Designing a Logo that Works

A good logo — beauty queen or hard working laborer? A really good logo is both. It looks good just standing there, attracting attention, showing off. It also labors tirelessly carrying your product and delivering your message. When you can balance the two you have a winning logo.


It's probably best to begin this discussion with a brief description of what I mean by a logo and what I expect it to do for a company. When I use the word logo here, I'm including all types of logos —

  • logo marks: images or graphic representations (think Shell);
  • logotypes: letters or words treated in a special way to make them unique (think Coca-Cola); or,
  • some combination of logomark and logotype (think McDonald's).

A logo identifies the company; it's a major part of the company's overall corporate identity. Some logos give a hint about what the company does or sells.

  • A logo should help build the image the company wants in the minds of its customers and prospects.
  • It must be able to deliver the message.
  • It should be recognizable and easy to remember.
  • It should work in all materials and all media.

Pretty or ugly is only part of the equation. I've seen beautiful logos that did nothing to enhance their companies' images, and I've seen so-so artwork that helped bring success. There's a balance between looking good and working hard that needs to be achieved. Neither is expendable.

Common errors in thinking

A logo can prove unworkable for a number of reasons. A common, and often costly, error is underestimating the importance of company identity right from the beginning.

I see this often when a company rushes the development of a logo without taking the time to evaluate whether or not it advances the image they wish to portray to clients and prospects. Later they may find that it does not enhance or build on their image as the company grows.

If they're attempting to build a brand and brand recognition, this is a fatal mistake. They end up faced with the unpleasant choice of either sticking with a non-optimum logo because they have a great deal invested in it, or abandoning the logo and any recognition they've been working to build.

An important first step in logo design

The first step in designing a logo is review and evaluation of the company, always with a view to at least 5 or 10 years into the future. This means introspection. It means having a plan for the future of the company. It means an honest evaluation of what is wanted, what is possible and what is probable.

  • What is the image the company needs to build in order for that plan to materialize?
  • Can that image be represented graphically?
  • Can a logo help to build that image? In what ways? Color, artwork, type style, size, boldness, flashiness, conservatism are all parts of reflecting the image desired.
  • Which will accomplish the goal best?
  • Which are trendy tricks that will fade leaving the company looking dated and stale?

Common design or technical errors

Another part of the evaluation that should occur before the design of a company logo is determining, as well as possible, the ways in which the logo will be used. Stationery? More than likely. But what about signs? Use on vehicles, in advertising, on specialty items like pens? How about on a Web site or on a billboard? The list goes on. Many of these have very different technical requirements that need to be considered before creating a logo that might not be adaptable.

Trust me when I write that it is possible to design a logo that is quite beautiful, enhances the company's image and yet, is completely unworkable in the real world. I have spent many hours recreating logos that could not be used where they were needed. The reasons for this are almost as varied as the logos themselves. But they break down into a few major categories and with careful thought and preparation can usually be avoided.

Not using a computer to create the art or using the wrong computer program.

In the world today, a logo simply must be available as electronic artwork. There's no getting around this. There would be tremendous costs and delays in attempting to use non-digitized artwork when working with printers, advertising media, designers, etc. But, not all computer programs are equal.

This may seem obvious or even condescending to write but not all computer programs are the same. They have different purposes and learning which computer programs perform different tasks best is a very important part of learning about computers and learning how to best create a logo.

I often see logos that have been created using an image editing program such as Adobe Photoshop. This is the wrong program to use. Adobe Photoshop is best used for continuous tone images like photographs that will be printed in full color or perhaps as shades of gray. It is not best for line art or drawings. For that, you need to use a program that will allow you to maintain the original artwork in a vector or outline format, so that it remains easily edited as individual elements.

Vector graphics can easily have different colors applied to them and can be created to print in one color or dozens of colors. Furthermore, vector graphics can be scaled without loss of resolution. Drawing programs such as Adobe Illustrator, Macromedia FreeHand or Corel Draw are appropriate choices and will help to avoid costly redraws later.

So start out the right way and use a drawing program. Then guard that file as a master. This gives you the ability to update the logo when needed and to create the exact format that individual print projects require as well as preparing the logo for use on the Web or in other media, in small sizes and large, in one color when economy is required and in 4-color when appropriate. You will save money in the long run by creating the logo properly the first time.

A valuable asset

A company's logo design, its corporate identity, is a valuable asset and should be approached that way. It should be fought for and protected from infringement and misuse. It should be updated and kept fresh through ongoing review and evaluation. It is an investment in the company and its value should be expected to last for years.

Using and protecting

What I am about to write may be more important than all of the above. Because pretty or ugly, easy to use or difficult, your logo must be applied consistently and protected in order to be a true asset to the company. Once a logo is designed and produced we find that they way the logo is used is what builds the brand. Consistency and continuity are the keywords here. The configuration, colors, type style, relative sizes of elements all stay the same. I know where the Coca-Cola is in a store way before I can read the words on the can. What if McDonald's painted the "golden arches" orange at some locations and brown at others? No. Recognition is built by presenting the same image repeatedly.

• Don't change the colors for a holiday sales promotion. If you are printing and cannot afford the colors established for your corporate identity, print in black.

• Don't rearrange the elements in the logo for different publications.

• Keep the logo separated from other elements so it remains distinct and easily recognized. A very good option is to make it part of a signature with address and contact information and keep that together as a single element away from other content.

• Don't use a logo as a headline, or embed the logo in body copy or put it inside another graphic element on the page.

• Don't combine it with other images or other logos.

• Do not alter your logo. This is for brand-building and also to protect the integrity and legal standing of your rights to that logo.

I know. What about Google?

Well, if your company has the recognition that Google has, then okay, go for it. But remember that the very action of creating holiday versions of their logo is part of their corporate image. And, they never lose sight of the original logo, each novelty logo is only used for a brief period, and every version is copyrighted. In general and for most of us, it is better to build the brand through consistent use.


Think twice, design once is the mantra. Look ahead at least 5 to 10 years and don't get too trendy. Prepare the image carefully in a flexible format. Consistency and continuity are your goals.