7 Common Fatal Mistakes in Choosing a Logo.

A logo is centrally important to any business or enterprise because it’s the image that will give your organisation, product or service its recognisable identity. But there are at least 7 fatal mistakes that businesses can make when choosing a logo.

But it’s quite ridiculous that some people quite willingly spend more money on their office chair, computer or a business dinner, than they would be willing to spend on the image that will be the public face and identity of their company for years to come.

I’ve been a freelance designer for over 30 years and I’ve designed more logos than I can count. I’ve also seen many companies make tragic choices and use logos that should never have seen the light of day. A bad design can actually work against your business goals and undermine all of your other worthy efforts. The sad thing is that in many cases good design need not cost any more than bad design.

Fatal Mistake #1: Not understanding the importance of good design.

This is not just a promo for my profession, but some good and sound advice for reasons that I hope will become apparent by the end of this article.

Designers are people gifted and trained with a refined sense of what is visually appropriate in a particular context. They are visual engineers who apply intuitive and methodical approaches to the arrangement of images, shapes, colours, tones, lines, textures and text to achieve specified objectives. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t understand the importance of design and its value in society, or the commercial benefits that come from good design, then you may already be poo-pooing this statement. But it’s an irrefutable fact that visual symbols don’t just convey obvious meanings - they also convey subtle messages and evoke feelings and associations that effect us all. This is evidenced in that fact that even the same word represented in different typefaces can convey completely different impressions. Designers are keenly aware of this and know how to employ subtle visual cues to effectively communicate, drawing upon knowledge and experience that has come from their study of design and their continual observation of design trends. A professional designer will employ the principles of design to create unique images that engage the observer and leave them with an impression that conveys messages on both a conscious and subconscious level.

A good logo design can convey things about your enterprise that you may struggle to articulate in words, or simply don’t have the time to convey in the brief microsecond that someone takes a passing glance at your sign, advertisement or business card. For example, a logo can convey: Fun. Freedom. Health. Technical. Hospitable. Warm. Cold. Professional. Creative. Conservative. Radical. Stylish. Rebellious. Contemporary. Old. New. Reliable. Trustworthy. Historical. Natural. Industrial. Sexy. Spiritual. Sporting. Performance. Reliable. Elite. Expensive. Friendly. Fantasy. Etc. This list could go on and on. Conversely, a poorly designed logo may inadvertently convey messages that you would never consciously want to convey: Unprofessional, shonky, out of touch, old fashioned, unreliable, cheap, stingy, lazy, etc.

The point is this: Visual design communicates a message and does so in a way that words alone cannot. There are good reasons why large corporations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (sometimes millions) to get that aspect of their public image exactly right. And that’s why it’s a fatal mistake to trust that vital aspect of your business to unqualified people. And that’s why it’s even a good idea to pause and question your own assumptions.

Fatal Mistake #2: Not budgeting for good design.

Good design doesn’t need to cost the earth and there are plenty of very good freelance designers around that can come up with a solution for your business, product or service. But you tend to get what you pay for. Like any service, the cost of design is related to time and it takes time to identify the requirements of any design problem and to explore a range of solutions. That’s why the first question I ask my clients is “What is your budget?”. It’s not because I want to extract every last penny from them, but because I actually need to know how much value they put on getting a good design and how much time I can devote developing the best solution.

One of the down-sides of the information age is that the proliferation of desktop computers has deluded a whole generation into believing that just because they have a computer and some pirated software that they are now creative geniuses. Whilst computers are powerful tools to aid design, contrary to popular belief you still need to understand the principles of design and typography to create good work. I’d strongly advise avoiding all websites that offer access to thousands of ‘graphic designers’ who will bid against each other to design a logo at the cheapest price. I explored sites like that to see if they would be a good place to contact new clients and other designers, but found that the bids were so cheap and the “designs” on offer so sub-standard that I quickly dismissed the idea. Good design cannot be mass-produced on demand at the cheapest price. It needs to be intelligent, considered, contextualised, unique and customised to the client’s specific needs. If design services are sourced off-shore then there is no way to verify whether or not the work has been plagiarized from other sources, or variations sold to multiple buyers. That raises concerns about intellectual property and copyright. You may have no practical legal recourse if you find that aspects of that design actually belongs to someone else. I know people who have been forced to redesign all their shop signs, car signs, stationery and their website under threat of legal action over a design they discovered was not original.

One of the down-sides of the information age is that the proliferation of desktop computers has deluded a whole generation into believing that just because they have a computer and some pirated software that they are now creative geniuses.

Obviously not every business is in a position to spend a lot... particularly if it’s a new venture. But it’s quite ridiculous that some people quite willingly spend more money on their office chair, computer or a business dinner than they would be willing to spend on the image that will be the public face and identity of their company for years to come. If you are looking for the best result on a limited budget, this is my advice: Negotiate with your designer. Tell them up-front how much you have to spend and if they don’t have much work maybe they will give you a good deal if it comes with a promise that you’ll bring them more work in the future. Or maybe you could come to an agreement regarding a deferred payment plan. It will cost you nothing to ask.

Fatal Mistake #3: Trusting design decisions to a committee.

There is nothing that will reduce a good range of design options to the lowest common denominator than for the final decision to be made by a committee. Committees, which are often hotbeds for internal political wrangling, competing agendas and personal ambitions, are death to good design. There always seems to be someone in a committee who wants to change some small thing just so that they can feel that they’ve left their personal mark on the decision making process. As a commercial designer I may be forced to concede that the client has the right to tell me what they want, but it grieves me when I see them making the wrong choice for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately my folio is over-represented by third-best design options because committees making the final decision did not have the professional knowledge, expertise, experience or resolve to follow the designer’s recommendations.

Which leads quite naturally to my next point...

Fatal Mistake #4: Not trusting your designer’s expertise.

It’s always a good idea in business to defer to the proven expertise of the people you hire, whether that’s in the area of marketing, accounting, architecture, engineering, design or whatever.

The best way to work with a designer is to provide him/her with a detailed brief. In that brief you specify your business objectives and the design parameters that they need to work within. For example, for a business that is already established, are you wanting to limit the exploration of a new design to the use of particular corporate colours? What is your target audience/customer base? What is the message that you need your logo to convey? Identify where the logo needs to be applied. ie: Signs, Vehicles, Clothing, Products, etc. What size does the logo need to be? Scalability is important if it needs to be reproduced in very small sizes. Etc.

You can set a budget for the first stage of development and ask your designer to come up with a range of options that shows that various approaches have been explored. Then this is where you need to be objective: All designs should be evaluated based on how they meet your stated objectives. You always have the right to change your priorities, but extending the development process out will invariably have cost implications for you and time implications for the designer.

I was once asked to develop a new image for a large printing company. I listened carefully to their brief and produced some very good designs for them and they were very happy. But they were also indecisive. They put the designs on display in their foyer and asked the opinion of every customer that came through. The problem with that is that if you ask a hundred people their opinion you may get a hundred different answers! They came back to me and asked me to produce some alternative designs, so I went ahead and did that and they were also very happy with the result. Again, they put them both in display and got equally conflicting responses from their customers. Then they came back to me a third time and I was happy to accommodate them because they were quite willing to pay to explore a wider range of options. After a lengthy period of consideration they eventually decided upon my original recommendation – the very first set of designs that I had created. All of the designs were good, but the whole process took longer and cost them more because they did not trust my advice. Fortunately they got a result that they were happy with and we enjoyed a good business relationship for many years.

The kind of clients that I am happy to work for tend to fit within three categories. Either,
1. They don’t know what they want and are happy for me to lead them through the design process and to respect my expertise.
2. They don’t know what they want, or may have only a vague idea of what they want, but are happy to pay for my time to explore a range of options. (It’s worth remembering that there is often more than just one acceptable solution to any design problem!)
3. They know exactly what they want and are able to tell me. In this case they usually have a design brief or a concept in mind and need me to bring it to life.

The kind of clients that are very difficult to work for are:
1. Those who devalue the whole design process and expect that developing a logo should always be a very quick process and a very minor cost in the establishment of their business.
2. Those who, after seeing your designs will tell you what they don’t want, but cannot suggest or communicate what they do want.
3. Those who, upon seeing a range of designs, will express dissatisfaction, refuse to pay and then end up using the designs anyway. In 30 years I’ve only had the displeasure of meeting these kinds of people a few times.

Fatal Mistake #5: Ignoring the innate beauty of type.

Some customers get stuck in a rut thinking that a logo needs to include a stylised image of something. Whilst there are plenty of great examples of successful image-related logos, many of the world’s best and most recognisable logos do not include any images at all. These are logotypes – logos that simply employ a typographic approach to creating a unique company logo. A characteristic typeface is used and becomes recognised as being synonymous with the company it represents. Coca-Cola is a classic example of a logotype and there are many other good examples as well.

Some businesses lend themselves to being represented by a stylised image and image-related logos can be beautifully executed. But the activities of other companies are so diverse that representing themselves by an image-related logo could be limiting or even misleading. So it’s good to employ foresight to try and anticipate what the future needs of the business might be before you lock yourself to a particular image that depicts a single product or service.

The most important piece of advice I can give is this: By all means, consider using a stylised image as part of your logo - it's a very valid approach. But don’t try to force-fit an image into your logo just because you think it seems like a clever idea. That’s usually where 90% of the most awkward and embarrassingly bad logos originate. Keep an open mind... other solutions may actually work much better.

Fatal Mistake #6: Forgetting the practical requirements of your logo.

In designing a logo you need to keep in mind how that logo is going to be used. Scalability is one factor that is commonly overlooked. If your logo contains too much fine detail then there's a practical limit on how small it can be reproduced before it begins to break up and become unrecognisable. Other considerations: Does it need to be used in single colours? Does it need to be sewn onto uniforms? Emblazoned on a sign across your building? Printed on your own office printer? To appear on dark backgrounds? Are your chosen colours compatible with your other products? Your intended uses for your logo impacts directly upon the design decisions that need to be made in development.

Fatal Mistake #7: Keeping a stale old logo simply because it’s been around for ages.

In a quickly changing world there is a lot to be said for continuity and stability and for the way that readily recognisable brands do embed themselves in the loyal affections of customers. But there are some designs that are so inherently bad that they really should be consigned to history. Once you have a good design in place, by all means, value it and keep it for as long as it continues to be something to be proud of. Classic design is inherently good and worthwhile, timeless and will withstand the vagaries of transient trends and fashions. If you have a business that needs to convey the values of class, integrity, stability and reliability... that’s the way to go. But if your business is based in the world of transient trends, then it may serve your company well to refresh your image periodically.

To see some example of logo designs, go to http://www.altconcepts.net/portfolio2

Allan Weatherall is a graphic designer who specialises in logo designs, creative typography and print publishing (although you may also be able to persuade him to build a website now and then). If you need a second opinion on a logo design, Allan also offers free appraisals for companies considering their design options. Just upload your proposed logo ideas through his website at www.altconcepts.net/contact and he’ll get back to you with some helpful comments.

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