The Client’s Guide to Design


Logo & Identity Design

Humans have been using graphic symbols to communicate since before history began. We’re still doing so, for the very simple reason that a well-conceived graphic identity can be more powerful than words.

Defining Terms

More and more companies today are concerned with branding, and more and more design firms are offering it as a service. But branding—the process of identifying your business with your marketing materials—is actually too big a subject for a design guide. So we’ll limit the discussion to a more specific subject: creating a visual identity.

Even after limiting the subject, there is some confusion over terms, so the best place to start to it to explain what your designer actually means when he uses terms like identity and logo.

What is an identity?

If a brand is how your market feels when they see your company, an identity is what they see. That means your identity includes your logo, but isn’t limited to it. It also includes the colors you typically use—for everything from your logo to the exterior of your building and the company t-shirts your employees wear. It includes your choice of fonts for everything from signage to business cards, and the way letter styles are used. Any visual presentation that can be imagined is part of your company’s identity, and it should all be planned together so that it works together.

What is a logo?

Your logo is something much more specific. Most people think of a logo as any kind of consistent, visual representation of a company’s identity, even when it includes letters or words, and even when it consists entirely of letters or words. But technically, a logo is a symbol that stands in place of a name. An excellent example is the Nike “swoosh,” which identifies a product as Nike’s without that company needing to place its actual name anywhere on the product.

There are three basic types of logos. The first is a symbol, which can be a stylized representation of the company’s name, product, or service, or can be completely abstract, like Nike’s swoosh. The second is a wordmark: a combination of letters or words that is given a unique treatment in terms of font, color, arrangement, or any combination of these. A good example of a wordmark is the FedEx logo. The third is a combination of the first two: words or letters used in conjunction with a symbol, as with Levi’s and its stylized pocket flap design. Any of these variations, if well-designed and well-branded, is a valid approach.




Designing A Logo

A logo is more than just a pretty decoration: there are psychological, technical, and legal factors to be taken into account when creating one. A good logo needs to score highly in at least four different categories:

1. It should be simple

The more complicated a logo, the longer it takes to recognize it. Simple shapes, so long as they’re distinctive, make the best logos because they register faster in our minds. The Nike logo is a good example of this principle, as is Apple’s logo. A good example of a technically complex shape that works because it is a regular repetition of simple shapes is BP’s logo.

2. It should be unique

Logos must be unique. This might seem obvious, but too often businesses settle on a logo, and then find that it cannot be effectively branded simply because it looks like so many others. A good example of this is the swoosh craze that struck logo design in the mid-1990s, and which persists to this day. Adding a swoosh to a logo is like shorthand for “I’m out of ideas.” (Then what about Nike’s logo? Nike is an exception for two reasons: its logo came very early in the swoosh phase of logo design, and it has been branded relentlessly—and very effectively—ever since. A good indicator of the truth of this is that when you see a swoosh logo, you often think “That looks like Nike.” It’s a bad thing when your company’s logo makes your market think of a different company.)

3. It should be flexible.

Logos need to be able to adapt to different circumstances. The Coca-Cola logo is a good example of this. Coke uses its logo script by itself; it places it inside a red circle, or a rectangle, with or without its familiar double-swoosh. Its corporate color is red, but the logo is often used in white on a darker background of virtually any color (such as its green-tinted bottles), or in black in a single-color environment.

4. It should be appropriate.

The style of a logo should match the image the company is trying to convey. The logo for Toys-R-Us is perfect for a business catering to the desires of children; it would be obviously inappropriate if used for a corporate law firm.

(It should be noted here in passing that even though Toys-R-Us had one of the most effective logos in the world for branding its company, it still eventually failed as a business. A brilliant logo cannot guarantee success if your market believes there are better alternatives to your company or its business model.)

Also keep in mind…

In addition, there are a few other practical rules to keep in mind. For instance, a logo that’s dependent on color will never work in a black-and-white environment. A logo that contains screens or gradients—such as the ubiquitous drop shadow—will not work well when printed small, or on coarse paper like newsprint (the paper is too absorbent, and dots of ink tend to spread and plug up the gaps between them). And a logo based on clip art, or stock art, or anything in the public domain, can wind up looking like another logo even if yours comes first.

There are, of course, perfectly good logos that violate one or even several of these rules, and that simply confirms the most important rule of all: whatever does the best job of reaching your market is, per se, the best approach. This goes not only for logo design, but for any graphic design projects. The ultimate goal is not to please either the designer, or even the client, but the market.

A Fictional Case Study: Florence

So how does logo design work in the real world? To understand the process better let’s imagine the case of a business called “Florence’s Flowers and Gifts.”

Florence, a talented floral designer, established her solo business in 1996 on a shoestring. Money was tight; so she asked a friend to come up with a design she could print on her business card, paint on her front window, and put in her Yellow Pages ad. Her friend, untrained (and unpaid), relied on free clip art and the fonts that came with her computer—in this case, Brush Script and Arial. To make the logo more “distinctive,” she violated some important typographical rules: she artificially compressed the font, and she set script in all caps. She also rotated it, to make it look “more lively.”

The result was a mess.

Florence’s old logo was ineffective in helping to brand the company—not only because it was visually uninspiring, but also (even mostly) because it was so generic it could be mistaken for any of thousands of similar businesses across the country.

Thanks to Florence’s talent and a lot of hard work, her business succeeded—despite her amateurish graphic identity. She became, in fact, the go-to designer for weddings and special events. Word-of-mouth kept her business alive; but Florence knew something was missing. Her logo looked like that of a mom-and-pop shop, not the logo for a serious floral designer whose work displayed a high degree of creative thought. She needed an updated identity.

So she hired a designer, and sat through the process beginning with the design brief. This almost immediately revealed an important fact: the “gifts” part of her identity was unimportant. By far the main part of her business was creating and selling floral arrangements. Thus, the business’s identity wasn’t really “Florence’s Flowers and Gifts,” but actually simply “Florence.” And so, along with the new identity, she rebranded her business: “Florence—Fine Floral Creations.”

That still left the problem of a new logo. A Fortune 500 company at this point would likely convene a focus group to test designs; but doing so is a costly and lengthy process out of reach for most small businesses. Luckily for Florence, she had not only a good design sense, but also the understanding that she must first and foremost please her market rather than herself. She also had a very strong idea of the image she wished to convey, and the market she wished to go after.

Florence had come to specialize in roses, and so wanted a rose to be the focus of the logo. Her designer submitted several sketches in different styles; one of them—a simple, almost abstract design based on nested triangles canted at different angles—was the one Florence felt best evoked the essence of her business and the image she wanted to project: similar to that of an upscale boutique (of which there were several on her street). The sketch was cleaned up and a vector file made from it for ease of reproduction. It was mated with a strong sans-serif font called Troia, which provided a clean, modern look with a certain flair. The logo was done in both solid and outline versions; the outline version especially was adaptable to use with any color, and its more abstract shape was chosen as the primary logo.

Florence’s new logo. It satisfied her desire to project an image which was upscale and modern, while remaining simple, bold, and easily recognizable. The sketch which provided the basis for the final logo is shown below (Image 1), along with a second version of the final logo (Image 2). This second version provides Florence’s identity with an extra measure of flexibility, allowing her to mix and match the elements of either version for different uses, depending on which works best—or which suits her fancy.



Now that the client was pleased with the logo, the next step was to work out a complete identity package, and to establish color and usage rules. Once that was complete, the logo could be used by any other contractor—the sign painter, the silkscreen printer for coffee mugs, the specialty printer who produced foil-stamped gift cards—and Florence could be assured that all uses would be consistent.

Letterhead, business cards, and tags.

Front window sign.

Coffee mug.