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Logos: What Makes Them Work (Part 2 of 2)

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Developing a great logo is a strange mix of art, science, psychology and (in most cases) a good amount of luck.

Last week, in part one of this two-part series, we discussed some fundamentals of logo development and design.

Now, in part two, we'll look at…

  • The pitfalls of literal translation
  • How size matters
  • How to choose the right logo
  • Ways to protect your rights

1. Don't look for a literal translation

If you saw a logo with a hamburger in it, you'd think the place sells hamburgers.


When you see the Golden Arches, you think of McDonalds, not Burger King. When you see a logo with a drawing of a car, you think of a car dealership or service center. When you see the three-point star inside a circle (for hippies, the peace symbol) you think Mercedes, not Buick. A logo with a tennis shoe would lead you to think about shoe stores. The "Swoosh" takes you straight to Nike, not Converse.

Certainly, these logos are among the most effective ever produced. But none have any literal connection with what their companies sell.

This doesn't mean that an apple orchard should not use an apple in its logo. It just means that the orchard doesn't necessarily have to. Actually, logos that are literal translations of the business line may be less effective at building a unique brand identity.

Imagine if every hamburger joint had a hamburger in its logo. Placed side-by-side, they would be pretty difficult to distinguish from one another.

Logos, over time, come to represent the company. They don't have to be literal translations of what the business does.

2. Size matters

Strange as it seems, some logos fail because they were never checked for size.

Before saying yes to a logo design, insist that you see it mocked up in your corporate ID package. You want to be sure that the logo works well on business cards, letterhead and envelopes.

If your logo is going to be part of a product marking, be sure to see it there, too. A logo that looks great on a big presentation board might fail completely when reduced to an inch in size.

Give a logo plenty of elbowroom. Although you don't see it, a part of your logo is its "clear space." That space is an invisible fence that surrounds your logo, preventing anything from getting too close to it. And while clear space is seldom discussed, it's essential. Your logo's clear space, which is a part of the logo, allows your logo to stand apart from everything else and prevents graphic interference.

Nothing should ever cross this clear space fence, except for a slogan that accompanies your logo. If your logo includes a slogan, consider it part of the logo when determining clear space.

As a general rule, clear space is around 10-20% of the size of the logo, in all directions. For instance, if your logo is being produced at 10" wide and 4" inches tall, the (fence) clear space will be approximately 11"x4.4" to 12"x4.8", with the logo sitting right in the middle.

Remember: clear space is an integral part of your logo—as much as the font, the shape and the color. It's as important as the amount of space between the columns of the coliseum. And while you might be tempted to think that it's invisible, a logo's clear space is just as visible as the rest of your logo. Don't mess with it.

A note about slogans: If you run a slogan in connection with your logo, consider it a transient part of the logo design itself. Your slogan may change from time to time. But between those changes, it should always appear in the same font and in the same position. Remember that everything associated with your logo becomes part of the logo's shape and color. Changing the slogan's position, font or color is the same as changing the logo. 3. How to make your logo choice

Don't make choosing your logo too complicated. Have fun with it. There is a tendency for the evaluation process to get long, involved and much more cerebral that it should be.

Remember that your customers and the viewing public are not going to sit down in a boardroom and study your logo for weeks. Neither should you.

Put the proposals on the wall. Ask people to give you a quick impression. Then—and here's the important part—watch what their eyes do. Find out which one they look at first. Get their first impression and get it quickly.

Don't be tempted to tear the design apart looking for hidden meaning or to be an art critic. That kind of stuff is best left to the goofballs who hang out at galleries pretending to enjoy those little triangular sandwiches as they make totally irrational interpretations of what they see. (And, no matter how hard they try, they'll never convince me that they really like Woody Allen movies.) Prolonged discussions confuse the issue.

Again, look at the logo proposals the same way that the public will look at your logo—quickly. Pick the one that hits you first and has the most positive initial appeal.

Try a preview. If it's possible, try out the new designs in a real-world setting. If your logo is going to be on a box of rice, mock-up the box and take it to the grocery store. Put it on the shelf for a test drive. Ask your designer to mock-up a billboard and superimpose it on the picture of a real billboard. (Most of the big outdoor advertising Web sites have photos of their billboards posted online. Grab a few and see how your new design looks in traffic.)

4. Be sure to protect your rights

Whether your logo is brand-spanking-new or has been around since dirt, you have to protect it. Significant time and resources are invested in your logo, trademarks and service marks. But unless you take active steps to protect them, you run a serious risk of losing them.

Logos, trademarks and service marks must be used properly and consistently in order to protect your exclusive rights to them. That's why style sheets and usage guides are so important. Most of the time, these guidelines will be created by the design firm as a part of the total package. If it's not included, the guidelines should be your first order of business before you begin using your new logo.

Style sheets are graphic representations of precisely how logos should appear. They include dimensions, proportions, clear-space requirements, and color references. The guidelines will include how a logo is to be printed and displayed in four-color process (CMYK), spot (PMS) color, Web (RGB) color, and black and white.

Be sure that you have printed copies and downloadable versions of the guidelines.

Whenever you allow your logo to be used in any visual medium, be sure that whoever is doing the design work has ready access to the guidelines—and that they know, in no uncertain terms, that they must comply with your guidelines.

When you proof a project, adherence to your guidelines should be front and center on your list of things to check.

If you allow your logo to be displayed in any form without strict compliance to your guidelines, the mark runs a very real risk of becoming generic, and enforcement of your ownership and rights may be lost. You may have already allowed your logo to be used without compliance. And while you can't un-mail that last brochure, you can do a comprehensive audit of your brand.

Gather every piece of printing—business cards, letterhead, envelopes, catalogs, brochures, and anything else that includes your logo. Check them for compliance. If they don't comply, get rid of them. Yesterday.

While it may seem to be a real pain in the neck, it's better to get rid of the gremlins than it is to lose the rights to your identity.

A final word

Logos should have staying power. Avoid trendy stuff that will go out like Nehru suits. Hire a competent design firm, and do your best to leave your personal preferences and biases aside.

Remember that it doesn't matter if your logo works for you. What matters is that it helps you sell stuff.


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Jared McCarthy is the proprietor of McCarthy Creative. For more information, visit www.jcm-creative.com.

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  • by Jennifer Fri Feb 15, 2008 via web

    Jared, Thanks for this great article on logo design. Excellent tips for the client and reminders for the designer. Now, the next step is communicating to the client that all of the points you mention are important enough so that they should understand they will be paying thousands of dollars for a logo design, rather than $300 from somebody on Craig's List!

  • by Wayne Sun Aug 24, 2008 via web

    Jared -

    Fantastic article. I'm in the middle of a logo project as we speak and this will be a great added-value resource for the client.

    Thank you!

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