Case study: How trying, unsuccessfully, to work a famous landmark into a logo created a great design and ultimately, the backbone of an entire brand direction.
The preamble: In any logo design project there’s often different roles for client and designer – the client can take an active one or to varying degrees a more passive role, putting their brand in the hands of their designer. All can work out in the end, but it’s been my experience that the most successful projects are the result of a more symbiotic relationship – client and designer working together. With that in mind, projects for lawyers and legal firms can sometimes be quite difficult. There’s already a preconceived notion of what the logo should be: credible, conservative, secure – there’s a solid rational why a lot of legal logos are blue (See this color psychology infographic for more.) Most projects start off with the client wanting to be “different,” avoiding typical legal symbology – gavels, courthouse steps, lady justice statues, roman columns and the like. At some point however, they invariably end up requesting variations of at least one of those. The project for Brett Firm – a copyright and trademark specialist in Washington DC – started off pretty much the same way. I’m not going to show, or explain the rationale behind all the proposals, suffice to say most were pretty typical. The company is based in Washington, deals with Federal trademark and copyright bureaucracies so some locale-centric imagery was in the creative brief off the hop. There was a request for cherry blossom trees in bloom (apparently a big thing in the district.)
Try as you might, these logos tend to look a little ‘clip-arty‘ and aren’t terribly dynamic to work with. Despite some competent illustration of the tree and its flowers, it’s a little scratchy (Note the Washington Monument in the background. We’ll come back to that in a minute.) Discarding the cherry blossom idea, there were font only treatments:
There were icon versions that tried to work in the (then) acronym of the company into one graphic:
That was also quite competent – I still think this design would look decent as a brass plaque outside an office door – but nothing to write home about either. The one thing that struck the client was The Washington Monument in the cherry blossom variation. That was certainly Washington-centric. It practically screamed DC. They requested we focus on that.
Five pounds sugar. Twenty pound bag.
Trouble is the monument, as awesome as it might be, is a pretty nondescript structure when taken out of context. There’s nothing terribly defining – it’s more-or-less a giant needle. Or a pencil. Or anything that is really tall, pointy and skinny. Bottom line – it doesn’t fit as a logo component at all. While we’re often asked to crank too much detail into a logo – ten pounds sugar, five pound bag – this was the opposite of that. Not enough detail to make the design relevant. Too much tall. Not enough wide. These types of concepts are sometimes difficult for clients to grasp, a little hard to explain, and I’ve always found that showing someone why their idea doesn’t work is always faster, and more effective, than trying to tell them. To illustrate the issues with The Washington Monument, I nicked a photo from Wikipedia and broke it down into some basic graphic components:
The trouble with incorporating tall skinny icons into a logo is that it creates a really uncomfortable aspect ratio. Depending on how large the monument shape is, we either have a logo with a completely impractical footprint, or the shape isn’t recognizable as anything other than a pointy sliver. Especially if used smallish, like on business cards and whatnot.
Sure, there were other avenues to explore. Rather than just slapping the monument icon on top of the logotype, we could incorporate the shape into, and within, parts of of the logo itself. Perhaps a standalone icon using ‘B’ – the first initial of the company name. A tad better I suppose, but the same issue remains. Too tall and skinny, and too small to be recognizable:
I swapped things around a bit in terms of sizing and cropping, but once we lost the shape of The Washington Monument, it ceased looking like, well, The Washington Monument and more like pencils and pens.
Remember, I only did these exercises to show the client why their idea didn’t work, not as proposals for something that did. Kinda ironic then that every time I looked at the graphic representation of The Washington Monument, I didn’t see that. I saw something else. This is an example of a phenomenon called pareidolia – when your brain involuntarily interprets shapes into things it recognizes. It’s why people see faces on Mars, or Jesus in burnt toast. In our context, think a Rorschach Test for logos. In any case, I didn’t see a famous Washington monument. I saw an airplane. A paper one. Taking off.
Huh. That was cool and all, but lack of cohesion with the original creative brief notwithstanding, even when done up as a paper airplane the aspect ratio of the design was still off. I suppose we could mess with the size relationship of the plane and its vapor trail to a large ‘B’ icon:
That was okay I guess, but the plane was still far too small. I still wanted to throw a hat-tip to the Washington Monument, if only in its basic shape, and that didn’t happen in this configuration. What if we, oh I dunno, turned the plane and related accoutrements on its side and overlay it on the typeface?
Crazy I know but..
Well, I’ll be damned. Not such a crazy idea after all. But what exactly did all this have to do with legal, lawyers and IP? Well, Intellectual Property is at its core, an idea. Paper airplanes are a decent symbol for ideas. And by consulting on intellectual matters, the company was helping those ideas take flight. That worked on many levels. Accordingly, I added a tagline to the logo like so:
Now that’s a winner. I pitched the package to the client and they were delighted. We had a novel approach to a sometimes stodgy niche. We had a solid concept. We were still referencing the Washington monument (apparently Washington is pretty famous for their airport too, so bonus points for working in a plane.) I tried taking the design a little further, matching up some angles to the typography (my OCD is like that.) That changed the paper airplane into a stealth bomber thing:
A classic case of “a bridge too far.” By getting pedantic about angles – as designers are prone to do – we had overreached by a country mile. Changing the plane took away its original charm. A stealth bomber certainly represented something other than wonderful ideas. Blowing stuff up perhaps? The vapor trails no longer matched the Washington Monument proportions, so that hat-tip was lost too. Nope. We had nailed it in our first go-round. Here it is again, with black and white greyscale & linear versions added:
I really like this design. So does the client (when someone starts referring to a part of a logo as theirs – as in “my plane” – you know as a designer you’ve done your job.) A win-win.
If this particular project teaches us anything, it is this – designers need to be open to client ideas. Clients need to be open to designer ideas. Even seemingly cliche notions can be explored because sometimes bad ideas can turn into good ones, seemingly daft concepts into great ones. Expecting a client to work as an art director usually is fraught with peril, as is expecting a designer to create an identity in a vacuum.) Finally, the most seemingly ridiculous ideas can sometimes coalesce into something half decent. Which brings us to.
The Reverse Engineer.
As designers we always like to rationalize great designs from our portfolios with intricate back-stories, visual metaphors and whatnot. While it might tend towards a dog-and-pony show at times, It’s still an integral part of the design process and certainly not something to scoff at. I’m as guilty as the next and whenever I’m talking about this logo in the future, I’ll proudly point out the message embedded in the design. I’ll happily explain the visually metaphoric aspect of the plane and “ideas take flight” concept. How the vapor trails are the exact angle of the Washington Monument – a hat-tip to the location of the firm. Everyone will think this is a clever little design and a really decent solution to a branding problem. I’ll just neglect to mention that I stumbled on this solution completely by accident.
That will remain our little secret.