Deadly Sin of Logo Design #1: Can’t Work In Solid Black

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Every identity ought to be able to work in one single flat color, like black. Even if black isn’t the official “corporate” color, if the design doesn’t work in black, it doesn’t work.

Too many think this has no relevance today. They think that, in this day of computer graphics and the Web 2.0 look, such notions are archaic and passé. But lest I come across as a grumpy design curmudgeon with backward or retro ideas, look at the innovators of that very Web 2.0 look. What company has led the way in industrial design and digital utility more than any other? What company epitomizes contemporary design and refinement in everything from advertising to packaging to product design?


Some might ask, “Doesn’t Apple have a logo that employs that cool transparent glass or jelly look?” Yes, but it is based on their solid black design. In fact, the company still uses the solid shape—not the Web 2.0 version—on all its products. Go to the Apple website. Do you see the transparent jelly version of the Apple logo anywhere? No. In fact, how big is their logo? Only 21 pixels high! Try doing that with a logo whose only version has a color jelly or transparent look.

Pixel for pixel, this is the logo in the navigation masthead from the Apple website enlarged. On many pages, this is the only logo Apple uses, only 21 pixels high!

The issue isn’t that the glass look is wrong. It’s just that the transparent or dimensional look is not where you start. You start with a solid design, and add the whistles and bells afterward. You don’t design something that is all whistles and bells but has no substance. And that won’t change, even when we’re at Web 100.0.

Once you have a solid, well-designed identity, you can always embellish it. Each of these logos is based on a solid shape. There’s no problem embellishing a solid shape. But the reverse is not always true: if you start with the multicolored, 3D, or transparent version,
you may find nothing substantial under all the visual adornment.

You can always embellish a solid design. But when you start with an embellishment, there may not be a solid design underneath it.

Regrettably, too many identities are designed this way, and not just for companies that couldn’t afford the best design. In fact, some huge companies have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebrand themselves with identities that are weaker than the brands they replaced. As if that were not bad enough, they then spent more hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes even millions implementing that new weaker brand on their vehicles, signage, stationery, and their products themselves.

Ignorance about this principle is rampant in the graphic design industry today.

Photographs and illustrations do not make for good logos or identities. There are too many subtleties that just don’t translate into different media and at the sizes where a properly designed logo should be able to survive. Photographs can’t be reproduced faithfully in cut vinyl for vehicles and signage. One might counter that we now can reproduce photos in vinyl. True, but at an increased cost, and they don’t last as long as cut vinyl. For companies with large vehicle fleets, this translates into significantly more expense over time. But even more common processes, like photocopying, will compromise the clarity of a photo or illustration masquerading as a logo.

Here we see some recent multi-color illustrations masquerading as logos. After taking away all the color, most of them are wimpy at best. When you render them in black only, as in a photocopy, they are almost unrecognizable. Sadly, most of these were featured in design annuals as good examples of logo design. They are not.

Some designers think gradients are acceptable for identity design, reasoning that halftones will reproduce them well. That may be true for magazines and brochures, where the printing quality is relatively high, but what of the smaller printing presses used for most companies’ stationery reproduction? Beyond that, newspapers and the Yellow Pages do poorly with halftones. Because of their poorer paper quality, a coarser dot-per-inch halftone is often used where gradients can end up looking blotchy.

Gradients may disguise the inherent weaknesses of certain designs. How many of these have the internal contrast to provide excellent legibility? Rendered in solid black, they fail altogether.

Color is a beautiful thing, but even when using flat colors in identity design, multiple colors can mask the lack of a fully developed core design. Too many colors can be a crutch. Ask yourself, “Can the design walk without the crutch of color?” The very word “design” implies finished forms, not half-baked shapes that must have color to work.

In many of our modern media, such as magazine ads, internet, TV and packaging, full color is the norm, with no extra cost for a multi-color identity. But this does not mean a logo will always have full color. But in many other formats—including stationery, everyday business forms, signs and vehicle identification—needing to show a multi-color identity will significantly increase costs by 150 per cent, 300 per cent or even 400 per cent. Persuading clients to buy into those extra costs, without having warned them beforehand, is extremely unprofessional. It is amazing how often this happens. Clients may not think of the reproduction difficulties that a particular logo design can present. That is not their job. But it is the designer’s job to think ahead and to be professional enough to at least give clients a choice.

Very few multicolored designs are so wonderful that an alternative design that works as well in black only would not have been preferable.

Every identity design ought to be able to work in a single flat color.

Losing the crutch of color, can these logos walk on their own? Some limp along; some fall flat. Unwary designers might look at these and say, “Wow! That’s never been done before.” They should stop and ask why. Maybe it’s because it was a bad idea and previous designers understood the basic principles of identity design and stayed away from such ideas.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How branding Design Really Works

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on tumblr
Share on stumbleupon

Leave a Reply