Writing a creative brief for logos

Before a designer takes pen to paper, or mouse to pixel, they need clear direction on what kind of logo you want to represent your company. Writing a creative brief isn’t rocket science, but a little more complicated than “I’ll know it when I see it.” Here’s a practical approach.

Developing a logo isn’t a big deal right? Just show me some stuff, I’ll pick the one I like and away we go, logo nirvana.

Sure, that’s part of it, but not really.

If you’ve decided you need a logo in the first place, it’s probably worth doing everything in your power to get it right. Keep in mind that your logo isn’t just a visual place holder but a graphic symbol that’s going to represent your service, business or product wherever you need it to be represented. Maybe for a relatively long time too. The simple stuff happens on the Internet – social media, websites and the like – as they can be changed in a heartbeat by uploading a new image. You can tinker, play with and change your logo all you want and in the few seconds that crap logo is online (and nobody will see it) we’re still safely in “no harm, no foul” territory. Anything much past that and changes are going to get exponentially more expensive and problematic. Business cards and letterheads will need to be reprinted. New embroidery tape created (if you’re lucky enough not to be sitting on boxes of baseball caps emblazoned with the logo you’re no longer keen on.) That thousand dollar vehicle wrap is going cost more the second time around because you gotta pay to get if off, before you pay to put the new one on.

Etc.

Serious is as serious does.

The more serious you get about promoting your brand, the more drop dead serious your logo needs to get. Designing a logo can be a teeth-grinding frustrating process in of itself, but where most logo design projects go seriously awry is way back at the beginning. At ground zero. The creative brief. If your creative brief is poorly seeded with the correct direction going in, it will take a great deal of luck and happenstance for a great logo to come out at the conclusion. To that end we’re gonna tell you how to write an effective one. Stuff to put in, stuff to take out and some things that everybody does that they shouldn’t. I’m likely to tick off some of my designer pals into the bargain, because we’re gonna skewer some sacred cows that everybody talks about when they discuss creative briefs and how they pertain to logos. Speaking of which..

The creative brief.

What’s a creative brief? Well, the word brief has three definitions (four if you count undergarments, but we’re not going to.)

As an adjective, brief means “of short duration.” When used as a noun brief refers to “a concise statement or summary.” When used as a verb brief translates to the action when you “instruct or inform (someone) thoroughly, especially in preparation for a task.”

Creative means just that and a creative brief should be all three of this things – short, sweet and to the point – because despite its fancy pants name, a creative brief is a set of instructions for something creative you want – in this case a logo – and part of the formula you’re going to use to drive your brand “look and feel.” That’s the vibe that anything with your company name on it is supposed to give people who look at it. That’s pretty much it. To extrapolate a little further, your creative brief is a manifesto of sorts, will take factors like your potential customers, marketplace goals and encapsulate them into a few descriptive paragraphs, boiling your entire raison d’etre into something that can be read in a few minutes. That’s not to say it isn’t important. It is, as this brief will also become the backbone of your brand style guide and influence any visual decisions you make for a very long time. For our focus here, your creative brief is a blueprint for when a designer tackles their assigned task – namely designing your logo – and will influence that process every step along the way. Your creative brief doesn’t have to be long – the shorter the better to be honest – but it does need to be right. For instance – “Show me a bunch of logos and I’ll know it when I see it” is not a creative brief. It is a recipe for frustration and a logo design project that will only end in tears. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve been told these very words over my career. I stopped accepting them as direction years ago because I know how things can turn out when I do. So let’s take a look at the things your creative brief should contain. Surprisingly, some of them aren’t very creative at all. Like..

Your company name.

Obvious right? Not really. You wouldn’t believe the number of times we’ve been tasked with designing logos for companies who haven’t settled on the name of their company yet. They’ve narrowed it down to what they believe are simple name options that can be swapped out like menu choices at various points in the design process. Bob’s Auto vs. Bob’s Automotive Mechanics and Fine Car Services kinda thing, but those two company names couldn’t be further apart from a creative brief point-of-view. One is two short words, stacks nicely and quickly tells potential customers what Bob is offering. The second isn’t a company name but more a company paragraph that will require a load of design jiu jitsu to crowbar into the smallish real estate of a logo. Bob may think they’re very similar because both have his name and both describe what he does. In reality they are worlds apart and need completely different angles of attack for branding purposes.

Bottom line
– Before you even think about hiring someone to design your new company logo, figure out exactly what that company is called.

Your full company name.

You may want to think about the LLC (Limited Liability Company) or INC (Incorporated) bit of your company name and whether that’s going to be added into the design mix. Laws about telling people you’re legally protected from them suing you personally vary wildly from place-to-place but there’s no jurisdiction I’m aware of that insists you have the nomenclature in your logo (though I’m not a lawyer and even if I was, not your lawyer, so your mileage will vary.) The people in charge of where you live might, on the other hand, insist you have the full legal name somewhere on your stuff. We jam the INC portion of our company name in the copyright notice at the foot of every page on this website for that very reason, but don’t feature it in our logo at all. Over the years I’ve found that a lot of people like to add INC or LLC to their logos as a “kilroy was here” humblebrag that their company is the real McCoy. A lot of those same people had me take it off a few years later. Adding it into the mix at the beginning will effect how things turn out at the end – simple things like how your logo centers or how big it is on a business card can be affected by those three extra characters in your official company name.

Bottom line – if you’re required to put legal disclaimers it your logo, you kinda have to. If you don’t, by all means think about it, but put your thumb on the scale in favor of not doing it.

Taglines.

Taglines (sometimes referred to as straplines) are the little descriptors that hang out under the logo itself. In fictional Bob’s case, it could be “Automotive Mechanics and Fine Car Services” that’s added to the “Bob’s Auto” part of his logo. Here’s the thing – never, ever, ever, design a logo that includes a tagline as as a critical, or worse – embedded – part of the design. Taglines are supposed to be added to the logo when there’s room, the logo is big enough to have absolutel fidelity, and the tagline is a necessary part of the equation. They gotta come out when any of these these things aren’t true. In Bob’s case, his lengthy tagline will be reduced to 2 or 3 pixels high on a web header and completely unreadable – a smudge rather than a crystal clear description of what it is Bob does. Speaking of taglines, the shorter the better. We tinkered with a tagline of our own years ago and came up with “Your Brand. Hand Built.” Pretty nifty and all – it explained what we The Logo Factory did, tried to differentiate us from so-called “logo mills”- thanks to the “Factory” portion of our name, we were being lumped in with – was easy to slide under our logo proper without clashing and was fairly memorable. After all the angsting and gnashing of teeth about what this tagline was supposed to say, we used it with our logo proper exactly twice – on a brochure and presentation folder we designed back in 2011. We’ve never used it since – I’d forgotten about it until I was in the middle of this paragraph – so imagine if that tagline was part of our main logo. While it’s still an effective tagline and part of our creative brief, we just don’t use it on our logo because it would mess up the works.

Bottom line – try to encompass what it is your company does and what makes you different into a brutally short tagline. Then don’t build it into your logo and only use it whenever it works. If at all.

Audience.

Whenever a designer is working with an end user – the client themselves – sure it’s important that the client “like” their logo. That’s a successful design project for everyone concerned. Trouble is, a client liking their logo is only part of the equation because it’s not actually being designed for them, but their customers. If you’re a business owner reading this, that would be your audience. If the client is a 40-something year old bloke who’s marketing ahm, herbal snacks, to 20 year-old college students in Colorado where such things are legal, it’s very likely his visual appreciation is significantly different than that of his audience. They’ll definitely hang different posters on their walls so why would anyone think a logo would appeal to both? Understanding the demographic of who your logo is supposed to speak to is critical. That’s not to say you have to sign off on a logo you hate because somebody convinced you that your audience would dig it – not at all – but do keep them very much in mind. When describing your audience in your creative brief, be specific in the macro level, not the micro. In terms of our herbal snacks that would mean “20+ liberal arts college students in Colorado” not “21 year old couch surfers with neck tats, called Brad.”

Bottom line – your logo is for your audience, so figure out who that is. A logo that’s designed for Colorado liberal arts students (them again) is going to need a different approach than one that’s supposed to appeal to housewives in Pittsburgh.

Market place strata.

Where do you see yourself in the marketplace – Cheap? Expensive? Fast? Custom? Personalized approach? Big company approach? These various marketplace levels could be represented by a pyramid – hence my reference to strata – with the most common being cheap and fast. Everybody initially uses that as a hook, though it’ll probably change over time when you realize that everyone and their dog will promote themselves as cheaper and faster than you. You want to be different than your competition – people want to know why you’re better, not just cheaper and/or faster. Try to figure out why that’s the case and write it down.

Bottom line – how you want to present yourself to the marketplace, in terms of people reaching into their wallets or throwing down their credit card.

Buzzwords.

This is a continuation of your marketplace positioning but on a more emotional level. Think friendly and approachable. Expert or willing to learn. Around here, we always envisioned our studio as being utilitarian and without any snooty designer pretense, from our name, to our simple logo with a couple of gears, to the way we present stuff on our website. You’re reading this, so on some level it probably works. A word of caution: watch out for buzzword cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling when two opposite things exist in the same space despite the obvious conflict with each other. Think corporate (but family owned.) Cheap (but luxurious and high-end.) Casual and approachable (by appointment only, send business references first.) Buzzwords that are opposite, like matter and anti-matter, cancel themselves out and only in very rare cases will a creative brief that contains them end up with a successful logo design outcome. One way to do this is to write the yin and yang of corporate buzzwords, with the opposing words in opposite columns. Circle the ones you want to use and scratch out the opposing word in the other column. Put the ones that are circled in your creative brief.

Bottom line – one or two word phrases that describe how you want people to see your company as an entity.

Caution: Platitudes.

Whenever designers are quizzed on things like “what makes a great logo?” we invariably offer up buzzwords, some helpful (we just talked about those) and some not so much. Those would be meaningless platitudes that while sounding all sorts of highbrow and high concept, aren’t much help to anyone for anything. Some online design companies have even tried to automate this notion with sliding scale thingamajigs that I once riffed on with this illo, The LogoMatic 2000:
Logomatic 2000I defy anyone to distill a design direction from our LogoMatic (or the actual one it’s based on) as they’re all meaningless words that have no implied direction. Hence, platitudes. One of the more notable would be the classically timeless platitude, that being “timeless” itself. Pretty sure I’ve used it a couple of times myself in earlier posts. maybe even in the link I just added (mea culpa,) but what, in the context of designing logos, would “timeless” even mean? That a logo doesn’t age? That it will be the same forever? Sure, but go find me a logo that’s been around for a decent amount of time that hasn’t been tinkered with since it first hit the marketplace. Did I mention “dynamic” as another platitude? Not going to dissect it like we just did with “timeless” but when somebody figures out what “dynamic” actually means in terms of logo design, give me a holler.

Bottom line – buzzwords in your creative brief have to mean something, not a word salad of fridge magnets that you believe you have to tell a designer when they’re working on your brand, mostly because you’ve read these things are what makes a good logo. Your creative manifesto is supposed to be tailored to your needs, not a carbon copy of what somebody else thinks should be added to it. If you wrote “timeless” in yours, take it out. And let’s not mention dynamic again.

Usage.

As usage is a very practical aspect of the creative brief, doesn’t involve lofty buzzwords or namby-pamby concepts, it often gets short shrift when people outline what’s supposed to be in a creative brief. Sure, logos need to function in a vast range of media applications, but that’s from a technical point of view and anyone who’s not designing logos that can be adapted to Facebook or a business card should put their designer shingle away anyhow. What I’m talking about here is real specific usage that you already know about. If you have a 16 by 2 foot light-box sign on top of your storefront that the logo has to fit inside, that’s a very good bit of intel for a designer to have from minute one. If you need to use the logo on the side of a race car spoiler, that would an ingredient that needs to go into the cake at the get-go, not three weeks later when they’re prepping final digital. If your logo is going to be printed on dark shirts, as opposed to white, that’s handy information to know because art like this is designed quite differently. Anyway, you get the idea. Every designer worth his or salt already understands (or should) that your logo has to go on business cards, letterheads, Instagram, Twitter, your website, brochure and ads. All basic stuff that goes without saying, even though everyone feels the need to say it. It’s the unicorn usages that have to be inserted into your logo at the DNA level.

Bottom line – try to imagine potential (or required) usages of the logo beyond the typical business staples and Internet usage. That doesn’t mean you have to commit to every possibility, or be one hundred percent sure it’ll happen. Do try and keep in within the ballpark of reality because the more outlandish the usage, the more potential restrictions are placed on the design. While it might be nice if the logo for your baked good company showed up on the tail section of a Boeing 747, don’t tell the designer that it might – unless it really, really might – because there are some pretty heavy design restrictions for slapping a logo on the tail of a 747.

Logos you like.

Clients often send up a hodge-podge of JPGs and web links of logos they’ve found on the internet as a starting point. I’ve always been of two minds to this kind of thing. Sure, it can be helpful under one very strict circumstance – the logos supplied have things in common, be it typography, layout or visual style. When doing this sort of thing, we always risk influencing the design process unduly, as designers often get rabbit-holed into copying various bits and pieces from a variety of disparate graphics – consciously or not – and jamming into a Frankensteined design that’s neither a knock-off or entirely original. If the logos are just a jumble of various styles and treatments there’s not much point in sending them, nor for the designer to factor them it. It’s like asking you what color you like and you respond with “blue, red, green, yellow, orange, green, blue..” Nice and all, but just not very helpful. Remember what we talked about with buzzwords like “timeless” and “dynamic”? This is the visual version of that. Putting a bunch of logos into a brief and telling the designer you like them because they’re “dynamic”? Don’t even. Now, if you’re able to take those logos you like and figure out why you like them, that may be a valuable ingredient indeed.

Bottom line – adding logos you like to a creative brief can be helpful, only if you can describe with a fair amount of precision why you like them. Otherwise, skip it. You run the risk of more harm than help.

Logos you don’t like.

Everything I just told you about logos you like? It goes double for logos you don’t like.

Bottom line – Ditto to the one about designs you like, but with stuff you don’t.

Colors.

We left colors to the end because that’s where they belong. Sure, colors are important. There’s an entire science built around color psychology and while it’s interesting to be sure, probably worth understanding and a factor that if the wrong decision is made about, will haunt you forever. Having said all that, want to know why The Home Depot logo is orange? According to contemporary branding guidelines – in which The Home Depot marketing department are very anal about this orange – “The color orange stimulates activity and is often associated with affordability.” That’s true. It’s also bullshit because according to official company history, they picked orange because, and I quoth –

“We painted our signs on bright orange circus-tent canvas, which cost a fraction of of the more common electric signs.”

That’s according to Bernie Marcus, The Home Depot co-founder himself. Other than neat logo trivia, what does it mean? It means don’t get hung up on color at the beginning – I often design preliminary logos in black and white for that very reason – and when you do settle on a color scheme for whatever reason you do, you can always reverse-engineer the rationale of why you did later (I get it, nobody likes to admit design things happen by accident.) It terms of your logo colors, it’s a worthwhile idea to think about a design that’s color agnostic – can work in any color – as today’s media landscape requires so many configurations and permutations of a logo to be used effectively. Officially around here, our corporate colors are purple and teal. If you take a look, our logo morphed into color agnostic years ago, and we use purple very sparingly now (scroll down – it’s still in the footer because I’m just too lazy to change it.)

Bottom line – If you have established colors you’ll probably have to stick with them (as long as they’re not hot RGB colors that nobody can match.) If you don’t have established colors but know which ones you want to get established with, make sure they’re mentioned. Make sure the designer knows too. Believe it or not, I’ve seen great design concepts torpedoed because they were presented in the wrong color despite being potentially glorious logos. Unless you’re used to such things, it’s relatively difficult for someone who wants a logo in blue, to imagine it in blue when they see it in red, and they’ll never see it in the same light if presented later in the correct color. If you have no idea about colors, either leave it up to your designer – but make them explain the whys and wherefores – or go all the way in for a color agnostic design. You can leave the colors field blank in your creative brief and with that, you’d be done.

Go forth and logo.