How we can clean up a logo and convert a jagged JPG image into pristine vector art using a really old logo from a fave 1980’s Toronto nightclub.
A vector version of any logo is an absolute necessity, but what if you only have access to a small, blurry and pixelated bitmap version? We can just throw Adobe Illustrator’s “image trace” at it and all will be well, right? Not exactly. Image Trace is pretty lousy for converting logos to vector art (not that Adobe will tell you that, but take it from us.) Trouble is, if you don’t have a vector version of your design, you’re going to have to get one. Either from the original designer or design studio that created your logo (if they still have it on file that is) or you’re going to need to have one created by somebody else.
Repairing a logo.
For years now, we’ve referred to creating vector versions from less than perfect art as logo repair, and it can be tricky business, depending on how good the art we’re starting off with, is. When our clientele inquire about logo repair services, they’ll often ask if there isn’t just a “magic button” that turns a jagged, pixelated mess of a design into pristine vectors. It would be nice – that would save us time and them a few billable hours.
Alas, there isn’t.
As mentioned before, there’s something that’s marketed as akin to a magic vector conversion button – Adobe Illustrator‘s “live trace” or “image trace” tool, but it’s nothing like magic at all, iffy at best, awful at worst, especially if you want really clean art. Though it might be interesting to go step-by-step through an actual logo repair project, using a logo that started off life as a fairly complex design.
But first, the back story..
Changing image sizes.
When we redesigned our site last year, the image width on article pages increased from 560 pixels wide to 795 pixels wide. A mess of old images where too small to sit comfortably in the new format and had to be enlarged if the new site was going to use old (but solid) material without looking like a dog’s breakfast. We had to move our blog to its new location in the overall site infrastructure (you’re there now) and we had to reformat any posts we wanted to move over. Those images needed to be bigger too. One of the articles I decided to move over was an old piece I had done on my favorite music logos that also talked about the logo of my favorite Toronto night spot (designed by cartoonist Ian Carr) when I was in my early twenties – the great alternative music dance club Nuts & Bolts on Victoria Street.
Of logos and matchbooks.
Obviously, I needed an image of that logo and managed to find a version in Google image search. It was real small (176 pixels x 189 pixels real small to be precise.) On the older blog post it was just okay. On the new wider version, it looked positively ridiculous. It had to be made bigger. Trouble is, you can’t just make a bitmap image bigger. That’s one of the main reasons you need a vector in the first place. The image we’d found had been scanned off a matchbook cover, complete with either a burn mark or coffee stain and that would become more apparent if we tried to increase the image in Photoshop (adjusting contrast/brightness to blow it out would only make matters worse.) Trouble is, as the club closed down decades ago (leaving a very saddened Toronto,) it’s pretty safe to say this version is as good as it gets.
Quick and dirty.
As this was only for a blog post there’s a couple of quick and dirty solutions to SLIGHTLY increase the size of a bitmap image. That’s to make it bigger in a pixel-based program (I use Adobe Fireworks) and by carefully (and slightly) sharpening the image as you go. It’ll do in a pinch, but is not recommended for any use past “hey, look at this logo from my misspent youth” placement on a nostalgia post.
I was able to enlarge the original up to 150% before it broke up and became unusable (even for a blog post) but even at moderate increase in size, pixels are noticeable. Bottom line – we still need a vector version to do anything it with at all. So let’s have a go with live trace (or image trace,) Adobe Illustrator’s bitmap to vector conversion function.
Illustrator live trace.
As much as all designers would love Image Trace to be a magic bullet (and some do,) it simply isn’t. It’s probably worse at vector conversion than it’s really old predecessor Streamline. Image Trace boasts a selection of slidy bars and options that you can experiment with, depending on what you’re starting with, and what you want to end up with. On this project, I used every combination imaginable trying to produce a decent result. Here’s what Illustrator hacked up:
Nope, no good at all. If you want to see a real mess, here’s what the best version (lower row, second from the left) looks like in wire frame mode:
Bloody thing had tried to vectorize individual pixels. I realize I’m pushing image trace real hard (it does have its uses, and has a better time with larger images that have perpendicular shapes) but we don’t have anything else to work with. Alas, the vector conversion magic bullet it ain’t.
An infinitely better solution for auto-acked vector conversion is online-based Vector Magic (they have a desktop version too IIRC) and it does a pretty decent job, even on a small low-resolution bitmap that we’re playing with. Let’s let it have a go at the original image from above left.
That’s certainly not awful. It would require a bit of hand-editing mind you, probably as much time required as doing by hand, but it’s a surprisingly decent result considering the poor-quality source file we’re working with. I also didn’t tinker too much with the settings and could probably improve the result with little effort. I’ve written about Vector Magic before, and came to the conclusion that with decent images, it blows live trace all to hell. Vector Magic still struggles a little with typography, but it chews through images with remarkable precision. Recommended.
Vectorizing by hand.
Alas, when it comes to converting garbage quality images to usable vectors, there’s only dependable and reliable method: the old hand-tracing by eye, using bezier curves and points. I turned this assignment over to Leah at the shop – she’s our resident logo repair expert – and after a couple of hours of tinkering with vectors and control points, here’s what she finished up with:
If this were an actual repair gig, we could colourize the logo, split it into its various bits and generally use it like you’re supposed to use a logo. In terms of what’s going on behind the scenes, here’s what the initial version looked like, beside the edited, production quality logo.I’ve often said that the true test of any logo setup is how well it would work on a digital plotter or vinyl cutter (overlapping vectors split the vinyl while the blade can’t figure out open vector shapes.) All-in-all, this vector art would pass that test with flying colors.
This exercise was done out of love for Jody Colero and Ed Jandrisits, founders of Nuts & Bolts back in my day. It’s also a homage to original logo designer Ian Carr so that if anyone wants to write the 80s music scene in Toronto, at least they’ll have a decent version of his logo when they mention my fave club.