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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Design, random musings, and the Web. Since 1977

Some Thoughts on Logo Design

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

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.

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Screencast: Finder Window Icon Trick

This item was posted by Dan Rubin on Monday, June 9th, 2008.

To celebrate Mac Day (any Steve Jobs keynote address deserves a worldwide holiday as far as I’m concerned), I’ve decided to do my first screencast, so you’ll have something to play with while waiting for the MacWorld madness to begin (it also helps justify my purchase of ScreenFlow a few months ago).

Thanks to the awesome folks at Viddler for making my life a bit easier once I got past the “export” stage…

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Sidebar Creative: Collective Realignment

This item was posted by Dan Rubin on Thursday, April 10th, 2008.

Sidebar Creative logo
Two years ago in Austin, Texas, at SXSW Interactive 2006, an idea was conceived by 4 friends, and nine months later Sidebar Creative was born. That was a little over a year ago, and now that our fledgling design collective has had a chance to stretch its limbs, open its eyes, and all the other lovely things that newborns do, it’s time for some changes (no, not the diaper kind; and yes, all positive). But first, a mini-retrospective of “Year One: The Awakening.”

Let’s go back

Over the course of the first year, Bryan, Jon, Steve and I have learned more about each other and ourselves than any of us expected — and more about what Sidebar means to each of us, and how different that is from what we all expected at the beginning. We expected that joining forces would be a good way to attract larger projects and clients (which it was, and continues to be), but none of us anticipated the attraction of bringing our own ideas to the table and using our combined experience to bring them to life.

Has anyone seen my shoes?

Though the prospect of more client work was a key incentive at the start, our individual consulting businesses saw increases around the same time Sidebar launched (either a coincidence or potential clients hoping to get a lower price by contacting one of us individually — false logic for what it’s worth), and though we received RFPs for large, lucrative projects from day one (the stream of requests has remained steady since January 2007), scheduling and availability became a barrier to accepting many of them. The projects we have been able to work on, however, have been lots of fun, in one case even allowing us to stretch beyond the computer screen to design for pixels of another sort (more on that when we’re allowed to talk about it ;)

Having more than enough client work has served us two-fold: on one hand, we’ve become even more selective about the clients we choose to work with than we were before (being selective is the key to staying interested and engaged: only accept projects you can be passionate about for clients you’ll enjoy working with), but it’s also afforded us the time to indulge our own interests.

Dude, I hear a car

And indulge we have: the Sidebar Network is home to four projects so far, with more on the way (use the network navbar at the top of any of the sites in the network to bounce between them).

MyMileMarker promotional image

My Mile Marker

Known within our ranks as “M3”, MyMileMarker tracks your vehicle’s mileage, MPG, and provides projections so you can judge just how much gas you’re really guzzling. The original idea was Steve’s, and we all chipped in during our spare time to make it happen, from brainstorming to IA to design (with Steve taking on all the Ruby on Rails programming duties), including a handy mobile site that features a lick-able custom stylesheet for iPhone/Mobile Safari users.

SMS via Twitter and Edward Scherf’s beautiful custom icons are the icing on the cake for this lovely little app that already has almost 10,000 users, spreading purely by word of mouth (thanks in large part to the Twitter community).

Snitter promotional image

Snitter

What do you get when you put Snook and Twitter together? Why, you get Snitter, of course. What started as an experiment of Jon’s to become familiar with Adobe AIR has turned into one of the most popular 3rd party Twitter clients on OS X and Windows. The programming (including loads of cool filtering options) is all Jon’s — the rest of us chipped in feature suggestions and improvements, with Steve and I providing designs for the default set of themes. If you haven’t tried it yet, what are you waiting for? Get Snitter and start Twittering!

Overheard.it promotional image

Overheard.it

With Twitter clearly playing a large part in our online lives, it was only logical for our minds to wander in its direction. After integrating MyMileMarker with Twitter, and seeing Dan Cederholm’s Foamee introduce the concept of a “barnacle app”, we decided to follow the most popular word on Twitter (“overheard”) and see what people were talking about. After a few nights worth of sketching, design, development (by Jon, using CakePHP) and testing, Overheard.it was released upon the world (the domain itself makes it a site worth visiting ;)

Future plans for Overheard.it include event-specific filters (for those great conference quotes we all love), voting, and all manner of other potential silliness.

Django Plugables promotional image

Django Plugables

Bryan is quickly becoming a Django savant (and has been toiling away at various projects for a year or so), and in addition to doing his best to convert the rest of us to Django-ites, he likes to find problems that need solving — a few days ago (this past Friday, to be exact) he decided the Django community needed an easier way to access the growing library of 3rd party “pluggable” applications without having to dig around Google Code for hours hoping to find the diamond in the rough.

Three days later, he had designed, built and launched Django Plugables, and if you have any interest in Django, you should check it out. Speaking of Django, you should also dig around Bryan’s recently relaunched Avalonstar, which, in addition to sporting a terrific design, is all Django, baby.

It’s a miracle in a bowl

The design community uses the term “realign” to describe an adjustment of direction rather than a bottom-up transformation, and that’s a good way to describe what has been happening within Sidebar since last summer (the course-correction was already evident in our Digital Web interview with Matthew Pennell back in September). It was clear that we needed to reflect our realignment on the site, while also taking the opportunity to realign the site itself, showing more of what makes us who we are as individuals, and with more emphasis on consulting, training and education — areas we all intend to spend more time focusing on in the coming year, including a series of full-day workshops we’re planning to bring to cities normally overlooked by larger conferences.

There are a ton of amazing ideas bouncing around the Sidebar Campfire, and I’m more excited than ever to be a part of this group. So go check out our little realign, and stay tuned: the best is yet to come.

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Email Doesn’t Scale

This item was posted by Dan Rubin on Wednesday, February 27th, 2008.

I’ve been wanting to write about my problems with email for a while now, but keep coming up short when it comes to explaining exactly why it fails for me. That is, until reading Tantek’s latest on the subject:

“I’m probably responding to less than 1 in 10 emails that are sent directly to me, even fewer of those that are sent to a set of people or a list. The usability of email for me has deteriorated so much that I exclaimed on Twitter recently: EMAIL shall henceforth be known as EFAIL.”

He goes on to explain his thoughts on why point to point communications do not scale, and how emails in general are becoming too bloated (the lack of a singular focus in many emails I receive definitely impacts my likelihood of responding), as well as how 1:many or 1:all mediums are superior to 1:1 methods (e.g. email). This is exactly what I’ve been trying to figure out how to say.

Semi-solutions

Tantek certainly isn’t the first to write about the the problems with email – Mike Davidson’s solution last year was to reduce the length and detail of replies to a specific number of sentences, but that hasn’t allowed me to make a sufficient dent in my inbox.

Similarly, Inbox Zero (a process many of my friends use to keep the noise down) just doesn’t seem to work for me. Plus, having an empty inbox won’t stop people from communicating with me via email when they should be using another medium.

It’s not you, it’s me

Both Inbox Zero and Sentenc.es aim to reduce the impact of the full inbox by making it easier to empty on a regular basis, but for me that doesn’t solve the problem as I see it–it isn’t a matter of finding a way to work around what email has become, it’s just that email is being used improperly, and I’d rather use other methods of communication that are more appropriate to the type and relevance of the message.

How do we fix it?

Email isn’t broken for everyone (or at least, if it is they don’t realize it yet), but I find more people becoming frustrated with email every week. Add the whole SPAM problem into the mix (over the last 6 months, more and more of my valid incoming/outgoing messages are getting caught by SPAM filters than ever) and I just see email continuing its downward spiral.

I’m not sure of the solution – as long as my clients continue to send me emails and expect a response, I’m a bit nervous to tell them to shove it (it’s hard enough to get them to all use Basecamp instead for project communication, let alone stop using a method that still works for them), but perhaps that’s what it will come down to. Tantek’s article ends with a list of suggestions that can serve as a decent starting point, and his Email Reduction project is also worth checking out.

Does email = efail for you? How do you feel about the future of email?

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Pardon Our Dust

This item was posted by Dan Rubin on Wednesday, February 27th, 2008.

If you’re visiting this site for the first time, and are seeing the default WordPress theme (aka Kubrick), please rest assured that a custom designed theme is hiding somewhere within the WordPress installation–WordPress is just having a bit of a tantrum lately, and has decided to keep reverting back to the default shortly after I reset the custom theme in the admin.

Those of you who are return visitors are hopefully missing the usual orange and brown goodness that has graced these pages for almost 2 years.

Hosting Woes

For the last few weeks, my homepage hasn’t been loading at all – Dreamhost didn’t seem to think it was a problem on their end (though I’d made no changes to the site between it working and ceasing to work). After going around in circles with them for too long, I uploaded a fresh install of WordPress, moved my plugins and theme directories, changed a few hard-coded absolute URLs, and things were working again. For about 5 minutes.

Artificial Intelligence?

Perhaps my blogging software is trying to tell me something? I’ve planned a redesign for well over a year, but other endeavors have taken priority (e.g. Sidebar Creative, Webgraph, Rounders, various client/consulting work, presentations, workshops and toying with things like Virb). I’ve also been seriously thinking about hitting the redesign over the last month or so–is WordPress now smart enough to read my mind? Or is my soon-to-be-replaced theme getting jealous? It’s creepy from where I’m sitting…

Separating Content From Presentation

Okay, so it’s not the use for which that phrase is intended, but in a way, it’s interesting to see my content without its custom skin. I’ve been reading through many of the articles I’ve written, and paying more attention to the text. Perhaps this is a normal issue with designers trying to objectively read their own content while getting distracted by their own designs–if you haven’t tried it, give it a shot sometime; it may help expose issues with your design, or your content, or at the very least allow you a fresh perspective on your own writing.

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