A comprehensive guide to the logo design process and designing quality logos.
Over the years, and after thousands of logo design projects under our belt, I’m often asked about our logo design work-flow. How our studio works and how we tackle such a wide-range of different projects. An interesting question to be sure, and not one that can be answered easily, or arbitrarily. After all, every logo is different (the entire point of the exercise) and every logo design process is unique to each project we get hired for. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been tackling this question, planning an interactive Flash presentation even, and in the planning stages came up with various flow charts that attempt to illustrate, as accurately as I can, the entire logo design process from start-to-finish. Occurred to me that the graphics looked almost like a subway map, or a road map, so figured it might be worth while writing a blog post that outlined some of the processes we use at the shop, as well as diagramming the work-flow of the various kind of projects we handle. Might be of some use to other designers, or clients, to see what options are available, as well as the various steps involved. I’ll warn you now, this post is pretty lengthy, and has some monster-sized graphics. If you’re cool with that, read on.
Selecting the right kind of logo
We’ve basically broken down the types of logos into three main categories (we actually use four but will ignore graphic for this exercise) – text or font based, iconic and illustrative. Which type of logo is appropriate for which project depends, to a large degree, on the market demographic and target audience. While a cartoon illustration design may be cool for some web site, it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for a home builder selling million dollar homes. Usage plays a big part too, as various media applications have caveats and restrictions – if your logo is going to be applied fifteen feet tall in vinyl lettering to the side of your truck fleet, best to have a simple logo than a complex design full of blends and drop shadows. I’ve attempted to build these concepts into the first part of our road map – selecting the right kind of logo. While nothing is set-in-stone, or arbitrary, the grey boxes represent types of logos that may, or may not, be appropriate. White boxes represent logo types that certainly are.
Business (or product) name
Whether or not you use the full legal name of a company in any logo is usually a matter of choice. For example, our full name is The Logo Factory Incorporated (usually abbreviated to Inc) but we never use it, settling for the truncated version The Logo Factory. Some market segments may require that an LLC or a CO to be tacked on, and if that’s the case, best consult with your attorney. Using an acronym in a logo is not generally not a good idea unless A) you have an exceptionally long name or B) your company or product has a great deal of established traction in the marketplace. We tinkered with using the abbreviated form TLF to represent our company a few years ago, but spent more time explaining what the letters meant than it was worth.
Market and target demographic
This is often over-looked by both designers and clients alike. Who is the logo being designed for? The designer? Nope. The client? Uh-uh. It should be designed for the customers of the client. In order to select the right type of logo route it’s critical to understand the demographics of the target audience. Take a look at the most successful competitor in your area, and see what they’re doing. Copying logos is never cool, but it will certainly give you an idea of the kind of logo approach to take. And with that, on to the logo design road maps.
I’ve set up the road maps like a typical flow chart, running from top to bottom. The dotted lines represent steps in the process that are iteration heavy, usually involving a back-and-forth between the designer and the client. Stuff that needs explaining, with examples from our logo design portfolio, are below each diagram. Keep in mind that nothing in these road maps is carved-in-stone, and there’s lots of overlap between the various logo types described. On the plus side, they’re not as complicated as they seem at first blush. Ready? Let’s have at it.
Text logo road map
The text logo road map is also included as part of both the iconic and illustrative maps.
Custom or ‘off-the-shelf’ fonts
Used to be that using a custom-built font for almost every logo was the way to go, but with the number of excellent fonts available these days, it’s almost counter-productive. That’s not to say you can’t customize portions of words made up from off-the-shelf, so that’s been added as an option in our text logo flow chart. The Logo Factory logo is a good example of this approach.
According to Wikipedia “serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols.” Think of them as little tails and feet in the typeface. While serif fonts are considered to be more legible in print as body copy, there are some resolution issues when used electronically, especially in smaller sizes. On the other hand, serif fonts can represent stability and are often appropriate for conservative and traditional businesses.
Sans serif comes from the French word ‘sans’ meaning, quite literally “without.” As in without the little tails and feet we just talked about. While serif fonts may have a leg-up in the print world, it could be argued that sans serif typefaces read more effectively in the electronic world. Accordingly, sans serif fonts are often appropriate for modern, web-based or trendy new businesses.
Italic fonts are slanted, generally to the right, and are often used to emphasize portions of phrases. Italic letters can also represent speed or a sense of urgency. Keep in mind that there are some legibility issues with italic fonts, especially at small sizes, and particularly on the web. Italic logos also can present some issues when selecting a complimentary font for collateral marketing material.
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. 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.
A tagline is a little sentence, usually under the logo, that describes in several words the company, or the company’s core activity. Using a tagline (also known as a strapline) in a logo is not recommended from a design perspective (the lettering is often too small to be legible) but almost always demanded by clients eager to tell the world what it is their company does. That’s perfectly understandable, so it’s often beneficial to design a logo that can be featured with, and without a tagline. Once the company is established, we can drop it.
I’ve added the selection of colors well into the design process as that’s were it belongs. It’s often beneficial to design logos in black and white so that we’re not relying on colors to define bits and pieces of the design (a foolhardy notion if the logo is ever to be reproduced as black and white). There are three main color choices we can make here – one color, spot color or four color process. Choose wisely here, as the colors you select will determine the hassle, expense and compatibility of your logo for its entire shelf life.
The legals portion of all our road maps is two-fold. The first is whether or not to add a ‘TM’ or “®” to the logo. The difference between the TM and the R-in-a-circle comes down to a) a matter of taste (if you have in fact registered the trademark or b) if you haven’t registered the logo but are claiming a trademark (in which case you can only use the ‘TM’ addition). See here for more information on trademarking a logo. The second part of the legals section is the transfer of ownership of the logo from the designer to the client, so that the proper copyrighting and trademarking is possible.
Setting up logo files correctly is perhaps the most important step in the logo design process, yet it is often the area given the least attention with designers failing to edit their working files into versions that are ready for print, web and other uses. You’d be amazed at some of the crap setups I’ve seen in my day when designers ship their ‘working files’ rather than correctly formatted ones. Not going to re-hash everything here – for more information on logo file formats, see our technical tutorial area. See here for a file format quick reference guide.