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Which will you be – passive observer, collaborator or art director?

Using some everyday life examples as a starting point, we explore the various roles designers and clients can take when creating a logo together and offer some tips and suggestions to make the relationship work. We also talk about light bulbs and kittens.

Listening to experts.

Whenever I want something done, I usually acquiesce to the experts. If my motorbike is making a knock-knock noise, I take it to my mechanic and tell them “hey, my bike is making a knock-knock noise.” They’ll take a look, tell me what’s wrong and then – once I approve the cost – fix it. He, or she, is the expert and has the benefit of training, experience and technical knowledge. If I were to detect a rattle in my throat, I would take whatever advice my doctor gives me to cure it (though I imagine self-diagnosis websites like WebMd throw a wrench into this scenario from time-to-time.) Same goes for my car. My furnace. My A/C. My pond. My pool. My teeth. Even my taxes when I drop them off at my accountant.

Expertise doesn’t mean carte blanche.

Most of the time, I don’t argue with people I’ve hired as experts, Of course, these examples are more objective than design and sure, there are exceptions to them all. Take the time when my local motorcycle shop gave me an analysis for some performance issues with my bike, when I knew – KNEW – that their diagnosis was faulty. My Yamaha had lost all of its oomph, wouldn’t go above 50 and I had read about a design flaw in the fuel system – a leaky diaphragm – that would explain these very symptoms. Their mechanic had diagnosed it as a faulty clutch which as far as I knew, wouldn’t cause any of the problem at all. I pushed back for a bit, but eventually bowed to their expertise and let them chase gremlins. My bike languished in their shop for almost three months while various bits and pieces were ordered and swapped out, but it turned out I was right, they were wrong. I might have earned a semi-smug “I told ya so” and a bunch of free clutch parts but this was a hollow victory. A lot of the riding season had already passed by. That, by the way, was an anomaly but illustrates like most things in life, what I’m about to say isn’t absolute and arbitrary, takes place on a sliding scale and that paying heed to experts doesn’t necessarily mean throwing your caution to the wind. Nor accepting everything they say without question.

Working together.

While obviously more subjective than the previous examples, there’s collaborative efforts we can talk about too. Interior decoration would be a good example I suppose – I’m clueless when it comes to what’s in vogue, what looks nice when paired with what or what fabrics give off what kind of vibe. I do vaguely know however, how I’d like my living space to “feel.” Here’s the thing – I may be wrong and need to be pointed in the “not wrong” direction lest I embarrass myself at our next house party. That involves playing a kind of “I know what I want – take me there” game where I rely on the interior design expert to steer me in the direction I imagine I want, while incorporating their expert knowledge to get me where I should be. (At this point I should probably tell you, I’m not well-heeled enough to rely on interior decorators very often, so I usually turn to, and heed, my wife. The same rules apply.)

Just shy of tyrant.

Bringing things back on topic, there are areas where I’m a little more authoritative, some might say bordering on the tyrannical. Assigning artwork would be one I suppose – anyone who’s ever designed something for me might tell how much of a monster pain-in-the-ass I can be. I usually know exactly what I want (unless I don’t) – haven’t got much time for suggestions or advice (unless I do) – and expect people to give me pretty much what I ask them for (unless I didn’t.) If I ask for a logo with a light bulb in it, don’t give me a bunch of proposals with kittens because you want to be ‘creative.’ I don’t really expect you to be ‘creative,’ – other than the execution I suppose – and want light bulbs, whether you think my idea is dumb or not. See, I’m playing art director and farming this job out because a) I don’t have time to do it myself or b) you have a style, technical skill set or special talent for exactly what I have in mind. That’s not to say I’m obnoxious about this – honey vs. vinegar and all that – but make no mistake about it:

I. Know. Exactly. What. I Want.

It looks something like this:
light bulb
I took time to assemble those rough sketches, color swatches and font choices because I want you to use them, not because I want you to do the opposite. I don’t expect kittens, didn’t ask for kittens and unless your proposals featuring Fluffy the kitten are absolutely miraculous, anything off the light bulb path is simply a waste of your time. I’d see it as wasting mine too as I have a company to get going with my light bulb logo.

Total control means total responsibility.

There are, of course, some downsides to playing art director. If the resultant design that comes out of my direction is a mess, or wasn’t the greatest idea to begin with, then I assume responsibility if things go metaphorically off the rails. I’m not about to harp at the designer who I specifically requested to do things “X” way, when “X” way isn’t really what I wanted after all. Maybe kittens WERE better, but it would be unreasonable to get ticked off because they didn’t propose anything but light bulbs. That would actually amount to challenging the would-be art directors’ direction and nine times out of ten would only frustrate the client – in this instance me – anyway. Further, it takes a particularly gutsy designer to tell their art-directing client, more-or-less, that the idea they’re so set on is flawed. And a special kind of soft-shoe finesse to present completely radical concepts that are at odds with a personally concocted idea. In most cases it would be interpreted as uncooperative rather than creative – “that’s not what I asked for” – and a designer runs the risk of pissing off a client by upending established roles halfway through a project.

All of this brings us full circle, to the roles of client and designer, when it comes to designing a logo. What role should you assume? Short version – go back, take out every field and scenario upstairs that doesn’t already involve a logo and a designer, and replace it with a logo and a designer. Now, pick one and try to be flexible. Or read on..

The designer as arbitrator.

slider 2 designer
In its most absolute terms, this would involve a designer having complete control. They show the client some logo stuff, the client signs off without question, everybody goes about their business. It takes a level of ego and confidence in work that most designers – myself included – usually don’t possess, even if they really believe in a concept, as well as a level of trust from the client bordering on religious. Not surprisingly, this is the role that many designers – myself included – secretly yearn to assume. It’s headache free, less time-intensive than a drawn-out process and satisfying in the ego department to boot. Realistically speaking, it’s a pipe-dream for most of us, most of the time, unless it’s our own projects, where we do have complete control. Even then, that process is usually fraught with self-doubt (read a lengthy treatise when I had complete control over The Logo Factory’s own logo redesign here and here) and designers tend to be their own worst clients – demanding while unsure, impatient for outcomes while simultaneously needing to pursue an endless buffet of options before settling on anything. I’d have fired myself as a client more times than I care to remember.

“Designers tend to be their own worst clients – demanding while unsure, impatient for outcomes while simultaneously needing to pursue an endless buffet of options before settling on anything.”

Absolute control for a designer is academic anyway – with few exceptions, clients aren’t willing to turn over their brand development completely, regardless of how much of an expert their designer might be or how much trust they’ve earned. Nor should they – the result of a logo project will be a design that you have to live with for (hopefully) a long, long time. However, and on a sliding scale, if you’ve hired an expert in any field to do something – designing your logo in this instance – you should at least recognize that expertise and factor in their advice. How much is up to you, but suffice to say it should be substantial. Most designers know things about logos that you simply don’t. No biggie, just as you’re the expert in your day gig, they’re the expert in theirs. They know what works, what doesn’t. What fonts pair nicely with others. What ideas are cliche, overdone and trite, what’s been done to death, what hasn’t. A designer worth their salt will understand how a logo will implement across a wide range of media and platforms as well as how it will adapt to use in things like social media. While “this works” from a visual point of view is completely subjective, “this doesn’t work” from a technical point of view, isn’t. A logo that isn’t set up proficiently will cause you untold grief down the road.

Bottom line – this is your designer’s bag. So allow them to tell you about their bag. Especially if you don’t have a preconceived notion of what you want. And try to be open-minded. In my many years of helming The Logo Factory, I’ve seen some absolutely brilliant concepts tossed aside for pedestrian ones because the client wouldn’t entertain the designer’s creativity. I certainly wouldn’t want someone to brand their company with a logo they hate, just because some self-professed ‘expert’ told them it was groovy, but if the proposed concepts don’t immediately make you cringe, at least be open to the pitches. You may realize your designer’s unorthodox idea really does rock after all.

Logo award books are full of this stuff.

In practical terms this example may be relevant – while most dentists want a version of a logo that features Murphy the Molar, it’s not those cliched logos that grab people’s attention in the local newspaper, the unique ones do. Those ideas came from somewhere other than the dentists because Murphy the Molar is almost always their go-to guy.

Having said all that, this assumes that the designer you’re working with is an expert to begin with. Your neighbor’s nephew with a hacked version of Illustrator ain’t it. Nor are most of the folks you’ll run into on contest platforms, regardless of what the operators claim, or those slick banner ads might say. While there’s really no such thing as a Department of Logos at Harvard, nor a governing body that oversees the development of brands, you’ll still need to find someone whose expertise is obvious – a gallery of logos you like, a wealth of experience and more than a passing knowledge of what’s what. Self-serving plug here – that might be The Logo Factory but it might not be. My Twitter feed is full of some very capable and knowledgeable designers who are more than up to the task.

Pro tip: If you’re letting a designer do their thing, don’t get pissed off if pitched concepts aren’t your cup of tea. At the end of the day, the quicker they get your project out the door, the better for them, and spending more time developing novel ideas is a designer trying to expand your options, not delay the launch of your new company.

Pro tip: Even if you really, really, don’t like their ideas, telling any designer “I could have done this in five minutes using Paint” isn’t helpful. It also isn’t true. A designer can whip things up in five minutes that would take someone else hours and anything done in Paint, or similar, will not work for almost every practical application.

Designer and client as (almost) equal collaborators.

slider 3 collaboration
The description of collaborative roles is in the middle of this article because it’s literally in the middle of our sliding scale of options. It combines understanding that your designer is an expert in their field, while factoring in some low level art direction because after all, this is your logo we’re talking about. It’s the best of both worlds and where designers and clients usually manage to cobble together some decent work.

How do you know if this fits for you? Well, you probably have a vague notion of what you want. A wordmark, iconic symbol or a more illustrative approach. You know the kind of vibe you think your company should give off – cutting edge or classical, whimsical or serious, old or young, happening or conservative. Pretty well all the stuff you don’t know when you need to rely on someone else in total. Your designer may have some suggestions you’re open to, but you’re almost set in what you want your logo to “say” while not sure exactly how your logo is going to say it. While this is potentially the most frustrating of our role scenarios, it’s usually the way most effective logo design projects play out. It involves your designer gathering some information about your niche industry via research – made easier in this era of Google – perhaps looking at your competitors, the companies you admire and conversely, those you don’t, to see how they all present themselves visually. This all goes into a collaborative stew, and some creative ideas will percolate to the surface. Some ideas will be appropriate, some not so much, but between an open exchange of concepts, points and counterpoints, you’ll hone in on a design that works for your needs.

“It can be frustrating, teeth-pulling and sometimes exhaustive for both you and the designer but always keep this in mind – you’re both working towards the end-zone.”

It can be frustrating, teeth-pulling and sometimes exhaustive for both you and the designer but always keep this in mind – you’re both working towards the end-zone. Your role in this ‘partnership’ is profound – while the designer is off on some other project the minute your business cards get printed, you gotta live with this puppy for a very long time.

There are things that need to be figured into a more collaborative equation – budget for example. Going back to the beginning, I can only expect my harried landscaper or interior decorator to show me so many options before having to bill me for more of their time. Just because we’re working together and all buddy-buddy, I’m asking them to do what they do until I like it, and that doesn’t give me a license to the rest of their life, even if they really love interior designing or landscaping. Kinda brings to mind logo design contests and “unlimited logo revisions” nonsense, but I digress.

Pro tip: This role involves a relationship with your designer and them putting it “out there” on your behalf. I often tell people at the studio “never take it personal” and “don’t get married to any design” but like most advice, it’s heeded almost none of the time. Be patient – you will get there.

The client as art director.

slider 4 client art director
If you have a very clear notion of what you want in a logo, aren’t terribly open to someone else’s concepts and ideas, this is probably the role you’re going to assume. Self-serving reasons aside, I don’t recommend this unless you’ve a decent understanding of design, logos and branding. While someone once told me “unless the client IS an art director, they shouldn’t play one,” it’s not very practical when end-users – business owners and the like – and designers work directly with each other. Also, in this do-it-yourself era of the entrepreneur, it’s only to be expected that business people would take a more hands-on approach to this area of their business too.

What makes a client the art director? I guess the more specifics you supply to a designer, the closer you come to assuming the role. No arbitrary cut-off really – sending a designer a few images of logos you like certainly isn’t it. Neither is sending them some jot notes of random ideas and concepts you’ve had. Nor is brainstorming with associates over what you want your logo to “say” or look like. When you supply sketches, specific font selections and color swatches, you’re pretty close indeed. When your feedback on concepts is micro-tweaking – “move this over there, change that to blue, use this font and reduce that by 20%,” you’ve taken on the role of an art director whether you realize it or not. Your expectations are the deal breaker but as long as you understand the designer is now working almost completely under your direction – not prone to moving far outside of it – things should go swimmingly.

“Don’t expect your designer to give you a bunch of unrelated creative concepts as you’ve already told them exactly what you need and they’re trying their damnedest to give it to you.”

Don’t expect your designer to give you a bunch of unrelated creative concepts as you’ve already told them exactly what you need and they’re trying their damnedest to give it to you. Here’s something to think about too – you don’t really need a designer specialized in logos for this kind of set-up – unless it’s for their specific ‘style’ or technical expertise. Anyone with a working knowledge of vector-based drawing software and a decent library of fonts should be able to render up a version of your design. As much as my designer pals may resent me for this but, plagiarism issues aside, maybe a logo design contest (where you’re art director by default) may suffice. Or remember that nephew of your neighbor we talked about earlier? Maybe him. But have your file setup checked by a pro before you go to town.

As a de facto art director you’re hiring someone to push pixels into the logo you’ve already conceptualized and roughly designed. Nothing wrong with that per se and many designers actually like this set-up, notwithstanding the lack of creative challenge. While it treats them as a technician as opposed to an artist, it does saves them time, revision cycles and a lot of mental energy. Bottom line – they are your hands. Now be the art director and tell them what you want.

But if you ask for light bulbs, don’t expect kittens.