Logo Design Articles

Designing your logo – what not to do

The top 10 design mistakes that will ruin any logo attempt

A look at things that designers might do that will utterly ruin, destroy, wreck and bastardize a potentially decent logo attempt. I’ve tried (you can judge how successfully) to write this with both designers and clients in mind. So without further ado, we present 10 things NOT to do when designing your next logo…

#10: Pixels are dandy for photographs, but not for your logo

Creating a bitmap logo in pixel based design software is only going to lead to headaches and more importantly, needless expense over the long haul. A lot of both. If your logo design is available only as a rasterized image, you won’t be able to enlarge your design due to resolution issues. You won’t be able to add your logo to other artwork or place it on a web background color (unless it’s been created as a .PNG file, a format that boasts a transparent background and even that comes with some technical issues). You won’t be able to change colors without an ungawdly amount of work. Forget about spot color printing, vinyl sign plotting or shake-and-bake embroidery tapes. Animating your logo in Flash will be a hassle, it won’t work for T-shirt logos and a myriad of other marketing applications.

Take a quick peek at your logo files – if you don’t see anything with the extension .EPS or .AI, it’s time to visit a designer who will introduce you to the joys of vector based logos. For the disco version of why this is key, spend a few minutes with our file format video. You should also keep in mind that many logo special FX (glows, drop shadows, etc) can only be applied to bitmap images. Another reason, visual clarity notwithstanding, why gimmicky special FX shouldn’t be part of any logo design equation. At least if you want to use your new design anywhere other than a website or a blog header.

#9: Ignore kerning and spacing

Whenever words are input into any design software package, the program ‘guesses’ how close the letters should be to each other. This is known as kerning. In the case of software it’s called ‘Auto’ Kerning. Problem is, these are only estimates and some software does it better than others, and accuracy often depends on the fonts you’re using. Off-the-rack kerning is often more accurate in ‘professional’ font sets than fonts available for download on ‘free font’ websites, but as kerning is almost always gauged visually, as opposed to driven by some formulaic algorithm, almost all font sets require a certain amount of ‘tweaking’ by hand.

It often depends on the software too. Microsoft Word is the worst, Adobe Illustrator is better though not perfect. Also, a word that looks well-spaced on your monitor will look nasty when enlarged to billboard size. Some letter combinations – V & A for example – require tighter spacing than say, M & N. Setting up correctly spaced typography is critical – poorly spaced letters will register in the viewer’s minds eye as an amateur hour logo, even if they can’t quite put their finger on what’s wrong. I’ve seen text logos with kerning that you could drive a Mack Truck through. A few more font issues – if you’re going to use off-the-shelf fonts (nothing terribly wrong with doing so) there are certain type faces that were never meant to be used for logos. Chauncery Script is one (shudder). Papyrus was cool (about six thousand logos ago). And oh yeah – while we’re talking about fonts, a logo with anything more than two font styles looks like a ransom note. Hyper kerning of words can be cool (when words are stretched out, with a lot of space between letters) but keep this in mind – when used smallish, and because the individual letters are small to begin with , hyper kerned words are usually unreadable.

#8: Throw in a ’swoosh’ for good measure

While clients and designers have generally clued into this one, there’s still the occasional outbreak (and some online logo design firms seem to be hopelessly addicted to slapping swooshes on everything from a dentist to pet shop logos). Swooshes (or swishes) were all the rage a few years ago (looked all high-techy and stuff) but now they’re a design element that translates exactly into “I dunno – didn’t have any other ideas”. I’ve seen logo portfolios that consist of one swooshy logo after another – for all practical purposes all these logos are identical and like the old TV series Dragnet, it’s just the names that have been changed. Not that we haven’t had issues ourselves. Hell, in the late 90s, we were guilty of adding a few swooshes here-and-there (okay, maybe more than a few) when the ‘dot-com’ boom was all the rage. In fact, The Logo Factory is credited with being the inspiration of Logo Hell – a look at the swoosh logo phenomenon that was first posted back in 1999. At some point the ‘thou shalt not swoosh’ was added to the TLF lexicon and while it took a little 12-step rehab, we’ve managed to stay on the ’swoosh’ wagon. We still get the occasional client who wants us to ’swoosh up’ their logo, but we generally have the ‘thou shouldn’t really’ discussion at some point. Here’s a rule of thumb – a logo that features a ’swoosh’ today, will almost certainly be coming up for a redesign in a year or two (though some high profile logo redesigns managed to get that backwards). Better to head the idea off at the pass from the get-go. A swoosh is definitely a logo to avoid.

#7: Throw in the visual kitchen sink

True story: we were developing a logo for a town to mark their bicentennial celebrations. In the original project brief, the client outlined that they wanted to add a visual reference to a famous landmark – a monument in the city square – to the design. Fair enough. The monument was unique to the town, was where most of the planned events were to take place. The initial round of preliminary designs went to committee (where many concept problems arise) and the request for modifications came back. The client wanted to add a few more things” to make the logo “wow” (roh-oh). They wanted a train, the train needed a station (obviously) so add that, there were lots of farmers so work in a barn, the barn also needed a windmill, throw in a few cows, some trees, there’s these mountains, and oh yeah, the town also looks great at sunset so if you could toss that in too, well, that would be great. And while we were at it, the residents were particularly proud of the new City Hall so toss that in to boot.

A few design elements had become a laundry list – a veritable cornucopia of disparate graphic elements, all competing for visual real estate. One of the planned uses saw the design being reproduced at just over an inch wide, and it was inevitable that every one of the elements would end up as featureless squiggles when reproduced at any size less than, oh I don’t know, 15 feet wide. The designer handling the gig voiced concerns about the complexity of the logo, but was overridden (client knows best doncha know) so each of the requested elements was sketched, rendered and added to the increasingly complex graphic. Of course, this myriad of illustrations expanded the time line significantly, so we also had an increasingly impatient client on our hands. Once the revised graphic was completed, it went once again to committee, where it was decided that well, maybe the logo was now too complicated, and maybe we could pare it down to just feature the monument from the town square. For those not paying attention, that was two weeks ago, when the preliminary logo design ideas were handed in.

Moral of this story – the simpler the better. Many often criticize The Logo Factory for our illustrative logo style, so we’re not as arbitrary in applying this ‘rule’ as perhaps we should, but generally speaking – the simpler the logo the more chance you have of if being remembered, and the less headaches you’ll have reproducing it in various applications. Read a case for simple logos for a graphic illustration of this premise.

#6: A visual cliché means never having to say ‘I’m original’

Yeah, we get it. Your logo features Stars and Stripes because you’re a good-old patriotic company. You have a globe in your logo because you’re, like global and stuff. And yeah, the little ‘tripody’ figure with the circle for a head represents some dude or another (a whole bunch represents a bunch of dudes working together in tandem). Beams of light radiating from your icon indicates that there’s so much goodness emanating from the portrayed company, it simply can’t be contained within the central graphic. Most people will fully understand that replacing a $ for an S in the logo indicates that you’re attempting to portray something to do with finance. Similarly, there’s very few designs where a molar (smiley face optional) can be found other than a logo design for a dentist. Trouble is, Murphy the Molar is used in a lot of designs for dentists. These, folks, are visual clichés, classified as such because they’ve been done, ad nauseum, to death and there’s no way, no way at all, that your logo will be viewed as original or uniquely representing you. There’s far too many to list here, but they’re usually the very first thing that pops into your head when conceptualizing a logo for one industry or another. For that very reason, they should be discarded just as quickly. It’s very rare that the very first idea that you (or your designer) will crank out is the best idea, and the first idea you have runs a very, very high risk of being a cliché.

#5: Mangled, Hidden and Sexy Time Visual Metaphors

Everyone wants their logo to mean something – to represent some vital part of the company, product or service. Fair enough, though often easier said than done. Creating a graphic image that tells a specific story about a sometimes fairly specialized business activity can be a daunting task and always runs the risk of becoming a mangled visual metaphor. Trying to crowbar many visual metaphors almost guarantees that a logo will look like something else completely. Take the Toyota logo for example. Every time I’m behind a Toyota car, the overlapping ovals always look to be a man in a cowboy hat. It isn’t. Here’s the official explanation about the design (first released in 1989 with the Lexus line of luxury autos) from Toyota’s Web site:

“The current Toyota Mark consists of three ovals: the two perpendicular center ovals represent a relationship of mutual trust between the customer and Toyota. These ovals combine to symbolize the letter “T” for Toyota. The space in the background implies a global expansion of Toyota’s technology and unlimited potential for the future.”

Now, how many people going to figure that out? Not too many I expect. Mangled metaphors can get worse too. A lot worse. Often involves sexy bits that are inadvertently created out of the negative spaces surrounding the various shapes. The original ‘designer’ often doesn’t see the implied pictures until it’s far too late, and not before a lot of people have had a few giggles and titters at their expense. Sexy time logos may be funny. But they certainly ain’t good for business.

Or the striking logo for OGC. All fine and dandy, but turn the logo that logo 90 degrees clockwise. Takes on a whole new meaning, huh? Who’s going to notice? Well, when this design was released, only about half the internet, who derided it without mercy for weeks. And the, ahm, design that looks like ’something’ being inserted into someone’s nether regions? It’s supposed to be an oriental house at sunset. All logos that started off with the best of intentions, but somehow went off the rails, their sexual connotations unnoticed until it was way too late.

Accordingly – here’s another tip. Look at your new logo from every possible viewpoint. Sideways. Upside down. At an angle. Get your pals to look at it too – if you designed your own logo, your eyes and mind are preconditioned to see the logo as you think it should be. A set of fresh eyes, who have no preconceived notion of what your new design is supposed to look like, will see the hidden ’sexy time’ metaphors before the logo is printed, oh, a thousand times or so.

#4: Put the Accent on the Wrong Syllable

Upon failing that, forget words altogether and create an acronym that nobody will figure out. The graphic version of accent on the wrong syllable occurs when we’re trying to jam several disparate elements into a logo. Often the effect is caused by stacking words on top of each other, and then stretching them out, or squeezing them in to fit within a certain shape or logo footprint. Wanting to ‘line things up’ is in a designer’s nature and working around grids has been a basic design principle since just after cave drawings. Trouble is, somethings are never meant to line up. For example, our company name is The Logo Factory. Stacked one on top of each other, The, Logo and Factory creates a visual pyramid. And I hates pyramids as the shape of a logo. I might be tempted to line everything up, but that would mean making ‘the’ as wide as the word ‘logo’ and those two words as wide as the word ‘factory’. That draws emphasis to the word ‘The’ which isn’t really important in the grand scheme of things.

Certain word combinations are awkward to design around and that’s just the way it is. It’s often at this point that designers toss out the names of the logo, creating company acronyms using the first letters of the company. Shouldn’t be an issue right? You’ll automatically think IBM (International Business Machines), GM (General Motors) and HP (Hewlett Packard). Ahem, not quite. Here’s the point about companies that use acronyms in their logo – they didn’t start out that way. At some point, the public got tired of saying, writing or speaking about the full name of the company, so they abbreviated it for ease of use. Takes a whole bunch of usage before people start to abbreviate a company name (think Federal Express who shortened their name to FedEx when customers starting referring to having a package delivered as being FedEx’ed). Abbreviating a company name at the hop (in order to avoid working with difficult combinations of words) isn’t going to help brand the company. In fact, the first question people will invariably ask upon seeing your spiffy new logo is “what do the initials stand for?” For what it’s worth, this is something I found out first hand. After typing out the phrase The Logo Factory oh, about a bazillion times, I started to abbreviate our name to the acronym TLF. Even designed a peachy logo for it. People still ask me what it ’stands’ for.

#3: Copy, steal or borrow from someone else

It was a coin-toss whether this was to be #2 or not, but we figured that clip art logos are probably the design crime that’s committed more often, so ripping on someone else’s logo slides in at #3. This would include outright ripping (”take this artwork, add my company name – change the color so that no-one will notice”) and the slightly less egregious trend-following (”I’ve noticed there’s a whole bunch of logos doing this – gel, chrome, swoosh, drop shadow, etc – I wanna logo just like theirs!”). Neither are particularly good ideas. Blatantly knocking off someone else’s logo is an immediate indication that you’re a grade ‘A’ twit, bereft of creativity, original ideas, morals and more importantly – any pride in what you do. As a designer if you present knock-offs to an unsuspecting client. Or as a business owner who uses a flagrantly purloined design. And please avoid the damn boat logo.

Used to be that you could get away with this stuff – it was unlikely that a one-man shop in one corner of the world would find out that a design doppelganger in another part of the world even existed. No more. This is the age of the internet, and it’s amazingly easy to find out when pinched design work is being used by someone else. If you throw up a shingle on the Internet, someone can find the artwork that you borrowed, send off a nasty-gram to your ISP and contact their feisty lawyer, all without leaving their monitor. Not that people don’t try – hell we feature a whole logo Copycats section dedicated to stuff that’s been ripped from our coffers – it’s just that it’s not as easy to get away with it. And nothing screams ‘unprofessional’ than designing, or using, a logo that’s clearly been influenced by someone else.

The less egregious trend-following isn’t quite as noxious, but still runs into serious problems. Over the long haul, using a design trend in a logo instantly dates the work. At some point (unfortunately sooner rather than later) your funky new logo is going to get dated. Stale. Yesterday’s news. What was cutting-edge a couple of years ago is tired and trite today. It’s even possible that the trend you’re so excited about today is already dated – unless you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the design community, by the time you even become aware of a trend it’s on the way out. Even design professionals aren’t immune to this – I wasn’t even aware of Web 2.0 logos and design sensibilities until it was already hackneyed, and I pay closer attention to what’s going on than most.

#2: Use Stock Art, Clip Art, or Photographs in Your Logo

If you’re tempted to use clip art in your logo, here’s a word of advice. Don’t. And yes, that includes so-called template sites and online ‘logo generators’. On these Flash-driven web sites, you can pick from a catalog of logo templates (*cough* clip art *cough*) and add your text (usually in a crappy, unkerned font – see #9 for why that’s bad) and download your new logo – chock full of pre-fab, unoriginal goodness. These sites (ie: Instalogo.com, Logomaker.com, Logoyes.com, LogoSnap.com, et al) can call their little pre-fab logos Fire Trucks if they want – it’s still clip art. And clip art is a ruthlessly bad idea to use in any logo. There’s dozens of reasons why – here’s the most salient – a logo is supposed to be unique. That’ alone should cure you of the desire to add that nifty pre-fab icon to your design. Once you incorporate clip art into your logo, your piece of visual identity is no longer unique.

And no, changing the size of clip art doesn’t make it unique. Neither does changing the color. Nor ‘flipping’ it around. Nor hiding bits of it behind other bits of artwork. Nor turning it on an angle. Or adding a swoosh. And if your logo is the same as someone else’s (which is inevitable when you use clip art) you’ve defeated the purpose of having a logo in the first place. Better to have no logo (and build your company through word-of-mouth) than have a logo that someone else, often more than one, is also using. Nothing says “I’m a noob to this business thing” than presenting a logo that’s the same as another company. Oh sure, you might pick a pre-fab logo that no-one else chooses, but that’s a long shot at best. If you found it, so will someone else. Now, having said that – here’s how you can use clip art. To get ideas. You may like the idea portrayed in something you’ve seen – nothing to stop you from using that as a conceptual starting point in developing your custom design (of course, you’ll want to stray far enough from the design so that you don’t run counter to #3).

Another alarming trend, thanks to Google image search and cheap stock photograph sites, and the ease of which designers – in a hurry to add an illustrative element to a logo – can rustle up some visual reference, is the addition of photo-based artwork to logos. Granted, Google image search and stock photo sites are a great way to quickly explore some obscure subject matter, as well as to obtain accurate visual reference for a design gig. Alas, some designers are going one step further – using photographs pinched from Google image search, Photos.com or Istock as the actual artwork in the logo. Oh sure, they’ll take the step of rasterizing the image, or tracing the image for your logo, but the fact remains – they’re using stolen photography to create a logo for their clients. There are several issues – the first being copyright.

A traced version of a photograph is at the very least, a derivative of a copyrighted image. That’s bad legally. Also, if you found the image through Google image search, anyone can do the same thing, so it’s a certainty that at some point you’ll get found out. Nothing screams “I’m a hack” than people knowing you traced a free photograph found on the interwebs and passed it off to a client as an ‘original’ logo. This, by the way, is so common on logo design contest sites, that it’s almost frightening. Accordingly, if you want to add an illustrative element to any logo, by all means use Google image search to obtain visual reference. Then draw the bloody thing yourself.

#1: Design your logo based on stupid lists

Like this one. Some of the ‘don’ts’ listed above are carved in stone (ie: it’s never a good idea to copy or use clip art and Microsoft Word was never meant to be a design program) but others are of the ‘in most cases’ variety. Sometimes funky spacing is called for. Maybe (though it’s hard to imagine when) a swoosh is what the Design Doctor ordered. Bottom line – if you’re adept enough at creativity, and clever enough to make unorthodox design solutions work, you can ignore many, of the caveats listed. Rules are meant to be broken and generally speaking, the more experienced you (or your designer) are, pretty well dictates how far off the reservation you can go when it comes to developing a truly creative logo solution. If you’re new to the whole logo design deal, you’ll be better served by following all of the above suggestions (and others found on ‘how to’ lists).

The more familiar you become with what’s what, the more ‘rules’ you can turf out. After all, design trends generally start when one brave soul commits what was originally thought of as an unpardonable sin, is high profile enough to be taken seriously, and their radical departure from established ‘thou shalt nots’ is emulated by a horde of other designers all seeking to be ‘ground breaking’. Who knows, maybe the swoosh will make a comeback (highly unlikely) or adding a lens flare will become the next Web 2.0 (guess that would be Web 3.0).

After all – who’s to say what makes a great logo great? And who’s really worthy of writing the end-all, be-all list of what you can, and can’t do, when it comes to developing an award worthy logo? Certainly not I – my opinion is only that. An educated one perhaps, but just an opinion nonetheless. For example, and at the risk of committing design heresy, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Nike logo – one of the most recognized icons on the planet – is not a particularly good logo. If we lived in an alternate universe, the Nike logo didn’t exist, and I were to present the ubiquitous swoosh to a client, I could expect to be questioned thusly – “I paid you $X for this piece of clip art?” (the same could be said about the Apple Computer logo, one of my faves). Now, when we pimp that same swooshy Nike logo a gazillion times, slap it on Tiger Woods and every other sports star know to mankind, you’ve got yourself a different story. A rather blasé piece of graphic design becomes a iconoclastic sports logo and a cornerstone of pop culture. Bottom line, (almost) anything goes. Push the envelope but pay attention to the basic premise of a logo – the visual encapsulation of the heart and soul of the venture being depicted. As long as it’s not designed in Microsoft Paint, isn’t a knock-off from something else and the name of the company is spelled correctly, all should be fine.

11 Comments to “Designing your logo – what not to do”
  1. Kim Hoffman says:

    The author of this article should write a book. That was the funniest, most entertaining top ten “don’t” list I think I’ve ever read. And although I’ve been in the design field for over twenty years, I will take much of what was written and apply it to my next logo design job. Thanks for the input. Very nice…

  2. I wholeheartedly endorce and agree with your sentiments and conclusions,which is why I chose your firm from all the way in the Bahamas earlier. But I now look forward to you creating a visually appealing LOGO and supporting accoutrements for the above Business Name and later maybe WEBSITE.Your work speak for itself. I would have it no other way ORIGINAL/UNIQUE presentation of my Idea.

  3. twitter.com/jacktikva says:

    I love the font they used on the ferrari logo. can I use that or is it a crime?

  4. All ten points were excellent. In today’s fast-paced environment, copying or slightly modifying logos must be really prevalent – especially with so many of us artistically challenged. My designs are very crude on their own, so I will have to use designers – that I hope create their own work.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Melissa
    San Diego Mobile Notary

  5. All 10 points were excellent. In today’s fast-paced environment, copying or slightly modifying logos must be really prevalent – especially with so many of us artistically challenged. My designs are very crude on their own, so I will have to use designers – that I hope create their own work.

    Thanks for the great article.

    Melissa
    San Diego Mobile Notary

  6. K says:

    We were advised to change our logo, to brand ourselves. We have been using a logo that was designed 2 yrs ago and we liked it very much. As a art studio we thought we should paint our own logo. Then two years later told it was crap. I am not so sure it is crap, it speaks to me. The people who advised me to do this are trying to create a logo using ‘free clip art’ from the web, I haven’t seen anything worthwhile and have rejected everything. My gut told me it was not right to use clip art for a art studio. I am going to follow my gut.

  7. mjferdz says:

    I’ve learned a lot in this article 10 DON’Ts in logo designing. I’m a trying hard graphic artist…

    Thanks for the information, I love it.

  8. Terryeh says:

    While all points are valid, some have another side to the story.
    I would counter by saying; every line, shape or curve in a logo has been done before.
    You can waist a lot of time reinventing the wheel and sooner or later someone will still find something close, and accuse you of infringement. Most clients don’t give you carte blanche and engage in supplying you with ideas. You can save a lot of time by looking around at the rest of the world. Your innovation my only be the unique way in which you put the pieces together. Then search it, with your fingers crossed, that great minds don’t think to much alike.

  9. Kimberley says:

    Thank YOU! I almost made this horrible mistake myself! I used logosnap.com and all I’m getting is clipart!

  10. Paola says:

    Hi! Am just trying to create the logo for my internet shop. I have an idea in mind, but I don’t know if it possible or not! I would like to use a drawing of the Pisa tower. Is it legal? Or do I have to change my mind.
    Thanks for your help
    Paola

  11. Rick says:

    If you try to diagnose your own illness, you may not survive. You need someone EDUCATED and TRAINED in the field of medicine to properly diagnose your condition and initiate a proper treatment program – your own ministrations will work only so long. Same goes for your company and it’s image. “Creating” your own logo, though you’re not trained in design composition or typography, etc, is the same – your business won’t last long or at the very least will not be a successful as it could be without the help of a professional designer. And I don’t mean Aunt Martha’s second cousin’s son, Ralph who can “draw pretty good”. It may look good to you, but YOU are not who needs to like it – you’re not speaking to yourself – you’re speaking to your potential/existing clients. Yes, a well-designed logo costs some serious money. But so does a good doctor. Want your company to live? Get a good designer that knows what he/she is doing.

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