Logo Tutorial #7: Never Clever

You get an idea stuck in your head. It’s an interesting idea. It’s a clever twist on a concept, but can you make it work visually? You play around with it and it starts to come together (or so you think). You really want it to come together and you tell yourself that it looks better than it really does—or that its visual shortcomings are compensated for by the cleverness of the concept.

We get these brain children that we foster and come to love. We look past their faults and don’t want to give them up.

But we live in a short attention span world. Newspaper ads get barely a glance and then are trashed, billboards are flying by, website headers are scrolled past before the logo even loads. When is the last time you studied a logo? Probably not often—and you’re reading an article about design.

It’s difficult admitting that your logo isn’t coming together. When you find yourself stuck with an idea that won’t quite gel, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of the logo? Take a step back and look at the big picture. The majority of the time you’ll find the clever concept does not contribute toward the goal, and many times it actually hurts it.
  2. Is the concept really that original? It’s all been done before (or so we’re told). Are you pursuing an idea that’s been done many times over and that’s been done better? If you’re hanging on to the concept for the sake of originality, be willing to re-evaluate your direction.

A clever logo can be quite busy. That’s the practical root of the problem. It’s difficult to simplify and streamline it enough so the concept is quickly communicated and communicated with strength.

Look at the logos of major corporations. You may be surprised how many of them use straight text for their logos. And those that do use imagery will use it sparingly and simply. Don’t brush them aside as irrelevant. These people have done their research. They’re pouring tons of money into their identity and have studied what works well as opposed to what works great. Learn from them.

Suppose someone takes a second glance at your logo and says to themselves, “Oh, I see what they did there. Very clever.” They’ve admired your work. Great. But they’ve likely missed the intended message. It’s now become about the logo and not the company. The role of the designer should not stand out.

I’m part of the tech team at my church. We’re constantly being reminded that if we go unnoticed, we’re doing a good job. Our task is to eliminate distractions. If the sound guy does something funky with the sound for the purpose of creating a cool effect, it brings the attention to him when he should be invisible. The same applies to design. Don’t let your logo become a distraction!

The title of this post is “Never Clever.” We’re told to never say never, and I’ll admit that’s true here as well. But just as jokes get old, a clever logo gets old faster than one that has strength and is on target. And as this tutorial series is focused on beginners, I’m very comfortable recommending never getting overly clever with your logo.

So what should you do? When it comes to developing a concept, understand your client’s company. What is their main service? What sets them apart from their competitors? Narrow it down to one concept and communicate that concept clearly.

Clever designs are fun to create. They’re a great exercise for the designer. I enjoy integrating them into personal projects and pure design projects that have little purpose apart from pure aesthetics. By all means practice them. It will make you shrewd as a designer and will influence your corporate work. And along with that shrewdness will come an understanding of the limits of cleverness.

Articles in this series on logo design

  1. No Photos, Please
  2. Vector Victory
  3. Don’t Be Literal
  4. Be Fontastic!
  5. Black & White
  6. Single Concept
  7. Never Clever
  8. One-Hit Blunder
  9. Client Headaches
  10. Forget Design

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