We originally titled this feature 50 Shades of Grey even though, shameless hucksterism and bandwagon jumping aside, this post isn’t about the movie that bears the name. Nope, it’s about your logo in black, single colors and everything you need to know. It may well involve grey. And a whole bunch of shades that are technically tints..

It’s certainly a colorful world. We’ve been talking about logos and color a lot recently – see choosing great logo colors for more – and many of you are probably wondering why we’re talking about black as a color at all (other than to crowbar the name of a movie into a blog post subtitle.) That may be true (the idea IS to get people to read this blog) but black as a color – especially when it comes to logo design and branding – isn’t quite dead yet. In fact, it’s more alive than ever. If we take a look at our 100 Most Valuable Brand Logos infographic, we’ll see that – after blue – black is the most frequently used color for identity design, beating out Orange, Red, Yellow and Green (Purple too.)

In terms of color psychology as it applies to branding, there’s a very legit reason why that should be. Here’s the appropriate bit pulled off that infographic which explains it quite nicely:

Black is very serious. It represents wealth (tuxedos are black for a reason,) elegance and sophistication. It is a no-nonsense color and black is still used by a lot of fabulously successful brands. Apple, judged both the biggest (and one of the most innovative) companies in the world, eschewed rainbow colors in their logo back in 1998, adopting a simple black or white icon that they’ve kept ever since (though it appears with a greyscale chrome effect when a fancier version is needed.)
misc black white apple logos
It’s safe to say that if Apple is using a monochrome logo, it’s pretty safe for you to use a monochrome logo too. Among the top 100 brands, the majority do.

top-100-brand-stat-pie-chartsAm I suggesting that all logos should be black, grey or monochrome? No, far from it. Color is, and will remain, an integral part of most effective brand systems. Though, if you’re a design buyer, you should be at least open to the suggestion. If you’re a designer, you should be at least open to suggesting it. Remember, black (or monochrome) logos are the most versatile.
They can be printed black on white, reversed white on black, and are lovely when used in areas where you have no control over the surrounding graphic colors. Think social media platform Twitter and Facebook with their cacophony of sometimes conflictingly colorful “user generated content.” The pics, slides and shares on Twitter and Facebook have no rhyme or reason, and The Logo Factory uses a neutral black version to compensate for that. Monochromatic logos can also be printed as any one color you choose – great for trinkets like coffee mugs and pens – and where a more complex multi-colored logo may present some technical (read: expensive) challenges. A black (or monochrome) design is the logo stripped to its quintessential simplicity.

Black and greyscale.

Technically. greys aren’t shades of black at all. Shades are created when you add black to a color to make it darker. Greys are tints of black. Tints are what happen when you add white to a color to make it lighter. (Perhaps a more accurate title for “50 Shades of Grey” would be “50 Tints of Black” but as the title actually refers to the personality swings of lead character Christian Grey, I digress.) In terms of using logos in black and white, greyscales are quite literally scales of grey, a full ‘scale’ looking like this (depending on your monitor setup, you may not be able to see the slight tonal shifts at each end of the scale):

Accordingly, if you want to use a primarily black logo, but still give it a little “something,” we can always add a grey to jazz things up a bit. Like so:

What we have to keep in mind here is contrast – the tonal difference between two greys. It’s difficult for the eye to differentiate between tones that are too “close” together. Also, greys that are high percentages of black simply look like black. Similarly, greys that are very low percentages of black simply look like white.

Color logos as black, white and greyscales.

So what about if your logo is already color-rich? Black, white and greyscales shouldn’t matter to you, right? Not so fast. Even if your logo is the most colorful design imaginable, you’re still going to need black and white versions at some point. Think of places where you either a) can’t use color – things like faxes and checks for example, b) items where you don’t want the additional expense of printing in color – newspaper ads, invoices, purchase orders and the like and finally, c) merchandise where print colors are either limited to solid inks, or full-color printing is either not available or stupidly expensive. Think giveaway trinkets like pens, mugs, frisbees, keychains and other ‘real’ merchandise. Die-cut vinyl is another excellent example. How does all this play out? Let’s take a look at a highly complex, extremely color-laden example from our logo design gallery, the brand we designed for Papa’s Sports Lounge & Casino:
Converting this logo to a greyscale version isn’t terribly difficult, though it did require adjusting the tonal contrast a bit:
That artwork is suitable for most black & white applications where the resolution is sufficient for the little dots that make up the various screens of grey. But what about applications that aren’t? Where we’ll need solid black, or monochrome, artwork to play with. That’s not so easy. We have to create another version completely, removing a lot of the detail that was “held together” by varying tonal percentages. This is what the solid version – 100% black – ends up looking like:
logo design solid black
The beauty about this kinds of setup is that we can treat it exactly like a monochrome logo and print them in any solid color we feel like, on mugs, pens and other merchandise that requires a design made up of solid areas:

I should point out that this setup is only for printing on very light backgrounds – preferably white – and will not work particularly well on dark backgrounds. Why?

X eyes.

Any logo that features a face needs to be set up for print on dark backgrounds because if we simply reverse the image out, letting the black background show through, it takes on a X-Ray appearance that’s really quite nasty, – particularly if the design features eyes. Here’s what happens if we simply print the artwork using white ink:
We either have to use a white base below the artwork or create yet ANOTHER version of the logo. I’ve seen this happen so many times, it’s probably worth an entire blog post on it’s own (but here’s a graphic that illustrates the issues and the fixes.)

Using a solid black logo in color printing.

While you’d think using a black logo in color (CMYK) printing would be a simple matter, it’s actually a little complicated, especially if we’re after optimum results. How so? Well, as we pointed out in our guide to color spaces a while back, four-color printing is called that because it literally uses four colors: C – Cyan (Blue,) M – Magenta (Red,) Y – Yellow (Yellow) and K – Black (the K stands for “key”.) This kind of printing is referred to as subtractive color mixing:
cmyk printing subtractive mixing
Basically what that fancy term means is this – varying percentages of the four color inks are printed on top of each other, stopping the paper from reflecting light (subtracting it) to varying degrees. The more ink, the less light reflected. So what’s the issue with solid black in a logo? Well, if we set up our artwork in Pantone Process Black (or “key” black) its color break-down will look something like this:
pantone-black-solid-colorFair enough, right? Not really. First of all, when process black ink dries it’s actually a very dark grey. Second, when anything is printed on paper, the paper absorbs a small percentage of the ink. Bottom line, the 100% Process Black won’t end up stopping 100% reflection of the paper, and it won’t appear as a nice jet black. Rather, your logo will appear listless and dull, surrounded by artwork that’s probably pretty vibrant and colorful. That’s not good. There’s a rather simple solution to this, though you’d be amazed how many inexperienced designers don’t do the following when preparing brand assets that feature solid blacks. We can create a true black (also known as a”Rich Black” or “Built Black”) that includes percentages of the other colors too. Like so:
built-black-solid-colorDesigners will differ on the percentages of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow they add, but the above formula is pretty “safe.” You can actually adjust the color temperature of the black in your logo: cooler by adding more Cyan, warmer by adding more Yellow. So why don’t we set up all blacks in a printed piece like this? This “rich black” technique is only suitable for areas where registration (how tightly the colors have to butt against each other) isn’t an issue. Things like large black color fields and bold, blocky art – your logo would be the appropriate example here. If we try to use this rich black on areas where registration IS an issue – small text, the information on your business card for instance – we run a very high risk of this happening:
using-black-typeThat equates into blurry type that may be difficult to read, becoming harder the smaller the type. Here’s the bottom line – when prepping artwork that includes a solid black logo as well as readable type – let’s say a letterhead – we need to utilize two types of black. A rich black, as outlined above, for solid black areas in the logo. And a “key” black for the type.

This assures that everything will look lickety-split when it comes back from the print shop.