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Ask a designer | Logo design: where do you start?

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This post is part of the Ask a Designer series. You ask me questions, I answer them to the best of my ability. The questions can be about design process, branding, software, technical things – or even completely unrelated. Want to play? Leave me a comment here, or use the contact form.

 

Question:

What do you do if you are asked to design a logo and the client has no suggestions? Where do you start?

by Nancy Stuckwisch

Answer:

Believe it or not, I prefer it this way.

Probably the worst way to start a project is from the way-too-specific input that ignores both common sense and good design sense and goes something like: “I want the font for the first word to be kind of like this one (insert outrageously unreadable/dancing/grunge example here), and the second word should be all caps. Oh, and I want it blue, because blue means trustworthy. Yeah, and the first word should be pink because we sell to women. And can we add a butterfly above the letter t? I have a picture of a butterfly here that I think would look really great…”

Okay, this hasn’t really happened to me. But only because I walked out (or at least interrupted) somewhere around the second sentence. I have heard stories though…

Don’t get me wrong, I have had identity projects that did start with a (great) client’s idea and turned out brilliantly. I have also had a huge number of logo redesign projects, where the existing logo had a strong, clever idea, but the execution left a lot to be desired, resulting in an unprofessional feel and leaving the actual idea away from the spotlight. In these cases, the focus is mostly on the execution, not on the concept, as that has already been defined.

However, even when starting with an existing idea that I think is good, I always provide a couple of alternatives. Quite often, even the clients who were completely in love with their idea end up choosing an alternative instead.

And a lack of ideas to start with is much, much better than starting with a horrible idea. Or even a so-so idea.

As a side note, I should mention that there are some designers focusing only on the execution part. In an advertising agency or design studio environment, this specialization is sometimes defined as a production artist. I think that’s the most accurate definition for it. (Though sometimes they can also have the title of designer, which can get confusing. It’s simply to distinguish them from the art director, which is enough in that big corporate environment.) These are professionals highly specialized in the various techniques of bringing the idea to reality. They usually start from an art director’s rough sketch. In bigger advertising agencies, many art directors don’t need to know how to use the software at all. Their job is coming up with the idea, in whatever form. Someone else can take care of the execution.

Most smaller studios and freelancers have redefined the term designer to mean both concept generation and execution. My background is art direction. I picked up the technical skills along the way. I know several people who took the opposite approach. The result is the same:

It’s not our clients’ job to come up with logo ideas and suggestions. It’s ours.

The best place to start is, of course, still by talking to the client. While using a creative brief is a popular practice, I find it can be too restricting and often limits the answers to what the client thinks you expect them to say. A classic situation of imitating what we think everyone else is doing. Not exactly a desirable direction.

A question and answer session is what works for me. Questions about the business, the reasons why it exists, inspiration sources and companies the client admires, the competitors, things they hate… questions that lead to more questions. Answers that invariably hold the clues to the most important thing that the brand needs to communicate.

I take notes and doodle as we talk. It usually gives me enough material for the first round of concepts. This is not the time for finding the perfect font and color, not yet. It’s the time for rough ideas. Concepts that take a few minutes to sketch. The more the better.

It’s just me and my notepad at that point, filling it up with phrases and doodles that probably make sense only to me. They can be a play on the name, or an icon, or simply a certain way of lettering. The important thing is that they mean something. The something I am looking for is the brand essence, distilled into the simplest form possible. Finding it takes plenty of tries, because the first ideas that come to mind are usually the most common ones. So I keep going. Until I run out of time, or ideas, whichever happens first.

Coming back to it after a break usually lets me narrow it down, or add something else if even better concepts, or better ways of representing the ideas, have found their way to me in the meantime.

The rest is thinking it through, choosing the best ones, tweaking and refining. There are some more details on logo design process in this post: How a logo is born.

However, my very favorite part of every project is that first one: getting to know the client and the business, and brainstorming ways to let everyone else get to know them – or, rather, the most important thing about them – at a glance.

So if you have no idea of what your logo should look like, please know that not having any specific input is perfectly fine. In fact, that probably makes you one of my favorite people to work with. And I bet that is the case for many other creative professionals as well.

Don’t let it stop you from starting! Get in touch with a designer you love, and figure it out together. And enjoy the process. I know you will.