Designing great logos

For designers: Some tips on designing consistently great logos. How to develop your identity building skills and keep your logos relevant and dynamic.

Want to design a great logo for yourself? Or to create logos on a fairly regular basis as part of your overall design services? Or to specialize in logos enough to call yourself a logo designer? Here’s a partially definitive laundry list of tips that might help.

Is logo design a specialty of its own?

Many view logo design as simply a fun little niche of the overall graphic design industry. Obviously it’s in my best interest – as the founder of a design company that specializes in logos – to say it isn’t just that. The Logo Factor designer editionBut I truly believe that. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have launched our shop back in 1996. While desktop software and other design tools have made the technical process easier, designing great logos remains a specialty, a discipline of the profession itself. And as the competition of the graphic design industry heats up, and the economic recovery seems mired in molasses, specialization is one of the ways that a designer can weather the storm. The logo design industry (if there is such a beast) is an intensely competitive one and with design contest sites popping up like mushrooms, certain to be so for the foreseeable future. If you want to compete in that environment, you’re going to have to be able to design consistently great logos on an ongoing basis.

Some other stuff worth a read.

We’ve had a series of logo design tips on our website for a couple of years now. Still holds up pretty well and worth a read before tackling an individual logo project. We recently added a 25 steps to a great logo that’s also worth a once over. We’ve tried to determine what makes a great logo, and while that feature probably needs sprucing up, it’s still a pretty decent barometer of what does, in fact, make a great logo. Our client-centric common pitfalls is probably worth bookmarking for a read later if things go south. You can read what not to do to make sure it doesn’t. But what if you want to go beyond designing one great logo, say make a career out of it? Or, if not a career, at least be able to design great logos on a fairly consistent basis. These were a few questions I was asked by a young designer by e-mail last week, and I figured it might be worth an exploration. While not a complete list by any means (that could fill several volumes,) here’s some tips on how a graphic designer can hone their skills in the logo department. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume that you have a working knowledge of some vector-based drawing software, and are familiar with most of the intermediate concepts involved. Ready to get started? Okay, let’s..

Read. Read. Read. And then read some more.

Great design does not happen in a vacuum, but luckily, you’re living in the internet age (as well as the social media age) and the web is awash with information about logo design. There are tons of blogs that offer a wealth of in-the-trenches advice on an almost daily basis. From people who specialize in logo design, branding, corporate identity and almost every facet of the niche to major agencies whose ‘secrets’ are available with only a few mouse clicks. Never before has so much information been available for so little effort. Trouble is, this glut of information can be overwhelming, and the ‘wheat’ quite difficult to separate from the ‘chaff’.
Google search for logo designIf you search for ‘logo design’ on most of the search engines, it’s unlikely that you’ll find any worthwhile information about how to design logos in the first couple of pages. Instead, you’ll be bombarded with sites offering to design you a quasi-free logo, the result of effective SEO for related keywords, the main thrust of all the represented companies. All cool and all if you’re a potential client, but as a designer these sites are piss-poor as a source of knowledge and information to help you. You’ll have to dig a little deeper, and find a way to aggregate useful information that may be harder to find than a quick keyword search. Luckily, we have Twitter to do that for you. If you don’t have an account on the social media platforms, get one now, then follow designers (here’s our account – the people we follow is a pretty good place to start.) Focus on those who describe themselves as logo designers (probably best to ignore people who use the word Fiverr in their profile.) Most designers on Twitter are incredibly generous in sharing their ‘trade secrets’, design philosophies and technical tips.

Practice drawing. Get yourself a sketchbook.

There’s nothing that irks me more than someone who wants to be a logo designer telling me “I can’t draw!”

My question is always “why not?”

I’ve always been of the impression that anyone, with enough practice, can become a decent draftsman. While illustrators with exceptional talent owe some of their magnificence to genetics, most of us can develop adequate drawing skills by simply spending enough time doing it. And in developing these skills, we can learn to look at the world from a linear and graphic perspective, something that will only help when it comes to designing logos.
Designing great logos case studyAccordingly, this is extremely important (and something that I often neglect to do) – if you haven’t already, get yourself a sketchbook. Doesn’t have to be terribly fancy – I picked one up at my local art store this weekend for under $10. Nice hardbound one too. Try to doodle a few times a week. It can be anything. Items lying around your desk. People and objects at your neighborhood park. The mall. Ideas that come to your head. And here’s the key – don’t tear anything out, regardless of how bad you think your drawing is. Keep ’em all. Break things down into their simple shapes – cubes, spheres and polygons. These random illustrations, sketches and notes will become an idea library, as well as a journal of both your progress (and in many ways, your life). Once in a while, pick a simple idea or company theme – it can be anything: an accountant, a scuba diving store, a pet shop or a restaurant. Sketch out a couple of pages of logo ideas. Doesn’t matter how bad, or how good they are. The idea of this exercise is to get used to getting your ideas, sometimes extremely fleeting, down on paper. Being able to draw decently is a prerequisite if you ever want to tackle illustrative logo projects, like this one for Comic Vine (you can read more about sketching in that logo’s case study.)Sketching for great logosAnother tip: use a magic marker (I’m partial to Pilot Fineliners) as these are permanent and force you to think in absolute black and white, rather than the full range of tones made available by using a pencil. Using a marker also forces you to be decisive, bold and unforgiving. Think in terms of negative and positive spaces (negative space is the image created by the edge of the solid, positive shapes. The hidden arrow in the FedEx logo is a perfect example). If you’re trying to design a logo that incorporates an actual object, a bee or fish let’s say, try to draw it using a few shapes as possible. Then try to remove a shape or two to make your iconic bee or fish even simpler. The idea of this minimalist doodling is to capture the essence of the object, not a photo-realistic representation. Here’s a fun exercise too. Throw together two unrelated words – car & bones, cat & fish, airplane & fork off the top of my head – and try to develop concepts around those. A great example of this methodology (and a fiendishly clever design to boot) is the oldish logo for Sirius Radio which at first blush, features a dog with a star as an eye. The star obviously symbolizes a satellite. The dog comes from the star Sirius, which is not only the brightest star in the sky, but also known as the ‘Dog Star’. Pretty smart stuff (and no, we didn’t design it).
Sirius Dog Star logo
While I so hate the phrase “thinking outside the box” these exercises will, in fact, help you think outside of it. And if you utilize your sketchbook often enough, you’ll have a library of rough concepts and ideas for actual logo projects that come your way. It will also train you to think beyond the limitations your design software may have, or past the vector drawing limitations you have yet to break through.

Look at logos. All the time.

We’re surrounded by logos. After typing that sentence, I gave myself 10 seconds and counted the number of recognizable logos lying on and around my admittedly messy desktop. 39. That’s a heck of a lot of reference material for the would-be logo designer. But just don’t glance at the logos around you. Really look at them. Find ones you like and try to figure out why you like them. Perform the same exercise with logos you don’t like. More importantly, try to figure out which logos are the most effective. Are they recognizable from a distance? Do they communicate a theme or a vibe that works for the product they’re meant to represent? Again, try and decipher which logos aren’t particularly effective. Look at the logos of Fortune 500 companies. But don’t stop there.
most valuable logo propertiesLook at the logos on light boxes over stores whilst journeying around town. Which work. Which don’t. Read logo design themed blogs that sometimes dissect logos. You don’t have to agree with the critiques, but have a reason or two why you don’t. Take a look at logo design contests and gallery sites. A lot of the stuff you’ll see is crap, but some of it isn’t. While liking and not-liking logos often comes down to a version of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” try and figure out the dreck from the pearls. See, when it comes to logo design, and other than obvious design catastrophes, there’s no real right or wrong. It’s more important that you have a reason for your opinion that goes beyond “that sucks” or “wow, that’s cool.” See if you can determine the thinking behind the design concepts you’re looking at. If you’re reading design blogs, don’t be shy about asking questions about the articles you’re reading or the case studies you’re looking at. Most blog publishers I know would much rather answer questions in their comment sections than read another “I loved this post” comment. Generally speaking, you’ll find that most designers are extremely willing to help other designers.

Look at typefaces. All the time.

Just as you should be looking at logos, icons and representational graphics all the time, you should also become a great observer of fonts, typography and text logos. Once again, take a look around you. See what kind of font work is involved, particularly text only logos. See if the font is custom, a recognizable font set, or a combination thereof (most logos, even if they use an established font, will feature a customization of one or two of the letters, often to overcome kerning issues). Speaking of kerning (the spacing between the individual letters) you need to hone that skill. Most desktop programs, including Adobe Illustrator, are only so-so in their optical kerning function. Letters like V and A (especially when together) need to be tightened up. I’ve seen logo typography that we could drive a Mack truck through. Almost every logo you’ll ever design will need eyeball kerning to a certain degree and it’s something that needs to become second nature.

Revisit your earlier work. Tear it apart without mercy.

Most proficient designers I know are their own worst critics. Not at first mind you, particularly when it comes to any one specific project or logo as there’s usually some level of ego involved that precludes it. That shouldn’t be surprising, nor is there anything terribly wrong in being ferocious advocates for our own work. Designing something is often a very personal effort, even when it’s for someone else, and almost everything we create contains a little bit of us poured into it. If we didn’t believe in what we’re doing, then it’s probably time to find a new line of work. I get that. Unfortunately, this ‘bravado’ can stand in the way of honest personal assessment and only the passage of time takes a logo completely out of the ‘ego zone.’ There have been times when I’ve gone to the mat defending this-or-that logo with something approaching religion. At the time, it was the cleverest, most effective, most awe-inspiring logo that I’d ever designed. In the history of ever. Until six months had passed and I revisited the design. Eeek. Certainly not the most awe-inspiring logo that I’d ever designed. Actually, fell more into the “what the hell was I thinking” department. See, logo design is like any other skill. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it, and work that you thought would set the world on fire a few years ago isn’t quite as polished as you’re capable of today. As much as it might pain you, take a look at some of your older work on a fairly regular basis. You’ll find logos that still hold up. That’s good – you’ve managed to design a logo that has a timeless quality (here’s one I designed almost 20 years ago. I think it still works. Some stuff I did back then? Not so much.) You’ll also find logos that don’t hold up so well. A little on the ‘swooshy’ side. Some messed up font work. A little heavy on the gel effect. And is that a lens flare? That’s okay too. It shows that your ‘eye’ is improving and that you’re getting better. But don’t stop there. Take the logos that have aged badly, and see how you’d approach the project differently today, using your evolving logo design skills. Who knows, the client who’s logo has aged may come back for a re-do, and you’ll be ready to show them your newly improved version. They’ll like that.

Understand brand frameworking.

Just as great design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, a logo doesn’t exist in one either. The development of a logo is just the bare bones beginning of a company brand – there’s very few instances when any logo will be featured as a standalone graphic element. It will have to coexist peacefully with a lot of other graphic elements, typography, colors and styles, which when all combined, make up what we refer to as a Brand Framework. [Grilled Cheese & Co shown.] When a designer is working with a small budget-strapped startup, as many of our clients are, there may not be the finances available to work up a full brand treatment. But there should be enough time available in the budget that you can workup a rudimentary framework. Let your client can see how your proposed logo will fit into their advertising, marketing and social media efforts. From a purely pragmatic point of view, this will get you a faster sign-off on the project. This exercise also helps you design logos with these basic uses in mind, which ultimately results in better work from your efforts. Use this concept of Brand Frameworking to gauge how effective your proposals are. If a logo can’t work as a Facebook profile image, it ain’t a good logo. If you can’t effectively add it to a decent business card, call it a day and move on. Pretty pictures is not what this is about.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

Around our shop we deal with a lot of clients who are working one-on-one with a designer for the first time and unfamiliar with designing a logo. While it’s obviously important for any client to be involved to some degree or another, they’ve hired us to walk them through the process and it’s our responsibility to do just that. A friend once told me “The client is King. But they shouldn’t play Art Director.” I always liked that quote because it’s true.

Experts in what they do.

This isn’t a sleight on clients, or as some would have us believe, design snootiness. When I’m working on a logo for an accountant, I expect them to know far more about accounting than I do, just as he should expect that I know more about designing logos than he does. In fact, I better know more about logos than he does, or it’s time for a new career. Here’s the important bit of this though. When my pretend accountant client wants to show me that he knows more about accounting than I do, he has no problem in doing so. He’ll talk about tax shelters, amortized expenses and all sorts of concepts that while I have a basic grasp of, I really don’t have a clue on the legally bullet-proof technicalities he’ll employ. When it comes to hiring an accountant, I have to trust him to steer me in the right direction, hopefully avoiding the ire of the Feds, even though I may not know exactly how he’s going to do so.

Beyond the “like” & “dislike.”

Designers need to take the same approach with their clients. This isn’t arrogance or conceit. A client hired you to design his or her logo because at some point, you convinced them you’re an expert of some level. Use that basic premise to communicate with your client. Talk to them. Explain your concepts. Don’t just ask a client for some arbitrary feedback along the lines of “like” and “dislike”. Have a dialogue with them throughout the process. From collecting initial information on their goals and aspirations, to discussing why you’ve created this proposal or that. You’ll find that when clients are left to arbitrarily decide what they ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ about your proposals, they’ll quickly get frustrated if you’re unable to show them something they ‘like’ in fairly short order. If you involve them in the thinking behind your concepts, and why you think they work, they’re more likely to understand that logo design is an evolutionary process, not the willy-nilly creation of a series of pretty graphic pictures. Working with clients that have a rudimentary idea of what you’re doing for them will, a majority of the time, lead to a better experience for everyone involved. At the end of the day, your client will still have to ‘like’ the logo you create for them, but they won’t tear their hair out waiting for you to pull it off.

Learn to develop a design rationale.

Communicating with a client doesn’t mean telling them about your weekend exploits, your dog or the latest adventures with your favorite hobby. As nice as those are, communicating with your client means developing a rationale for why you’re doing what you’re doing. Why you’ve added this element to a proposal for their logo. Why you removed another. If you’ve developed a logo that has a square aspect ratio, tell them why (its application on social media networks would be one good reason). That doesn’t mean you have to outline every pixel shove you perform, but even then, be prepared to explain it if asked. Nor am I suggesting War & Peace treatise that explains some overworked logo symbolism about this element and that. Just a simple, sane, rationale behind your creative thinking. By developing reasons for why you perform certain tasks, you’ll begin to revise your concepts and ideas because of logical reasons. And that makes for logos that make sense, rather than designs that just look pretty. That’s not to say you aren’t open to client feedback, you are, but even then incorporate their ideas based on logic and offer logically sound alternatives if you think they don’t work. It’s been my experience that some of the best work (in my opinion) that’s been produced by our shop involved the involvement of the client to one degree or another. Conversely, the same can be said of some of the worst stuff too. But that doesn’t matter, because our next tip is:

Never. Never. Ever. Get married to one proposal.

We touched on this earlier, but it’s important enough to flesh it out some more. Whenever I hire a designer at my shop, my first word of advice to them is always “never get married to any logo.” Not that I’m particularly wise or anything. It took me a long time to understand this concept myself. See, at any given point, any logo proposal is the most important, most earth-shattering artwork the world has ever seen. But it isn’t.

“Once a design project is over, you’re onto other things. The client has to work with their logo for years, if not forever, and it will become the cornerstone of their brand identity..”

The main person you’re trying to please is the client. Once a design project is over, you’re onto other things. The client has to work with their logo for years, if not forever, and it will become the cornerstone of their brand identity. While you want them to ‘get’ your vision for their logo, it’s okay if they don’t. They’re also picking up the tab, which when push comes to shove, is the real barometer of who gets the final say. While arguing for your point-of-view, it’s also critical that any logo designer respect their client’s input. It’s true that sometimes a client may bastardize a logo into something you’re not terribly fond of. That’s okay. You have all the preliminary designs for your book of case studies, and in most cases it’s the fact that your logo is being used that impresses people who it’s important to impress – new clients, art directors and potential employers. And if your client is happy with the logo that the two of you managed to cobble together, that’s a very important part of being a consistently great logo designer.

This was originally published in the older version of our Designer Lounge but due to some housecleaning and moving things around, we’ve republished it here to get it out of the way. It’s still a pretty solid piece that nobody found in its old spot, so we’re golden.