Eric Karjaluoto

Design the Logo Last

When most people start a business, they think about procuring certain things. A name is generally important, as is a space to work within, and perhaps a mission statement to guide the organization as it grows. One of the other items new businesses commonly consider (or obsess over) is their logo. This item gets a disproportionate amount of attention, often prematurely, and as a result weakens many brands and corporate identities.

Although I enjoy what I do as a designer, I’ve come to dislike designing logos. Most of my disdain for building logos relates to how misunderstood they are. The sole task of any logo/wordmark is to help the audience identify the owner of this mark. That is all. People see the Starbucks siren, and know they can find an espresso close to it. Site visitors see the Facebook icon at the end of a post, and know they can click it to share what they’ve read. Shoppers spot the word Gap in front of a store, and understand that generic khakis and jeans are close at hand.

Identification is not enough for most new organizations, though. The people who work within these groups don’t just aspire to clarity; they want to achieve something more: To tell a tale; to convey their brand essence; to reference their history in some way; to excite and inspire their audience; and the list goes on. This desire to do so very much with such a small item is not uncommon, and as the number of participants involved in the logo’s design increases, these desires multiply. This multitude of directions tends to result in many pictures, collages, and clever treatments—which generally fail to work as actual logos.

Although bad logos aspire to too many goals, they rarely manage to fulfill the most important functional requirements. A good logo needn’t be interesting, have hidden meanings, or inspire the audience. In fact, most of the existing logos and marks clients use as examples—and refer to as successful—contain few of these characteristics. Instead, these logos fulfill a handful of key functions: They are designed to require little interpretation; they are generally easy to read; they work well when set very small; they function suitably when printed with just one ink (I.e., black); and they tend to be wide, as the viewer’s field of vision is similarly oriented. (There are certainly exceptions to these points, but the listed attributes are overwhelmingly common in effective logos.)

The challenge for many needing a logo designed, is in comparing forms in their infancy with logos that already have amassed a certain amount of history. Actually, the logos that many admire are no longer just marks, but instead, have evolved into symbols. For example, the Apple icon is representative of the entire Apple brand, but not because this one shape is somehow intrinsically special. This shape has come to mean something to people as a result of a number of initiatives, including: Years of careful and persistent brand building; continual delivery of powerful user experiences through thousands of tactile, digital, and ideological touch-points; and, an ongoing parade of cumulative and deliberate advertising campaigns and marketing efforts. The silhouette of an apple with a bite taken out of it didn’t build one of the world’s most powerful brands. The people at Apple—through vision, determination, and good timing—created a company, promise, and belief system. The associations you have with Apple’s logo are a result of all of these broader efforts.

As a designer, you can explain such notions to others, and they may agree with you in principle; however, once you start to provide simple, clean, functional logo solutions, they will inevitably ask for more. Phrases like, “It feels kind of boring; couldn’t we add a few more shapes, or jazz it up a little?” will be spoken. Although you can fight such tendencies, you will lose. Therefore, in order to outfit your clients with logos that can work for years, or perhaps decades, without needing a redesign, you’ll need to rethink the way you produce and unveil logos.

Although a logo can be important, it is one of the smallest elements in any brand. If you think about most recognizable organizations, they are more readily identifiable by their type and color selections than by their logos. Think of groups like T-Mobile, UPS, ING, or Benetton. Type, color, imagery, and language simply have more surface area to work with than most logos do.

As such, you can’t expect the logo to do too much heavy lifting. Leave all the big visual communication to the identity system, as this has far more space to work within. This system is arrived at by collaborating with your client to develop a good strategy and solid design plan. You’ll create this by determining messaging, visual language, tone, and treatments. With all that direction sorted out, you can move on to producing an identity system that works toward achieving all the client wishes to convey.

Do all of this, and you’ll have succeeded in reducing some of the aspirations your client has mistakenly put into their logo. Reallocating these desires to the identity will make achieving your client’s expectations much more viable. Doing so then makes the logo design part of the job that much easier. This is because once the system does what it’s supposed to, few would want their logo to interfere with it. Take note, though, this approach only works if you’ve gotten their buy-in on the identity system first.

The advantage of starting with broader design concerns like an identity system—before dealing with the logo—isn’t limited to the fact that your design solution will likely be more effective. Another practical benefit for the designer is in having more exciting materials to show your client. A simple and masterfully created wordmark is hard for a client to get fired up about; however, collateral examples, potential advertising spots, and associated motion design elements can be quite seductive. (This sort of enthusiasm is important if you want your approach to get a thumbs up and subsequently move forward.)

Need further proof that simpler logos work better than complex ones? Just look to the logos designed by the renowned Massimo Vignelli, and count how many times he gets fancy. His treatments are unilaterally clear, simple, and orderly—and they tend to hold up for decades. That’s something for all of us to aspire to, but doing so isn’t easy when clients are asking for more; meanwhile, “best of” logo lists are filled with clever ideas that many designers are overly enamored with. Nevertheless, the creation of good design is predicated on sober thought, sensible actions, and the ability to help clients work through tough questions—not by trying to show off how clever or creative you are.

If you found this article sensible, you’d probably find my new book, The Design Method, similarly useful. In it, I provide ways to conduct research and gain insight into your clients’ situations, as well as a process for establishing strategies and plans for your projects. Additionally, you’ll learn how to develop a cohesive concept and visual direction for each client/job, and an iterative approach to prototype, test, refine, and produce effective design. You’ll also gain insight into techniques for presenting and documenting creative work, as well as tips for making your design studio operate efficiently and consistently. Pick up a copy on Amazon, and let me know what you think.

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