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A Day in the Life: Designing a Logo

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“I need a great logo for my new business! My budget is $50.”

At BlackBean, we love our clients. Without you, there’s no BlackBean, and we don’t get to do the rewarding, fun, challenging work we do. Much like any skills-based industry, from engineering to automotive mechanics, there’s a lot of misinformation, confusion, or lack of understanding about what exactly we do. Today, I want to walk you through one of our most popular — and misunderstood — services: logo design.

Logos are Like Icebergs

…Kind of.

Let me explain. The primary function of a logo is to be the recognizable visual symbol of your brand. It describes you and your products or services. In many cases, the logo is your brand’s foundation. Logos are important, and the details matter. Big agencies and brands debate and focus test minute changes to their logos and brands. Google famously tested dozens of shades of blue for their buttons, settling on an extremely specific shade that tested slightly better than any other.

If you’ve done any research at all into logo design, you’ve seen the cheap options. There’s even a free hipster logo generator, if any of you are starting a kombucha brewery or whatever. So why pay us a cent to do what hundreds of sites offer for free or cheap? Here’s where that iceberg thing comes in.

Designers aren’t trained to thoughtlessly throw images, text, and shapes together. What you’re paying for isn’t just some graphic. It’s a graphic designed to work for you — specifically you. What you see at the end of the process is just, well, the tip of the iceberg.

Creative without strategy is called ‘art.’ Creative with strategy is called ‘advertising.’

Jef I. Richards

When you request a logo design, you haven’t commissioned a painting. You’re not looking to hang it on your wall. I mean, you could I guess. Who are we to judge? But the truth is, a logo is more like a painting’s workaholic brother. It doesn’t have time to stand around looking pretty, because it has a purpose. A calling. It’s out there selling your business to the world.

When we’re designing a logo, we’re asking a lot of questions. Who is your audience? What message are we trying to get across? Why should we use that font, or this colour? Why, why, why? We ask that question a lot. Why is one style better than another? ‘Why’ is the master question. When you solve for ‘why’, you end up answering all the whats, whos, whens and wheres in the process.

A logo is a strategic tool, not a pretty picture. Relying on a cheap logo maker with no strategic insight could work in the short-term, but you get what you pay for.

With all of that out of the way, let’s go through the logo design process, step by step:

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Talking it Out

After we’ve been hired to design a logo, we typically end up with a page or two of notes from our first meeting with the client and a blank document open in Illustrator. If you’ve ever done any creative writing, you’ve experienced the dread of the blank white screen. No matter how many stories or articles you’ve written, you never forget that feeling. A journey begins with a single step, an article with a single word. So why is it so hard to choose the right one?

Design feels the same way. Before we can put pen to paper, or rather, mouse to… mouse pad? That’s not as evocative an image, but whatever. Before we can get started, we need to set some parameters. What does the logo need to accomplish? What guidelines has our client provided? Do they love a specific colour or style? In many cases, they don’t have a preference (or think they don’t, more on that later) so we’re left to read between the lines and develop a mini brand strategy to inform the design. Especially for bigger projects, this step also involves competitor research and pretty thorough strategic planning.

After a logo pow-wow, it’s on to execution.

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Sketching and Scrapping

We usually produce three working concepts, and our client picks one to develop further. What you don’t see is the scrap pile. For every concept a client sees, there are, five, ten, a hundred, maybe a thousand variants that get killed and discarded. In design, there might be several ‘correct’ answers — logos that solve the marketing challenge we’ve been given. For each of those correct designs, there are an infinite number of incorrect ones.

Nobody bats .1000. In getting that home run, we strike out so, so much. Designers learn to be ruthless with their own designs. We might work on a concept all afternoon only to realize it just can’t be developed into what the client needs. We pull plugs without mercy. Finally, after a day or more of scattershot attempts, we have a few good ideas to develop further.

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Watching Your Dreams Die

Alright, I’m being a drama queen. Remember how I said designers learn to be ruthless? Sometimes we still feel human emotions. One of those times is when we present our concepts to the client. Of the three logos we present, one is our favourite. There’s one design in there that we feel totally inspired by, that tells a story and incorporates symbolism and subtext.

Nine times out of ten, you won’t choose that one.

There’s nothing wrong with that. We wouldn’t be showing you concepts we didn’t believe would work for your business. It’s just that we built these logos from nothing. We nurtured them from messy sketches to pixel-perfect digital creations, and we played favourites. Then you killed the favourite. We smile and nod and say ‘absolutely, let’s develop concept three a little further’. And it’s fine. We’re professionals. You’re a bigger part of your brand than we are. You need to buy into your favourite concept. That’s how this business works, and frankly we’re used to loss at this point.

We’ll save the mourning for later.

Blackbean 3b

Watching Your Dreams Die But Worse

This time I’m not being dramatic at all. Sometimes you produce three concepts that you really like, and the client says ‘ehh.’ That sucks for everyone involved. We want to please our clients, they want a logo they love, and neither of those things has happened. We end up heading back to the drawing board, but it feels a little different. We have more info to work with, knowing that our first concepts fell flat. We also feel the pressure a bit more.

Pressure can be a good thing in creative fields. Sometimes it forces you to be a little less risk averse, or to reframe the challenge and approach it in a new way. Creativity thrives on adversity. It does suck to fall short of a goal, though. When clients respond negatively to our work, the project gets reset from ‘almost done’ to ‘just getting started’ in the blink of an eye. We start the conversation over again, hopefully a little older and wiser, and get cracking.

Blackbean 3c

You Picked Our Favourite?!

Sometimes this does happen. Like, not often, but I’ve seen it happen. Heard of it anyway.

Blackbean 3d

The Breakup

If we’ve already been to step 3B a couple times, sometimes both parties admit it’s just not working. Look, we get it. Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there. You’re looking for the right agency for you, and we respect that. We’re pretty bummed, but that’s life. This doesn’t happen often, but it’s a part of the job. Probably the worst part.

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Sweating the Details

Once you’ve signed off one design to be further refined, we get to work on fine tuning it. Here’s where we end up doing some educating. The right logo is like obscenity (work with me here): most people can’t define it, but they know it when they see it. The problem is, we really need you to define it ! We’re the ones with the design dictionary, and that’s the challenge. We know the words and definitions that describe how your logo works, while you’re speaking a different language. Your language might not have words for ‘font weight’ or ‘stroke width’, but you instinctively feel that something isn’t working.

Just Sun Test Colors

The better job we do in helping you find the right words to describe any issues you may have, the smoother this process goes. A surprising amount of our job is coaching, actually. Design isn’t intuitive or easy — if it were we wouldn’t have jobs. Navigating the concepts and jargon in our industry is tough for outsiders. For our sake and yours, we do our best to educate you. We’re a team, and we need to be on the same page.

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Finally, we’ve improved upon your favourite concept and you’re happy with it. Wahoo! What’s next?

Well, as much as we’d like to work with you for all your projects going forward, that’s your choice to make — not ours. We package up every design file and exported image for your use, often along with a full brand usage guide, so you’ll never misuse your logo (that’s a thing, believe us). Any designer in the world will have the tools to work with your logo files. It’s yours now, and you can use it as you like. That matters, too. Brand ownership is important. Cheaply made logos often end up using assets or designs that aren’t unique enough to protect you from legal action.

Having to deal with legal proceedings, even if it’s as cheap and simple as complying with a cease and desist, is not a good way to get started with your new brand. In carpentry you might hear the adage ‘measure twice, cut once’. Boiled down to its simplest form, it means ‘do things the right way’. Just like you wouldn’t hire an unlicensed electrician to wire your new house (I hope…), you shouldn’t be too quick to cut corners on design services. Consider the cost (and headache) of doing your design work twice, or even three times.

Remember that a designer is a human trying to make a living. Think about all the steps that go into producing a unique logo, and how much a logo is worth to your business, then ask yourself: is it really only worth $50?

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