Spot colors & blends in logo design

A look at using gradients with spot colors and how NOT to use a quirky file setup that drives printers and other designers insane.

(Apologies in advance for the awful rhyme but..) Flat. Flat. Flat. Is it really where it’s at? Everybody’s been going on about “flat design” as the “latest The Logo Factor designer editionand greatest” logo trend for the past year or so. Fair enough I suppose, but logo trends being what they are, the pendulum will probably swing back at some point in the not too distant future (why designing with “trends” is a bad idea to begin with.) Besides, so-called flat design isn’t anything new. It was actually a thing back in the mid-90s, when the Internet was in its infancy. See, when blended graphics are turned into JPG format, the files sizes are bigger than those that aren’t. Even a line that’s not perfectly straight will need aliasing – multiple colors of pixels to preview – and that upped the file size. No big deal today, but really bad when most people were on 14K dialup modems and download speeds were brutally slow, bandwidth horribly expensive. One solution was to use indexed GIF images – much smaller – but at the (then) limited color palette of 216 colors, anything with gradients tended to pixelate very badly and color was hit-and-miss at best. Designers blew their brains out trying to keep file size small and colors accurate. Accordingly, a lot of us were pushing flat graphics (in our case logos) for a few years as a technical work around. For example, this is how my website home page looked in 1996, better part of twenty years ago:


Flat. Flat. Flat. Limited color palette and not a blend in sight. Not because of any “trend” but purely out of technical considerations. By using a reduced number of colors and blend-free artwork, I was able to use this image at twice the image size, at less than a third of the original file size (as an aside, you can see where our original Logo Factory house came from.) Once download speeds lightened up, bandwidth charges dropped and available color palettes expanded, designers were once again free to create fancy-schmancy artwork with blends and gradients. And we did full bore.

Flat is where it’s at? For now.

Now, over two decades later, we’ve come full circle and flat is ‘in’ again. Anyhoo, this is a logo we designed for Azure Midstream, an oil resources and development company. It is, as you can see, full of cmyk mixRegardless of what some absolutists will say, blends and gradients are perfectly legitimate as long as they’re used judicially, not as a visual crutch to substitute for something “missing.” If your blend is going to “trail” – blend off to nothingness, it needs to be setup correctly. Otherwise, gradient to your heart’s content. In this case, we needed to have a flame, it had to be blue (the company name actually means blue in Italian) so not much choice. For what it’s worth, I did actually play around with flat versions:azure bw solid blueAlas, they didn’t have the same effect at all (truth to tell, logos with gradients have always required a flat version anyway – for applications when blends are either not appropriate or technically unsound.) A lot of designers freak over blends in logos, claiming that they can’t be reproduced using spot-color printing. That simply isn’t true. Here’s the thing – many designers DO set up their blends in their Illustrator palettes so that they DO require four-color process printing. Or at least the output devices THINK they require four-color. You’d be amazed how many times I’ve seen supposedly spot color logos set up with this type of gradient:logo blends incorrectly setupUnder the hood, the logo is set up up to blend a CMYK mix (even though each color is at 0%) with that of a Pantone and it’s simply not going to work out. The logo is STILL technically 4 color artwork even though it’s using one PMS color. Here’s the only way to set up gradients using a spot:logo blends correctly setup

The gradient now consists of a sliding percentage of a Pantone only (in this case 300 C blue) and will output nicely as a one color plate. In terms of the logo we’re talking about, here’s how that breaks down:azure spot mix

This is one of those things that seems blindingly obvious to most people, but screwed up by many inexperienced artists and Illustrator punters. It’s driven a few printers I know into the madhouse and remains one my pet peeves (see broken logo, bad formats for another.) Anyhoo..

Less is sometimes more.

When it comes to utilizing gradients in logos, we can dial it back when applying that logo to other material. Just because your lead logo is full of blended goodness, that certainly doesn’t mean you have to go to town on collateral material – business cards, letterheads and the like – with wanton abandon. Rather, using flat support graphics can set off a logo with gradients quite nicely. Compare these:business card setups variousThere’s always too much of a good thing, and as far as these cards go, flat is definitely where it’s at.

Still an awful rhyme though.

This was originally published in the older version of our Designer Lounge but due to some housecleaning and moving things around, we’ve republished it here to fit it on our Design Tutorials section as well. It’s still a pretty solid tut that nobody found in its old spot, so we’re golden.