Deadly Sin of Logo Design #2: Lack of Mass

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Mass gives an identity visibility at a distance or in small sizes. The shapes that make up the identity should not be lightweight or thin. An identity with insubstantial and flimsy parts is ineffectual and feeble.

Some diehards will suggest that contemporary identities can break older rules in the name of being modern. Now I ask: aren’t websites modern? The bottom-right corner of the illustration here shows lines that are supposed to be black but are so thin that none of the pixels of the logo are a genuine black, nor even close to it. This is a problem I call “Pixel Mush.” Thin elements and lines do not display clean shapes when viewed through a grid of pixels. Far from liberating lazy designers from old constraints, the Web adds new constraints of its own.

I propose a small experiment. For this, you will have to practice using what I call a “cold eye,” which means to look at things as if you had never seen them before. Ask yourself, “If I did not already know what these images are, could I tell now?” That’s using a cold eye.

Now look up a page in this book of logos by one of the great masters of design, Paul Rand or Saul Bass (Chapter 12). Or if those two are too historical for you, look up the logos of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, who are still alive and producing identities for major companies all around the globe. Stand back several feet. See how far you can go before being unable to discern the individual designs of the great logo designers. Then look at the logos below, at the same distance, and with a cold eye. Can you see the problem now? By comparison, they are barely discernible.

All of these suffer from lack of mass. The problem is compounded if mid- or light-mid value colors are used. The logo in the bottom-right corner has difficulty on the web because the lines are so thin they have to be made up of pixels that are not fully black, even though the line is supposed to be black. That’s what I call “Pixel Mush.”

One large and famous New York design studio has dozens of high-profile identity designs to its credit. Here is a black-and-white poster from the studio’s own website that displays 458 logos (the full poster is displayed in my book; only a portion is shown below). Many of them are good, serviceable identities. But notice how some are recessive and hard to discern because of lack of mass. This is particularly true of some of the typographic identities. If they don’t have a certain minimum amount of mass, they are hard to see. They’re wimpy.

Some of the less distinct designs employ a gray instead of black or use gray with the black, having two different values—in other words, not solid black (Deadly Sin of Logo Design #1).

I rest my case.

Please note that I did not alter this image. It is taken directly from the studio’s own website, pixel-for-pixel, yet it demonstrates how breaking either of these two Deadly Sins is, indeed, fatal to producing a legible identity – even if you are a famous designer.

Shown here are identities created by a famous design studio in New York. This image is pixel-for-pixel as it appeared on their own website. Note that many identities have no mass and consequently are hard or impossible to discern, while others that occupy the same space are very easy to make out..

Some may observe that what images on the web at a nominal 72 pixels per inch will not convert well to print, where 300 pixels per inch is the standard. True. Others may claim that the logos shown on the previous page are so small that it is unreasonable to expect them to be legible. But some of those logos do very well in spite of their small size while others are indistinct.

Even so, to allay any fears that I have cited a sample that doesn’t properly apply, I also found on the same company’s website many of the same logos and reproduced much larger. I show them here at 300 pixels per inch. The principle still holds true: identities without mass do not project themselves as well as those with mass. Some don’t show up for other reasons, such as failing to work in black only. And some have visual difficulties for reasons that will be covered in upcoming Deadly Sins.
This principle of needing mass also applies to the typographic elements of an identity, but we will come back to those issues later.

Lack of mass will make an identity hard to see at a small size or at a distance while those with good mass are more legible.
Even with the same studio’s logos shown bigger (as they appear on the website), those that are without mass, or that need multiple values (Deadly Sin #1), suffer from decreased legibility.

Two Deadly Sins down. Five to go.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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