Updated: Oct 21, 2020
What’s in a Logo?
Most people know that a great logo is eye-catching and memorable. But a great logo is also so much more:
Communicative – it is not only attractive but is also in line with the values, messaging, aesthetics, and brand of the organization it represents
Clear – In most cases simple is best, but often in organizations simplicity also proves to be the most challenging thing to accomplish
Adaptable – organizations use their logos for everything from a website favicon smaller than a postage stamp, to embroidered shirts, to huge signs and banners
Usable – a base logo design should be expanded into a limited number of variations, with files supplied to the organization to fit most places where they will eventually have to use it
Unique – that’s a challenge when you consider that for most organizations, there are many, many others that are similar
Likable – The individuals at the organization should personally like and take pride in their logo graphic
Agreeable – when there are several people involved it can be hard to get everyone to agree on any single graphic (more on this below)
Aware – logos often contain symbols, and those symbols need to be carefully vetted to prevent unintentional double meanings and interpretations
With all of these aspects taken into consideration, it becomes important for your logo designer to 1) follow a development process to account for all factors and objectives, and 2) to be experienced in using a variety of logo graphics for everything from banners to brochures to website icons to clothing.
Hiring someone who is strictly a graphic designer to make a logo, or even a hobbyist who wants to do it for fun, is pretty common, especially for small businesses. Sometimes it works out and the designer happens to make something you like and that, by a mix of luck and intuition, meets most of the other criteria listed above.
Just as often you end up with something that isn’t even close to what you’d hoped. That becomes a difficult situation if the person has a lot of hours of work into it and now you don’t want to pay for something you don’t really like. That, in a nutshell, is the difficulty of logo design, and the dilemma you want to avoid. So don’t leave your logo design to luck or hope. Follow a process to make sure you don’t end up with unpleasant surprises, unintentional meanings, or paying for something you don’t like..
The Design Process
Prior to working on the design, your design agency should meet with you to learn about your goals and presumed uses for the logo. You should also talk about what symbols, based on your expert knowledge, may be fitting for the type of work (or play!) you are involved in (keeping in mind some logo designs are text-only, so in the end you could decide not to use symbols at all).
Your design agency should also put together a sampling of logos from other organizations, going through them one at a time to get a feel for the styles you prefer.
You should also explore your brand. If you have a pre-established brand then your logo definitely needs to be cohesive with that look-and-feel. Your agency will need to know right up front if there is a pre-defined palette of colors you use, and be made aware of any other brand design standards.
Brand is also important to understand up front because the ideas behind your brand definition are the guidelines for messaging to your potential customers. If you have a thorough understanding of brand, creating a logo graphic becomes vastly easier because you know your end goal. With a poor understanding of brand, you won’t know exactly what you are trying to accomplish with your design work in the first place, and developing a logo will be difficult. If you haven’t thought out your brand to such a depth, find a design agency that also does branding work and not just graphic design. You may not want a full brand development but they will have the knowledge to tease out the core elements you need for your logo design project.
To start the design process, your design agency should engage in industry research to see what others in your industry or similar organizations have used for their logos. It’s as simple as a web search. From this you can take inspiration for your logo where appropriate (without plagiarizing of course), but at the same time understand what clichés exist that you might want to avoid. This will help you come up with something unique.
You can also do keyword-based research. Think about not just your business name, but about ideas and values you want to represent. Create a free-association keyword cluster of those ideas, and then create a small library of visual symbols that are commonly used to represent those ideas. This exercise can sometimes expose possibilities beyond the obvious choices that you may not have thought of intuitively.
Associative research is an exercise where you will discover if certain words or ideas are associated with alternative, unrelated, and/or negative ideas, maybe from completely unrelated domains of thought or culture. For example, you may have decided to start referring to your organization by its acronym, only to have that turn out to also be the commonly-known acronym for something you don’t want to be associated with. You should research the things you are thinking about to try to prevent that situation before it happens.
Again it’s usually as simple as a web search. Simply search the acronym, name, or concept you are thinking about. If some alternate theme comes up very prevalently on your first page of results then you know to be wary of adopting it for your business. It should be noted that most symbols and acronyms are associated with many things, both positive and negative, so you shouldn’t become afraid to take ownership of a mark within reason. You mainly want to prevent the ones that are most negative, and/or the most common that the average person might conflate.
After the Discovery and Research steps, your agency will begin design. The process may vary here, but the key is that you should be informed and able to guide the process. For example, at Big Waves Marketing we like to start by penning 3-5 rough ideas. We’ll show these to you before putting a ton of time into any one of them, putting you in control of the process the whole way through and preventing surprises.
It happens sometimes that you won’t like any of the initial designs. Don’t be discouraged if the agency has to go back to the drawing board and give you another round of rough concepts. That’s what this process is designed to allow for. If the designer has indeed given you rough concepts then the time investment so far shouldn’t be so much that it puts your account in the budget-trouble zone. Trust the process, review rounds of rough concepts, and give feedback until you strike something you feel good about.
A word should also be said here about design-by-committee, because it is so common. Designing a logo with a committee is simply difficult. Everyone has different tastes. Invariably if one person on the committee loves something, someone else will hate it, and vice-versa. The bigger the committee, the smaller the chances for success. Logo design-by-committee typically ends in one of two ways – either you end up with a logo that combines all the best ideas into one (in other words, a big indecipherable mess), or a blah compromise logo that everybody thinks is okay but nobody really likes a lot. My advice for design-by-committee is that one or two people must be given the authority and autonomy to make the final decision. The person in charge must have the backbone to collect opinions and then make a final decision, despite the fact that one person on the committee may not agree. That should be agreed upon respectfully amongst the committee up front. My alternative advice to that is – run away, fast and far.
After you review the rough ideas, your agency can then create a completely polished base design for your review, and then do final tweaks based on your feedback. The result of this first stage of design should be a strong logo concept that stands on its own at a medium size on a page.
The base design was the hardest part, so if you got through it, congratulations! After the base design is established your designer can create variations. This is when you start making it flexible for use in different applications. To cover most things you’ll need to use your logo for, at the least you should create a version that is of somewhat equal proportions like a square-ish or circle-ish shape, and a horizontal version that works well for things like website headers and letterhead. For most applications you’ll find either the horizontal or square version will fit well.
At this juncture you should also take other applications into consideration. For example, if you want the logo to be embroidered on shirts or other merch then you’ll need a version that eliminates small, detailed features. Or, if you know it will end up being printed in black-and-white or one-color applications, make sure you’ve made a version that works really well in one-color. These are things a good designer will have in the back of his head from the start so he doesn’t end up with something that is too complicated and inflexible.
After the shape variations are created, you should also have color variations created. If your base design is in color, depending on the design, you likely should create one that is simply black, and one that is white or light gray. Both will be useful for black-and-white publications, and between the two of them you will always have something to use whether you encounter light and dark backgrounds.
Altogether you should end up with a base package containing several file versions of your logo. It will vary depending on what your needs are, which your agency should be well-familiar with by now. But at the least it will contain two shape versions of the logo, with three color variations of each shape.
The file types and sizes you may need can vary greatly depending upon what you are using them for. To start with, JPG files, and PNG files with transparent backgrounds are usually needed very often. EPS files can be helpful to have up front as well, because they can be scaled very large for something like a billboard without losing resolution. Beyond that, your designer should be able to create additional file types and variations upon future request.
Different agencies and designers may have different approaches that are effective. The key concepts for you as a business owner to know are:
There should be a research component to your process
You should expect to give a variety of initial opinions and information
You should know what’s going on and being asked for feedback and guidance at every step
Because success in logo design in large part requires that you meet your own or a group of stakeholders’ subjective tastes, the whole process is like an artful dance. Establishing a process and continual communication are the keys to success.