Logo Design Workshop

by Joe Gillespie — Oct 1, 2000

For Web designers, the time always comes when you are asked to design a logo. Now, you might well be a seasoned graphic designer with years of logo designs under your belt or, you might think that it is just a matter of finding a typeface and tapping the words out on a keyboard and applying a Photoshop filter. Either way, you can improve your logos if you follow a few tried and trusted guidelines.

If you study some of the best known logos around, you will notice that they have some aspects in common - well, maybe not. After all, the most important thing about any logo is that it is totally different from all others.

Okay, we have a paradox here! What all good logos have in common is that they go out of their way to be different!

coke mobil ibm kelloggs

Some logos are so strong that they remain identifiable even when incomplete.

Take a look at the logos of Coca Cola, Mobil Oil, IBM, Kellogg's. They are all uniquely different. They are instantly recognisable across the world and if you were to take any one of them and cut it up into pieces, even the individual pieces would still be identifiable.

To make a logo so powerful takes two things, time and money. All these logos have been around for quite some time and have had millions spent on promoting them in advertising and packaging. When you design a new logo, you certainly won’t have the benefit of time - not to begin with anyway - and you will be very fortunate indeed if it eventually gets the megabucks behind it to make it an icon of our times.

One thing is for sure, if you don’t get the basic principles right, it doesn’t matter how much you spend, a bad logo won’t get a chance to stand up to the test of time, it will be replaced pretty quickly.

Some logos have been around for years with little or no changes. They look every bit as relevant today as they did when they were introduced umpteen years ago. The Coca Cola logo, for instance, has been tinkered with by designers over the years but the changes have been evolutionary not revolutionary. It’s not what you would call a modern logo, how could it be? It was originally designed ‘in-house’ back in 1886 and despite the many changes and translations that have been made over the years, it is still essentially the same logo - in fact, the most recognisable logo in the World.

There are two lessons to be learned here. Firstly, overtly ‘trendy’ logos date quickly and can become embarrassments. If you can put a date to a logo, there is probably something wrong with it - unless, of course, ‘being of today’ is an essential part of the brief. Almost any well known logo that you can think of is just as relevant today as it was years ago - timeless, in fact!

Secondly, there’s consistency. Unlike the Coca Cola logo, the Pepsi Cola logo has changed significantly over the years. It was originally very similar to the Coca Cola one, written in a flowery script style. Today, it is arguably more modern, with its bold sans serif typeface, but loses out on the classic, timeless aspect that helps perpetuate Coke’s heritage. To gain universal recognition, any company or brand image depends on the amount of exposure it gets. If it is changed every few years because it is starting to look old fashioned or through some chairman’s whim, then it has to be relearned by the public and it’s back to square one.

If you are designing a logo for a company or product that already has an established logo, think twice before suggesting any radical change. Look first at an evolutionary change that it makes it more relevant to today - that doesn’t mean ‘modernise’ it. Some years ago, the fashion was to ‘modernise’ logos with a starker ‘Swiss’ look. Many of the ‘big name’ logo designs that I have been involved with were for traditional English brands like Bovril, Horlicks, Colman’s Mustard, Rowntrees, Trebor and Frank Cooper’s Marmalades. In each of these cases, I found that I had to take two steps backwards to go forward because they had all previously had their logos ‘modernized’ and had lost much of their hard-earned traditional values in the process.

microsoft cannon sony

Most company trade marks have some little visual trick that turns a type face into a distinctive logotype.

Of course, you could be designing a logo for a new, hi-tech company and you don’t want any hint of fuddy duddy tradition. Or, ‘fashionable’ might be an essential part of the image you are trying to portray. Fine!

Let’s look at the logos of some successful hi-tech companies and see what we can learn from those. Take Microsoft, IBM, Canon, Sony, Apple. They are all fairly simple, with the exception of Apple’s ‘apple’ symbol, all are just the name of the company written in a distinctive way.

‘Distinctive’ is the important factor here. These are not ordinary typefaces bought from Adobe or downloaded from a free font site on the Web. They have all been specially designed and hand-drawn so that they are NOT the same as any other typeface.

Microsoft has a fairly ordinary bold italic sans typeface, but the ‘o’ has a nick out of it making it more distinctive, recognisable and memorable. IBM has ‘scan lines’ running through a bold ‘Egyptian’ style font. Canon has a particularly distinctive initial ‘C’. Sony has what is probably the least distinctive type style of all these examples, an extended slab-serif, but the word itself is so unique it can get off with it. The choice of company and product titles is another very important factor, but I won’t go into that at the minute.

The Apple logo is the only one which has seen a recent change, albeit an evolutionary one where the rainbow stripes have been replaced by a single color. The word Apple is written in an ordinary typeface, a derivative of Garamond, designed way back in the sixteenth century!

None of these logos are what you might call ‘fashionable’. Apple’s rainbow stripes were, but have given way to a more classical approach. In doing so, the logo has lost some of its distinctiveness but it was clearly dating the company’s image and that is undesirable for a company wanting to appear to be innovative.

Trendy, graphically fashionable logos are okay for companies or products that are ephemeral. Graphic styles, like clothes, go in and out of fashion all the time. Obviously, it wouldn’t make much sense to design a logo for a computer company using an Art Deco typestyle because it gives all the wrong signals. On the other hand, flying in the face of convention is more likely to provide a unique, creative answer than by repeating the same popular images as everyone else.

This is where design gets really interesting.

Clip art is often of very low quality but regardless of the quality, even if you find some clip art that you really like, it's a sure bet that somebody else is already using it for a similar job!

There are certain ‘visual vocabularies’ - clichés, if you like - associated with every discipline you can think of. Look through Yellow Pages or a clip art CD and you will see thousands of them - stars, stripes, chefs' hats, wooden spoons, chickens. In logo design, clichés are counter productive. Instead of making your logo look unique, they are confusing it with every other one that uses the same visual idea. In fact, using such a device makes the company look run-of-the-mill and cheap. But, take a cliché and give it a twist, use it out of context or in a different way, and you will have given your logo something that people will remember.

There is very little value in copying somebody else’s logo - unless you deliberately want to look like a me-too. A logo should ideally be as different from every other one as you can possibly make it. It should also communicate something about the company or product other than just its name. You have an opportunity to add some additional values subliminally through your choice of typeface and color.

Most corporate logos need to work across a wide spectrum of usage situations - signage, stationery, packaging, promotional items and mainstream advertising. They probably require different sizes and versions for different applications too - a full colour version on the front of the company’s annual report or notepaper and a gold-leaf or etched glass version that works on the main entrance door.

If it appears on television, the logo could be animated, and there is always the give-away, printed balloons!

Designing a logo today means that it will probably be used on the Web. In fact, the Web could well be its main expression and print of little or no consideration. A logo designed for Web use has to take into account that it will be displayed at a small size, in relatively low resolution and possibly with a restricted color palette. If designing a logo specifically or primarily for the Web, you should start with Web safe colors, not Pantone or ink colors. It is easier to match printing ink to Web safe colors than the other way around.

Rather than resize a large master to every conceivable size, try to make do with two or three fixed sizes and optimise those by hand. Get rid of any unnecessary anti-aliasing on vertical and horizontal strokes. This will make the logo look crisper and reduce file size slightly.

Next month, I will examine the creative process of designing a logo - How to start, the best programs to use, and some pitfalls to avoid.

All trade marks are acknowledged as belonging to their respective owners.

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