Categorized | design

Can you really afford a cheap logo?

Yvette Brown
This designer is pretty lousy at kerning. Can you see the problem? You’d definitely notice it on a sign.

Back in the 1990′s, the design world was roiled by the widespread use of digital design tools, which brought down significantly the barriers to entry in the field. Any designer, logo designer or otherwise, would have cost you significantly back in the 1970′s and 1980′s, but computer programs like Photoshop and Illustrator ended all that. Anyone with a computer program, time, and the inclination, could learn how to perform what used to be extremely difficult, high skill tasks.

Doesn’t mean they could do them right, just means they could do them without training.

Innovations in Web communications are bringing down the cost of design again not by simplifying high-skill tasks, but by connecting up design consumers with anyone willing to do a design at the lowest possible price. For the last year and a half, the hottest innovation has been “crowdsourcing” sites that allows customers to source spec work from dozens if not hundreds of designers and pay only for the logo or design they like (usually a hundred bucks).

Since we are all about shoestring ventures, I’m all for this. But . . .

Can you really afford a cheap logo?

If you try to do research on these sites, you find one of two camps. The first is the uncritical camp that knows very little about logos, design, or the design process, really, like Duct Tape Marketing:

Some smart folks have built businesses around corralling and managing the introduction and design process and made buying and selling graphic design a snap. As with most innovations, these services have their detractors. The most vocal being some in the design community that feel this drives the price of quality design down and cheapens the value of great design. Whether this is true or not, the web has impacted most industries in a similar fashion.

On the other side, you have professional designers who are understandably upset, but they have a dog in this fight.

What’s the real truth? Who should you believe? What do you need to know before you use a logo design crowdsourcing site? Or an industrial logo designer? Or hire some bozo off of Craigslist or eLance to whip you up a logo ala mode?

The answer is simple. You have to do your homework and you have to develop skills in logo design. Otherwise, you need to find a way to hire a professional that can supply those skills and experience for you.

  • First and foremost, since you’re not hiring a real pro, you have to sit down and do all your branding and visual identity homework. You have to work out your entire visual identity across all aspects of the business and how that contributes to your brand propositions and memorability. Your logo is one part of that brand and visual identity and, if you start with the logo, it constricts your strategy.
  • You have to school yourself on design. You have to know a good logo design from a bad one in real, objective terms, not just whether you “like” the design or not. These objective terms include legibility, visibility, and details such as kerning, alignment, and use of color. Which means you need to be able to know good use of type from bad use, good and bad kerning, good and bad alignment, design retreads versus originality, experienced use of color from amateur use of color.
  • Most importantly, you have to do your homework on all the applications of your logo. Let me put it simply. A logo is not one design project, which is how crowdsourcing and cheap logo sites treat the thing (they hand you a logo, period). It is many design projects — one for each piece that the logo will appear on, such as Web sites, business cards, signage, fax sheets, packaging, favicons, letterhead, and on and on. If you’re just slapping a logo on a Web site, great, hire someone who just spits a logo back at you. But if you intend the logo to have multiple applications, you need to be able to evaluate that logo across those applications, because you’re probably not hiring somebody with the experience to do it for you. You need to make sure that you’re receiving the logo in formats that allow you to evaluate it across these applications — for instance, if you’re going to use the logo on fax sheets, you need to designer to send you logo comps in one-color as well as four-color. Once you’ve paid for a logo and then paid someone to put it on a business card, it’s too late to realize that the logo looks crappy down small on a business card.
  • You have to do your homework on final deliverables. Do you need your logo in one-color as well as four-color? Do you need a process color version? What are all the image formats that you’re going to require (GIF, TIFF, PNG, JPG, EPS, EPS with font outlines . . .

    Stop there.

    Look at that last parenthetical remark. Do you know what an EPS with font outlines is? Do you know why you would want your logo in that format? Or why you wouldn’t need your logo in that format? If you do need your logo as an EPS with font outlines, what program should the designer use to design the logo? Will Photoshop do? Do you know, right now, as you look at your business, if you’ll require a version of your logo as an EPS with font outlines?

    Look at the parenthetical remark right before that one. Do you know what process color is? Do you know why you would want your logo to have the process color specified? Or why it would be unnecessary?

    If you’re clueless (what the hey is an EPS?), the crowdsourcing, industrial, and Craigslist folks aren’t going to help you.

    Most of these cheap folks dump an RGB TIFF or a JPG on you and that’s that. You send it on a brochure to a printer and the printer says, “Well, this isn’t going to print very well. The color is going to be wrong and it’s not going to look good. Do you have a CMYK version in, say, higher resolution or EPS?” You need to change the tagline and, well, you’re SOL.

    Because you forgot to ask for the original artwork as part of your contract (and specifications). About every other day, some hapless business owner puts up a Craigslist ad looking for a designer to “figure out what font” is used in their logo and make a simple, ten dollar change to the logo that’s now going to cost them a couple hundred dollars.

    You’re not just contracting for the creative part of your logo. You’re contracting for file formats that you can use in your business — including the original artwork and specs — as your business grows. So you need to know what to ask for.

    Finally, if crowdsourcing and industrial designers are selling you creative, what kind of creative are they selling?

    To be profitable, they typically sell you retreads. They have a dozen or so ways of designing logotypes and symbols and they plop your company down into that template.

    That is perfectly fine if it fits your budget and your logo needs are simple.

    Again, a logo designer that knows what they’re doing will spend a significant amount of time trying to understand you, your business, your customers, and your competitors. They will try to create a logo that has a larger strategy in terms of differentiation, identity, and communicating something to customers.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hire cheap logo designers from a crowdsourcing site, industrial site, or amateurs. Most small business owners and entrepreneurs don’t have a choice. They are, in fact, a great opportunity for small business owners and entrepreneurs and you should run, not walk, to avail yourself of opportunities like this.

    But, remember, entrepreneurship is about creativity. You don’t need crowdsourcing or industrial logo designers to save money. You can make your own choices by, say, visiting a local art college and hiring a student at a low price or you can hire a pro building their portfolio and offer a two-tiered payment structure (low money up front, more pay when the business hits a certain revenue plateau). There are as many ways to acquire a professionally-designed logo at a low front-end price without resorting to the hacks and the amateurs.

    But back to what I was saying. By using the crowdsourcing, industrial site, and Craigslist hacks, you can end up with an incredibly professional, objectively well-designed logo in all the versions and formats you require for a remarkably low price.

    But the odds of that happening are low, so you need to up the odds by paying for your “savings” with some sweat, preparation, and self-training on your end.

    Fortunately, as we say in our book, logo design rarely matters. Entrepreneurs and business owners invest a great deal of spirit and energy into their logos because they see logos — wrongly — as a reflection on themselves, like the car they drive or the brand-name clothes they wear. But logos are part of a larger communications strategy that seeks to meld a visual identity with a set of value propositions. Business strategy, marketing strategy, branding, advertising, promotions — these are all the activities that give a logo its real value. You can always get a great logo, but it’s better to have a killer branding strategy and a crappy logo than the other way around!

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