlooked. They outline everything, from the position of the characters’ mouths and the way they fit into the frame of the face, to the way the hair is positioned on the head. Again, it’s all in the detail.

Brand Colours

One of the basics in any set of brand guidelines. Defining the primary colours, secondary colours, and any tonal shades. And, in a lot of cases, what not to do colour-wise.

Duolingo doesn’t just document the brand colours, but all shades of white and grey that could ‘provide utility and hierarchy without competing with their core and secondary colours’. The brand goes into detail around the colours that should be used for all of their illustrations, too. They outline the rules on brightness, the use of grey vs pastels, and more importantly, why things should be done the way they say in the guidelines. Always a teaching moment!

Looking to learn more about what makes great brand guidelines?

Or for more inspiration, and to see a few we’ve created recently, have a look here.



Brand strategy, narrative and design: Johnson Banks
Tone of voice and messaging: Johnson Banks, Nick Asbury, Mary van Ogtrop
Strategy associate: James Wu
Font design: Fontsmith
Brand photography: Niall McDiarmid
Illustration: Duolingo design team
Implementation: Johnson Banks, Duolingo design team, And Rising
Media: Bountiful Cow