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Ask The Right Questions: Logo Design

A good logo has a lot of challenges to meet: it should fit into a tiny space, say something unique, and finish on schedule and under budget (despite there being no solid "finished" point). Logos are built from scratch, need to be incredibly flexible, and they have to please a lot of people who have strong (and often opposing) opinions. Looking at all these requirements, we begin to see why logo projects can go awry. Good ideas get scrapped, projects stretch on for months, and even when things go well, the design might just get thrown out a year later. How can we avoid these pitfalls?

The community abounds with good critiques, process studies, and examples, but I'm interested in the critical first step: before jumping into concepts, what do we need to know? How can a designer (or a project manager or salesperson) start the logo process and maximize chances for a great design and a happy client?

In answer, here are some questions I ask a client (or myself) when beginning logos. These questions can start pointing a design in the right direction without handcuffing the designer.

Note: Some of these "branding" questions, which are not to be confused with "logo design" questions...but often, the two get smushed together, so we need to be ready to handle both.

The Business

  1. What does the client do (and can they say it concisely)?
  2. What doesn't the client do, or do well (especially in respect to competitors)?
  3. What differentiates the client from their competitors?

You need a client to sell you on their product, but you also need to identify their shortcomings, which are key for seeing how to position a client. For example, finding out that your client has higher prices and more fragile products, but better warranties and customer service, might lead to different design decisions. Looking at what they don't do also focuses the brainstorming work later on.

Competitors

  1. Who is the client competing with?
  2. Who might they compete with in the future (if the client, or competitors, expand their offerings)?
  3. Who else is in the client's sphere (similar services, well-known names, customer favorites)?

These points are critical, not for copying competitors, but for making sure you're moving in a unique direction. Collect visuals that you can contrast with and compare to.

Projected Image

  1. How does the client want customers to perceive it?
  2. What does the client want to be famous for?
  3. What words should people associate with the client?
  4. Why should customers choose them?

Question 3 is often hard for clients to answer, but you might be able to prompt them with suggestions. For example, submit 30 appropriate words for the third question, and asking the client to circle the strongest. (Some of these questions inspired by the highly-recommended books Logo Savvy and Logos 01 Primer)

Customers

  1. Who are the client's ideal customers?
  2. What do customers watch, what do they read, where do they browse?
  3. How do they find out about the client?
  4. What do they want?
  5. What customers doesn't the client want?

Move into the mindset of a customer and understand how to communicate with them. However, don't let these questions lead to "targeting" your design at a certain group, which tends to make bland design. These questions just give us some notes on a customer's visual language, what they're used to, and what value they might look for.

The Mark

  1. Does the client need a logo 'mark'?
  2. Will the client's brand likely change in the near future?
  3. How often will the logo be seen without context?
  4. How much does the name alone contribute to the brand?

Sometimes, clients just need a nice type treatment. At Viget, we work a lot with start-ups, and we've learned that new web companies mainly use logos in the upper-left of their sites, and do away with them when the brand shifts or the company is bought. In these cases, a fully-designed mark might be a waste of time (see Luke W's "Why Logos Are Irrelevant"). Businesses known mainly by their URL don't depend on strong marks for recognition (Google, Flickr), and businesses with descriptive names can do well with just type treatments (Whole Foods, Bed Bath & Beyond). A mark is definitely more useful when the logo appears without context (like on a t-shirt), or the business has an undescriptive name (like Brother).

Specifics & Use

  • Where will the logo be used?
  • What restrictions (size, color, readability, modifications) should it be designed for?
  • What future uses seem likely for the logo?

It's tempting to go all-out on logos, designing with every trick you have, but know the logo's final destination before you start. If a logo needs to be branded onto a surface or sewn on clothing tags, you'll need to work within constraints by designing simpler (or planning for multiple versions).

Inspiration

  1. Is there a unique story behind the business, or business name?
  2. Are there any inspiring visuals associated with the product/idea/location?
  3. How could the design play with the name?
  4. Are there any colors or visuals that the client particularly loves/hates?

All this process can lead to a ridiculously rigid logo if we're not careful, so open it up and see if you can get the client to free-associate. Sometimes the best logos require customers to look a little deeper to understand, which creates that "a-ha!" moment they'll respond to on future viewings. Using visuals from the product experience can have a similar effect, triggering memories of the experience with past customers.

Great logos often play off the business concept without simply drawing a picture of it, so think about solutions that work with and without the name, and that might even work with the name to create a greater effect. (Some fun examples from Logopond)

No one likes to be restrained by a client's pre-conceived preferences (Question 4), but sometimes it's unavoidable. If a client mentions that they hate a particular green, you'll save everyone's energy by avoiding that color.

Process

  1. How should the comps be presented?
  2. How comfortable is the client with seeing early ideas?
  3. How comfortable are you with showing early ideas?
  4. How can another design process continue before a logo is finalized?

On smaller logo projects, keep a brisk pace during the process and try to involve the client more with the design. If you think a client's comfortable with sketches, text descriptions, or rough Illustrator comps, run the idea by them and see what they think. Showing more ideas sooner can cut back on the time required to finalize three super-sharp ideas, but only do it if you feel the client understands the value of this process.

Wrapping Up

This list might be too long to ask in every case, but it's been helpful for me to review these questions before speaking with a client on the topic. Any initial questions should open possibilities and direct your efforts, not restrict you to making exactly what a client dictates. Logos should surprise and explore, so find ways to draw inspiration and ideas from the kick-off, instead of just guidelines.

So, what do you think? Are there any great questions you've used to kick off a logo/branding process, or any questions that you think are potential pitfall? Let me know in the comments.


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