What Is a Logo?

Nothing would give me a bigger kick than for this to become an authoritative and highly Dugg pillar-post, telling one and all once and for all how to design a killer logo. I’ll be happy enough to cull together the things I’ve learned in 25 years of the pursuit, for you to compare with your own experience or recall should you ever get to similar crossroads in your craft.

I’m assembling this as I depart a job where I was not at liberty to use all these rules as often as they applied. And now, as a freelance designer, I am. I have this folder of a few dozen logo designs, called “my way”. When I’d get frustrated over a logo I thought was designed badly but had to use for my job, I’d take a shot at it myself after hours. I’ll show them in future posts on this blog, which will slowly morph into a design blog, I guess.

The above logos were for my former company’s credit card auto-renew subscription program. They went with the first one, but after a while decided (wisely) not to bother with a logo at all.

Let’s begin. 

  1. A logo is an important message. Style always takes a back seat to clarity. (#13 explores what I mean by clarity.)
  2. A logo is an entry into an arena of competition for attention. Anything goes, including the breaking of any design rule, if there’s a reason. (In fact, if it doesn’t break at least one rule, it’s probably wimpy.)
  3. A logo is a symbol. The best logos have elements that actually symbolize an aspect of their subject. Every element should serve a function.
  4. A logo is a brain tickle. The fewer visual tricks, the better. One is best. if you can think of more than one, use them in additional suggestions (see #7).
  5. A logo designer is a consultant for that part of business that involves visual identity. Learn business and marketing. You’re advising a business owner to spend a hell of a lot more on design than he ever intended; you’d best justify yourself.
  6. A logo is not a lottery ticket. Do not enter logo contests. Your service is as a consultant (see #5). If you “win”, do you consult before or after the drawing? Don’t rob your client of your expertise. And buy your own damn iPod.
  7. A logo is a choice, made by your client. Never deliver less than three distinct and equally viable approaches to the design problem. If none of those work, do three more, and three more, without complaint. Charge a flat fee for the whole process, with the assumption that you’ll be back to the drawing board. Charge enough.
  8. A logo, like any creative work, is a balance between your originality and synthesis of other people’s originality. (So are their logos.) Looking at other logos and borrowing their style isn’t cheating (although outright lifting of their work is, of course). Don’t be surprised if you look at a logo you like and get an idea that bears no resemblance to the logo you saw.
  9. A logo is (sometimes, among other things) a work of typography, and typography is an outgrowth of calligraphy. Learn calligraphy, to get a better understanding of why letterforms look the way they do. And bone up on your ability to identify typefaces. Call them out during TV and movie credits. (If you don’t drive your friend or significant other nuts, you’re doing it wrong.)
  10. A logo is a work of fashion. Don’t leap to current trends, but don’t fight a design’s tendency in that direction. There’s nothing wrong with a timeless look — nor with a bleeding-edge look, providing you make the client aware of the expected shelf life. Keep in mind, some of yesterday’s trendy looks are today’s timeless looks.
  11. A logo is a technical specification. Anticipate all the technology that will be used to put your logo onto things. Don’t think that your client’s list of such applications is final. He doesn’t know. You do. Make variations that retain the design elements, yet are more easily reproduced in different media, or take advantage of a medium’s higher capabilities. (In other words, it’s not just dumbing down.) Package the result with clear instructions, so anyone else can guide technicians just as you would.
  12. A logo is an appeal to a target audience. Be aware of who they are, what their expectations are, and whether you meet them, exceed them, or screw with them — whatever works.
  13. A logo is a mental challenge. It should deliver 105% of the viewer’s level of understanding: just enough to get him to make the cognitive leap to where you are (thus furnishing him with a sense of accomplishment), but not so much that he misses the point (and feels inadequate and out of the loop). Undershooting the viewer’s level of understanding for the sake of obviousness will feel like pandering, and will come back to bite you in the ass. And yes, in my experience, speaking at exactly his level (100%) will feel like pandering. This 105% factor is how I explain what we commonly call “cleverness.” (Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?) A client may give you grief over this point. If he persists, drop him as a client. It’s just not worth it.
  14. A logo starts its life as a doodle. Use pencil and paper (or Photoshop and Wacom tablet), not the software you use to execute the final logo. Limitations often create interesting results, but not at first.
  15. A logo is a flag, a pennant, a talisman. An ordinary logo just identifies; a great one rallies. Use passion, instill meaning, elicit emotion. Channel your client’s intention; be his hands. He may be a huge corporation. Don’t you be. The stakeholders must care about the logo. But the logo has to care about the mission.

One response to “What Is a Logo?

  1. Relative to point #6, I just discovered a site called crowdspring.com. This is a portal specializing in logo contests. It’s a clearinghouse for mediocrity, if you ask me.

    I think I’ll offer my septic tank in a contest to local plumbers. I get to tell them what’s wrong, and they have no other input but to submit the lowest bid, or do it for me on spec, for a chance to “win” the money. Would you have confidence in a plumber you hired like that? Then why would you hire a graphic designer like that? On whose skills is more riding?

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