These less-than logosmiths tend to make the same mistakes over and over. At least they’re consistent. When it comes to art and science of logo design, there are cardinal rules that should be followed if a design is to be successful. Let’s have a look at a few of these all too common faux pas, blunders, solecisms and erroneous outcomes.
Mistake #1: Giving the client too much authority
I can hear it now. “Giving the client too much authority? But they’re the client.” While that’s true, the client hired you to do something they can’t. Human shortcomings are why we have all kinds of professions, trades and such. When there’s something we need, but can’t (or won’t) do for ourselves we hire someone with those skills and talents. It makes the world go around.
When a designer gives too much authority to their client they can easily set themselves up for trouble. That’s why it’s so important to have a contract or letter of agreement that clearly spells out who is responsible for what, by when and for how much. Beyond those basics, the agreement should establish boundaries for the client/designer relationship. In other words, “You do this. I do that.”
In addition, a graphic designer had better be prepared to defend their design and thinking. Pulling design elements out of the air isn’t usually the best idea. Every element that makes up an overall design should be there, or, in some cases, not be there for a reason. Walking the client through the rationale and reasoning demonstrates a higher degree of strategy behind the logo. That tends to be so much better than, “Yeah … I found this really cool font and that blue’s pretty nifty, too.”
Mistake #2: Failure to accurately understand the specifics of the project brief
When a designer doesn’t gather enough or the right kind of information, they end up designing in a vacuum and the logo can be doomed from the start. Research is critical for a design to be effective, on-target and do the job that’s needed.
When a graphic designer is hired to design a logo, they must ask the right kind of questions; learn as much as possible about the client; their history; plans for the future; the client’s business; industry; competition and audience. Those are just the tip of the logo design process iceberg. Logo designs are dependent upon quality research, well before putting a pencil to paper or finger to mouse.
Mistake #3: Relying too heavily of software
Don’t get me wrong. Software is great stuff and gives designers the ability to work in today’s environment. But, jumping on their trusty computer too quickly can result in logo designs that don’t reach their full potential.
Going straight to digital erodes and sometimes completely halts a very important element of logo design – exploration. Digital designs tend to have a finished look and feel. Preliminary sketching on this stuff called paper provides a sense of design freedom. Ideas come up that wouldn’t have by going straight to digital.
Another problem when going right into digital design development is the tendency or temptation to create elements within a design that can drive up reproduction costs. Gradients, too many colors and the like can mean the need to produce expensive branding materials. For example, a logo might demand the use of process color or several spot colors to work. That means printed marketing materials, signage, etc. can be awfully expensive not too far down the road.
Mistake #4: Logos that rely too heavily on color
A cousin to mistake #3 is creating a mark that only works in color. If a mark doesn’t work in black and white, color usually won’t help it. And, as with mistake #3, it can get expensive.
When testing a mark, converting it to black and white is a good idea. Does it become weak when the stunning colors go away? Strong logos maintain their strength when reproduced in black and white or one color as well as multiple colors.
Mistake #5: Not testing the designs
While I’m on the subject, beyond testing color and black and white, also test your design very large and very small. Your stunning design might work great when it’s used on a signage application. But, when it’s reduced for an item such as a USB drive or keychain, not so much. Elements that were easy to read in larger applications might tend to plug up, disappear or become illegible when reproduced in smaller applications.
Mistake #6: “Borrowing” from an existing design or a logo’s elements
Don’t. Enough said.
Mistake #7: Using Photoshop or other raster image editors
Like #6, don’t do this. Ever! Logos should always be produced as vector. Think Illustrator, Inkscape or other vector drawing program.
Logos are reproduced in a variety of media, mediums and applications. If a designer designed a logo in Photoshop at, say, 400 pixels wide, that’s as big as it can go without a loss in quality. Take that logo up to 600 or 800 pixels and it’s going to turn into fuzzy, pixilated mush. Raster, or bitmapped images are a set size. You may be able to go down in size, but going up is the kiss of branding death.
If I had a dime for every time a client sent me a small 72 dpi logo from their site to use in a brochure, I’d be living in the tropics sipping exotic coconut-laden drinks. Oh. Wait. I do live in the tropics. Nevermind. You get the idea.
Mistake#8: Being trendy
Logo design trends come and logo design trends go. Designing a trendy mark might win you an award. It might also lose you a client or at least do them a serious disservice.
A logo, in most cases, has a pretty long shelf life. A life expectancy of 20 years or more isn’t unusual. Just look at the Twinings Tea logo that was designed circa 1770 and has remained unchanged. You don’t see many 21st century fashioistas making a statement in 18th century garb. Powdered wigs aren’t that big now days, either.
A logo that’s based on a trend probably won’t be around for very long before it needs an overhaul or complete redesign.
Good design has two qualities – simplicity and timelessness.
One of my design school instructors drilled a notion into my head – Simplicity is the basis of design. Words to live by.
Simplicity and timelessness go hand-in-hand and they’re the nemesis of design trends. Consider the work of Paul Rand. His designs are as fresh, vibrant and relevant today as when he designed them many years ago.
Mistake #9: Making bad choices
Okay … I took a shortcut. Rather than write about numerous options and opportunities to make bad choices, I elected to lump them together since they have one major thing in common – appropriateness.
Two common mistakes involve choice of color(s) and typography. Using too many colors within a logo design can, as mentioned, make it expensive to reproduce. It can also result in a logo that looks like a visual circus. At times, that might be the desired effect, but those circumstances are a bit on the rare side.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention supplying both CMYK as well as RGB breakdowns as well as spot color information. This information is typically supplied in a logo/corporate identity standards document and that’s a topic for another article.
Typography and color should be appropriate for the audience along with aligning to the client’s branding and positioning goals. For example, if a client’s audience is senior citizens, typography should be legible, even in small point sizes. Reverse text or funky typographic treatments might not be great ideas, either. Always keep the audience in the forefront of your mind throughout the process.
Consider the emotional effects of your type choices. Fonts speak volumes simply by the way they were designed. One typestyle might evoke a sense of fun while another is reserved and formal. By clearly understanding your client’s branding and positioning goals, you can make more appropriate typographic choices. For instance, let’s say the client is a well-established law firm with a 75-year history. A classic typeface such as Caslon 540 might be a perfect choice. While Caslon 540 might be great for the law firm, Univers Extra Black Extended Oblique wouldn’t be so hot. But, Univers Extra Black Extended Oblique might be just right for a client seeking positioning that’s strong, progressive and one-the-move.
Mistake #10: Forgetting what graphic design is all about
In understanding what graphic design is all about, it’s important to learn what it’s not.
Graphic design isn’t art. It’s a communication tool. I’ve had death threats for saying that, but I stand by my opinion. Okay … okay … nobody threatened me, but it was a useful device for making a point.
Sure, graphic design seems a lot like art and the two share many traits. When you strip away all the jargon, heady definitions and such, art is about pleasing the artist. It’s personal.
Graphic design is about finding a relevant and appropriate solution to a problem. Your solution may be one of several possibilities, but it’s still all about solving the problem at-hand for your client, which is yet another topic for article. It’s commercial.
Mistakes are everywhere, both in our business life and our personal life. It’s how we react to them that’s paramount. Thomas Edison is credited with saying (pardon my paraphrase), “I didn’t fail. I found 3000 ways to not make a light bulb.”
Some designers will say, “Oh geez! I’m so stupid for making that mistake.” You’re not stupid. Making mistakes is human. I can pretty much guarantee Milton Glaser, Stefan Sagmeister, Neville Brody and every other influential graphic designer out there made their fair share of mistakes along the way to graphic design superstardom. I don’t think they thought, “I’m stupid.” They likely thought something along the lines of, “Well, that didn’t work. Mental note: Don’t do that again.”
Mistakes are very valuable lessons. They’re how we learn. Hopefully a graphic designer will make the lion’s share of their mistakes early on. But, if they don’t, there’s still hope in the mistakes that lie on the horizon.