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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Design, random musings, and the Web. Since 1977

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Some Thoughts on Logo Design

A few months ago, I had the plea­sure of answer­ing a few ques­tions for an arti­cle being writ­ten by my friend Elliot Jay Stocks for .net Mag­a­zine (Prac­ti­cal Web Design here in the States). Elliot quot­ed me quite nice­ly in the arti­cle, but I thought it would be inter­est­ing to pub­lish my com­plete answers here, along with his ques­tions, and he kind­ly gave his permission.

Note: The arti­cle itself is full of some sol­id infor­ma­tion and quotes some bright minds—well worth pick­ing up if you get the chance (as is the rest of the issue).

EJS: Please could you tell us a bit about your­self and your work with logos so far?

DR: I’ve always loved logos, and some of my ear­li­est exper­i­ments with design were logo­types (I tend to pre­fer type-dri­ven logos with min­i­mal imagery). I don’t get as many oppor­tu­ni­ties to design logos for clients as I’d like, but I do a fair amount for friends and per­son­al projects, some­times for imag­i­nary ideas just as an excuse to design a logo or logotype.

EJS: Which logo (that you’ve designed) are you most proud of and why?

DR: I’m torn between the cur­rent logo for Super­flu­ous­Ban­ter and a logo I did a few years ago for a real estate com­pa­ny that by broth­er was start­ing. I put most of the work I do into two cat­e­gories: design for myself, and design for others—so those are my cur­rent favorites from each category.

In the case of SuperfluousBanter’s cur­rent logo (there have been a few over the years), the “sb” mark on an orange field sport­ing a lighter spi­ral (with the counter of the “b” over the cen­ter of the spi­ral) has a nice bal­ance of sym­me­try and asym­me­try at the same time, with­out get­ting complicated.

With the logo for the real estate firm, the busi­ness name was that of the main part­ner in the com­pa­ny, so it required a visu­al mark in addi­tion to the logo­type in order to com­mu­ni­cate the type of busi­ness. Not that it was ground­break­ing in any way, but the mark does its job well, with­out being too complicated—the more basic the shapes, the eas­i­er it is to rec­og­nize an image at a glance (impor­tant for prop­er­ty sig­nage), and the bet­ter its repro­duc­tion at var­i­ous high- and low-res­o­lu­tions. The qual­i­ties of the mark that make it my favorite are sim­i­lar to those of the Super­flu­ous­Ban­ter mark: a com­bi­na­tion of sym­me­try and asym­me­try that results in bal­ance (it’s extreme­ly impor­tant to have all three), and in this case, the end result was almost exact­ly what I pic­tured in my head before even sketch­ing the first rough.

EJS: Can you name an all-time favourite (web-relat­ed) logo that some­one else has designed? Why do you like it so much?

DR: It’s hard to decide, but I’ll go with Dan Cederholm’s Cork’d logo. I like Dan’s style in gen­er­al, but the Cork’d logo is just ele­gant in its own lit­tle way (recur­ring theme: com­bi­na­tion of sym­me­try and asym­me­try result­ing in an over­all bal­ance). I wear the t‑shirt so much that I’ve almost worn it out ;)

EJS: What do you con­sid­er to be the cur­rent trends in web indus­try logo design? Are they good or bad?

DR: While there are still a lot of “web 2.0” design trends every­where (not just online, either), in my expe­ri­ence these design trends result almost as much from client demand as from design­ers impos­ing those trends on their work. As I said before, I’m a fan of type-dri­ven logos, with sim­ple, straight-for­ward visu­al marks to sup­port the type. Aside from the drop-shad­ows, bevels and oth­er stan­dard design clichés, I don’t think there are any awful trends per se (some peo­ple might say there’s been enough round­ed type and bright, hap­py col­ors, but if a client wants their brand to be ‘friend­ly’ etc., more often than not it’s the right direc­tion), but I could still do with­out bla­tant 3‑D or an over abun­dance of fil­ter effects. And let’s not get into the pros and cons of reflections…

EJS: Where do you get your inspi­ra­tion from and can you rec­om­mend any good places of inspi­ra­tion or resources (books, web­sites, design­ers, etc.)?

DR: I’m con­stant­ly search­ing for new sources of inspiration—my per­son­al pref­er­ence is to find as much as pos­si­ble offline rather than use the web. Not only does it give my eyes some need­ed respite from the glare of the screen, but I find my reac­tions are dif­fer­ent when read­ing a book, sift­ing through old album cov­ers, dig­ging through piles of magazines—the tac­tile expe­ri­ence engages more sens­es, and that helps get the cre­ative juices flow­ing for me. As for spe­cif­ic resources, I think it’s use­ful to have good exam­ples around (for com­par­i­son if noth­ing else), and the Logo Lounge series of books is a good place to start for more recent designs. A sim­i­lar resource online is Logo­Pond (though I wouldn’t per­son­al­ly sub­ject in-progress work to pub­lic exam­i­na­tion like some users of the site). If you can find books about logo design and brand­ing written/printed pri­or to the mid-1980’s, you’ll find some great exam­ples of how to design marks with­out going over­board (a sim­ple mark that repro­duces well in black after being faxed will like­ly trans­late quite nice­ly to the web).

EJS: How do you approach the logo-design­ing process? Is there a sys­tem (maybe in 6 steps) that you can recommend?

DR: While I don’t have a fixed set of steps in place for any of my work (I like to think it helps avoid pat­terns and forces me to think from a fresh per­spec­tive on every project), I do tend to go about the prob­lem-solv­ing process the same way each time:

  • Find out as much as you can about the client/product/organization/person/service that the logo will rep­re­sent. With­out that input, a logo is just some text, lines and color.
  • Research oth­er brands in the same market—I used to use this step as moti­va­tion to “design a bet­ter logo” or “beat the com­pe­ti­tion” but I feel that was mis­guid­ed. Now I use it pri­mar­i­ly to get a feel for what is already suc­cess­ful, and to know what to avoid visu­al­ly in order to cre­ate some­thing unique.
  • Sketch and Play—this step is the most ran­dom for me: some­times I’m sketch­ing with pen­cil in a Mole­sk­ine, oth­er times I’m mess­ing around in Pho­to­shop or Illus­tra­tor, and a few times the good ideas have come on the req­ui­site cock­tail nap­kin or in the mar­gins of a mag­a­zine. The exper­i­men­ta­tion is the fun part—it’s not always need­ed (if you see the final logo in your head the first time inspi­ra­tion hits, get to a com­put­er as quick­ly as pos­si­ble and just draw the thing!), but when you’re wait­ing for the light­ning to strike it’s a good way to try things out.
  • Design in black and white until you have your logo­type and/or mark, then add col­or and adjust as needed.
  • Once you have some­thing, print it out. A lot. I tend to do most dig­i­tal logo work in Illus­tra­tor so every­thing is vec­tor and eas­i­ly print­ed at var­i­ous sizes. Print vari­a­tions in type weight/style, as well as invert­ed ver­sions of your logo­type and mark. Print large ver­sions and paste them to the wall, or lay them out on the floor. Look at them for a few hours, or a day, or a few days—as much time as it takes you to real­ly let things sink in.
  • If it’s paid work, don’t deliv­er final art until receiv­ing final pay­ment. If it’s for a friend, give them a CD over dinner.

EJS: What tools fea­ture in your logo-mak­ing process (and how promi­nent­ly, like main­ly Illus­tra­tor and only a bit of Pho­to­shop?), and can you name any that peo­ple might not know about (i.e: any apps out­side of the Adobe family)?

DR: I guess I already answered that for the most part. Illus­tra­tor is my pri­ma­ry weapon, though any­thing that allows vec­tor illus­tra­tion should be fine (even if you’re design­ing a logo for a web site—there’s noth­ing worse than design­ing a kick-ass logo in Pho­to­shop at 72dpi and then real­iz­ing that you have to recre­ate it from scratch as vec­tor art because the client wants to make t‑shirts).

EJS: What prob­lems have you encoun­tered in design­ing logos and how do you avoid them?

DR: Aside from fig­ur­ing out the start­ing point (always a mov­ing tar­get from project to project), clients and their expectations/preferences are the biggest prob­lem. That’s a big­ger top­ic of dis­cus­sion, but I retain as much cre­ative con­trol as pos­si­ble, and let my clients know up front that I expect them to trust my opin­ions. If you’re firm with your client from the begin­ning, their expec­ta­tions will fall more close­ly in line with yours.

EJS: What gen­er­al tips can you offer for oth­er logo design­ers out there?

DR: Play. A lot. Look for sources of inspi­ra­tion that may not seem imme­di­ate­ly obvious—if you’re stuck for ideas on a logo for a children’s book, start dig­ging through some heavy met­al album cov­ers, or a stack of per­for­mance car mag­a­zines, or some swimwear cat­a­logs. The con­trast can do won­ders for your subconscious.

EJS: How would you define a good logo? What ele­ments does it need?

DR: Though I have my own, sub­jec­tive thoughts on this, I’m sure not many would dis­agree that a good logo is one that com­mu­ni­cates the intend­ed mes­sage effec­tive­ly. Usu­al­ly that mes­sage helps define the brand in an eas­i­ly digestible way. So a suc­cess­ful logo is one that can rep­re­sent the brand (whether it’s an indi­vid­ual, a small non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion, or a mul­ti-nation­al corporation).

When it comes to the actu­al visu­al ele­ments, I pre­fer logos that do the above described job with­out being com­pli­cat­ed. Strik­ing the cor­rect bal­ance between typog­ra­phy, col­or, shapes and sym­me­try isn’t some­thing that can be quantified—it will be dif­fer­ent for every logo. I find that the logos that pique my inter­est the most are those with some lev­el of bal­anced asym­me­try: if you split a logo down the cen­ter of either axis, it should not result in a mir­ror image. Type is a straight­for­ward way to achieve this, since you can very eas­i­ly bal­ance the let­ter­forms with­out cre­at­ing a mir­ror image. In fact, you’d have to work very hard to achieve that effect, to the extent that if it was the intend­ed effect, it would like­ly be a more cre­ative end result (and as such, become a suc­cess­ful excep­tion to the mir­ror rule), for exam­ple the ambi­grams of John Lang­don.

EJS: What would you con­sid­er to be mis­takes in logo design, be them your own or made by others?

DR: A lev­el of detail that pre­cludes low-res­o­lu­tion or small-size repro­duc­tion, includ­ing col­or and type selec­tion in some cas­es. This is a poten­tial issue with the pre­pon­der­ance of pho­to­re­al­is­tic logos that are becom­ing increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar with soft­ware com­pa­nies, but I’m start­ing to see it creep into oth­er uses. I also feel like type­face selec­tion is often not giv­en as much care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion as it requires. Of course, logos can still be suc­cess­ful with­out being “per­fect” by any one person’s definition.

Many thanks again to Elliot and the edi­tors of .net Magazine.

This item was posted by Dan Rubin on Friday, June 20th, 2008.

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10 comments on “Some Thoughts on Logo Design”

  1. Posted by Elliot Jay Stocks on Friday, June 20th, 2008.

    This is a great blog post, mate — you have some real­ly good answers. I still feel guilty about not being able to include every­thing you said in the arti­cle, so I’m glad to see your words pub­lished here in full. Cheers for the kudos, too. :)

  2. Posted by Dan Rubin on Friday, June 20th, 2008.

    @Elliot: I real­ly enjoy inter­views, because in the hands of a good inter­view­er (like you) it results in a dif­fer­ent set of thoughts than the inter­vie­wee might oth­er­wise have if left to their own devices. Thanks for allow­ing me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to be thoughtful :)

  3. Posted by Caz Mockett on Tuesday, June 24th, 2008.

    Real­ly inter­est­ing read, Dan. Thanks for shar­ing it with us.

    I’ve final­ly man­aged to blog about your great talk at @media too — bet­ter late than never ;-)

  4. Posted by John on Wednesday, June 25th, 2008.

    This is a very inter­est­ing read. I’ve been mess­ing around with logo cre­ation myself main­ly in Pho­to­shop. I found the logo-design­ing process ques­tion Elliott asked espe­cial­ly insight­ful. I can see that you go through a rig­or­ous devel­op­ment process to cre­ate logos for your clients. Thanks for post­ing it here and keep up the good work.

  5. Posted by Heiko Mauel on Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008.

    Hi,
    great Blog & very interesting.
    thx

  6. Posted by AdamK on Thursday, July 3rd, 2008.

    I may be blind, but I haven’t found the super­flu­ous­ban­ter logo :)

  7. Posted by Eugenio Hertz on Saturday, July 19th, 2008.

    To the answer about what defines a good logo… I think that this is kin­da tricky.

    You have NIKE with that THING, the oth­er THING from TDK that is a dia­mond, but not eas­i­ly under­stand­able at 1st sight, and that last THING from Xerox, which i per­son­al­ly dont know if that was a styl­ish ball, or what­ev­er… It just car­ries a big X and make its way on the cur­rent Xerox logo renewal.

    Some clients want tricke inge­nious graph­ic along with their brand, oth­ers wont care if you do a “let­ter play” (like super­flu­ous ban­ter), and in gen­er­al peo­ple dont care that much to look and analise these works, as long as i can see these times.

    So you see brands that real­ly comu­ni­cate what they mean, while oth­ers dont expose direct­ly the sub­ject, but show a har­mon­ic piece, a nice col­or that com­bines with the sub­ject, and oth­ers that dont do either, but still are approved and peo­ple get used to.

    I think that no mat­ter beau­ti­ful, genius brand you got, wont be worth of much if you dont work it along the con­cept involved on its creation.

    Some­times the logo itself dont comu­ni­cate at 1st sight, but a web­site, a tv com­er­cial, or the media lay­out you use gets it, and unites the con­cept involved with the mean­ing you wan­na pass. Then the peo­ple get — “oh that sign… i remem­ber that well”.

    Today we have: TVINTERNETCELLPHONEPRINTINGSTREET OR LOCAL ACTING

    And all these are inter­lac­ing each oth­er. Remem­ber LOST series with the ARG inter­net game, the choco­lates around the world, the act­ing on com­ic con…

    So i guess that a good logo has to give a nice and har­mon­ic impres­sion (direct­ly linked to cre­ativ­i­ty, need­less to say), and the mean­ing involved (still some­times the har­mon­ic sur­pass­es the meaning).

    If you have MEANING, but not much HARMONIC… problem

    If you have HARMONIC, but not much MEANING… kin­da prob­lem but may pass

    If you have BOTH… you got an ass kick­er perfection

    But dont pun­ish your­self if you notice that you cant be per­fect 7 days a week.
    NOBODY CAN
    — Trump and his fake hair that say it…

  8. Posted by Dan Rubin on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008.

    @AdamK: That’s inten­tion­al :) I’m of the opin­ion that a logo is usu­al­ly not the ele­ment on a page (web or print) that deserves the high­est visu­al pri­or­i­ty. Design­ers often make fun of clients want­i­ng us to “make the logo big­ger!” and we do so with good rea­son: it’s less impor­tant than the content.

    If you real­ly can’t see it, it’s hid­ing right below the main nav at the top of the page, and you can see it again at the very bot­tom left in the foot­er (it’s sub­tle, to be sure :)

  9. Posted by Jason Rhodes on Thursday, July 31st, 2008.

    Dan (or any­one) — Is there any way to get .NET/Practical Web Design here in the states besides sub­scrib­ing to it online through the .NET site? The con­ver­sion rate is so bad it comes out to some­thing like $12 an issue. (But see­ing how I’ve nev­er even seen an issue, per­haps that’s just how much it’d cost?)

    Good logo thoughts. ‑Jason

  10. Posted by AdamK on Wednesday, August 13th, 2008.

    While that is true, ANY visu­al pri­or­i­ty would be nice ;D

    Nice inter­view anyway :)

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