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What makes an effective logo? Whether you’re a new designer or planning to “DIY” your own logo design, it’s important to understand the aspects of the process that separate the amateurs from the pros.
We can talk about what makes a “good” logo, but I think that discussion is too subjective. For example, some will say that a good logo is simple. But what about all the wonderful examples of complex illustrative-style logos? Aren’t those good too?
I think a better way to think about it is:
An effective logo is one that’s both functional and appropriate for the brand
I’m going to touch briefly on brand appropriateness and then dive into what goes into creating a functional logo.
By the end of this post, my hope is that you’ll have an understanding of what makes an effective, professional-quality logo, and if you’re a designer, walk away with helpful tips for how to properly create, format, present, and hand off logos to your clients.
Say you’re a hair salon owner and you serve a sophisticated clientele in an upscale market. You offer VIP service — you take your guests’ coats at the door, offer them complimentary espresso, escort them to a serene and well-decorated waiting room, and carry only the best products. Your stylists are on the cutting-edge of fashion and frequently receive industry awards and accolades.
But the thing about you is that you love the 1980s and especially anything to do with metal rock bands. So you hire a designer to create something that reflects your personal taste and it ends up looking like the cover of a Metalica album.
It isn’t that the design is necessarily “bad,” (hey, it works for Metallica!), it’s that it’s not appropriate. Brands have personalities and your logo should reflect yours. It should be in alignment with the way you want your customers to feel about you.
Yes, you should like (even LOVE) looking at your own logo, but think beyond your own personal taste and make room for your clients. Your logo is merely a symbol that represents that feeling you want them to have when they think of you.
Creating A Functional Logo
What we’re mostly talking about here is versatility.
The first thing a professional logo designer will do before ever sitting down to the drawing board is to consider all the various places the logo will be used.
Maybe you’re just thinking about how it’s going to look on your website right now, but eventually, you’ll need it for other things…
— Business card & stationery
— Watermark for social media graphics
— Profile photo on social media
— An embroidered shirt or hat
— A canvas tote bag
— Pens and other advertising specialty products
— Exterior and interior signage
One single logo may not work for every occasion. For example, the space in your website header (think viewing it on your mobile phone) is horizontal and quite small, but a bus stop advertisement is vertical and large.
It might be helpful to look at an example of a logo that’s not versatile.
Here’s a logo I designed for a very specific context. My client owns an apartment in Manhattan that’s affectionately referred to as “The Duplex.” They wanted a logo to use for entertainment purposes–on napkins, barware, guest towels, etc.
I knew that they were never going to make a mobile website, but if they were planning to, this logo has so much detail that when it shrinks down, it would be virtually impossible to see.
If this client was planning to launch a business using this logo, I would want to create variations that would work in smaller horizontal spaces.
Take it for a test drive If you’re not sure whether your logo will work in different contexts, it can be helpful to use mockups to visualize how they’ll work in practice. The above examples were made using an online mockup generator called Mediamodifier.com. You can find lots of free and premium mockups for Photoshop by doing a quick google search (e.g. “t-shirt logo mockup”).
A word of caution about mockups I recently had a designer tell me that she uses mockups to present her work to clients because it “sells the design.”
Well, of course it does, they look super cool!
But here’s the problem… mockups tend to hide all the ugly little secrets about a logo that isn’t going to look all that great outside of the context of the mockup.
Presenting mockups is common practice and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do it too. But there’s a reason why OG logo designers will only present initial logo concepts in one color (black only): in it’s most stripped-down form, the design must stand on its own merit.
If you’re a designer, just make sure the mark is successful without the mockup or your client might find themselves disappointed when they receive their final artwork and start using it.
It’s good practice to present your client with a one color version (so it can be judged independently of color), in full color (because everybody loves color), mocked up (go ahead now and “sell it”), and then provide an explanation for everything they’re looking at.
In this example, I killed two birds with one stone and mocked up a one-color version of the logo.
If you’re a design client, and the only thing you’re presented with is your logo mocked up on a shiny wall, ask to see the original artwork. Trust me. This thing will make any old piece of crap look legit.
What size(s) and formats do you need?
This question came up in one of my professional logo design groups recently and I was a bit shocked that there was so much confusion about this.
A logo should always be created in vector format using vector software such as Adobe Illustrator. Vector graphics are scalable, meaning the resolution is exactly the same whether you’re using your logo on a pen or a billboard.
When you’re working with vector artwork, the size of the artboard doesn’t really matter. You can open a vector file, size the logo as needed, and export to any format you need–including raster images.
Graphics used on the web are generally raster format and include .gif, .jpg and .png files. One exception is the .svg format (“scalable vector graphics”) which is an XML-based vector image that supports animation.
But .png format works well for most web-use cases. For print, your original vector artwork will work best and have the clearest, crispest resolution.
What matters more than the size of the art or artboard is that it’s readable and appropriate for the different use contexts. I can’t tell you how many websites I’ve seen where I squint as hard as I can and zoom as far as the browser will let me and I have NO CLUE what the logo says, it’s just a blur of letters (I assume).
Want to know how strong your logo is? Try to break it! When I’m working on a logo, I’ll strip it down to one color, reverse it, zoom out and make it super tiny and squint at it to see when it loses legibility… is it going to work on a tiny phone? Is it going to work on a t-shirt?
It’s much better to put your design through rigorous tests before you ship it off to the client and find out it doesn’t work so well for them in practice.
Personally, I always start by making sure the logo works inside of a square. Then I create any variations needed (a horizontal version, a sub mark, icon, etc.).
It should NOT be created in Photoshop. Nope, never. Not if you want it to be scalable (which is a huge aspect of being functional). A professional logo designer most commonly works in Adobe Illustrator, sometimes other vector software alternatives like Inkscape.
Photoshop creates a different, pixel-based graphic that loses quality when it’s sized-up. So in the pen-billboard example, you would want to design for the billboard and then “size down” for the pen… and who wants to design something that’ll fit on a billboard?
There’s one exception to the “no Photoshop” rule and that is if you plan to “vectorize it” when you’re done.
I know a designer who preferred working in Photoshop to get her ideas down quickly, but once she was happy with the design, she would either re-create it in Illustrator or have someone “vectorize” it for her. (Not an efficient way to go about things, and she eventually beefed up her Illustrator skills so she didn’t waste so much time in her process).
If you’re a designer or a VA and you plan to sell professional logo design, and if you’re not comfortable with vector, it behooves you to learn.
The files you’ll need
When I shared what I provide my clients with my graphic design group, they still had specific questions about size. I suppose everyone does this a bit differently but here’s what I do:
I start with a 1000px by 1000px artboard in Illustrator set to CMYK color mode to create the vector files with guidelines for cropping.
- First, I save it to .pdf, .eps, .ai (vector formats) [logo-cmyk.ai, logo-cmyk.eps, logo-cmyk.pdf]
- Next, I set the document color profile to RGB and convert the artwork to RGB and save again [logo-rgb.ai et al]
- Then I’ll make the artboard fit closer to the artwork and export to .jpg and transparent .png for web
- Finally, I’ll go back to one of the vector files and create a one-color version (black only) and save all formats [logo-one-color.ai et al]
The web images will be too big for most uses, but they can be “sized down” so there’s no worrying about resolution. With raster graphics, it’s better to play it on the safe side and make them too big–if they’re too small and need to be “sized up” they can look pixelated and funky and that’s not what we want.
Here’s a peek inside a logo handoff folder I send to clients…
The number of files I send to my logo design clients depends on the number of variations. In this example, there are two — a horizontal version and a square version. The idea is to provide my client with a .zip file that includes anything a printer or even another designer might need.
Information to include in addition to the actual logo files
Notice, too, that I include a “color and font information” .pdf in the logo handoff folder. When the budget doesn’t allow for a full branding style guide, I like to at least include a little 1-page information sheet that tells them what colors and fonts are used. This was done for a bootstrapping non-profit…
If the budget allows for a bit more, I’ll include a brand board. These are mostly just for fun and to show off the logo and provide inspiration, but they don’t provide a ton of branding information.
The ideal scenario is to hand off the logo with a more comprehensive branding style guide book that includes more in-depth information:
⸺How the logo should be used (and how it should not)
⸺What types of images to use (and what to avoid),
⸺Band voice/tone/personality information
⸺Typography and how to use brand fonts, acceptable alternatives, etc.
⸺Patterns & Textures
Here’s a sneak peak inside one I recently did. Notice that I’m showing examples of how the color palette works.
Color, too, must be functional. Do the colors work together when you put them on top of one another? Is there a color that can be used for calls to action that’s in contrast to the other colors in the palette? Are there enough colors available to create more complicated charts and graphs?
Any fonts used in your logo design should be converted to outline (or vector art)
Any fonts used in your logo design should be converted to a vector artwork (which means it’s no longer editable as type). From time to time I am sent a logo file from a client who had their logo designed elsewhere and the fonts haven’t been converted.
BAD, bad, bad bad bad.
The problem is, anyone who doesn’t have that file installed on their computer will see a default system font instead, and that means the design will be completely different than intended.
Especially if the font needs to be purchased. Please, please, please don’t ever hand off a logo file without first converting the text to outlines.🤦🏼♀️
Any fonts used in your logo design must have a commercial-use license
This is a big one. I’m not an attorney and the following is not intended as legal advice. But what I know is that you’ll want to make sure that if you’re using fonts in your logo, that you’re legally permitted to do so. You can tell by checking the font’s EULA (end user license agreement).
There are a lot of fonts out there — especially the ones you find on “free font” websites — that DO NOT allow you to use them for commercial purposes. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s free to use for whatever you want.
A lot of times, in fact, font designers will release a “for personal use only” version of fonts on these free marketplaces to gain exposure and awareness, but provide instructions for purchasing it for commercial projects. (Your logo is definitely a commercial project.)
If a designer uses a font to design your logo, do you need to purchase it too?
Not necessarily. First, let’s talk about what a font is. A font is software (you install it on your computer, right?).
Now, imagine you are working with a designer who creates an eBook for you in InDesign and exports it to a .pdf for you to send to your customers. Do you need to purchase InDesign? Of course not.
If your designer has converted the font properly to outlines (vector artwork), he or she is not sending you the actual font (software). In other words, you won’t need to install anything on your computer to read and use that file properly.
Your designer, however, will need a commercial license for any font he or she uses to create and sell you a logo. Make sense?
But, if you want to use that font in some other way — maybe as an accent font on other design projects you’re working on yourself, then yes, you’ll need your own license for that font.
If you have any questions about the legal use of a font, refer to the EULA or contact the font designer directly to ask.
You might be wondering about what “CMYK and “RGB” are so let’s talk about it.
There are three basic ways to use color for your logo:
1) Spot color: this is a specific ink such as a Pantone color
2) CMYK: this is a mix of cyan, magenta, yellow and black to create the desired colors
3) RGB: a mix of red, green and blue to create colors
For printing purposes, you’ll need to use either spot colors or CMYK. CMYK is most commonly used for short-run, affordable, digital print jobs and it’s what’s used if you have a color printer in your office.
The color on your monitor is going to look very different when it’s printed
Orange is a great example of color you’ll probably want to use a spot color for. A CMYK version of a vibrant orange color will turn out looking dirty or brownish in hue. Unless my client has the budget for that, or unless they’re planning to ONLY use their logo for digital/web purposes, I’ll caution them about potential problems with variances in color when printed as CMYK.
When you’re looking at color on the web, which is how it’s mostly done these days, you’re looking at them in RGB mode. There’s a big difference between RGB and CMYK too.
Here’s an example. I recently did a quicky little logo project for a friend of mine and they provided me with their brand color.
Vibrant, right? I said to my friend, “You know this is an RGB color, right?” and he said, “We’ll never use it in print, we know.” In that case, I said 👌🏼:)
But watch what would happen if they printed it using CMYK…
Totally different vibe, right? In this instance, if they DID intend to use this logo for both print and web, we’d need to find a spot color that would allow us to maintain consistency between print and web.
Rule of thumb: design your logo in CYMK and then convert to RGB. This is the way to play it safe when you’re not using spot color.
A final caution about color: Color is going to vary from monitor to monitor and printer to printer. The only way to improve accuracy is to use a spot color where you’re using specific ink (e.g. Pantone) and choosing it from a swatchbook.
The design should work in one color
One of the most important aspects of a functional logo is whether or not it will work in one color. This is what separates the amateurs from the pros, and I can always tell when a logo is going to cause its new owner big problems.
When will you ever need a one-color logo?
— When full-color printing methods are cost prohibitive
— Stuff. Stuff just comes up
Here’s an example of a mark I designed for a restaurant in San Francisco. I knew they’d be using embroidery for their staff uniforms, so mocked it up to make sure it would work in one color and without losing detail.
When presenting in one color, I sometimes use color as a background to add a bit of fun and show it in reverse (white on top of a black or colored background).
If you want to trademark it, the design must be distinctive
Again, not an attorney, but I’ll link you to someone who can explain this better.
In short, you can’t trademark a generic or universal symbol or concept.
Say you’re opening a yoga studio… you can’t “own” the concept of using a lotus flower in your logo and prohibit all other yoga studios from using that idea. You can’t exactly claim dibs on generic logo concepts like hearts, stars, trees, roofs, globes, teeth, flowers, light bulbs, gears, “V-men” etc.
“In order to receive approval from the USPTO, you must design a logo that possesses a distinctive character. In other words, there must be something unique about your logo that sets it apart from all the other stars, pine trees, light bulbs, etc. that exist as registered trademarks.
Some companies, such as Macy’s, add their word mark to a generic symbol. Others incorporate design twists that make generic symbols distinctive. Examples include the bite missing from the Apple logo. If you want to use a common symbol for your logo, then it must possess similarly distinctive characteristics.”
If obtaining a trademark is important, it’s a good idea to pursue a custom, original, distinctive design and consult a trademark attorney as well.
When I create logo designs for clients, I create them from my own imagination and sketches. It’s not entirely impossible that something my imagination comes up with will have been done before (there’s nothing new under the sun!), but it’s unlikely that there won’t be a distinctive difference.
Besides, a distinctive and unique logo is a great way for your brand to stand out as something unique, different, and original.
If you’d like to work with me to create yours, shoot me an email!
A functional logo is one that:
— Is created in vector format
— Is scalable
— Has variations as needed for different use contexts
— Works in one color
— Uses functional colors
— Uses legal fonts
— Fonts are converted to vector artwork
— Ideally, has a distinctive quality that allows it to be trademarked
Was this helpful? If you have any questions, hit me up in comments!
Taughnee Stone is an award-winning designer, brand strategist, and location-independent business owner for over 15 years. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, she now lives in Croatia with her husband, energetic Samoyed, and three bossy cats.