Design projects sometimes go off the rails. Some reasons why..

The term FUBAR is an old military acronym that stands for F**ked Up Beyond All Recognition. A bit of a stretch I suppose but still pretty apt, considering the subject matter of this post. While it’s nice to extol the virtues of logos, and how the design of same can be “fun, fun, fun” (till Daddy takes the T-bird away,) it’s probably worthwhile to take an unflinching look at some of the downsides of the process itself. See, developing a logo can also be a teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling, sketchbook tearing, monitor-punching, pain in the ass. A look at potential project wreckers, some suggestions on how to avoid them, and how to deal with them when they happen. First, we have to take a look at the premise of a design project, and the parties involved. Usually a designer and client.

The path of least resistance.

For a designer, the most profitable logo jobs involve the following steps;

Step one: Ask a client what they want.
Step two: Give it to them.

This type of project has the client acting as an art director and in some aspects, the defacto designer of the logo itself. It takes the designer out of the creative side of the process and reduces them to a pair of hands, a Macbook Pro and a copy of Adobe Illustrator for rent. Pragmatically speaking, following a client’s ‘move this and add this’ instructions are the ‘path of least resistance’ – revisions and original concepts are hell on a time clock – and can ultimately lead to less time spent on any particular project. It’s not even that such a method renders developing a decent logo impossible. If we were to put odds to the equation, I’d put chances of developing a decent logo at about fifty/fifty. But does it represent design value for the client? Probably not.

The currency of time.

On the downside, this ‘get ‘er out the door’ methodology buys into the premise that creating a logo is simply moving pixels and vectors around a monitor, trying to create a pretty picture that a client ‘likes’, will approve and ultimately pay for. And while designing a logo quickly is often trumpeted as somehow being part of the ‘value’ equation, I’ve never really understood why potential clients are convinced that spending less time on their logo is somehow better than fully exploring various avenues of same, and devoting the extra time to do so. While paradoxically trying to wring what they perceive as “money spent” from a design that clearly won’t work for them.

Logo development: a labor of love.

The truth is designing a logo is very often a labor of love. Put another way, a teeth wrenching, drawn-out process that pushes the limits of everyone’s patience. I can’t count the number of times where I have to explain to a client whose concerned about the time his/her project is taking, that if this process were just a matter of throwing together some shapes, it would take less time, and therefore be much more profitable for me and my studio. I’d also be talking to them via a sat phone from my yacht in Tahiti. We’re all on the same page. The client wants a logo in a snappy time-frame. The faster a finalized project leaves a designer’s desk, the bigger the bottom line and every revision, tweak and new version eats into that bottom line. It’s a difficult conversation to have, but one worth having with your client. You should also tell them this too..

Logo design isn’t “fun.”

Not sure where this even came from. Probably a casualty of search engine come-hither hype, as the competition for eyeballs and clicks heated up. Designing a new company, service or product logo is a high-stakes affair and to expect something of this gravity to be ‘fun’ and/or a ‘breeze’ is somewhat of an optimistic and charitable reach. At some point, even we used the words ‘hassle-free’ on our web site – I think on our home page – as part of our introductory spiel. Over time, I removed them because it’s more likely that designing an effective logo IS a hassle. From both client and designer points of view. It’s not very often that you see copy bragging that making a business plan is “fun, fun, fun”. Or that effective bookkeeping is a ‘snap’. It does, therefore, somewhat surprise me when design web sites claim that the logo design process is ‘fun’, ‘easy’ or ‘a breeze’.

They’re lying.

Just more used-car lingo to reel in clients who are new to the logo design process, unaware of how critical their logo is and that developing one is not a matter of simply throwing together a few shapes (fun, fun, fun) or pushing some ‘make the logo pop’ button.This button is not a thing.

The client ‘art-directing’ the project.

There are varying client and designer roles during any creative process and while it’s certainly true that the client is king, it’s also true that they are NOT the art director (unless they are, in fact, an art director.) When someone is working with an experienced designer, they’re working with someone who is trained in many aspects of design, graphics and technology. By the time a client is viewing preliminary designs, the designer has attempted every variation of that particular design. The designer has moved the various elements right, left, up and down. Elements have been scaled, flipped, flopped rotated and moved about in every way imaginable. When you see the design, it’s probably true (unless the elements have simply been Frankensteined together) that this is the most graphically sound presentation of those elements. It’s highly unlikely that micro-tweaks by the client will improve the design dramatically. Moving an element 1/4” to the right will not change a logo from that the client hates into a design that they love. It’s usually best to move on, and work from fresh proposals, concepts and ideas. It’s always best for the client to trust their designer to hammer out a design that is graphically (and technically) sound. I’ve never heard of clients giving mechanics micro-tweak direction. Nor dentists, for that matter. It’s highly unlikely that a logo that does not have the ‘Ah-Ha’ factor can be turned into one by simply moving bits and pieces around.

The War-and-Peace, Gone-with-the-Wind manifesto.

Sure, it’s always nice for a logo to mean something, or to have some hidden meaning (ask me about The Logo Factory house sometime) but occasionally clients and/or designers wish to write ‘War and Peace’ with their design’s metaphors and symbolism. The most memorable logos are often the most simple. Nobody is going to understand that “this swoosh means that, this dot represents Uncle George, this triangle means upward growth, A myriad of shapes and swooshes – all professing to ‘mean’ something – will not mean anything to the first-time viewer. Most logos have a micro second to grab the viewer’s attention. The less detail to be absorbed in this window of opportunity, the better.

Design by Committee.

This one’s a personal fave (that would be sarcasm folks.) A logo design project that’s run under the auspices of Design by Committee often leads to the most difficult and frustrating set of circumstances for both the designer and the client. Design by Committee projects see a large number of people that are equally responsible for selecting, approving and modifying the logo throughout various design revisions and iteration stages. Sadly, it is often the loudest (and dare I say – the committee member with the largest ego) that makes their opinion heard over everyone else – not the committee member with an acute understanding or sense of design. Here’s a tip – it’s always better to select one ‘voice’ to represent the committee – somebody who is keenly aware of the group’s goals and aspirations – and have the discussions about design direction before passing off the instructions to the designer. Otherwise, expect to spend months on your new logo design project, and even then, run the risk of ending up with a mediocre, sanitized logo.

The fine art of purse shopping.

Apologies to my ex-wife (who was the inspiration for the name of this category.) Purse shopping is a phenomenon that’s popped up in the last few years – usually when end users are involved in the logo design process itself (i.e.: they’re spending their own money.) This is when a client reviews their logo design and exclaims – “There it is! It’s perfect! Just what I wanted!” Then, purse-shopping kicks in. “Why don’t we try moving the globe down, and to the right?” “How’s about we turn that element upside down?” (It’s been requested!). Usually “just to see how it looks”. If the client and designer have managed to cobble together that ‘great’ logo, your initial reaction will probably be the same as the people you’re trying to reach. Fumbling around for a ‘better’ version of the ‘perfect’ logo will only weaken its impact (see art-direction above) or worse – lose the original appeal together. Most ‘purse-shopping’ is brought on by the client’s desire to get their ‘logo money worth’ and exhausting what they perceive is the time paid for in design charges. Often, clients fail to understand the difference between logo value and cost.

Milking the bottom line.

If you’re a client, here’s one thing to keep in mind – while it’s true you’re paying for somebody’s time (the designer,) you’re generally NOT paying for X number of hours. You’re paying for that designer to utilize their skill, talents and knowledge of design software to create a logo that will represent your company/service/product for years. It doesn’t matter if it takes them minutes, hours, days or weeks. Milking the project in order to spend a few more hours, after coming up with the ‘perfect’ logo, will only weaken the final product. And it you have to micro-tweak any logo to death, it’s not really the design for you (see art-directing the logo for more.)

Working WITH vs. Working FOR.

I’m of the belief that this is where most logo design projects go horribly awry. In the early days of my career I was guilty of this more times that I care to admit and if posts on many graphic design forums are any indication, a lot of designers – and by extension, clients – are guilty of this faux pas too. That’s a designer working FOR a client, as opposed to WITH. Many designers will say the same thing ,– “this was a GREAT logo, until the client butchered it!”  Probably a combinations of ‘Art Directing the Logo, Purse-Shopping and probably a little Design by Committee thrown in for good measure. At some point the designer throws in the towel and hands over a logo they know is lackluster because it’s what the client wanted. Fair enough, but it goes a long way to explaining why there are so many nasty logos around us. Put simply – rather than discussing (debating, arguing?) with the client about the direction of a particular project (that’s WHY the client hired the designer in the first place) the designer sheepishly follows the client’s requests – regardless of how ludicrous those suggestions are.

“Put a Globe and Swoosh in there.”

No problemo.

“Make that text upper case Comic Sans – it’s hip with the teenagers.”

Okey, dokey.

“Take a bit from concept A, move it to concept B, and then put both on concept C.”

You got it!

Big mistakes all around, and ruining whatever potential the project might’ve had. The designer is NOT just a set of hands for rent. If that were the case, then why should a client spend the time selecting a designer based on the strengths of their portfolio? Better to look for a ‘yes’ man/woman who also happens to know Adobe Illustrator and available on some $5 gig website. The designer brings (hopefully) years of experience, talent and a keen sense of ‘what’s what’ (most designers I know are intense culture junkies) to the table. As a designer you need to be able to tell your client that their idea is a no-go. And as a client, you have to understand that a designer is working WITH you (as opposed to FOR you) and not view the designer being ‘uppity’ or ‘uncooperative’, simply someone who “won’t do what they’re told!”

“As a client, you have to understand that a designer is working WITH you (as opposed to FOR you) and not view the designer being ‘uppity’ or ‘uncooperative’, simply someone who “won’t do what they’re told!”

Take the time to do it right.

At the end of the day – the client and designer have identical goals. A great logo. The client because it will represent their product/company/service for (hopefully) a lifetime. The designer because they’re looking for a showcase piece for their logo design portfolio – an example of terrific design work they can show future clients as PROOF that they can create fantastic logos. They don’t want to sheepishly explain that “this was a great logo until the client wrecked it.” IF they show the logo at all. To the client – you’re paying for the designer’s expertise and experience.

Use them.

To the designer – the client is probably new to the entire design process. Don’t shortchange them by committing every request to the project, especially IF you KNOW that the request is foolhardy. Take the time to explain why it isn’t a good idea. You may have to commit their requests to concept stage, in order to show them why, and that’s okay too. Remember, you’re working WITH the client and not just a set of hands attached to a pencil, mouse or keyboard. Sure, they’re picking up tab, but it’s up to you to make sure they get their money’s worth.

Part of that worth is your expertise with logos.