Breaking the 10 Commandments of Logo Design

At one time or another, anyone who runs a logo blog or some such thing has written the ubiquitous ‘Rules of Logo Design‘ article. We’ve done it ourselves. A lot. Serious business too – almost like these ‘Commandments of Design‘ should not, can not and must not be broken, lest the Heavens open up, raining fire and brimstone upon us all. But are these commandments really carved in stone, just like the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai? Is breaking any of the rules design heresy, giving in to temptation by the horned dude? Or is there some wiggle room for breaking some, most or all of the many, many rules for designing a logo? Let’s take a Devil’s Advocate look and see how many we can break. Or keeping with the theme, breaketh..

10. Thou shalt use a logo to bring thyself from obscurity.

Regardless of how great it may be, your logo isn’t a magic panacea that disguises a multitude of corporate sins. Albeit an important one, a logo’s just part of your overall branding and marketing. If your company sucks, your product gives people hives, or you refuse to pick up the damn phone when people call, ain’t a logo that’s been invented that will undo that kind of bad vibery. Looking after what your company does is far more important than how your company looks.

9. When coin is tight, thou shalt maketh a covenant with a mediocre logo.

Due to budget or time constraints, many well-intentioned folks still believe that a mediocre logo is better than no logo. The old “ah, that’s good enough” school of thought. Little bit of faulty logic that. See, if you decide that a logo’s important enough to use to identify your company, then isn’t it important enough to do it up right? Here’s the heresy: rather than a crap, mediocre or unoriginal logo, it’s best to have none at all. Many companies market themselves quite successfully with simple text artwork, focusing on other ways to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. Takeaway here: saving yourself a few bucks in the short haul, may end up costing you in the long. Which brings us to commandment #9..

9 (1/2.) Thou shalt shelleth out five grand for thy new logo.

Don’t know where the five grand figure came from, but it seems to be the benchmark that gets tossed around these days, often in the discussion about cheap logo design on the internet. As in “up until we launched this website, small businesses couldn’t afford to pay five thousand dollars for a logo“. Trouble is, that’s a bullshit figure. Very few people pay five grand for a logo. And when they do, it’s for a lot more than just a logo. Hell, you can pick up a logo on the interwebs for twenty bucks. Not that we’re suggesting you do, the generally accepted rule being that you get what you pay for. If your wallet puckers when you get the quote in the mail, look somewhere else. If the deal appears to be too good to be true, it probably is. Takeaway here: Use common sense when it comes to budgeting for any new logo. Remember value vs. cost. Investment vs. expense.

8. Rememberith thy logo and keep it unchanged.

While it’s true that only by repeated use will your logo get any traction, that doesn’t mean you should be stuck with a bad one forever. If the cartoon pirate your nephew designed for your accounting business isn’t cutting it any more, then change the damn thing. It’s gonna cost a little bit sure, but the longer you push your old crappy logo around, the longer it’s going to take you to get people to attach your business with a new one. Bottom line, a logo isn’t some marketing holy ground, so if it no longer works, feel free to ditch the icon you’ve been using since starting your business on your kitchen table. Few words of caution though. You should make any changes to your brand judiciously as too many ‘rebrands’ defeats the purpose of having one in the first place. Once or twice is a business improvement. Any more than that and you’re entering multiple personality territory.

7. Thou shalt not worship multiple or varied logos.

It’s often been advised that a logo design is sacrosanct, and like the most notable passages of Leviticus, there have been thousand-page manuals written that lay out rule after rule on how to use this logo or that. Sizing. Proximity to type. Colors. Etc. Etc. Etc. They’re all fair enough, for a large corporation. See, the Leviticus of Logos is great for humongous organizations where brand marks are being plastered on hundreds of different items everyday, by different vendors and graphic design providers, often in different countries. There has to be some form of consistency, or else we’ll end up with Coke logos that are green and orange, or Nike swooshes that are upside down and backwards. If you’re in control of the logo guidelines for your company, don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit. Use the icon solo. Use the text portion on its own. Change the colors around. As you’re about six degrees of separation from all your marketing material, things won’t get too out of hand without your say so. When you grow to an international enterprise, with hundreds of employees who toil on your advertising material when you’re at the golf course, then by all means, knock out your own version of Leviticus for Logos. Until then, have fun. Or let your designer have fun.

6. Honor your logo with a maximum of two colors,

This is still kinda true, but there’s certainly more flexibility than ever before. This commandment was etched in stone many years ago when 4 color process printing was extraordinarily expensive to reproduce, especially on high-volume, often reprinted, office staples like business cards and letterheads. Spot color printing, using Pantone Swatch books to select colors in order to bypass using process printing, was a much more economical approach for most small businesses on limited budgets. Accordingly, one and two color spot logos became the lay of the land and nobody dared create anything that strayed from this seemingly insurmountable rule. Designing a logo’s a little different these days, with many printing companies refusing to print spot color anymore, preferring to convert everything into CMYK to be done with it. CMYK colors also translate more accurately into RGB palettes – the method of reproducing stuff on monitors and used for websites and what have you. Even storefront light boxes and vehicle wraps use digital full color printing (as opposed to earlier dye-cut vinyl that was only available in limited Pantone matches.) The bottom line to all this techno-babble is that we’re a little freer to toss some colors into the mix if we so choose. Keep this in mind though – if you’re a real stickler for color accuracy, say you want to match the color of your car, or your favorite sweater, then Pantone colors are still the way to go. Color accuracy through CMYK printing can be a little dodgy at times, and some printers are less accurate than others. Particularly if your material is being ‘gang run” on a large sheet with multiple projects, all with varying color densities. Anyone who’s used Vista Print will be familiar with this concept.

5. Thou shalt not commit blending or gradients.

Everything you just read through, pretty well applies to this commandment too. As blends and gradients require 4 color process printing to pull off, they were utterly taboo during the spot color era. Nowadays, not so much. Before we hit the ‘blend everything’ button, and even though we can be a little more flexible, there can still be some technical issues with logos that feature this often abused technique. As the number of colors required to render a blend properly almost always exceeds the number of colors available for certain web file formats, banding is a real concern with it comes to low resolution reproduction. Rather than a smooth gradient from one color to another, bands of solid colors are formed to complete the effect. Think GIFs for bad. Think transparent GIFs for worse. We can get around that by using better file formats (PNG or JPG for example) but still something to keep in mind (see our logo file format reference guide for more). Also, blended logos don’t scale very nicely, so if the logo for your company is going to be used postage stamp size, you should probably still avoid. Or least “easy as she goes” when plastering blends over everything.

4. Honor the latest trend, as heralded by experts.

Around Christmas and New Year’s of every year, people who like to write about logos often publish great articles that either herald in the forecasted trends of the upcoming year, or the observable trends from the last. This are inspiring and interesting posts to read, not to follow. Trends tend to die off really quickly, leaving everyone that eagerly jumped on the bandwagon with logos that just aren’t so trendy anymore. Hackneyed and overdone more like. Aim for timeless and sensibly constructed marks. You may think your logo is ‘boring’ now, but all will be cool when the trend everyone followed in January, is out in about 11 months time.

3. Thou shalt maketh all logo designs simple.

We should always design logos for the lowest common denominator. The absolutely worst, most artwork hostile reproduction method that the logo is likely to be reproduced with. Printing your logos on pens is one such environment. The logo’s small. Not much, if any, color freedom. Extremely low resolution on the screens used to print. But what if you’re never, ever, going to reproduce your logo on pens? Then it’s quite possible to up your game a little, adding a little complexity to your design. See, that’s the thing about complex vs. simple logos. A complex, illustrative logo is quite acceptable, if a complex, illustrative logo is what’s called for. As a lot of our logos tend to lean towards illustrative, we often get grief from other designers for overly complex logos but in our defense, we’re also quite capable of developing text logos. And we often push clients towards simple logos. It always depends on what’s called for. Sure, a simple logo has some very real advantages over complex designs, and there’s a helluva lot of successful simple treatments around, technology, both in design and reproduction, had given us a lot more latitude into what we can do. We’re not saying your logo should involve a War & Peace manifesto, but a little creative muscle flexing is certainly an option. Once again, it comes down to common sense and appropriateness of the imagery you choose to represent your company.

2. Thou shalt not covet your neighbors logo.

It’s okay to covet your neighbor’s logo. Covet away. Get green with envy. But as Moses might have said (if he were a graphic designer that is) “Thou shalt not copy your neighbor’s logo“. And that one remains firmly carved in stone. Which brings us to commandment number

1. Thou shalt not steal.

Oh, you can steal a logo. Many people do. Though you shouldn’t. See, the internet had made it really easy to get found out. And then folks go Biblical about it on Twitter. And besides, we all know where people who steal end up in the afterlife, no?

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