Logos, Flags, and Escutcheons

“It reminds me of the Georgia chain gang,” quipped the IBM executive, when he first eyed the striped logo. When the Westinghouse insignia (1960) was first seen, it was greeted similarly with such gibes as “this looks like a pawnbroker’s sign.” How many exemplary works have gone down the drain, because of such pedestrian fault-finding? Bad design is frequently the consequence of mindless dabbling, and the difficulty is not confined merely to the design of logos. This lack of understanding pervades all visual design.

There is no accounting for people’s perceptions. Some see a logo, or anything else seeable, the way they see a Rorschach inkblot. Others look without seeing either the meaning or even the function of a logo. It is perhaps, this sort of problem that prompted ABC TV to toy with the idea of “updating” their logo (1962). They realized the folly only after a market survey revealed high audience recognition. This is to say nothing of the intrinsic value of a well-established symbol. When a logo is designed is irrelevant; quality, not vintage nor vanity, is the determining factor.

There are as many reasons for designing a new logo, or updating an old one, as there are opinions. The belief that a new or updated design will be some kind of charm that will magically transform any business, is not uncommon. A redesigned logo may have the advantage of implying something new, something improved—but this is short-lived if a company doesn’t live up to its claim. Sometimes a logo is redesigned because it really needs redesigning—because it’s ugly, old-fashioned, or inappropriate. But many times, it is merely to feed someone’s ego, to satisfy a CEO who doesn’t wish to be linked with the past, or often because it’s the thing to do.

Opposed to the idea of arbitrarily changing a logo, there’s the “let’s leave it alone” school—sometimes wise, more often superstitious, occasionally nostalgic or, at times, even trepidatious. Not long ago, I offered to make some minor adjustments to the UPS (1961) logo. This offer was unceremoniously turned down, even though compensation played no role. If a design can be refined, without disturbing its image, it seems reasonable to do so. A logo, after all, is an instrument of pride and should be shown at its best.

If, in the business of communications, “image is king,” the essence of this image, the logo, is a jewel in its crown.

Here’s what a logo is and does:

A logo is a flag, a signature, an escutcheon.
A logo doesn’t sell (directly), it identifies.
A logo is rarely a description of a business.
A logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.
A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it means is more important than what it looks like.

A logo appears in many guises: a signature is a kind of logo, so is a flag. The French flag, for example, or the flag of Saudi Arabia, are aesthetically pleasing symbols. One happens to be pure geometry, the other a combination of Arabic script, together with an elegant saber—two diametrically opposed visual concepts; yet both function effectively. Their appeal, however, is more than a matter of aesthetics. In battle, a flag can be a friend or foe. The ugliest flag is beautiful if it happens to be on your side. “Beauty,” they say, “is in the eye of the beholder,” in peace or in war, in flags or in logos. We all believe our flag the most beautiful; this tells us something about logos.

Should a logo be self-explanatory? It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning. It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes. If a company is the second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as the second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job right off before an audience has been properly conditioned. Only after it becomes familiar does a logo function as intended; and only when the product or service has been judged as effective or ineffective, suitable or unsuitable, does it become truly representative.

Logos may also be designed to deceive; and deception assumes many forms, from imitating some peculiarity to outright copying. The design is a two-faced monster. One of the most benign symbols, the swastika, lost its place in the pantheon of the civilized when it was linked to evil, but its intrinsic quality remains indisputable. This explains the tenacity of good design.

The role of the logo is to point, to designate—in as simple a manner as possible. A design that is complex, like a fussy illustration or an arcane abstraction, harbors a self-destruct mechanism. Simple ideas, as well as simple designs, are, ironically, the products of circuitous mental purposes. Simplicity is difficult to achieve, yet worth the effort.

The effectiveness of a good logo depends on:

a. distinctiveness
b. visibility
c. usability
d. memorability
e. universality
f. durability
g. timelessness

Most of us believe that the subject matter of a logo depends on the kind of business or service involved. Who is the audience? How is it marketed? What is the media? These are some of the considerations. An animal might suit one category, at the same time that it would be an anathema in another. Numerals are possible candidates: 747, 7-Up, 7-11, and so are letters, which are not only possible but most common. However, the subject matter of a logo is of relatively little importance; nor, it seems, does appropriateness always play a significant role. This does not imply that appropriateness is undesirable. It merely indicates that a one-to-one relationship, between a symbol and what is symbolized, is very often impossible to achieve and, under certain conditions, may even be objectionable. Ultimately, the only thing mandatory, it seems, is that a logo is attractive, reproducible in one color and in exceedingly small sizes.

The Mercedes symbol, for example, has nothing to do with automobiles; yet it is a great symbol, not because its design is great, but because it stands for a great product. The same can be said about apples and computers. Few people realize that a bat is the symbol of authenticity for Bacardi Rum, yet Bacardi is still being imbibed. Lacoste sportswear, for example, has nothing to do with alligators (or crocodiles), and yet the little green reptile is a memorable and profitable symbol. What makes the Rolls Royce emblem so distinguished is not its design (which is commonplace), but the quality of the automobile for which it stands. Similarly, the signature of George Washington is distinguished not only for its calligraphy but because George Washington was Washington. Who cares how bad the signature is scribbled on a check if the check doesn’t bounce? Likes or dislikes should play no part in the problem of identification; nor should they have anything to do with approval or disapproval. Utopia!

All this seems to imply that good design is superfluous. Design, good or bad, is a vehicle of memory. Good design adds the value of some kind and, incidentally, could be sheer pleasure; it respects the viewer—his sensibilities—and rewards the entrepreneur. It is easier to remember a well-designed image than one that is muddled. A good design logo, in the end, is a reflection of the business it symbolizes. It connotes a thoughtful and purposeful enterprise and mirrors the quality of its products and services. It is good public relations—a harbinger of good will.

It says “We care.”

Quick Color Correction

Here is a 2-minute color correction technique I picked up from one of Scott Kelby’s books. It’s fairly simple, and it ranks as beginner-advanced.

Here is the basic image before color correction. You can save this image and follow along if you want.


In your layer palette, click the adjustment layer icon, and choose threshold. This will put a threshold layer above your glass layer, this is how you will choose the darkest and lightest parts of the image for color correcting using curves.


This is the threshold adjustment tool. You want to move the slider all the way to the left, then little by little move it right until you see it start to pick up a pixel or two. The little black bar, is the darkest part of the photo.


Zoom way into your pixel that is black, and chooses your color sample tool. Make sure it is set to “point sample” and click once on the black pixel. It will put a marker with a number 1 on it. You have now marked your darkest part in your image.


Okay, time for the white point. Double click the threshold layer to bring the threshold dialogue box back up. Now slide it all the way to the right, with this particular image, it has been “blown out” so to speak, so there are lots of white pixels to choose from, normally you would creep it back into the left until the white pixels showed up. Do the same thing we did with the black pixels. Choose your color sample eyedrop tool and click a marker on one of the white pixels. This should be marker number 2 now, your brightest pixel.


Now that we have our markers selected, let’s delete the threshold layer by throwing it in the trash can in the layers palette. Zoom way into your marker one. Go to image>adjustments>curves. Click on the black eyedropper in the curves dialogue box, and click it right on top of marker number 1. You will see that your image just changed to a darker hue. Close the curves dialogue box.


Now zoom out until you can see your marker number 2, zoom all the way into that, and bring your curves dialogue box back up. Image>adjustments>curves. Now select the white eyedropper tool, and click directly on your marker number 2. This will set the white point in your image. Close the curves dialogue box.


So now you have your image somewhat there, but there is another step. Since most digital cameras tend to put in either magenta or cyan hues into every photograph, you are going to want to set a midtone curve adjustment. This is the toughest part about color correcting and will take some learning with every image, but it basically goes like this. You want to find a gray pixel somewhere in your image. Luckily on this image, in particular, the background is a nice gray tone so we will use that. Zoom all the way into the background, I used the background of the glass piece on the left. Now bring your curves dialogue box back up, and click on the middle eyedropper tool, which is your midtone selection tool. Click on any gray pixel. This basically just took out magenta and added some more cyan into the image to really bring the glass out.


The image is still kinda washed out, so go to image>adjustments>levels. Now move your left slider into the right until it hits the base of the lines. And repeat this step for the sliders on the right, moving them into the left until they hit the lines. Also, adjust your middle slider to somewhere in between until it looks right.


This is basically the final result, you can now choose your eyedropper select tool, and at the top hit the “clear” button, this will remove your markers and you are set to go. It takes some getting used to, but this is by far the best way to color correct any image. This is really how the “pro’s” do it. I hope you enjoy!

If you liked this tutorial, please drop me a note and let me know.

What To Expect out of a Design Career

Young designers often set impossibly high standards and lofty goals. Are they setting themselves up for early disappointment? Here’s our guide to the real entry-level designer’s life – and it’s got a lot of left turns.
The Dream:

First, you go to a recognized design school, develop your own brand of post-deconstructionist Swiss-grid page layouts which win all the student awards, and graduate with honors. Then, you do post-grad studies somewhere prestigious – Yale perhaps; hobnob with superstar professors and visiting lecturers.

You intern at a blue-chip New York design firm, do brilliant work, get noticed. After graduation, you’re hired on as an art director, then senior AD, then partner… You get your own office with an Aeron chair, Bouroullec furniture, the latest G5 computer with 30″ Apple flat-panel monitor, big sunny windows and a door that closes.

Of course you’re a brilliant team leader, respected mentor and teacher, volunteering after hours and during the summer to teach design to underprivileged, inner-city kids.

You publish your monograph and have your gallery retrospective. Every so often you jet over to London for drinks with Damien Hirst. You’re on the experts panel at several conferences; judge Print magazine’s regional design awards; do the lecture circuit when you’re not busy tending to your herb garden in Provence…and the alarm clock rings.


“Breakfast” is an energy bar purchased at the newsstand.

You pull up to a faceless glass office-park building and tumble blearily through the revolving doors: These are the Midwest offices of Acme Inc, your employer for the past three years since graduation.

Your office is a cubicle lined with outdated Post-It Notes and soundtracked by unavoidable gossip from Sales, one row over. Your latest pay stub sits on the desk, but you don’t open it; your $35K salary hasn’t budged since the last round of layoffs.

You design data sheets and catalogues for Acme’s line of industrial plastics equipment, with all the thrills that it entails. Though you didn’t train for it, you also handle the company Web site. Every six months or so, the CEO asks if you can make the Web site “more blue,” and makes worrying noises about how “a Flash intro would be really cool.”

Your computer is an aging, underpowered PC, and you had to fight with the IT department to get a 19″ monitor. The CEO has the latest Thinkpad hooked up to a 21″ IBM flatscreen because he’s the CEO, and no one can have a bigger monitor than him.

You suspect he uses it for Minesweeper.

So You Want To Be A Design Superstar?

We live in, arguably, a fantastic time to be in the design profession. The pages of STEP, Wallpaper, ID and HOW simply drip with hot, new, young influential designers who do cool stuff. They thrill us with their revolutionary aesthetics, impress us with their multimillion-dollar design/snowboarding/music businesses, and how they just won a plum contract to add some hip to a staid old Fortune 500 firm.

It’s heady and inspiring, and like MTV, an endless procession of youth and novelty. Presented in this carefully edited, glamorous way, design seems so easy, ripe for the plucking for anyone with a bit of talent.

If anyone can play guitar, the democratic access to design means thousands of students take up Rapidograph pens, CAD software and the Adobe Creative Suite. But are their superstar career expectations setting them up for a fall?

Reading some design forums online, I waded into several threads where junior designers chafed at having their brilliant ideas passed over by senior art directors, as if recognition was a right and not something to be earned. Others, more realistic, felt trapped by boring work that paid the bills; in an economic downturn, it’s not as easy to quit when you have debts and dependents.

Both groups want creative satisfaction from their work, but what’s been lost somewhere in the rush from mechanical to digital systems is the fact that what we do as designers is more often closer to Craft than Art.

Craft implies an apprenticeship, literally years spent learning from the masters. Those young kids in the glossy magazines are talented, but they’re also rare, more like child prodigies, gifted at 20 with a 50-something art director’s insight. They’re either demonstrating way-above-average drive, fierce competitiveness, or they really, really love what they do.

The rest of us? Well, we’ll get back to that .

The Senior AD: Michael Bierut

Michael Bierut is a senior partner at legendary design firm Pentagram. He’s arguably one of the top graphic designers and art directors on the planet. I asked him about his early years, and how he got from school to where he is today:

“While I was in school [University of Cincinnati], I interned once at an old-school ‘commercial art studio’ that I found very depressing; I was lucky afterwards to do other internships with Chris Pullman at WGBH in Boston and Dan Bittman in Cincinnati, two guys that I found very inspiring.

“My first real job out of school was working as the lowest-level design assistant at Vignelli Associates – mixing solvent into rubber cement, making photostats for other designers, taping tissues on the top of mechanical boards, stuff like that. My first real ‘design project’ was a price list.

“I never had any illusions about why a client would come to Vignelli Associates. It was to work with Massimo Vignelli, not some kid from Ohio. So while I was working there I was scrupulous about doing things as Massimo would do them. Over time, I started developing opinions of my own, which Massimo endorsed enthusiastically, to his credit.

“I always kept very busy outside of the office, saying yes to any paying or non-paying job I could get my hands on. These projects became a vehicle for experiments, often disastrous, where I tried things I didn’t think would meet with approval from 9 to 5.

“I find it amazing that to this day I work with clients and other designers who I met on that first job. I feel I have been very lucky in my career.”

The Solo Entrepreneur: Christina Hagopian

Christina Hagopian is an award-winning New York City designer with her own one-woman firm, hagopian ink. A ’90s-era graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, she outlines the differing terrain of the dot-com era:

“I attended Carnegie Mellon’s Summer Design program the summer before my senior year; while still in high school I worked on the yearbook, I designed every swim-team T-Shirt and school phone book cover. I entered in contests all the time, just to get work published.

“Carnegie Mellon gave me a solid foundation in problem-solving and design theory, and I was surrounded by overachievers, incredibly talented classmates (who are still my support group today) – it automatically gave me an edge in the workplace. But it didn’t necessarily prepare me for the realities of the working world.

“After graduation, I had major ‘stars in my eyes.’ I thought I would make a huge salary right out of college, be a star, get published in all the design annuals and have my own agency some day: that was the goal.

“My first job out of school was at a 5-man studio in Alexandria, VA. I worked there for a year; my boss paid me $25K with no benefits and made me feel like I was lucky to even have a job with him. Anytime I made a mistake, he’d say ‘See? This is why I pay you the big bucks.’ I learned what I needed and moved on as quickly as I could.

“At another place, I had a boss who made me do all the cutting and pasting for his jobs because his hourly rate was ‘too expensive for that kind of work!’ Meanwhile, I was working overtime on his stuff and he was going home at 5:00…There were so many low points. Having a client tell you they can’t continue to pay you, or worse, refuse to pay you for something already delivered; being laid off in the dot-com era with no jobs in sight – I could go on.

“That said, every job advanced me in a new direction. First at a small firm, then a year and a half at a medium-sized print/branding/interactive firm, then my third job was at global Internet consulting firm Razorfish. I needed to make each stop along the way in order to advance to the next, and gain the skills to have my own business.

“I achieved my goal, but it took a lot longer than I thought, and I had to pay my dues for a good four years before I achieved a position of respect. It also took at least my 3rd job to feel like I was living comfortably; I had student and other debts. It only took 7 years to be profitable!,” she says, laughing.

“I dreamed of having a big company, and today I’m a one-person business. Your goals change as you see the reality of it all. I’ve won awards, been published, but I’m still just trying to make my next project better than the last.”

Superstar, or Super Career?

The truth is that design superstardom is exceedingly rare – a flashy artifact of the media’s attraction to novelty, discontinuity, the exceptions to the rule.

This focus on a selected, lucky few distorts the everyday truth of most designers’ work. What we do is more akin to a craft or profession, and in a craft tradition, a lengthy apprenticeship, lifelong learning, and becoming a mentor to others are all par for the course. But it also implies no instant rewards.

If you’re a prospective design student or graduate, rest assured that attention to craft can earn you a very good living over time, even achieve a level of wealth if you are skilled, hardworking, have an ounce of vision and good management skills. It will most likely not rocket you into a six-figure salary until you’re well into your 40s. Even then, the work will often times be obscure, repetitive, and unglamorous, but it still needs to be done, and done well.

If you define success in broader terms like a lifelong career – then you would be wise to heed the words of Michael Bierut: “Do good design every chance you get, and surround yourself with people – bosses, coworkers, clients – who feel the same way you do.”

Vector and Raster Halftone Patterns

Okay, ladies and gents, here it is, halftone effects done originally in Photoshop, but can be converted to illy for vector work. I do not take credit for this one however, my boss showed me this nifty little trick.

Step 1. Create a document in photoshop in RGB mode. I just typed out my name to make it simple, but it can be any shape or vector brought in from illy or anything on a layer in photoshop.

Step 2. You are going to want to rasterize whatever shape it is you want to apply a halftone effect too, in this case, I right clicked on my type layer and selected “Rasterize Type.”

Now, Ctrl + Left click on your type layer in the layer palette to put a selection on it. Now go to Select>Modify>Expand and choose 10 pixels (this will very on everything, so take some time to practice) your selection should now be outside of the type, hit Ctrl + I to inverse your selection.

Step 3. With the inverse selection still active, go to your layer palette and hit the quick mask button, I have highlighted it here to show you where it’s at.

Step 4. Go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur, this blur will determine the radius of your halftone pattern, so make it pretty noticeable at first. Hit apply on your gaussian blur and move on to the next step, your almost done!

Step 5. Okay, now go to Filter>Pixelate>Color Halftone and type in these numbers (these will also change depending on what effect you want)

Pixel radius: 8

Channel 1: 108
Channel 2: 162
Channel 3: 90
Channel 4: 45

Hit apply, you should now see that it has created a quick mask halftone pattern for you like below.

Step 6. This one is easy, just go back to your layers palette and turn off your quick mask by clicking the button to the left of the quick mask button, I’ve circled it for you below in case you don’t know.

Step 7. Now that you have turned off the quick mask you will see you have a halftone selection. Create a new layer in your layer palette, and press Ctrl + F5 to fill with a foreground/background color, or go to Edit>Fill, these both do the same thing. Now fill your new layer with whatever color you want. At this point, you could go to File>Export>Paths to illustrator to create this in vector, but we will just continue in photoshop for now.

Step 8. Pat yourself on the back, you are now done with this tutorial, here is the final product.

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