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Logo Design – The Guiding Principles of Concept and Execution

Posted on November 4, 2011 and read 4,265 times

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pauljeffery Logo Design   The Guiding Principles of Concept and ExecutionPaul Jeffery
Logo Team Lead
iStockphoto

This article was originally featured on iStockphoto.com, IHAVEANIDEA’s partner in all things related to stock imagery.

“I love to keep my eyes open and absorb the colours, smells, feelings of the everyday life. You can get a ‘kick’ out of random encounters, usually when you don’t expect to find inspiration at all.”
– Radim Malinic

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
– Antoine De Saint-Exupery

There are two main governing principles in logo design – concept and execution. We might have several logo ideas, and each could take several directions to bring them to life. With so many ways we could go, how do we make the right design decisions? To quote Marty Neumeier in “The Brand Gap”, “the first step is “Getting the right idea”, the second is “Getting the idea right”. This article will focus on what we can do as designers to tap into our creative zone and improve our likelihood of achieving that brilliant end result we so desire. We will discuss the process of researching and planning ideas, working on sketches and notes, as well as exploring the means to complete a successful polished design. The processes outlined below are not meant to be hard and fast rules but rather suggestions of how you might improve your design process. As creative individuals we need to do what works right for us, so please, take what works for you and leave out what doesn’t, but I think you will find that you can apply the main principles illustrated here regardless of your creative process.

The designer quotes listed above have both been included in this article because each speaks very strongly and directly to key principles that lead to successful, creative design. The first quote is an expression of the beginning stages of a creative process and how ideas may spring to mind for us. All of us, at one point or another, have found ourselves in the creative “zone”. When we are total tapped in, ideas seem to flow effortlessly from our mind and the feeling can be exhilarating! As creative people we need to stay in that “zone” by being aware of everything that surrounds us. Inspiration comes from being interested in every day things and looking at them from new perspectives. Be curious, read books, take pictures, clip things from magazines, go see a play or watch a movie. Take notice of the small things in your environment. The more you see and experience, the more information you’ll have to draw from when generating ideas!

The second quote refers to the final stages of the construction of our product to complete the creative process. Good design is about making things function properly first, and making them aesthetically pleasing second. A creative product must first successfully serve its purpose or function. In the case of a logo, that means ensuring it communicates its intended message, ie: “We are a restaurant.” Graphic design is visual problem solving, and the best answer is found when the perfect balance of elements has been created to achieve this. Why does it so often seem that the simplest of logos seem to be the most brilliant? A great logo concept is so satisfying to look at because it doesn’t take any work to understand it! You can bet though, that it took lots of conceptualizing and planning to get to that stage. As the quote above suggests, in the design process we try many different angles on a concept, then peel away elements that are not needed. The end result should be a design that does not need a single thing added, while removing anything would only lessen the impact.

CONCEPT: Part 1 Getting the right idea

Keep the idea alive! Inspiration can come from the wildest of sources and can occur when we least expect it. When inspiration strikes, (usually when you’re in bed and half asleep), get up and write that idea down! Inspiration is a fickle beast that has a “use it or lose it” temperament. If you fail to capture a good idea, it floats back into the universe for someone else to claim as their own. Don’t let that happen! When inspiration knocks, be sure you are ready to answer. Keep a note pad by your bed or in your car or your purse. Get a quick doodle down on paper and write a few notes about the concept while you are thinking about it. Don’t be caught again wondering, “Darn, what was that great idea I had?!”

Word Association and Thought Clouds

Now that you’ve had some coffee and your brain is fully functioning again, you can revisit that brainstorm you had last night. A great way to explore the central idea further is to try some word association. Write down any words that come to mind that help describe this thought. Don’t be judgemental at this point, just write as many things as you can thing of. For example, your main idea is for a sports related logo. Your words might be, sporty, fast, winner, ribbon, medal, trophy, finish line, stripes, stars, training, health or anything else that might come to mind. If you like, link some words together using short lines for strings of words that seem to go together. One word can lead to another and another…keep going until you have enough or can’t think of any more. Just putting these words down on paper creates a stream of visuals in your mind of how this design could take shape, and can take you in directions you previously had not thought of.

istock generic 138865 2 468x206 Logo Design   The Guiding Principles of Concept and Execution

Here is some word association in action.
The main idea was to create a fashion logo, shown as a large thought cloud in the centre of the page. Main themes stem from this and break off into further and further detail. Don’t confuse the keywords in the top left as search terms. If the words you think of come very randomly at first, write them down in a list like this, then add them to your thought clouds where they make the most sense. When we are done, we can select the right balance of ideas and combine them to create an overall unique idea or concept. Gravitate to what inspires you and let your imagination soar!

Sketching

Now that you are bursting with visuals from the above exercise, it’s time to get them out of your head. Enough can’t be said about the virtues of sketching out your ideas. Over the years, vector software has dramatically increased the speed in which we can explore different options, like trying different colors and fonts, but nothing beats the good old pen and paper for quickly visualizing full concepts and ideas. There is an organic touch in putting pen to paper that is just not the same as going directly to the computer to rough out ideas. Jumping to the computer first can hinder the creative process leaving our ideas looking uncharacteristic and stale.

Using the word association “thought clouds” you made earlier for inspiration, start sketching out some visuals. Try different combinations of shapes and forms, flip it around, reverse it, merge different ideas together, go crazy and have fun! Don’t worry about how good the drawing is. At this point it’s quantity you’re after not quality. Getting as many ideas down on paper as possible gives us more to choose from and a better chance in “Getting the right idea”. Through this process you might end up with any number of ideas but try for a least a few. It may look like a mish mash of ideas now but I’ll bet there is a gem hiding in there somewhere.

istock generic 138958 2 468x231 Logo Design   The Guiding Principles of Concept and Execution

Using the terms selected from our word association exercise we can now try to visualize how some design elements and different options might come together.
These sketches show how we can quickly experiment with different pocket shapes, fabric patterns, and details to find the right combination. Other notes can be added for text treatment or color ideas. Write them all down as they come to you so you can experiment further when you get to the vectorizing stage. The inset on the top right shows the result of this logo design process.

Evaluate

By now you’ve got a handful of good sketches for your logo and its time to choose one or two and vectorize them. Evaluate the ideas in front of you by asking yourself a few questions: Does it read well, does it make sense, does it differentiate, is it appropriate and memorable? Who are you trying to appeal to and is the meaning clearly expressed? The key here is selecting the idea that has a singular focus. Too many elements present in one concept can be distracting to the viewer. So rather than trying to write a book with your logo, choose the concept that says one thing and does that really well.

As you are evaluating your sketches, single out the concepts that are the most original and interesting. Chances are that you most likely have a handful of common ideas that came to mind at first. It’s OK, we all do it, but our goal is to find the best of the best. Steer clear of the overused and underdeveloped weak ideas. Logos that are not unique, that use simple common elements, can be difficult if not impossible for a client to register as a trademark. Designs using simple leaves, swooshes, plain houses, arrows, stars, and hearts have been done to death, and do nothing to really help your client differentiate themselves in the marketplace. Look for the idea that is a little different from the norm, a little catchy, creative and interesting. Remember though to make sure the concept is still appropriate and sensible. If your design is on the cutting edge of the avante garde you may be limiting the message to a very small audience!

Avoiding the cliche

It’s a good point to note here that a logo concept doesn’t have to be literal. If you designed a tooth logo for a dentist, I guarantee that you aren’t the first guy to do this. Cameras for photographers, hearts and talk bubbles for dating sites, houses for realtors, swooshy looking iconic people forming a circle to represent team work, are all overused and cliche notions that don’t work very well to distinguish one company from another. Evaluate your designs and select the compositions that take a different angle.

Take your time and choose the right idea – the one that best answers the questions posed above. Due diligence complete. Now we can head to the computer and get these bad boys rendered!

LINKS: Got creative block?
Try these ideas for getting unstuck.

An Interview with Radim Malinic
How To Boost Your Creativity
Logo Design Resources

EXECUTION: Part 2 Getting the idea right

OK, we’ve got a stack of great ideas using the techniques mentioned above and its time to take them to the next level. This is where the rubber meets the road folks. A great concept is only as good as the design and illustration skills that are employed to bring it to life. You might have what you think is the best idea ever, but in the end, if the viewer doesn’t understand it you’ll be stuck at the starting line while everyone else zooms past. Below are some tried and true techniques to get the best out of your concept and make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

Tools of the trade

This goes without saying, but just as a carpenter knows how to use a miter saw, you really need to know your tools to get the best out of them. There are several vector editing software applications but regardless of which one you choose, be sure to be well practiced with the pen and pathfinder tools. Only in this way can you prepare yourself to craft any shape you can imagine with craftsmanship, style and professionalism.

This goes without saying, but just as a carpenter knows how to use a miter saw, you really need to know your tools to get the best out of them. There are several vector editing software applications but regardless of which one you choose, be sure to be well practiced with the pen and pathfinder tools. Only in this way can you prepare yourself to craft any shape you can imagine with craftsmanship, style and professionalism.

Vectorizing

You might want to begin building your logo concept by working only in black and white first. This allows us to focus on the main forms of construction without being distracted by color or other stylistic decisions that can easily be added later. No gradient is going to save a bad design and can just take extra time to amend as you are changing your creation. Now is the time to explore spatial relationships, positive and negative space, weight and balance. Make sure everything has the right proportions, is clearly identifiable and is appropriate to convey the idea. Carefully consider any text that needs to be added, and decide where it will work best. This is especial important if you have decided to incorporate text directly within the graphic. It must be easy to read with plenty of space for custom text and be in good proportion with the graphic to still be legible when it’s printed at small sizes. Choosing the right font for the job can add plenty of character (pun not intended!) and offers plenty of opportunity to enhance the theme of the message.

istock generic 138978 2 468x199 Logo Design   The Guiding Principles of Concept and Execution

This graphic illustrates the benefits of designing a logo in black and white first.
Starting in full color, the pinwheel logo loses more and more impact as other variations from Greyscale to Black and White are created. The Chinese Restaurant logo design began as Black and White. Notice how the design goes from Greyscale, using flat color only, to Full Color using contrasting colors and subtle gradients, all without losing any integrity in the design. Had the full color pinwheel logo begun life in black and white, the designer would have paid more attention to its foundation or base structure, resulting in a much more visually interesting version rather than relying on color alone.

Getting the initial form down can be the most difficult part, but now that we have that done, we can experiment with color and other techniques to enhance our message even further. Vector software is a blast to use because it allows us to try out many different variations of the same idea very quickly. TIP: When you get an idea for a variation, make a complete copy of your artwork and add the new idea to the copy. That way if it doesn’t work out you can easily delete it and go back to the original idea. Or even better, you might find that after making successive versions with different variations, a whole new combination could arise!

Rendering Styles and Techniques

There are many rendering styles and design approaches at our disposal to give our logo design some real vitality and strength. Try experimenting with different illustration styles and create some custom color palettes. Explore methods to create simulated depth such as, faceting, 3D, or the use of simulated transparency for unique overlapping effects. Remember, at this stage its all about really making our idea sing and doing that in a way that makes it interesting and appropriate to the subject. Think about who your audience is, ie: who are you trying to appeal to? For example, you have a logo concept for a custom wood manufacturer. A woodcut or block print style of illustration would help quickly convey the idea of craftsmanship. Creating a palette of rustic, historical colors could help enhance the fact that he creates furniture styles from the early 1900s. Study the history of some fonts and choose a style that compliments this theme. All of these individual decisions add up to create a logo that is a cohesive, well thought out communication device.

istock generic 138982 2 468x195 Logo Design   The Guiding Principles of Concept and Execution

Above are some clear examples of how to use different illustration techniques to our advantage.
Notice how the lion uses only flat colors and shape to add simulated depth keeping it very reproducible. The Healthy Eating logo literally added a unique twist to its execution. Rather than looking at just two more pieces of fruit, this element gives us something fun to see and remember. The KuteMunsta logo is rendered in this designer’s unique hand drawn style, creating a design that is conceptually original and emotionally invoking. This could easily represent a clothing company specializing in creating costumes for kids. Bright corresponding colors and a dynamic perspective make the Primary School logo very fun and playful. Try adding some perspective to your design when it needs a little more zip and interest. The Bistro design uses bold strokes and a bold geometric style to effectively create a fun and vibrant character logo. This style is very adaptable as colors can quite easily be changed by the client and its bold form makes it reproducible in any conceivable way. The linocut or block print rendering style utilized in the Harvest logo was a great choice to help tell this story. This style easily and effectively conveys a locally grown, hand-picked feel, that when combined with warm fall harvest colors creates a pleasing rustic mark suitable for any organic grower.

When simple is too simple

A good designer knows when he’s gone too far. This applies to both ends of the spectrum, whether there are too many details or too little. This is a reminder that if the execution of your logo idea is very simple then the concept had better be brilliant! Abstract shapes might be OK, but they fall short of conceptual designs that offer meaning and value. If you can achieve this in a way thats communicates the message quickly, in a format that reproduces well across all mediums then you have a very successful logo! If the form of the design is simple, make sure the rest of it isn’t. Use a sophisticated eye pleasing palette of colors, and interesting beautiful fonts in a layout that enhances the design. Will your logo stand out amongst a dozen others on the bottom of a promotional poster? Give the design weight and substance so it has punch and power!

istock generic 138983 2 467x192 Logo Design   The Guiding Principles of Concept and Execution

This graphic shows the before and after versions of conceptually simple or abstract designs.
The top row of logos are weightless, uninspiring, bland, and all have very poor text components. If you look at the bottom row of “after” logos, you’ll notice that not much more effort was required to make them work. Logo 1 (top left) is a boring 1 color pink design with an awful font choice. This is easily fixed using two complimentary, warm, inviting colors and a modern, clean font and type treatment taking this design from hum drum boring buffet to exciting haute cuisine! This clearly shows the importance and added value of including text with your logo design for a complete and ready to go package. The second logo (top middle) with its basic colors and plain type, is a yawn inducing bore. It’s structural unsound with distracting white shapes that lead to nowhere! The first step is to shore up the foundation by filling the white holes and giving it support with a border. Business appropriate colors are added and a nice font and less generic content are included to help sell the idea. The last logo (top right) is structurally weak and difficult to read with its light colored type. All it needed was a simple, solid shape to hold the graphic. Our eyes are drawn to lighter colors and this makes the bottle stand out. The new font choice is reminiscent of old Italian style posters, giving this improved version a sense of time and character. The text treatment has enough visual interest to be used separately from the graphic, which can often happen when print space doesn’t allow for it all to fit. What does this tell us? Better fonts mean better designs!

Checking to make sure there is not too much detail in your design is just as important. If you feel that your logo is beginning to look a little “busy”, try peeling back a few layers of the onion and delete some details or simplify in other ways such as using less contrast or less color altogether. Ask yourself if these execution decisions help or hinder the overall message. If the answer is “help”, leave it in, if its “hinder”, toast that sucker and move on!

A note here on refinement and alternate designs. Refinements are stylistic decisions that can be added that enhance the final primary version of a logo. These are simple treatments that add polish but could easily be taken away but still maintain a successful design. In today’s marketplace we often see traditional corporate logo designs that are comprised of bold shapes rendering using only one or two colors, but with the advent of communication technology we are seeing more and more “web 2.0″ style designs that are full of color and special effects. Remember though, that the basic principles of design still apply here. If you take away the refinements and stylistic treatments to create alternate color, reversal or black and white designs, the integrity of the design must still hold true.

Review

It comes highly recommended to show your logo concepts to other people at some point in your creative process. Quite often we get too close to our work, sweating over the details, which can have the unfortunate effect of our losing sight of the big picture. Looking at the design with fresh eyes, other people may see things that aren’t immediately apparent to us. You might want to show them your sketches first, but not everyone has the ability to visualize as well as artists do, so you might need to show them a more developed or vectorized idea. Ask them: Which catches your eye first? What made you notice it? Does it remind you of anything (or other logos)? Can you tell what it means or is trying to express? Which version does that best? Of course, you need to ask yourself these questions, but it’s good to get a second perspective.

In the first half of this article we discovered that ideas can be found everywhere and that we are only limited to our how far our imagination can take us. A good designer has the knowledge to use their creative process and brainstorming techniques to create many possible concepts. A great designer has the wisdom to know the difference between the good ones and the bad ones, bringing only the best ones to life, making them unique, memorable, and timeless!

Image Credits
fly pencil by toniton
farmland by evrenselbaris
Lion by pimago
Healthy Eating by logorilla
KuteMunsta by Jayesh
Primary School by lore
Bistro by PeterBajohr
The Harvest by Zuki
Chinese Restaurant by cosmicjuice “Paulywood”
Plaid Pocket Vintage Boutique by cosmicjuice “Paulywood”






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