dot-font: Working with the Logo
It's a truism of sorts for most designers than it's easier to work within a defined set of constraints than with complete artisitic freedom, yet the constraints applied to any given job often give rise to the bulk of the job's challenges and frustrations. This can be especially true when having to design around an existing logo.
This truth crystalized for me recently as I was trying to design a brochure -- really more of a flyer -- for a type conference that already had a logo. The theme of the conference is "type on screen," in all its wondrous variety, and it's being put on by the Type Directors Club, which ought to know something about the subject. (More about the conference next week, since we're putting the finishing touches on it now. But mark it on your calendars for next year: Saturday, April 21, at Drexel University in Philadelphia.) The design shouldn't have been very hard -- after all, it just had to attract attention, entice people to sign up for the conference, and give them the basic information -- but I was having a hard time designing around the logo.
We had commissioned a logo (though "commissioned" hardly seems the right word for something that was done entirely gratis) from the Russian designer Gayaneh Bagdasaryan. Her Constructivist-inspired typeface Klin, made up entirely of geometric shapes in the bold colors favored by the avant-garde of the 1920s (red, black, white, and gray), had been a winner in the TDC2 2000 competition for typeface design. She had created several short animation sequences, using the varicolored elements of Klin to create words (originally, out of the Cyrillic letters used in Russian). It was this that prompted Maxim Zhukov, who is on the board of TDC, to suggest that we ask Bagdasaryan to create a dramatic logo for the conference -- one that could work as a simple animation on the Web site and also as a static composition in print.
I wholeheartedly concurred, and we went ahead with the idea. Then I had to design the flyer and make everything work in harmony with the logo.
In This Sign Conquer
Let me be very clear here: I'm not complaining. I had a very strong logo to work with, one that incorporated the playful title of the conference ("It's alive!"). The logo was simple in conception but complex in detail. It had a lot of character. Therein lay the problem.
Logos with a lot of character can be very difficult to work with. The simpler the logo, the easier it is to incorporate it into a variety of situations and designs; the more forceful its character and the more complex its visual nature, the more it demands that the design accommodate itself to the logo. Ideally, you'd be designing a whole identity, of which the logo was only one aspect, and all the parts would be created to work together. We don't, however, live in an ideal world.
Working Against Yourself
As often happens, when it came down to designing the flyer, I found myself veering away from one of my constraints -- away from the Constructivist aesthetic of the logo and off in all sorts of other directions, full of storm and fury, signifying... well, not quite nothing. I came up with a cool, '50s/'90s look that might have made a really nice flyer for an entirely different conference -- or even for this conference, if we hadn't already decided on a design direction. In the late hours, stoked on caffeine, I persuaded myself that the photographs I had incorporated into the layout didn't really clash with the logo or work against it, that the tension -- yeah, that's the ticket! -- the tension between competing thrusts would make the final piece stronger, more compelling. In the end, though, I found myself with a design that looked consistent and all of a piece -- except for that pesky logo.
In the cold light of morning, when I looked at it again, I still liked my design -- but I knew that I had to throw it out and do another one. I had to work within the constraints of the job. It didn't really matter than I'd been part of the decision that created those constraints; sometimes you have to create your own constraints, otherwise you never narrow down the focus enough to find the answer to the puzzle.
You can judge whether the result works -- whether the solution fit the crime, so to speak -- after the flyer is printed. The reason I'm writing about this here is that I think it's a situation that many graphic designers have found themselves in -- fighting the constraints, fighting the givens of the job, and talking themselves into a solution that really isn't what the job demands.
Replacing an Old Favorite
Sometimes you're on the other side of the problem: trying to create a logo that can be used in a variety of ways without clashing. It's hardest when you're replacing an existing logo that has a lot of history and expectation behind it.
When I was editing U&lc, I was faced with a new format -- cut down from the former tabloid-size to a normal magazine-size -- and a mandate to develop an online companion to the printed magazine. One of the first things that designer Mark van Bronkhorst and I did was to get rid of the old logo.
The original U&lc logo had been designed when the magazine was founded by Herb Lubalin in 1973. It had all the looping panache characteristic of New York advertising typography in that era -- which was exactly what the magazine was meant to celebrate. The huge swash ampersand dominated the page, even at reduced size. Originally, the logo had a big fat period at the end, and a hairline outline around the whole composition. In the ensuing years, it had been modified slightly by Ed Benguiat -- a very subtle simplification and redrawing that many readers probably never consciously noticed -- but it was in essence the same logo it had been from the very beginning.
Graphic artists who had grown up on U&lc, seeing it first when they were students, found that they had bonded with that logo. They regarded it as part of their own heritage. When we changed it, they howled.
What Mark van Bronkhorst came up with was a very simple new logo -- deceptively simple. It was a plain square, in a solid color, with the letters "U&lc" in the lower part in white. The old logo had seemed boldly calligraphic, thanks to that swash ampersand; the new one was wholly typographic, with the letters taken from the type family ITC Officina (although very carefully chosen and subtly adjusted). And it was smaller, occupying just a small part of the upper-left-hand corner of the cover.
The idea was that it would be modular, a true mark that could be used in a variety of situations, on paper and onscreen. The new logo was more flexible, precisely because it was less obviously distinctive. The old logo had tended to suck the air out of the page, to force you to notice it -- which made it hard to design pages, particularly magazine covers, that didn't seem subservient to the logo. So we had changed it.
Replacing the logo was far and away the most unpopular thing I did in my tenure at U&lc. (The smaller page size got mixed reviews -- some hated it, some loved it -- but that hadn't been my decision anyway; it had taken effect before I started.) We got people complaining that we had desecrated a "classic" logo -- forgetting that when U&lc started, Herb Lubalin was kicking away the traces and raising a ruckus, doing something new, and being completely irreverent about it as he did. What he would have made of the new logo on his magazine twenty-five years on is anybody's guess, but I suspect he would have been amused and a bit taken aback at the people who had deified him and put his work up on a solemn pedestal.
As luck would have it, we didn't get a chance to see whether the new logo would weather a quarter of a century, like the old one. But we had a few issues before U&lc closed shop to see how it fared in various layouts and visual treatments, and how it worked with the variety of typefaces issued by ITC.
A magazine logo has to be more flexible, and last longer, than a logo for a single discreet event, like a design conference. You can make a particular look carry through a whole line of material if it's a finite line; a periodical has a longer life (usually), and its logo will have to stand up to situations and circumstances that the designer could not have anticipated. And other designers, later down the road, are going to be faced with the task of working that logo into their layouts, and making it look so natural that you'd think it had been born there.
But making it look easy is part of our job, isn't it?
Read more by John D. Berry.
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