Identity and Logos

The designer’s view of the client’s identity

Note: This is an adaptation of a video tutorial made for

Bruno MunariBruno Munari’s facial studies

Graphic designers give shape to ideas. Surprise, originality, and visual style are easy to see. But the graphic designer’s contribution can be hard to perceive because a really good job of giving form to ideas renders the delivery relatively invisible. In fact, the better a designer transmits the message with power and clarity, the less visible the designer’s effort appears to the casual viewer.

A successful identity grows organically out of the unique aspects of THIS client in THIS business with THESE people. The designer carries the intellectual and cultural responsibility of giving visible form to thoughts and ideas. When design translation succeeds, it is certainly able to be considered art for our time.

An appropriate design idea reveals the essence of a business with maximum character and, often, with more than a single layer of meaning. Inappropriate ideas occur because the designer can’t help but take a stab at executing a neat new technique, or outdoing a colleague, or by falling in love with an early superficial idea and not exploring the real problem more deeply. Clients are right to expect true originality and to ask for it if they don’t see it.

Don’t give clients a collection of visual clichés that appear to be a choice. This is not responsible professional practice, because it is based on what you like, not solutions to your client’s specific problem. Such work is totally surface. Pretense. Decorating. This is not true advice, which actually should cost your clients an arm and a leg. It is opinion and taste, which certainly has its place, but not as the dominant attribute of your client’s new logo.

Smetana Logos

What makes an identity successful? Character, consistently used. Identifying the character you want to convey – character that is borne out by every one of their branding messages – is the role of the Job Brief and the subsequent design strategy, concepts, and executions.

Giving a message lots of glossy makeup without understanding the inner message is no more effective than the humorous television commercials we remember without being able to recall the sponsor!

Me-too thinking and clichés

Popular Logos

Marks are particularly susceptible to movements and changing fashions. Designers rarely recognize that at the moment of creation, but it becomes clear in hindsight. As your client’s visual problem solver, defining their business in a trendy set of clothes is not very helpful: to the degree those clothes are immediately in fashion and of-the-moment, they will become out of fashion and passé in short order. Timelessness and appropriateness survive trends. There are various sites on the internet that track and comment on developing logo trends: visit them and choose to what degree you want your work to reflect these trends.

NBC Logos

Try to design something new, not simply new to you. Clients and marketing departments love the comfortably familiar, so take their responses and rework your ideas while maintaining originality. It is very embarrassing to design a logo that, unbeknownst to you, already exists: NBC worked with a prominent New York design firm in 1975 to develop a new logo for its network. Six hundred thousand mid-70s dollars were spent. One design was chosen and implemented (bottom, left). Only then it was discovered that the station manager at Nebraska Educational Television, a PBS affiliate, had designed and been using that exact lettermark  (bottom, right) for his modest small-market television station. It took $ 855,000 in donated equipment and cash to settle their lawsuit.

What is identity?

Identity is more than a logo:

  • Identity is the company’s essence
  • Identity is a company’s “public dress”
  • Identity is a company’s consistent product or service
  • Identity is the most significant visual element of a brand

  • A logo is a mark.
  • A good logo has two jobs: Appropriateness Representing the company in tone and character by distilling abstract thoughts into representational style; and Recognition Providing the primary visual styling that informs all subsequent design treatments.
  • A good logo must be good on its own design merits. It has inherent aesthetic quality, which is a balance between artistry, inventiveness, and elegance.
  • A good logo must satisfy the client’s brand positioning by meeting clearly stated business objectives.
  • A good logo is a valuable investment and demands strict visual compliance.

How to assemble a successful identity

  • You need a unique, visible, noticeable design.
  • You need consistent discipline. This may become boring to the company long before it does to the audience.
  • Identity is a business suit,  a “public dress” which helps create an experience of a company. It is the physical manifestation or representation of the company’s idea. The experience of a company as perceived by its customers is its brand.
  • Define and develop a unique standing. Who is in your client’s business community? What makes your client a viable business entity? Show that in their business dress, either abstractly or very specifically, depending on the global scale of the business.
  • Local businesses may need a more literal, specific mark that show their product or service. Global businesses may be better served by a more abstract mark.
  • Charismatic BrandsThe ultimate standing is known as a “charismatic brand.” Charisma means “a compelling charm that inspires devotion in others; charming, fascinating, strong in character; magnetic, captivating, beguiling, attractive, appealing, alluring, and winning.” A charismatic brand draws fans, not just customers. A charismatic brand, then, is the best kind of brand to be: it is a product, service, or organization for which customers believe there is no substitute.
  • Neutral design is forgettable. To stand out you need distinctive design. But beware: memorable and quirky design must promote the client’s true character.
  • Your client has two audiences: the business community at large and its direct competitors. Define your client within the broad business community while also differentiating your client from direct competitors.
Similar Marks

  • Research your client’s competitors’ marks to avoid accidental similarity. What shapes, colors, and letterforms do they use? Know your client’s business and how they will use the mark.
  • Don’t rely on the client for sourcing all your information. Rely on them for some, a third, but discover much of it yourself to avoid a self-created rut. Show a collection of competitors’ marks for context prior to presenting your studies. Your work will stand out even better.
  • Being visible is to design against current trends. To be hip is to follow the crowd.

How to plan an identity

  • Design is much harder than merely giving clients what they ask for. It takes vision and understanding to turn an obvious set of criteria such as good clients provide, into a fresh, memorable, “creative” expression of the underlying problem.
  • Human LogoDesign isn’t a widget or a product bought from catalogs. It is a vocabulary that is a parallel visual language with as many subtleties and shadings and nuanced meanings as verbal language. Unfortunately, design is all custom-crafted, because it has no dictionary or thesaurus. Designers must understand that and provide educated and experienced reasoning and explanation for what we do.
  • Design takes vision from the client and clear vision from designers to achieve branding excellence. It demands courage. Most clients start out wanting fresh, innovative, and noticeable design, but then dilute it during multiple meetings, until the result is ordinary, expected, and frustratingly familiar. The client thinks “If I’d hired a good designer, I’d have gotten better work.” The designer thinks “If only they had left well enough alone, they’d have avoided mediocrity.”
Maple Leafs

  • Design is not an isolated process. Know both the direct and the general competition and how they are presented. Notice the direction the traffic is going so you can stand out.
  • Design can’t be merely stabbing in the dark. The client knows more about their business than you do. Research it and understand it as well as you can. Without this spadework, you are unlikely to avoid frustration and wasted time and effort.
  • Design opinion and taste has its place, but cannot be the dominant attribute of your client’s new logo. What you like is usually not the solution to your client’s specific problem.

How to manage the perception of identity

  • Construct a visible, unique experience (brand) as a vital marketing strategy.
  • Create the brand’s empathy and attachment to a company so it stands for something.
  • Take the risk of standing out visually — encourage daring business decisions and design challenges.
  • Avoid surface decoration to make things look nice. Instead, solve the design seriously.
  • Give the end customer a consistent experience with every interaction of your client’s “look.”

© Copyright Alex W. White