This Friday, more than 10,000 international athletes will descend upon Beijing, China to compete in the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. The 17-day games will feature 302 events across 28 different sports, and will draw an unparalleled number of viewers from television, on-line, and mobile devices worldwide. The competition will feature the first digital broadcast of the Olympics, and will boast the largest number of host cities, highest number of doping tests and most merchandise-ready mascots (five) in Olympic history. In the spirit of that global competition, I set up a similar challenge among a few players in a space that many SpeakUp readers follow with a passion similar to that of the sports-obsessed: online logo design.
There has been much written, both positive and (mostly) negative, regarding the impact of inexpensive online logo design companies on our industry. The customer testimonials on many logo design sites, crafted to give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside, share numerous success stories of local churches (et al.) getting a new logo in just a few days without having to fleece the flock to afford it. The other end of the argument, of course, speaks to the devaluation of the design process altogether, particularly in brand development and identity design, which many consider the pinnacle of our field. Diluting a process that traditionally takes weeks or months of research, development, strategy and design down to 2-3 business days for a fraction of the fair market value is certainly a cause for concern for working designers everywhere. But is this really an epidemic poised to shake identity design as we know it to the core, or simply an updated version of the desktop publishing vs. graphic design argument from the late ‘80’s that caused similar rumblings, and died quickly thereafter? I will take a begrudgingly open-minded approach to this challenge to try and answer the previous question, and will defer judgment until the competition’s results are neatly delivered to my inbox.
The Challenge: Hire four online logo design companies, give them the same visual identity problem to solve, then critique the results.
The Kitty: Spend less than $1,000 USD total on all four companies, getting as many distinct variations as possible.
The Players: But how to choose? Simply googling logo design returns 11.7M hits in a mind-boggling .13 seconds. However, companies that play in this online space must successfully manage their search engine optimization, or SEO, to ensure that they appear at or near the top of search engine results consistently. Their business development depends upon it. Acknowledging this, I chose the top four non-sponsored returns from my Google search. The contestants, in search results order, are: the Logo Loft, Logo Design Pros, LogoBee and the notorious thousand-pound gorilla of online logo companies, Logoworks.
The Task: Invent a fictional client in need of a new logo. It should be fun, fast, colorful and kick-ass…rollerderby, of course! It’s a ‘sport’ familiar to most, but not so actively followed by the masses to make for an easy identity job without a modicum of research into the history and aesthetic of what is known in the biz as flat track derby. I found a rich collection of active clubs on the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association www site. There’s also a great Q & A section on the official rules for rollerderby, which are much more complex than I ever imagined. e.g. Q: “When do referees stop the jam-in-progress for a jammerless jam?” No, I’m not making this stuff up.
The Client: Troy, NY (id29’s hometown) was one of the original nine cities that in 1871 formed the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, which survives today as Major League Baseball’s National League. Although Troy’s team only lasted two years, they did sport a winning record (28-25,) and I discovered with some amazement that the domain name was available—perfect for my fictional upstart rollerderby team—the Troy Haymakers Flat Track Derby Club.
Let the games begin.
The Logo Loft
Representing Montgomery, Alabama USA
What makes the Logo Loft different? According to their site, “Any logo designer is capable of interpreting and fleshing out your logo design ideas, but what truly sets the Logo Loft and it’s [sic] logo designers apart from the competition is our dedication to your satisfaction…According to the Graphic Artists Guild you’ll pay $2,000 to $10,000 for a corporate logo design at a traditional logo design firm. With the Logo Loft you save thousands on your new logo design! Complete corporate identity for only $99.” Wow! Why pay $10,000 when you can get the same thing for $99? Excited, I pored over the numerous options that the Logo Loft offers as packages: anywhere from one to five designers working on as many as six custom logos. The more expensive options feature “unlimited revisions,” which, as a design firm principal, makes my skin crawl. Given my budget, I opted for the Logo Loft’s Starter Package for $99: One designer, one custom logo design delivered in four business days and, of course, their 100% satisfaction guarantee. All of the Logo Loft’s packages—as well as most of their competitors—promise final electronic file delivery in vector and pixel-based formats, and offer upgrade packages for www design, letterhead, business cards, etc…
The online order process was amazingly simple. In addition to collecting my credit card info at the start, the Logo Loft asked only a few optional questions such as: What colors would you like to see in your logo, what colors to avoid and what companies have logos that you like? There was a series of checkboxes to select a “feel” for my new logo such as high tech, formal/corporate, artsy, industrial, kids, etc… I chose “other” and text entered, “Sports. Fast paced. Violent. Entertaining.” For color preferences, I chose ‘blood red’ and suggested avoiding pastels. A no-brainer.
Logo Loft critique:
The Logo Loft sent me three slight variations on a single design. My initial reaction was, “what is Marvin the Martian doing in my rollerderby logo, and why does he have condoms for feet?” Unfortunately, the illustrated figure floating over the gray tribal ‘tattoo’ art is far too masculine for a woman’s flat track derby club. The emphasis should be tough *and* feminine. This is a critical piece of information for this job that I didn’t explicitly disclose during the ‘client briefing’ process. I was interested in seeing how much research these companies would actually do in advance of beginning the design process. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association site is very easy to find online, and the members’ page links directly to more rollerderby club sites that you would normally want to visit in one sitting.
The color palette of blood red, black and gray feels on target, and the stylized and outlined retro-script face that “Troy Haymakers” is set in is both strong and memorable enough to probably do most of the heavy lifting for this mark all on its own. This text works better in a single arched measure (version one) than it does stacked. The “Flat Track Derby Club” text, set underneath in two different weights of Copperplate Gothic doesn’t quite integrate with the script, and the tension between the “D” in “Derby” and the bigger of the two condom feet (version one) is visually problematic. In addition to Troy’s involvement with the genesis of Major League Baseball, the city was an integral part of America’s 19th-century Industrial Revolution, particularly in the collar- and cuff-making industries. Is the inclusion of Frederic Goudy’s Copperplate Gothic here—which utilizes that Victorian display type aesthetic—a well thought out reference to that rich history? I’m hoping that it is, and I will give the use of that typeface here the benefit of the (considerable) doubt and deem it ‘spot on’ for this identity. Well played, Logo Loft! Variation three is the strongest of the group, focusing on the central typographic elements, and downplaying the illustrations. Opening this version in Photoshop and erasing the illustrative elements altogether would improve it considerably. Overall, there are some serviceable typographic parts here, but the conceptual disconnect caused by the tribal art and stylized cartoon character make all three variations weaker as a whole.
Logo Design Pros
Representing Wilmington, Delaware USA
Logo Design Pros’ web site is incredibly similar to the Logo Loft, featuring multiple “100% guarantee” animated bursts and stock photographs of attractive female customer service reps wearing headphone mics poised to help upon mouse over—much like the ubiquitous Mac Warehouse girl from back in the day. Memories. What does Logo Design Pros offer above and beyond their competition, you ask? How about Unlimited Concepts! Simply purchase package three for $498, and they will “provide an unlimited number of entirely new concepts for your logo design, created by other designers, if you aren’t satisfied with the initial concepts.” Whoa, they have upped the ante from the Logo Loft’s “unlimited revisions” above. Unlimited new concepts? The image of a hamster endlessly spinning in a wheel immediately comes to mind. “Logo Design Pros offers the lowest and cheap [sic] prices for custom logos to be found on the net.” Unfortunately, I found that statement to be less than believable, as I had to lay down a whopping $198 for their least expensive option, the Startup Business Package. However, for this price I have been promised four logo samples created by two designers. I chose to be patient and wait the 2-3 days as advertised, rather than pay a $100 up-charge for 24 hour delivery.
If you thought the requested client information to begin the design process for the Logo Loft was extremely thin, Logo Design Pros has simplified this process even further, requiring only: A name for the logo, a brief description of the business and an optional question, “what type of overall feeling would you like to project with your new logo? (corporate, fun, high-tech, etc…) Leave this field blank if you would like us to make this determination.” The idea that Logo Design Pros could somehow determine the appropriate overall feeling for a new visual identity with only the business name and a brief description seems ludicrous to me, and totally at odds with the idea of offering unlimited concepts. I think I hear the hamster wheel again. Sufficiently scared, I throw them a bone, and offer, “all women, rough, fast-paced, raw, exciting, dynamic, LIVE action!” This is perhaps the shortest client brief in history.
Logo Design Pros critique:
Logo Design Pros hit their deadline, and delivered four versions of my new logo exactly on the third business day after I placed the order. There was no indication separating the marks between the two designers that were advertised to work on this job, but it was visually obvious that versions one and two were from the same artist. More like visual ‘treatments’ than logos or discrete identities, both remind me of over-stylized clip art and miss the mark entirely by focusing on wafer-thin and leggy fashion models over the rough-and-tumble look that defines rollerderby athletes. Version one is unusable altogether as it depends on a black background for legibility. Version two looks like a stock illustration for a débutante’s ball. I’m not sure what the point is of including a detailed close-up or the knock-out version, but it does serve to reinforce the point above about the lack of usability of version one.
The typography is neither inspiring nor memorable, and looks timely (and already dated) to my eye. Versions three and four do a better job of marrying illustration and letterforms in a more traditional ‘logo design’ sense. However, version three seems disjointed with the floating skates below the text, and the illustration bears a striking resemblance to that used in the Minnesota Roller Girls logo—from the simple orange/yellow gradated wordmark and linear helmet to the two black swashes of hair on the left. Coincidence? I certainly hope so. The fourth version features Adrian Frutiger’s Univers-Condensed Bold Oblique, usually a solid choice, but a star with stripes and the use of red and blue on a white ground immediately makes me think of a political banner destined for a metal sign holder and a front yard somewhere in November.
Finding suitable images on the internet to use as reference material for illustration purposes is nothing new for designers. For identity design, where originality and distinctiveness are paramount, this practice can be a slippery slope if done hastily and without care. To me, the image in version four looks a bit too much like the stock vector roller skate drawn by Gesche Wendebourg available for public download on istockphoto.com. Convincing me that the yellow stars on the sides of both skates were developed independently of one another might be possible, but would make for a difficult argument. Not terribly impressive work on the whole from Logo Design Pros in these four variations—but I do have two more to go!
Representing Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Bringing some international buzz to the competition is Montreal’s LogoBee. Self-described as a “multiple award-winning logo design company… LogoBee, Inc., has been providing its customers with high quality logo design for over eight years…winning top honors at the Summit Creative Awards and American Design Awards.” Following the latter link, I found they did win a second place prize in the 2006 Winter Semi-annual American Design Awards. The awards page is rather thin on content all around, with no indication what the mark is—or who it is for—but it is well drawn nonetheless. Can LogoBee bring that level of visual goodness and originality to my upstart rollerderby club? After the entries above, I certainly hope so.
LogoBee’s different packages are easier to understand than most. The Google link where I originally found LogoBee had a coupon code for $20 off, and it worked (shocker!) I selected the “Special Package” for $249 (plus save a cool Jackson with the code.) This package gives me six logo design samples and 6 revisions. I’ll have to wait five business days after my payment with LogoBee—not quite as fast as Logo Design Pros’ 2-3 business day guarantee—but hopefully the results will be less “stock-a-riffic.”
Immediately after my LogoBee order was placed and my credit card was charged, I got a personal email from Karina, my project coordinator. Karina gave me her email address and a phone number (with extension) and invited me to view some logo samples from their site, noting what I liked about some, but didn’t like about others. Furthermore, she had some specific questions for me regarding the look and direction I wanted, such as: Who are your clients? What is your business’ history? What kind of fonts do you like? Would you like something more serious and traditional, or modern and artistic? She gave me a personal URL that I could use to view my logo samples when they were ready. Trying to the keep the playing field level, I responded with the same information I gave the Logo Loft and Logo Design Pros.
Like clockwork, my custom URL was populated with 6 variations of brand new Troy Haymakers’ logos in five business days. Unlike Logo Design Pros submissions, the six logos from LogoBee were most likely designed by one staff artist. I have no problem with that—the package I bought didn’t advertise more than one designer. However, the majority of the marks feature very similarly styled illustrations of skaters with colored swashes designed to indicate movement and speed. From the quality of the drawings, it’s reasonable to assume I didn’t get the same designer who won the American Design Award in 2006. Fair enough.
As interchangeable as some of these marks appear, what really struck me in all six was a lack of typographic quality in general. As an obsessive type-nerd who has aced the Rather Difficult Font Game numerous times, it’s a rare day when I can look at six separate logotypes and not recognize the primary typeface used in a single one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these fonts before, and that surprised me. One easy way to tell cheap (or free downloadable) fonts from properly drawn typefaces is by looking at the kerning pairs in use. Professionally produced faces have had their kerning pairs fined-tuned by font designers. The huge space in version five between the “A” and “Y” in “HAYMAKERS” is indicative of an inexpensive typeface without font metrics that would normally include character widths and kerning pair information. Regardless of the origin of the font, that gap should have been optically adjusted by the designer long before I ever saw it. Typography 101. Visually, the symbol used in version five is the most appealing to my eye. However, it’s also the least original design on the page. Based upon the same convention of a silhouetted figure splitting a red and blue field as Major League Baseball’s and the NBA’s logos, this illustration also shares a good deal formally with the aforementioned Women’s Flat Track Derby Association mark.
If I were forced to move forward with any of these designs, it would probably be with a revised version of one of the original illustrations with much improved typography. Perhaps removing the bratwurst from the right hand of the skater in version four would improve it significantly. Perhaps not. Either way, caveat emptor on paying for a logo package that features six discrete variations, especially when four of the six are as interchangeable as these.
Representing American Fork, Utah, USA
If your were even remotely involved in the online design community three years ago, it would have been impossible to ignore the firestorm of blogging brimstone and treacle that was launched at—and defended against by—Logoworks in 2005. Rather than retell the entire saga blow-by-blow, I will point you to a few of the existing sites that somehow seemed to weather what I understand was a storm of cease-and-desist letters: here, here and right here. On April 24, 2007, HP announced it had acquired Arteis, “a privately held company that operates Logoworks, a leading distributed web-based graphic design service provider.” This was big news in the blogosphere, as many of Logoworks critics felt this legitimized what they considered less-than-honest business practices regarding authorship in identity design. Regardless of where your opinions may lie on this subject, Logoworks is the biggest player in this business space, boasting over 100 employees, 45,000+ customers and a 98 percent satisfaction rate on their about us page. Why choose Logoworks over their competition? Here are 10 reasons, including a few comical tidbits from that page I couldn’t help but call out:
• The other guys: Most design companies expect you to go to them for multiple meetings, or they flat out ignore you.
• Then there are ad agencies that require time-consuming live meetings, where you are charged for their time.
• Some design companies are limited to a small in-house design team, or do not have any freelance designers. If they cannot afford a large team in both areas, they limit their creativity and flexibility.
I direct the small in-house design team here at id29, and I can say unequivocally that the last statement above couldn’t be farther from the truth. Increasing staff size limits flexibility on almost every level in a design firm, and employing a large global stable of freelancers is a sure way to dilute your design process, not increase your creativity. As far as our need to actually meet clients face-to-face, we are guilty as charged. We operate under the somewhat antiquated notion that actually getting to know our clients might help us better understand their communications needs, and, as a result, do a better job defining and articulating their message in an engaging and compelling way. Crazy, I know.
I’ve spent $526 to date so far in this competition, and in my quest to keep the budget under $1000 total, I selected Logoworks’ $299 Silver Package: four original logo concepts, two designers, two logo revisions and zero time-consuming live meetings. To Logoworks credit, their process for obtaining relevant client information before beginning the design process is much more thorough than their competition. No doubt being the industry leader has helped them hone this process to a point that minimizes false starts and client complaints, and maximizes their customer satisfaction rate. That’s just good business.
Once my payment cleared, I was directed to their “7-question wizard” which is a well-developed series of web pages created to collect as much information about my visual preferences as possible. The questions are richly illustrated, and lead the customer through a series of tests, such as: Color wheels designed to gauge preferences, typographic samples which offer different font styles (serif, sans serif or script, etc…) and a ‘logo traits’ page which asked me to make preferential selections from a series of paired logos, such as Mountain Dew (youthful) vs. Coca-Cola (traditional/classic.) After about 10 minutes, the “wizard” determined my rollerderby club’s profile to be a “strong, confident and sophisticated business.” Sophisticated? Perfect, if I were TAG Heuer or BMW.
Oy! After investing a solid ten minutes with the wizard, I expected much more from the initial round of marks from Logoworks. I’m having a hard time imagining how anyone could defend any aspect of these designs as strong, confident or sophisticated. After I praised their online briefing process, the designers at Logoworks apparently decided to abandon those survey results altogether. Version one features a childlike untied roller skate, that would look more at home in Disney/Pixar’s Cars than it would on the back of a rollerderby uniform. Version two looks a lot like LogoBee’s version 5 (above,) but not nearly as well drawn. The use of black is a welcome addition to this convention, but the red-stroked exterior circle effectively kills the dynamic created by the figure’s negative space extending out of its circular bounds. Questionable typographic choices in these first two versions are made worse by the wrong hierarchy altogether in the nomenclature. The emphasis should be placed on “Troy Haymakers,” not “Flat Track Derby.” Somebody didn’t get the memo. Fortunately, versions three and four got the club name correct as “hierarchy one,” and “Troy Haymakers” is read first. Unfortunately, versions three and four exist. Like any Olympic competition, to the victors goes the hardware—however, there’s no room on the medal platform for Logoworks this time around.
There’s a brilliant interview from 1993 with former NEXT Chairman, Steve Jobs on working with Paul Rand to design the NEXT identity. Paul Rand was a master of semiotics, and an iconic American identity designer until his death in 1996. Jobs asked Rand if he would come up with a few options. Rand replied, “No. I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me…if you want options, go talk to other people.” Jobs goes on to describe the “refreshing” clarity with which Rand spoke of the designer-client relationship—it was obvious that he had given this subject deep thought for many years.
It would be unfair to compare the designs above with the work of Paul Rand, but what interested me in the interview was how Rand’s singular method to solving NEXT’s identity problem was totally at odds with how these online logo companies approach the same situation. Rather than focusing on clearly understanding the client’s business and needs, the general solution put forth seems to be simply providing more and more sketches until something visually clicks—or the client’s budget is depleted.
For smaller groups or organizations with extremely tight purse strings, these companies might provide some level of solution to their quick identity needs. They might find themselves redesigning in a year or two, but hopefully they’ve been successful enough in twelve months time to budget another $199 for identity design. A better approach for businesses in this situation would be to contact their local AIGA chapter, and inquire about freelance designers (or even student members.) Sitting down with a graphic designer and outlining your business’ history, objectives and aspirations usually doesn’t take a full-day working session. For $825—the amount I spent above—a single solution that was original and spoke to my demographic in an engaging and memorable way would be well worth it. As far as the pending demise of identity design as we know it caused by online logo companies taking over the world, note to working designers currently reading this: Don’t quit your day jobs.
Doug Bartow is a founding Principal and the Design Director of id29, conveniently located above the brewpub on the Hudson River in historic downtown Troy, NY. id29 has been meeting face-to-face with happy clients since 2003, and has done identity work for AOL-founder Steve Case, Scholastic’s Harry Potter, Pitney Bowes and MASS MoCA to name a few. You can send general greetings—or cease-and-desist letters—to [email protected] ::