“Logos date like clothes”: Six designers debate what makes an ideal brand identity
This Winter It’s Nice That is partnering with Adobe Stock on a series of articles that celebrate their collection of millions of high-quality images, graphics, video motion graphics, templates, and branding materials. This also includes a large collection of logo and identify motifs and illustrations designers can utilise during the research of a project.
In the words of designer and publisher Lucienne Roberts, “logos en masse are as scrummy as sweets.” And just like a child with a sweet tooth, the creative industry often has a habit of indulging a little too much.
Our ability to comment on design events has grown hand in hand with the accessibility of the internet. That, coupled of course with the rise of social media and the emergence of design orientated sites such as ours, has encouraged logo and identity design to become a niche, but popular, talking point.
It’s a moment where designers are literally informing how we recognise and interact with the brands that shape our daily lives and, for that reason, it should be analysed. But, have we reached a point where the design community has forgotten what they are analysing and is it fair?
There are numerous motions designers have to go through to get an identity design to the point where it’s public facing. Teams of designers, company board members, and focus group participants have all debated an outcome. However, it seems that no matter the design boxes it ticks, a logo design will be dissected, discussed and probably disliked.
We got thinking about whether an identity design is ever absolute considering the weight it carries, particularly after seeing an in-depth collection of logo motifs in Adobe Stock’s collection. In an attempt to figure out what is the ideal identity, below we speak to designers Paula Scher, Ines Cox, Querida studio, Neo Neo, Koto and Lucienne Roberts to hear their processes from the brief to research, the actual designing, final outcome, and the reception it receives too.
Speak to the client extensively
During the initial back and forth of designing a new logo or brand identity, designers tend to chat to the client thoroughly. For Paula Scher the whole point of an identity “is to be understandable and recognisable”, and so she begins with extensive conversation about what should be recognised.
The next step is to assess your new client’s competition, looking at things like, “where they are, where they sit, where they say they’re going and the general milieu of what that territory looks like,” as Paula puts it. This may take a while, but it has an aim that will enhance the design process: “What we try to do generally is find a way to push the territory forward without scaring them off. To get them to define themselves as a leader, as opposed to looking like another design in the group.”
Xavier Erni, the co-founder of Swiss studio Neo Neo, agrees with checking up on the competition, proposing that it is worthwhile to look at the brand’s “goals, target audience and then look at other similar types of brand’s visual identities to avoid proposing something similar.”
Antwerp-based designer Ines Cox recommends this process to kickstart design proceedings too, highlighting the importance of “figuring out the specific needs.” But don’t forget that you, the designer, are signing your name to this redesign as much as the company and “creating an identity means investing a lot of time and energy,” Ines continues. “Share your own expectations and vision as well. Try to figure out if the project will be a more ‘serving’ job or an interesting collaboration. I prefer the latter, obviously.”
Once you have all your information stored away, London-based design agency Koto’s creative director and founder, James Greenfield, suggests that his identity work “has an idea at the heart, so we start there: what’s the idea and why do we think that’s the best summation of this organisation?” The development of these ideas is due to Koto’s “company knowledge”, as well as it’s “semiotics and visual quirks”. But, beyond this, the agency quite rightly has “a totally different way of starting every project.”
And finally, put simply in the wise words of Barcelona-based Albert Estruch, the partner and creative director of Querida: “If there is someone who really knows the company you are going to (re)design it’s… the client!”
Thorough visual research
Once the brand at hand is understood, research into how the identity will look can begin. Looking at previous logos, the shapes and “golden ratio” that could work well for your brief can be discovered using the Adobe Stock collection. You might assemble a mood board of references, and how this is put together tends to vary from studio to studio.
Neo Neo suggest this early on in the process to create an environment allowing for the “exchange of our ideas to start work on a concept”. Albert of Querida agrees but admits his studio’s research begins outside rather than on screen: “visiting all kinds of exhibitions, going to a flea market, finding a rare book at your parents’ home,” he says. “This is mostly what we do, but of course we also use the internet. Recently we asked our students where they look for inspiration and they said Instagram! That made us feel like dinosaurs…”
Ines Cox, a designer well known for her thoughtful work, actually turns to her own extremely well-documented back catalogue to figure out where she should head next. “I’m a maniac in documenting my own design process,” she tells us. “I feel it’s necessary to make (almost) every step of the process physical.” Because of this, Ines often prints out her workings and as a result “has about 25 ring binders full of sketches, test prints, dummies, unused ideas etc. I call them my darlings… Often I find inspiration in them for other projects.”
As well as this, she has a tendency to snap anything visually stimulating, which, is the ideal goal for an identity too. Writing down ideas, drawing doodles, or using her phone to take pictures “of a malfunctioning billboard, funky typography used on shop facades, signs I see abroad or a restaurant menu," she says. Ines hunts for “basically all kinds of traces that could be interesting to appropriate within my own work.”
Koto’s James Greenfield also recommends visually looking widely to inform an identity or logo design. “Too many logos either take the leading letter of a brand or the whole name and build it around that. It’s a path of least resistance and as much as there are some great examples of this, it’s an often boring solution.”
Referencing the past
At this stage, largely because the designer at hand has spent time digging deep into the history of the brand, one route to head down may involve resurrecting a motif from the brand’s visual past.
For Paula Scher, this is a valid process as “sometimes they [the brand] have things in their history that define them,” she says. At Pentagram, Paula’s team spend a long time looking at the past and often, when you go back, “you find something that was charming within a brand that got oversimplified and you put it back in”. This updating of an element from the past makes sense to Paula, and she equates the way logos date to the way a wardrobe does: “Logos date like clothes. You’ve got to take them in, let them out, give them a hem.” And, just as Paula likens the process to something we all do, Ines also points out how “being afraid of something new is typically human, no?”
But, as Neo Neo’s Xavier acceptably rebuts: “We are living in an era where vintage aesthetic is almost everywhere. It only works when it’s appropriate in the context of the brand.” Albert from Querida agrees with Xavier’s suggestion that it’s a design process often overused too: “Enough looking back to the past for a rebrand!” he says. “Designers of the world, you can do better than that! No risk, no glory…”
The moment you design
While this lengthy process has already seen you examine several considerations, actually turning a concept into a symbol or wordmark only brings more.
Paula recommends that at this point “you design a logo in black and white because the form is what matters. If it works in black and white it works in every colour.” The designer also says that at this stage you could even hand it back to the client: “I don’t really care if they pick the colour because one colour all by itself doesn’t matter, two colours really matter because they have to work together.”
Lucienne Roberts of Lucienneroberts+ and GraphicDesign& also suggests that simplicity may be key as a logo “is very much a product of the global communication associated with modern life. So, marks that are simple, strong and recognisable are successful.”
Ines Cox votes for straightforward design in this sector too, as it’s “more important to create a clear, attractive and recognisable visual instead of illustrating and explaining everything at once,” as she puts it. “A design should, most of all, be a vehicle for content rather than an extra layer of visual explanation."
Xavier also adds how to not forget that this is about what the brand really needs: “A lot of brands think they really need a logo more than anything else. But, often, they would benefit more from an evolving of visual language,” he says. “For us, an efficient visual identity is easily recognisable but it also leaves enough freedom for the in-house designer to create fresh designs out of it.”
At this stage, James from Koto also says “don’t make it about you,” keeping the brand front of mind. “A logo can only say so many things,” he continues. “It could be a spirit of the company, an energy, or it could be a solidity, a trust. It can have a quirk or be simple, but it doesn’t have space for the designer’s flair. Leave that flair for other elements of the brand.”
And, when it comes to that presentation stage: “Try not to present more than one to two options,” says Querida’s Albert, “otherwise it looks like you don’t know what the client needs.”
The result and its reception
“I assume you’re talking about Monday morning quarterbacking?” says Paula Scher when we ask her about the critical discussion that surrounds logo designs and rejigs. “I think that it’s just babyish,” she says between laughing. “I mean, designers don’t seem to be busy enough. Give them some more work. They won’t have time to talk about anyone else.”
At the other end of the spectrum, however, Lucienne Roberts reasons “are they a talking point? I think we find abstraction, repetition and colour all visually delectable so we enjoy looking at them. Logos en masse are as scrummy as sweets in a way, but perhaps the word re-design merits a bit of analysis.” James of Koto also suggests that it’s just a very effortless thing to do: “Logos are an easy target in the world of anonymous online commenters,” he says. “It’s easy to slate them because they are simple things and regardless of their intended simplicity, it makes people think they can do better,” he reasons. “It’s also partly driven by the media who love an easy story.”
But in the slightly more understandably leaning corner of judgement is Albert, pointing out how, “there’s something quite addictive in the ‘before and after’ of things: plastic surgery, TV shows where they redecorate a place and the Brand New reviews," he points out." But, the designer also suggests to at least try and consider the wider context: “If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years is that before giving our opinion about a project that is not ours, we need to know what the brief was,” he says. “Most of the time you only see the final result and it’s easy to criticise. It’s something creatives LOVE to do!”
It’s fair to say a redesign may be an easy conversation starter, a simple way to give your studio and your work a little boost in comparison to another, a nice bit of gossip to make the working day go faster. Yet creatives should keep in mind the hoops jumped through, the hours scheduled and ideas discussed and thrown away before getting to this final point.
The design industry, after all, is one built on the sharing of ideas – not just picking them apart.
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About the Author
Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.