The Seven Deadly SIns of Logo Design: Blowout

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Use of Branding
For most readers of this book, the word branding conjures up images of logos, ads and labels. But the practice of agricultural branding of cattle is millennia old. It didn’t start with cowboys in the Wild West; it dates all the way back to ancient Egypt. Not only was its purpose the same as it is today—to identify whose cow was whose—but the nature of those brands was similar to modern cattle brands. They were fairly simple, and they had to be easily recognized.

The purpose of a cow brand is similar to a corporate identity or brand in modern marketing: to identify the owner.

Imagine a dude who has gone out West to be a cowboy. He designs a new brand for his cows that’s unlike any of the others being used—“just to be different.” The oldtimers tell him the brand won’t work, but he doesn’t listen. The young dude answers, “You’re just jealous because my brand is distinctive, innovative, ahead of its time. Well, isn’t that the whole purpose of a brand, to be unique?”

So this dude proceeds to brand all his cows with his new “innovative” brand design. But the shapes are so fine that the nearby hairs cover the brand. And when it rains, and the cow gets wet, it can’t be seen at all.

Yes, it is new and different, but it isn’t a very good brand design, is it?

What good is a cow brand that can’t be distinguished from a few feet away, if the design is obscured by nearby hair or
when the cow is wet? Photo courtesy of Searle Ranch.

Now imagine you are buying a used car and the salesman says something like this: “Just don’t drive it in the rain. Don’t take more than two people in it at a time. Oh, and the brakes don’t work in cold weather. Aside from that, it’s a great car!”

You would probably shop elsewhere.

Lazy Design
The idea that the lack of a little care can lead to big disaster isn’t new. The centuries-old proverb “For the Want of a Nail” is a perfect example of a little neglect having big consequences.

If the proverbial nail was missing due to abject poverty, it would be unfortunate. If it was just wear and tear, we could chalk it up to fate. But if the missing nail was an act of carelessness, then it is truly tragic.

Too many designers don’t know the serious errors that can be made in identity design. But even worse, some don’t care. They don’t care that the client won’t get full utility out of the identity they’ve designed. For them, the pursuit of “cool” trumps the creation of an effective identity.

That’s lazy design.

Design isn’t brilliant because it’s different; it’s brilliant if it works beautifully in all situations.

Sadly, our design publications are filled with identities that are touted as being new and different but will utterly fail at their fundamental purpose—being seen and recognized or being reproduced in a variety of situations. No wonder so many designers today have no clue what good identity design is.

One of our original premises in this book is that a professional always acts in the client’s best interests. Therefore, a designer’s first responsibility is to create an identity design that will meet all the requirements necessary: to be clear, recognizable, and reproducible and consistent on all of the client’s desired presentations—signage, vehicles, business forms, ads or websites.

Imagine a designer meeting with a client to present an identity and, after unveiling the design, says, “This is a cool design, but people will have a hard time seeing it on your vehicles. And you’ll need to make it at least an inch-and-a-half tall on your website for good clarity. Oh, and by the way, it won’t photocopy or fax well at all. And forget about it looking good in a newspaper.”

Sound far-fetched?

Sad to say, thousands of clients have paid so-called professional designers for work that has just those kinds of limitations. The worst part is that neither the clients (understandably) nor the designers (shamefully) had enough foresight to predict this.

Let’s take this in a different direction. How many holes can your car’s gas tank have before it’s a threat? (And we’re not talking about the input line or the fuel line to the engine, either.) How many holes can a balloon have before it pops? How many holes can a tire have before it has a blowout?

Photo courtesy

The correct answer in all three cases is “just one.” It takes only one hole in each situation to pose a serious problem.

Too many who claim the title of designer have no clue what their “lack of a nail” will cause. A poorly designed identity could double or triple certain reproduction costs. It could simply not work on signage or when the identity has to be used small. It could reflect poorly on the client because of sloppy rendering. It could just be insipid and weak.

Seven Deadly Sins
It may strike some as overly melodramatic to use the term “Seven Deadly Sins” to describe shortcomings in logo design. Perhaps so. However, our look at the history of several corporate identities shows us that companies will and do get rid of identities that don’t serve well. Sometimes it’s due to corporate takeovers or other changes in corporate structure, but more often these companies simply realize that the current identity just “doesn’t work” in one or more situations. Given the massive expenditure that revising a corporate identity represents, smart companies obviously want a corporate identity that always “works.” Trial and error does eventually yield better results, but it’s a terribly lengthy and expensive process.

Wouldn’t it be easier to look at other people’s mistakes and simply avoid those same mistakes?

Some might feel that such restrictions stifle their creativity, but if the goal is to get somewhere, why not take the route with the fewest pitfalls and dead ends?

I propose that there are indeed seven errors in identity design that are like that fatal hole in the balloon or the tire. If any identity doesn’t work in the way it should, it’s busted.

It’s broken.

It’s a blowout.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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