Logo design is a funny thing

Logo design is not funny in an “Ha Ha! Patrick Houston, logo design is so gosh-darned amusing” kind of way, but funny in a “Isn’t logo design the oddest thing you do? kind of way.

I apologize for the misleading headline.

Here’s the thing about being a graphic designer: Most people don’t want a designer, they want to stand over the shoulder of someone who knows how to drive a computer while they design.

Because, “Hey, I got eyes, and I can design real good. I mean, have you seen my living room? I designed the shit out of that room.”

Yes, your living room is lovely. It is so nice to sit and watch TV in your living room. I adore it. Truly.

But it has nothing whatsoever to do with graphic design.

Graphic design is a discipline. Like being an architect or a lawyer. It takes years of education, experience and practice to get good at it.

Advertisers have a vested interest in controlling the perception of their brand, and the logo is the easiest place to focus their efforts.

The thinking goes something like this: “Our Logo tells our audience Who We Are. It is the visual representation of our brand. We have to dictate what people think about us.”

OK, that last sentence isn‘t something any decent marketing professional would openly think [yes it is], but it is accurate in regards to the emotional idea of what many people think a logo should do. They think a logo dictates. It does not. It represents something that is already there.

To be honest, the desire to dictate makes sense on the surface. Advertisers have a very real and valid desire to control their image. But thinking that a logo will dictate what people think about your brand isn’t a realistic expectation.

Stay with me and I’ll explain.

What often happens is that logo design becomes a typeface issue.

If we could just find the right typeface for our logo, all our sales dreams would come true“.

That’s a silly statement and no one actually thinks that [yes they do]. Lord knows that typefaces are important and that I’ve spent the past 25 years wrangling, fussing, cajoling, bending and generally obsessing over them.

Random aside #1: Recently, Kyran bought me a new computer and the most time consuming thing to do in moving to a new computer is to move my font collection. It is an 8 hour ordeal to copy, load and sort my stupidly enormous number of font files.

What also happens frequently is that logo design gets personal – people get personally and emotionally invested with their logo.

My wife/child/neice/sibling/friend designed this logo and because my wife/child/niece/sibling/friend is awesome, the logo is awesome as well!

I agree that your wife/child/niece/sibling/friend is totally awesome. But unless they have some real design experience, this is the “confusing your feelings about your wife/child/sibling/friend” with a “dispassionate opinion of your logo” trap.

It happens a lot. It becomes about ego and feelings instead of being an objective view of what your brand requires. This is always a bad thing.

There is also an amusing trend of crowd sourcing and design contesting to get a logo for your brand.

There are any number of websites that offer crowd sourced design services for a small fee, and/or offer to host a design contest for an auction price.

These places should be avoided like they are terrorists with bombs strapped to their chests.

They are populated for the most part with amateurs who have downloaded a copy of Gimp and have a folder full of free fonts they‘ve downloaded from the internets. Largely, they haven’t the first clue about what disciplined design is.

If you buy a logo from one of those sites, you will end up with a bitmap file of your logo that isn’t scalable, isn’t rendered in CMYK, hasn’t been considered as a one or two color design, will look horrible at any size/resolution other than what you’ve been given and will be a nightmare to deal with if you ever need to have it printed.

Those services have no idea what the very real discipline of logo design consists of. It is simply a “this looks pretty on my screen” deal. It will not perform to professional requirements. You will fight that logo all the livelong day.

I’ve recently gotten involved with this exact situation. The client showed me his logo and proudly said “It only cost me $100, bro! I crowd sourced it!”

[Yes, he actually called me ‘bro’. And then he fist-bumped me. And then I looked for a gun with which to shoot myself in the head.]

No, bro, what you did was buy a logo from somebody willing to design a logo for $10 an hour. Or, about what you pay for someone to cook your Big Mac at McDonalds. If his training and education has led him or her to be willing to work for $10 an hour, you have gotten what you’ve paid for I guess.

Or maybe he/she has been trained and spent all of one hour on it.

Either way, it is a bad logo.

Later, when I was attempting to explain why the logo was horrible, he proudly told me “Bro, a designer guy in Chattanooga said ‘It’s awesome that you used that scripty-handwritey typeface for your logo!”.’

Here’s a little designer confession for you.

When a designer says to you “It’s awesome that you used that scripty-handwritey typeface for your logo!”, that is designer-speak for “I am astounded that you used that scripty-handwritey typeface for your logo. You are such a customer”.

Randon aside #2: I suck at doing that ‘say it so nicely that you don’t know what I just said’ thing. I am horrible at that politically-correct, nice-guy, don’t-say-what-you-really-mean thing. It’s a southern tradition that people speak around the edges of things, and I am woefully inadequate at doing that. If your logo sucks, I’m going to say ‘your logo sucks, bro’ [ok, I probably won’t say ‘bro’]. This makes many people uncomfortable. I apologize for your discomfort.

What is required is a coldly rational and brutally honest evaluation of what the marketing goals are and how they relate to sound branding concepts, and then employ the principles of good logo design toward those goals.

Your logo needs to be carefully thought out – it’s the thinking part of logo design that is so difficult, so time consuming and so expensive. Which brings us full-circle to the idea behind the graphic at the top of this page that is a paraphrase of a sign I saw at a motorcycle shop 25 years ago: If you have a $100 business, then get a $100 logo.

Here are a few quotes from people who know about good logo design:

Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.

Paul Rand

A logo doesn’t sell, it identifies. A logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around. A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it means is more important than what it looks like.

Paul Rand

Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.

Joe Sparano

Design should never say, “Look at me.” It should always say, “Look at this”.

David Craib

Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just to sum everything up.

Tate Linden

Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.

Paul Rand

If you have a great idea, it will tell you how to execute it.

Paul Rand

[Random aside #3: Paul Rand is our Michelangelo]

Here is what I would like to leave you with: Focus on your product.

If your product is good, your logo will work in harmony and reinforce what your logo says about your brand. Your logo is a vital part of your brand, it deserves an enormous focus and careful, mindful design. But it will never outperform your product or service.

Think of it this way:

If your product is a piece of crap, that’s what your logo will come to represent. It will say “this is crap” –  no matter how well the logo is designed.

If your product is excellent, that’s what your logo will say about it, unless your logo is crap – when it will say “this is crap”  – no matter how well it is designed.

Great logo design hits that sweet spot between perception, expectation, performance and quality. It’s not a simple, easy or cheap thing to get to.

Great logo design will, ideally, make your excellent product or service memorable and distinctive.

With a little luck, you might even someday find that even something as simple and meaningless as this –

– has value and meaning to people.