Saturday, December 8, 2012

Tips For Designing Your Own Logo And Brand

Sometimes, paying someone to make a good logo for you just isn't in the budget. While a person who specializes in this sort of thing (*points at self*) knows all of the ins and outs of getting the job done well, if you are willing to spend some time, you can create a pretty good logo and brand yourself. I cannot direct you through the entire process in a single blog post. Hell, I doubt I could do it with an entire book... there's an idea... regardless, moving on!

There are a few key areas where people designing their own brand frequently fail, and I can provide some tips on how to best avoid these pitfalls. I also hope that I can instill some of the heuristics — the rules of thumb, if you will — that I have picked up over the years to better allow you to critique your own work, and thus guaranteeing a better result.

When designing your logo.

Don't be literal: The worst thing that you can do in a logo is be literal. For example, if you are a cafe, you do not want a coffee cup or coffee bean in your logo. It has been done past to death. It is undead at this point and is lumbering around attacking and infecting other logos.

There are an endless number of provisos and corollaries that go along with that maxim, and I again would need an entire book to get into them. While a literal logo can indeed look good and be memorable, I would still recommend avoiding literal interpretations. It is the first step on a journey toward a boring, cliched, and derivative image that won't stick in people's minds.

Literal or not, the point of a logo is to be a unique and memorable face for your company.

Be Inventive: Try using imagery that communicates something intangible about your cafe. This process lays down the roadway to wild and interesting ideas for how to communicate your name and brand.

For example, you want to project an easy, relaxed atmosphere: use a sunset, a pillow, a strawberry dipped in whipped cream. Or perhaps you want to communicate high-technology; use a stylized robot, arc lamp, or geometric shape.

A word of warning here is that there are certain images that are cliche, and these are heavily based on where you live. Some are cliche compliments of a grander cultural zeitgeist. So for the Western World, these would be atoms, lasers, sex, and any other number of images that are widely seen and used.

The cliches can also be very local. For example, I live in Rhode Island, the Ocean State; images of waves, anchors, and boats are on everything.

That's not to say that you can't use these images with a unique interpretation —  perhaps a highly-stylized image of an anchor or wave. A boring concept, uniquely implemented can work very well.

In the end, it is a judgment call that you will have to make. The most important thing is for the logo to be unique and identifiable. If this involves a cliched concept, that's alright.

As you can see above, the second logo is still an anchor, but it's a stylized take on the image that is not likely to be in use anywhere else. (Oh, and a side tip: when choosing your font, avoid the standard fonts like Times, Arial, and the like. Either draw your own typeface, or search for "free fonts" or "open source fonts" and try to find something that fits and is not overused.)

My best recommendation for someone coming anew to this endeavor is, and I apologize because this concept is just so damned buzz-wordy, try a mind map. Basically, you start with a single concept in the middle of the map, and then draw connected concepts outward on splitting branches, like a family tree. A less buzz-wordy way to say it is that you are creating a visual representation of a brain storm.

Once you have your brain storm visualized, draw, draw, draw, draw. Fill a good ten to twenty pages with different interpretations of the words that you've mapped out. Channel your best Salvadore Dali and Pablo Picasso when drawing. Be crazy. It's the only way to unlock ideas.

Be simple. Be bold: As you can see in my Anchor Consulting example, I took the basic shape and created something very bold and simple. Not simplistic, just simple. It's a shape that could be shrunk down to a 20x20 pixel block and still be identifiable.

Avoid details. People operate best with gross characteristics. If there are too many details, more brain power is required to analyze and process it all. A good logo requires little brainpower to recognize and store.

Get the software: One of the first things people in the design world learn are the pieces of software that will be necessary. Simply knowing this gives you a powerful one-up on companies that don't know.

Since you don't have an existing workflow or team with which you must work, you're free to use whichever program best suits your needs. For me — perhaps because it is the best tool, perhaps because I have simply been using it for years — Fireworks by Adobe is the tool that I use the most. In the world of graphics programs, it's pretty cheap, with upgrades costing only $150 and full versions ringing up at $300. That might seem pretty high until you realize that Photoshop and Illustrator cost $700 and $600. Corel Draw, the "bargain" of the industry, is $500.

You're probably thinking "Good God! These products are ridiculously-priced!" And you'd be right! Adobe products are overpriced. Like, really overpriced. Few other companies out there have a customer base where the customers love the product but hate the company quite as much as with Adobe. The fact that their products are so damned full of bugs, Fireworks especially, doesn't help.

So it is without hesitation that I recommend some free, open-source options. For image editing, use GIMP. It is a replacement for Photoshop in that it is primarily used for editing image maps and digital painting. It's missing many of the toys that Photoshop and Corel have, but not too many. And for the purposes of a simple logo and branding effort, you would never use these tools anyhow.

The second tool is Inkscape. This program is for creating vectors. The difference between a vector and an image map is how it is "drawn" by the computer. An image map is simply a file that tells the computer which pixels are filled and with what color. A vector is two points that are connected by a line that "exists" behind the pixels, so the computer displays whatever pixels are in front of this line. This line can be curved or straight or all zig-zaggy. For an artist, this is a useful tool because she can create two points, connect them with the line, and then bend and flex that line however she sees fit. There is no need to erase a mistake. I like to look at it as sculpting a two-dimensional statue.

Most logos are created with vectors since they provide crisp, strong, well-defined lines that are easily identifiable at all sizes. For this reason, the most important program to learn is Inkscape. There are multiple how-to's available on YouTube to get you on your way.

Compare and Contrast: You can intuitively build up many tools for creating a logo by simply taking what you are working on and comparing it to other great logos and brands. Analyze how they are integrated in with packaging, printing, and advertising. Analyze their color choices and shapes. Hold up your work next to Coca-Cola, Apple, Gap, or Saks Fifth Avenue. Strive for the polish and refinement that is apparent in these pieces of work. And don't give your work a pass because you feel a connection with it!

Show your work to friends and relatives. Get feedback. Demand feedback. Tell them to be as critical as possible. Tell them to rip your work apart. Getting other people's opinions of your work will do two things: it will directly alter your work, and it will also provide you with more critical tools and concepts to criticize yourself later on.

Compliments of the crush of advertising and marketing that we face every day, the majority of people can make pretty good intuitive judgments about whether a brand looks "good" and "professional" and if that impression makes them want to take a chance with a particular company's products. Apply this intuition to yourself. Imagine yourself as a random person wandering by and seeing your sign; would you walk in?

When designing your brand.

Be adventurous with your name: If you haven't already named your business, name it something unexpected and unique. Again, if you are a cafe, name it "Into River Lethe" cafe, symbolizing that customers forget all their troubles when sitting in your lounge area. I just pulled that out of my proverbial butt, but you get the idea. Do not be traditional in your naming. If people are scanning through a telephone book (some people still use them), would your name stand out enough to cause people to try your company before others? Would the name of your company on a sign trigger curiosity in those driving or walking by?

There are certain words that you want to avoid, though, and these should be apparent to you. They are words that have been wildly overused for any application. Do not make a "house" or a "shack" or a "hut." Pizza Hut succeeded in spite of its awful name. Do not choose common edgy descriptors like "atomic," or "extreme." And simply having the word "reliable" in your name does not cause people to think of you as more reliable than another company without it. Use descriptors that are uncommon. Hit up a dictionary and thesaurus  You'll thank me, and Noah Webster, for it.

If you have already named your business but are not yet open, take this chance to re-name it. Be exciting and adventurous! You want your name to be completely different from every other business in your industry for five-hundred miles.

If you have already named your business and it is a boring name, like "Stacy's Cafe," or something like that, first, consider re-branding yourself. Take it as an opportunity to take into account your knowledge of your customer base and how your own desires for the business have grown. A re-brand can be a great opportunity to energize your business by generating interest in something that is new.

If you have already named your business and do not want to change it, then skip to step 2.

Think about "personality": A brand is a package of intangible characteristics that you want people to feel when viewing your business's public elements, be it signs, logo, stores, or products. That is what you are creating when you create a brand.

For a good starting point, we can again look to other companies and what they communicate. As an exercise, look at products, advertisements, and advertising for other companies. Let's use Apple as an example. What do you feel with an Apple product? How do you feel when thinking about buying one? Think about the way that Apple's commercials, products, design, and Apple Stores all communicate a similar idea.

Or perhaps a better way to think about it is to think about Facebook pages. If your business were a person, what kind of Facebook profile would it have? What kind of picture would it have? Guzzling beer? In a business suit?

Communicating this personality is a far-reaching prospect. You'll need to combine your name with photos, colors, designs, and customer interaction that all are tailored to project the personality. I wish I could provide some quick tips for this part, but there are none. Simply experiment with various combinations and look everywhere for inspiration. Look at other brands, go to places that have the "feel" that you want and take in every bit of sensory data.

A brand is a gestalt, and you will need a mass of content to create that gestalt, so take it from wherever you can get it.

When going from idea to implementation.

Don't be cheap!: Once you have the logo done, you will still have to spend a good deal of money implementing that logo. You cannot skimp here! The best logo and branding work on Earth will look like crap if printed onto some vinyl poster.

Make sure that you bring your work to a company that can implement well. Expensive, illuminated signs; high-quality prints for posters and menus; excellent and well-mounted displays; business cards that are thick and impactful. These things are expensive, but they are worth the cost.

Remember, your logo and your brand build a connection with your customer based on their experience. So an average logo and brand can become great when connected with a great experience. Making sure that the way that the customer experiences your logo and brand is polished and attractive is actually more important that having a polished logo and brand design. Thus, while you should be concerned with making your logo and brand construction professional and attractive, don't spend time on that and then rush through getting it public. If you only have a limited amount of time, don't waste it on the design; spend it on the implementation.

Know what you want before you order it: You need to have a very defined plan of implementation for your logo and brand. Do you want banners? Posters? Business cards? A full website? If you have a store, decide in advance how you are going to lay out your store and where your brand elements will be presented. Where will you have posters, where will you have brochures, where will you have signs: in fact, actually draw a map and place everything in the map.

While I may have stressed your not being cheap in the previous point, that doesn't mean being foolhardy with your money. By drawing maps and deciding well in advance exactly what you want, you won't waste time making logos and images for things you never implement, and you won't waste money buying things you never use. Having and following a well-laid plan saves you in every way a business can be saved... just like how Jack saved Rose... I hated Titanic.

I would offer recommendations about which things you want produced, but it depends on your business. Are you a plumber with primarily a phone business? You won't need many banners and signs for your store front, but you will want a variety of brochures, business cards, and door-hangers to leave dangling in neighborhoods that you service. But if you are a florist, you will want TONS of signs, banners, and posters filled with glorious photos of your work.

Throw yourself out there: A branding effort is a great opportunity to do an advertising campaign. You're new. You're fresh. These things naturally help you foster a sense of curiosity among those in the area. Take full advantage of cheap advertising. Put fliers in mail boxes and under windshield wipers. Rent large, temporary signs. Do not get some guy to dress as Elmo or a giant chicken and stand outside and wave at traffic. Trust me. That has never helped anyone ever. It's better to have a great sign and brand.

If you have a company car, buy an autowrap. Autowraps are those large, full-body image wraps that you see on cars and trucks. There are companies in every state that do it, and while they are expensive — between two and three thousand dollars — they are worth it. Wherever you go, you are advertising. When you park your car, you are advertising. When your car is in front of your business, you have amplified your signage.

Remember, people expect companies of significance to have an extensive branding and advertising effort. By having a pukka brand and plastering it all over everything makes your business seem more "legitimate." Don't be subtle. Even if subtlety is part of your brand, you should be completely unsubtle with your subtlety. Be so damned subtle that it is absolute in your customers' faces. That's what high-end brands like Saks and Tiffany's do. They are bombastic with subtlety.

Throwing yourself out there, as it were, is also critical because it is the final step: promulgation. If you have good signage, people walking and driving by already know. But you want people from all over your area to know you exist. You may have the greatest widget company on Earth, but if people don't know about it, you will fail. Once you have spent all of your money on signs, brochures, and whatnot, you need to bring people in to see it. If you have the budget, you should consider even big things, like highway billboards, which usually rent in the neighborhood of $1-3,000 per month. People need to know that you exist.

Once they do, you become far more a master of your own destiny than someone who simply waits for customers to find her.

After it's all said and done.

A cowboy's work is never done, and neither is yours. Once you have your brand, your advertising, and your customers, you need to maintain an advertising presence. Why do you think companies like Bayer keep advertising even though everyone knows full well that Bayer exists? Because they need to keep their brand in people's minds. Then, when presented with the various options on the store shelf, their minds may default to the brand that they have seen. Just like Bayer, you need to keep your company in the mind of the public.

As time goes on, you'll find yourself wanting to tweak your brand. This is good! You need to keep your brand fresh, with new advertising, new types of images, and new bits of details to the company personality. Making this easier is that you will be able to watch your revenue based on when and how you advertise. You'll notice that when you paid for that billboard on the highway, sales went up 20%, but advertising in bus stops only sent you up 5%.

It would be pointless to try to cover all of the various types of data that you will be able to collect, but rest assured, if you are keeping a watchful eye, the data will simply jump off the page. And with it, you will be able to refine your brand and your advertising to maximum effect.

Why this is important.

The world is changing. Companies such as Wal-Mart have brought the hurt onto small retailers in ways never seen before. Even entrenched, large companies have fallen. The... moral is a good term... the moral reality of it changes depending on how you look at the situation, though. For example, Wal-Mart has been very bad for downtown areas and small retailers, but it has been fantastic for many people who benefit from the ability to buy things cheaply.

While I am referring directly to Wal-Mart for this example, it can apply to any massive company that has come in and dominated an industry to severe detriment of smaller companies. For example, Best Buy vs. Amazon.

Or similarly, Wal-Mart put many companies into the grave, but isn't that what capitalism is all about? The company that provides the most value wins? From this (annoyingly Fox News-ish) perspective, all Wal-Mart did was make manifest weaknesses that were always there and apply the economic pressure to force them out of business. Wal-Mart did nothing but cull the herd.

One of the most salient things that the Wal-Martification of America did was kill of the "mom & pop" business model. That business model was the one I mentioned a few paragraphs back, where a company opens up and waits for customers to come. When in a small economic environment, with local companies selling to local people, this worked fine. But once international companies started competing for the same customers, that business model collapsed.

But not entirely! Many of these companies are still here. What they have done is adapt many of the behaviors of the major corporations — behaviors like robust, attractive branding. The market has only changed, it hasn't gone away, and you must now be aware of the ways in which a company must behave to succeed. If things change again, as they likely will, you will simply have to change again as well.

Our world is one where the tempo of the dance is set by the biggest dancers. They clomp and thud about the dance floor, crushing those not nimble enough to get out of the way. Less than ideal, to be sure, but we at least know the tune. The music is being played loudly, for all to hear. And while small businesses must dance to this rhythm only, this is a fine thing. Because the goal isn't to liberate yourself from the beat; the goal is to be a better dancer.

Go break a leg.


  1. I wish I had the budget to hire a talented designer to create my logo and branding for me, but unfortunately I'm in the "ramen" phase of my start-up.

    Thanks so much for the helpful tips. I'm going to try out the mind map right now!

    1. Glad to be of help. I hope you do well with my tips.