Logo Design Fails: Avoid These 10 Pitfalls!

By Nicole Hyman


Mar 27, 2014


So, you think you have what it takes to go beyond pixel pushing? Let me guess, Photoshop is your playground and you’re the king of the castle, creating digital masterpieces that make people oooh and ahhh? But that’s child’s play. With the right toolkit and enough flair, almost anyone can enchant with Photoshop and design a website that people can’t take their eyes off. Do you have what it takes to design a logo? Now that’s the true test.


They’re unassumingly simple. A tiny canvas. Perhaps some Woodshop typography. A touch of #CCCCFF, #FFFFFF and #990033. And voila – there you have it. A logo. If only it was that simple. Sorry to disappoint, but great logo design, not unlike good website design, has little to do with shading and font picking. It’s all about creating meaning, and that’s not something Photoshop can help you with.



Crate Value.


You need to think Nike. You know that little black swoosh of theirs? Full of energy and sass, it says: “Come on, you can do this!” It makes me want to cross items off my to-do list to the thump of my running shoes hitting the gravel. It energizes and excites. And all that from a little black logo that was designed by a student for $35. How many logos do you know that really talk to you like that? There are others. But they’re few and far between.


Logo Design Fails: Avoid These 10 Pitfalls!


Embarrassing, silly, and downright negligent examples abound. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. What I’ve learned is that a pretty design without any meaning is much like a sandcastle: easy to build, fun to play with, but without any real-world value. All it takes is a gust of wind and you can kiss your sandcastle goodbye.


But designing for meaning is more than just putting down your spade and stepping away from the sand-pit. It’s about infusing pixels with so much meaning that instead of simply adding color they tell a rich and engaging story. And just like when you  create a responsive website, you also need to make sure the logo looks good no matter where it’s viewed.  Are you up for the challenge?



Most Logos Suck. Here Is Why.


How many times have people discussed the Starbucks mermaid? From her naughty beginnings to her changing face, this seductive Siren has come to represent fine coffee. She is now tied to Starbucks’ story, it’s Chapter One if you like. The logo was originally picked to capture the romance and seafaring adventure of early coffee traders. But who thinks of that when sipping on their cup of Decaf Pike Place® Roast?


Most Logos Suck. Here Is Why.


Starbucks’ mermaid did what few other logos manage. She made herself part of an entire narrative. And that’s why when you see her, your taste buds tickle with anticipation of that first caffeine-rich sip. Everything from Starbucks’ store design, its coffee packaging, to its logo design work together. These are the elements that make up Starbucks’ story – with the logo leading the way.


And that’s what your logo needs to do. Forget cute and funny. Stop trying to be cutting-edge. And the bells-and-whistles approach is never really effective. Most logos suck, for the simple reason that they aren’t the introduction to a company’s story. They just sit there. A logo should be part of your larger plan and not something you slap on at the last minute because it looks “cool.” A good logo is a company’s Chapter One.



What Makes For A Great Logo?


Think simple, authentic, and timeless. Just as you would when you create a website. In my experience, the best logo design conveys the most about a company effortlessly. You don’t want to make people think too hard. You want them to understand and respond emotionally to your message. A tall order, I know. But once you’ve mastered this you’ll see how easy it is to design a website.


While I’m not a fan, I will admit that the Coca-Cola logo does this perfectly. Since it was originally designed in 1886, it has undergone only the smallest of tweaks. It still uses the same tried-and-trusted Spencerian script, making it one of the world’s most recognized trademarks. And you have to admit that there’s something comforting about such familiarity. Before the first sip, you know what you’re getting.


Then there are basic shapes. That’s right, this can affect how your logo is perceived. Not to be underestimated, lines, circles, curves, and even edges say more about your design than you may realize.


Circles, ovals, and ellipses elicit positive feelings as well as a sense of community, friendship, and love. Squares show stability and balance. Straight lines can also convey strength and efficiency. Facebook, GM, and The Gap are examples. Triangles are of particular note as power symbols, their upthrusting nature associates them with masculine brands. Think Citgo, Mitsubishi, and Caterpillar tractors.


basic shapes


Besides shapes, other things that can affect your logo design include line directions. Vertical lines are rising and aggressive. Horizontal lines are more mellow and calm. Typeface also requires considerable thought. You’ll want an angular typeface to match an aggressive logo. A softer typeface will be more youth-oriented and soothing. The Disney typeface is about as soft as a pillow and makes me think of sugar and fairy tales.


This is all based on the Gestalt theories of psychology. The basic principle behind this theory says the human brain looks at objects in their entirety before looking at their individual parts. This suggests that the whole of your logo, and its most basic shape, is initially a bigger aspect of the emotion it conveys than any one of its parts. The same thinking can help you when you create a responsive website.



Avoid These Logo Mistakes At All Cost!


Feeling inspired now?  At the very least, I hope you have a better idea of all the hard work that goes into making a good logo great. Logo design is more than just child’s play.  And if you’re really up for the challenge, you also need to know what to avoid.  These pointers can also come in handy when it comes to website design and can help you should you decide to create a responsive website.


1. Be Cautious With ALL CAPS.


As fun as all caps can be, we’re used to seeing upper and lower case letters. In fact, one study found that road signs with upper and lower case letters were easier to read from farther away because we perceive shapes more than we read the letters. You should also keep this in mind when you create a website.




Take Walmart as an example. Their logo up until 2008 was an all caps WAL*MART. Not what I’d call easy or enjoyable to read. Their new Walmart logo is softer, more inviting, better for a family-oriented company and, bonus, easier to read. And that’s all thanks to clever use of the upper and lower case.


 2. Use Punctuation Responsibly.


As much as I love pixels, there’s nothing quite like good punctuation. Nothing ruins logo and website design like poor punctuation. I have been known to indulge in some Eats, Shoots and Leaves. And it’s not because I’m a licensed grammar policewoman with nothing better to do than condemn others’ grammatical mishaps. I’m simply aware of how one misplaced comma can change the meaning of a sentence entirely.  


And when it comes to logo design, punctuation can quickly make things complicated. Toys R US is a perfect example. Their early logos all featured the backwards ‘R’ in the middle with quotation marks around it. They recently did the smart thing and removed the punctuation, while keeping the backwards R. Much clearer and easier to remember.


3. Let Your Fonts Do The Talking




Unless yours is a well-known brand, you’re going to want to include your company name as part of your logo. And that’s where typography comes in. The wrong font will completely miss the mark of your brand story. Your brand might be high-end and luxury, but your font choice could communicate something else altogether. While not a necessity, I highly recommend using custom fonts as most pre-made fonts will already be associated with other things. And before you turn to something safe like Helvetica, remember that these safe choices are always boring.


Look at any logo that uses Comic Sans, one of the most frivolous, overused and hated fonts. Although, I must admit that I do have a soft spot for it. But it’s never a good idea for a logo. And I mean, never! This font fails to capture anything about what a brand stands for. It’s simply comical.


4. Avoid Controversy As It Always Leads To Redesign.


Short-lived buzz is never worth it. Inevitably, it will lead to a redesign and rebranding down the line. And the same applies to when you create a website. It was short-lived so there was no time for a redesign, but the London 2012 logo for the Olympic Games may have been the most controversial major logo of all time.


All kinds of crazy theories about what it looked like came up. Some said it looked like Lisa Simpson performing the lewd and unmentionable (the figure on the right), or a swastika, or that it spelled ZION. These, of course, are all things that you’d rather not have your logo associated with.


Then there’s the issue of the intensely dazzling colors used. While most harshly criticized the garish color scheme, there were some who celebrated its CMYK-inspired look. Whatever your thoughts, controversy  is never a good thing for a brand. Think about how much better the logo design would have been if they had used the London Eye, Big Ben, or Tower Bridge – it would have told a richer story.


5. Don’t Be Inappropriate If You Want To Be Taken Seriously.


Controversy will certainly get people talking. But not for the right reasons. And there will be buzz. The kind that’s short-lived and unpleasant. It also won’t win you any prizes, respect or customers. In the long run, all you’ll be doing is damaging your brand.


Don’t Be Inappropriate If You Want To Be Taken Seriously.


Sherwin-Williams, the Fortune 500 paint company, certainly isn’t taken less seriously because of its logo. But its cover the earth logo, which depicts red paint being dumped over the Earth is highly offensive and inappropriate in today’s environmentally conscious world. It leaves you with that “that’s not cool” feeling.


6. Don’t Get Buzz For The Wrong Reasons.


Just like when you design a website, it’s always a good idea to take a step back and look at your logo design with fresh eyes. This logo for Weight Watchers is a perfect example. It was written as one word which may have seemed like a good idea at the time. But if you look carefully, there’s an amusing hidden word. Can you see it?


Needless to say, this company’s new logo got amusing reactions. They also got tons of buzz. But not the good kind.


7. Be Careful With Negative Space.


A good designer can work wonders with negative space and knows how to use it effectively to create a responsive website. My favorite example of this is the FedEx logo which uses negative space between the capital E and the x to create an arrow. I love the simplicity of this and how the hidden arrow emphasizes what the company stands for. It says: we’re fast moving and do everything to get your mail to you as quickly as possible. And I like that witty use of imagery.  


Be Careful With Negative Space.


But negative space can also be inappropriate and could convey a different message to what was originally intended. This logo for Child Care Resources, used negative space to show a home and a road leading to it. Initially, the logo seems to consist of a child, adult, and house. This makes sense in the context. But if you look closely, there’s a more lewd hidden meaning. And while this was more than likely unintended, it’s still there for everyone to see.


8. Be Wary Of Optical Illusions.


It’s like a game of Where’s Waldo? And just as rewarding. There’s nothing like a logo with a hidden optical illusion. My favorites include the FedEx logo as well as one I stumbled on for Feathers & Fur. It’s a dog AND a bird! The ingenuity that went into this logo design never ceases to amaze me.


While good optical illusions can make your fans love your logo, bad ones that are unintended can ruin you. This logo for a local Junior Jazz Dance Studio features two dancing people. Nice, right? Take another look at the shape of their outstretched arms and the single dots representing their heads. You won’t be able to unsee it.


9. Make Sure Your Logo Says What You Intended It To Say.


One of the trickiest things about logo design is ensuring your design communicates the message you initially intended. The same applies to how you design a website. This can come down to font choice, color selection, mood and numerous other things. Try as you might, sometimes the story told isn’t the one you had in mind. My advice: get someone else to review your work, just as you would with website design, before you send it to a client. That’s one of the only ways to ensure there aren’t any surprises you’ve missed. The best example of this the MegaFlicks unfortunate choice of font and all caps.


10. Choose Colors Carefully.


Logo design which is too dependent on color  is a bad move. Trust me on that one. You want your logo to make sense in color and black and white. The Apple logo, for example, uses one color. And you can do anything with it color scheme wise. You could even photocopy or fax it, without it losing its meaning.


The best example of this is Kraft's redesign in 2009 to feature a multicolored smile and splash. The design was so ineffective, it lasted for only 5 months and was ranked as one of the worst logos of 2009.



How Can You Avoid Logo Fails?


1. Let’s condense it down to five main takeaways:

2. Your logo is the first chapter in your brand’s story.

3. Your logo has to say something about who your company is.

4. Use the theory behind basic shapes as a starting point.

5. Do not settle on a logo until it conveys the emotion you want.

6. It. Must. Be. Simple.


If you’re certain that your logo has these five points nailed, you’re well on your way. Just remember to always show your logo design to lots of people before it goes public and you begin to create a website.


Beyond the basics, beyond the theories, beyond the mistakes, your logo must make people feel something. If you look at your logo and wonder whether or not it does that, the answer is that it doesn’t. Keep designing until you find the combination of shapes, fonts, colors, and simplicity that punches people right in the gut with Chapter One of your brand story.


What tips do you have for designing a logo that really tells a story?

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