prepping-digital-logo-assets-for-vinyl-plotters

It’s always nice to have a logo that looks “nice” but it’s stuff under the hood that makes it work. Often invisible to clients, unless they have the appropriate software, how a logo is setup is just as important as the design itself. Here’s how to prep digital assets for blade cutting with vinyl plotters.

Going to warn you up front, this is going to be one of those dry technical pieces that’ll probably end up in our Design Help Center. If that’s not your bag, it’s probably not for you. However, if you’re a designer (or a design buyer who’s trying their hand at a little bit of DIY stuff) it might be worth a once over. We’re going to talk about logos (natch) but not the design of same. Rather, we’re going to take a look at a (not so) common issue with the technical set up of logo assets – vector versions in particular – and how we can solve it pretty quickly. This post presupposes you have at least a working knowledge of Illustrator (or similar) and the concept of vector files.

Shapes on top of shapes.

Whenever you design a logo (or get one designed) you’ll end up with (or should end up with) artwork that is made up of vector shapes. Those are the point-to-point polygons that make up the design itself. For this exercise, we’re going to use a recent logo project from the shop – the brand for Rak Racing Team. Here’s what the logo looks like visually:
rak-logo-design-colorsTechnically speaking, those logos are built up from color-filled overlapping shapes – vectors – that look like this when selected in illustrator:vector-shapes-filledThis is even more apparent when we turn the preview feature off and view the design in wireframe:
vector-shapes-outlineUnless you’ve made a very grave error and designed your logo in Photoshop, this is what every single logo in the history of ever looks like “under the hood.” As long as you have that version of your artwork you’re golden – it is the source file from which everything flows. You’ll be able to create images for websites. Use it on various marketing applications like business cards and letterheads, brochures and mailers. You can print it on a T-shirt, plaster it on coffee mugs. There’s one use that is less common – yet equally as important when it’s required – and that’s plotting. What’s that you ask? That’s when you take a logo to create vinyl or similar – peel and stick is the general idea – that’s based on the different colors in the logo. In this instance, the logo was going to be plastered all over a racing car. Vinyl is cheaper than painting the whole vehicle and easier to replace in terms of the dents and scratches the cars get on a regular basis. The various colors are literally cut out of sheets of vinyl, peeled off and stuck on whatever surface they’re going on. Can we just use this logo as is? No, we can’t. The vinyl is cut by a plotter blade which follows the outline of each individual vector. Trouble is, the vectors are sitting on top of each other so the blade will cut follow each outline to a tee, cutting the vinyl into a morass of unnecessary and extraneous shapes. Here’s what the plotter blade would do to this logo if we just send it “as is.”:
logo-vinyl-plotter-artThe blade doesn’t know where one shape starts and another ends so it just tears around cutting the vinyl wherever it “sees” an outline. That’s not good. What we actually want is three separate colors (plus a white base if we’re going to place on a colored background.) Here’s the goal we’re after:RAK-Racing-Logo-cut-outLuckily, there’s a real easy fix for this (in Illustrator) using the “trim” tool under the Pathfinder menu:logo-design-illustrator-trim-pathfinderSimply choose “all” in the “Select” menu and hit that little “trim” button. What you’ll end up with is something that looks like this:trimmed-logo-design-artIf you’ll notice, there are no longer any overlapping vectors, nor objects that are sitting on top of each other. We’re not quite finished yet, because even though we’ve trimmed the design, there are still redundant vectors where objects of the same color are separate shapes even though they’re touching and the plotter blade will still cut through those. We have to join those up and once again, Illustrator gives us a relatively easy way to do that. Let’s start by selecting all the pieces of the logo that are supposed to be yellow (we can do this by shift-clicking on them or by using the “Same Fill Color” option under the Select menu.) Once that’s done, we go back to our Pathfinder toolbox and use the “Unite” button. Like so:select-same-color-use-unite-pathfinderRepeat that sequence for all the colors in your logo and you’ll end up with art that looks something like this:trimmed-logo-art-colorsIf you wanted to be a perfectionist you could also remove some of the redundant vector points that are sometimes created when using the Pathfinders (bottom of the “R” and “A” in Rak for this example) but that’s up to you. If you imagine the vinyl decals as a series of layers, you may also want to remove unnecessary blade cuts on the bottom layers (you’ll notice I edited out the “T21” and “RACING TEAM” from the blue below.) How far you want to take this depends on how your sticker or sign maker would like you to. Some shops like to overlay as much as possible, others might like to tightly register the various colors so that the overall art sits flat on the surface you’re sticking it on.logo-trimmed-cut-vinylThe only thing to remember is that you may also need a white base for the various colors to “sit” on, but that’s a snap (you should probably do this at the beginning when the logo is still intact.) Simply run an “offset path” around the entire logo (using the “Path” option under the “Option” menu) and you’re all set. Remember, this needs to be solid without any cuts in it, so use the “Hide” option under the “Option” menu to turn it off while you’re trimming the rest of the logo.

Caveats & precations.

Couple of things to keep in mind here – firstly, this process is destructive so never, ever, ever, do this to the only version of a logo you have (do a “save as” before beginning.) Also, this version isn’t really appropriate for printing (the artwork doesn’t overprint so there’s a chance the edges of individual shapes might show up.) Depending on what software you’re using (Illustrator does this often) if exporting as raster images (.PNGs. JPGs and the like) it’s quite possible that there’ll be some hinkies at the edges too. For any of these applications, it’s always better to use the overlapping version we started off with.