Logo Design : Nothing Up My Sleeve

Gary Dickson reflects on designing logos...

Gary Dickson reflects on designing logos It's true and in fact it is a beautiful thing:
      a good logo can seem magical.

Maybe that is why there are websites out there that can tout logo design for as little as $25. I am convinced that the average pedestrian out there honestly believes a designer can sit down in front of a computer and pop out a good logo in 30 minutes or less. It's magic! This is the same mentality that believe talent alone makes a designer -- I am living proof that massive hours of right-brain exercise can help greatly to overcome a severe lack of talent.

Here is the plain truth about logo design: a good designer will spend tens of hours (or more) in developing a company logo. A respectable logo requires research, brainstorming and a great attention to craft. In my corner of the world design firms charge about $125 an hour for creative and freelancers charge around $75. If I could produce a good logo for $25 it really would be magic -- magic that I'd still be in business after 4 years. The hourly rate for firms or freelancers may sound outrageously high to some people out there. But I assure you that this figure is arrived at by purely mathematical means

It simply costs that much to run the business with good designers, competent support, decent facilities/equipment and come out of it with a fair profit.

Some clients never learn

I was talking with a new business acquaintance earlier this year. He had used a couple of these online logo design companies. It sounded like he had gotten them to do even more rounds than usual and he was still very unhappy with the results that they had provided. I tried to explain to him the hours involved in a good designers process for developing a logo. I thought that I had gotten through to him. You'd think that after a couple of these internet logo factories fail to produce satisfactory results that he would begin to question their process. About a month or so later he calls me to request pricing proposals for a couple of different projects (one of them was for a logo) -- which I happily provided. I tried to contact him a couple of times after that but never heard from him again. I am left with the distinct impression that he still did not understand the time involved in the design process. Frankly I still hope that he surprises me one day by giving me a call. I love it when people begin to understand the value of good design and the work that it requires.

If hiring a good design firm or freelancer is still too much for you to swallow here's another option -- I frequent a cool used book store where last month I picked up an interesting book titled "Design Your Own Logo". It was quite a bargain -- $4.98! How cool is that? For well under a sawbuck (where taxation may apply) you can learn a skill that it has taken others years of schooling and experience to grasp! Sarcasm aside, there is some very good info in there for client and designer alike but frankly I bought it because the idea itself for the book struck me as funny.

Brain Surgery

There may be a few business people out there who could design a respectable logo for themselves. But for the most part I think it's a bit like performing surgery on yourself. I know, I know, there are some pretty good arguments for performing your own surgical procedures -- you could gain a great deal of satisfaction and save a decent chunk of change by performing surgery on yourself. You'll probably learn a lot along the way and it could be fun if you get the anesthetic flowing in the right quantities. There is probably no one that knows you like you know yourself -- so clearly you are the most qualified person to perform any operation that may be required. OK, OK, so graphic design is not quite the same sort of thing as medical surgery. Bad design certainly is responsible for only a fraction of as many deaths each year as surgery gone bad. Bad design will probably be the cause of death for fewer than a handful of people this year. But, if bad design happens often enough and in the right places it certainly could be detrimental to the health of your business.

Unlike an icon or a button designed to go on your website, a logo is intended to be used on everything a company owns and produces for the next decade or so. It represents the company. It should be clear and simple but at the same time be rich with meaning. It should reference some aspect of the company though at times it may be too abstract for the viewer to immediately make the connection.

A good designer will begin by spending a significant amount of time researching the company, it's industry and the competition. This will be followed by dozens upon dozens of pencil sketches. There's nothing magic about it, the process takes a significant amount of time. In 1986 Paul Rand designed the logo for Steve Jobs Next Computers for $100,000 (Playing by Mr. Rand's Rules). That means that he potentially spent 1000 hours in developing that logo.

Don't get me wrong, the hours involved may seem long and tedious but a logo to me is by far one of the most enjoyable kind of projects to work on. Most designers go through their own variation of what I believe is basically the same process. It begins with research. Research is crucial -- among other things it should involve learning about the company, finding out who their audience is, what the industry is like and what type of imagery might be appropriate for inspiration. Following the research I like to just let my brain spill -- I do dozens of really bad pencil sketches, generating as many unique ideas as I can. When I feel that I've explored as many possibilities as I can bear I then select several of my sketches and I turn to the computer to rebuild and refine them. From those I then chose 2 or 3 that I like enough to spruce up and present to the client. These first concepts are designed in black and white only. I feel that this is important, it's a kind of "lowest common denominator" insurance. Somewhere down the road nearly every company is forced to use a black and white version of their logo for something. If the design is first good in black and white then it can only get better with color (well that's the theory anyhow). After this first presentation the client has to chose which of the 2-3 logos is working or showing promise for them. 2-3 rounds of refinement (add color) and edits follow.

I have heard some strange and interesting comments about logos. The most interesting ones however have been the -- "you should NEVER use such and such in a logo". More than once for example I have been advised that swooshes are everywhere and so should be avoided like the plague. Sorry, but that's about the stupidest thing I've ever heard. It would be like saying "whatever you do - don't use the color blue -- everyone is using that color and it's a trend that I'm sure will soon collapse"! I think that saying never use a swoosh is a bit like saying never use a circle. What is a "swoosh" but a curved line with some character. I would personally never limit my design options in that way. Swooshes or any other visual devise should be explored and embraced -- but only if and when they are used in a unique and meaningful way.

It reminds me of...

There is definitely a Rorschach effect* that can happen when a client looks at a new logo. They will read into it some of the most obscure and interesting things. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it may give you some idea of where the clients mind is at. Even Paul Rand, design god of the 20th century, experienced this with his work. In his 1991 article titled "Logos, Flags and Escutcheons" he reflects on the words of a couple of major clients:

Quoting  begins "It reminds me of the Georgia chain gang," quipped the IBM executive when he first eyed the striped logo. When the Westinghouse insignia (1960) was first seen, it was greeted similarly with such gibes as "this looks like a pawnbroker's sign." ... the consequence of mindless dabbling, and the difficulty is not confined merely to the design of logos. This lack of understanding pervades all visual design.Quoting  ends

I believe that Rand's point was that many clients are essentially illiterate when it come to design. Designers need to step up and help clients better understand what good design is. Often working with a client means teaching them about craft, making it clear that your design decisions are based on knowledge and boldly expressing your opinion. Design is not magic. It is largely a demonstrable process that takes most designers many years to develop.

It seems like this past month has been the month of the logo for me. Nearly everywhere I have gone and every project that I have been involved with has had some bearing on logo development or usage. It has caused me to reflect on the importance, purpose and implementation of logos.

A logo is pretty crucial

Often it will be part of the first or only impression that someone might get of your company -- on a business card for example. It will be present on almost every product, package, piece of company literature, and property a company may have. Your logo delivers a message to people -- a poorly designed logo can speak volumes about the quality of your services or product. A bad logo can often mean that your potential customer is much less likely to take you seriously.

Gary Dickson A well researched and finely crafted logo on the other hand can have a very positive influence on how your audience perceives your company. The quality of the logo is not always proportionate to the quality of the company, product or service that it represents -- but not everyone out there will know that.

Do you really want to take your chances?

Gary Dickson

See other Dickson articles:
GO Design from the Edge... some noteworthy observations regarding edge-designers, center-designers, their characteristics and their relationship to one another: "Would you rather Design from the Edge?"
GO Inspiration in a Bottle: sources of inspiration that may just take you to the next level of creativity! "Where does your inspiration come from?"

© Copyright Gary Dickson In 1989 Gary began doing color prepress production. In 1998 he earned his BFA in graphic design (graduating from CCAC with distinction), was an intern for John Bielenberg and went to work for Horton Lantz Marocco in Seattle. In 2000 Gary left HLM to open his own studio - Epidemic Design. Please visit his studios website and view his work at Epidemic Design.
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