Designing Our Logo Part 1: Brainstorming & Rapid Ideation

Lea Alcantara

Besides your name, a logo is the most prominent part of presenting your company and one that will be used in every touch point. There is a lot of pressure to make sure the mark is correct because when it goes awry—and despite best efforts from all parties, it can and has happened—the reaction from peers, clients and customers can be immense.

I still remember the Tropicana packaging controversy and how consumers rebelled against it so much that the company caved and reverted back to its previous design. The more recent Airbnb rebrand reaction is now fodder for amateur comedians in our web community.

However, in a world where attention is dwindling, a logo that doesn’t elicit any reaction whatsoever can also be considered a failure. The logo should have some sort of emotional response from your company and the intended audience. Visual identity that has impact can leave a positive, lasting impression, which is what you want when you’re running a business. As we began tackling our own logo design for Bright Umbrella, this was at the forefront of our discussions about direction.

When a Logo Is Not “Just” a Logo

A logo with impact doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be an isolated work of art in and of itself. A good logo conveys core values succinctly and clearly. Sometimes, people mistake that to mean the logo must be clever. But the logo is just a small part of an entire identity system. Clever application of a logo might actually leave a better impression than the logo in isolation.

For example, Pentagram’s redesign of Saks Fifth Avenue’s identity is “just” a beautiful script type offset in a black box. By itself, the logo can be thought of classic but unremarkable. But when their team decided to highlight the swashes and curves of the letterforms as part of a “puzzle” and use zoomed in sections as texture, the application of the logo suddenly became exciting while still remaining true to their brand.

Another popular example of this type of creative application is Stefan Sagmeister’s Casa De Musica branding. The building’s unique architecture provided the building blocks (see what I did there?) for the rest of their brand system. It allowed them to be flexible and creative while still being consistent and true to their brand.

With the main tenets and goals of a logo identity in mind, what’s next? In the design world, there are various ways to tackle a project, and some work better than others. The following is not a definitive primer on identity design, but what worked for us. Designing a logo for your own company has its own set of unique challenges, but it’s still an investment for the business and it still needs to honor the goals of an identity. So we placed ourselves in the shoes of our clients.

Step 1: Getting Started

As with everything in design, it all starts with the sketchbook. This part of the process should be completely fluid. Give yourself freedom to doodle freeform. There should be no restrictions at this point except to keep in mind your brand goals and a deadline to stop sketching, else you will sketch forever. For myself, I wanted to get feedback as soon as possible, so I gave myself a week to finalize my initial logo concepts.

Initial logo sketches
As you can see, it was super rough. The one that looked like a Pokemon ball was an initial sketch of Umbrella+Light Bulb concept. I also played around with sun-rays concept and how the text would work with the actual mark.

Step 2: Clean Up Best Ideas

Once I reached the sketching deadline, it was time to choose and clean up my best ideas. Often, this is where some designers get stuck because perfectionist tendencies kick in when preparing to show your ideas to someone else. Don’t fall for it!

For me, I am still in the idea phase during this step, so I was most interested in getting feedback sooner than later. My main goal for this step was to make sure my best ideas were simply legible enough for easy review, because scanned pen and paper scratches can be confusing to parse.

Once you have the best ideas, limit yourself to an hour of clean-up because, again, these are essentially just cleaned-up sketches. Put perfectionism and your ego aside and remind yourself that the sooner you get feedback, the sooner you understand where everyone stands.

Step 3: Reveal Cleaned Up Ideas ASAP

Now, what I’m going to suggest may rankle a few designers, but when I revealed these cleaned up ideas, I revealed them without too much information or explanation. This worked well when designing for Bright Umbrella because I clearly understood our own message and priorities. I was most interested in seeing if my concept translated without major explanation (similar to our initial naming brainstorm).

Initial cleaned up logo concepts
These were my very first cleaned up ideas. I was trying to "be clever" and have the lowercase "b" incorporated with a "u" and have both the sun and umbrella mixed together. We deemed these as a bit "meh" and almost childish due to the ultra simple forms and rounded type that I matched it with. Part 2 will reveal more concepts!

Doing this for client work depends on your client, their goals, and your relationship with them. But the benefit of this approach is it allows for speed—fast feedback and fast fixes. In the case of client work, it may be best to have explanations accompanying the comps to help clients focus their review and feedback.

Additionally for clients, I show black and white iterations so that color is discussed later. This is similar to grey-boxing or making sure wireframes are low-fidelity so that the content is the priority. In the case of a logo, the content of the logo’s form is highlighted, so the person reviewing the logo doesn’t get sidetracked.

In the case of Bright Umbrella, I threw color in the early comps because of my goal to get faster feedback. I made it very clear that the colors were for review purposes only and could change at any time.

Step 4: Prepare for Feedback

While it is important to take feedback into account, you should also be be prepared to defend your concepts post-reveal. Regardless of whether it is with an internal team member or your client, you should be ready to discuss your design decisions. Be detailed, to the point, and always circle back to brand tenets.

This may seem like an odd step, but it is critical. Even though I didn’t explain the initial concepts to Emily at the first reveal, I had to be prepared to explain them! For this to be successful, I had to leave my ego at the door:

  • Don’t make excuses about whether that person has as much design knowledge (in the case of clients, why would they? That’s why they hired you!).
  • Don’t make snap judgements (which may be slightly ironic, since you want them to make a snap judgement on your work).
  • And listen carefully.

For Bright Umbrella, I had to listen carefully to Emily’s feedback and parse my own ideas. While this happens with clients, it was much more personal because the identity needed to reflect both of us. It was also a fantastic opportunity: it gave us both a venue to explain what our company means to us, with the safety of the logo identity as the backdrop. How many other opportunities are there for team members to articulate and possibly realign their thoughts on their company brand?

Finalizing the Logo

With my sketches ready to show and explain—and my ego at the door—I was ready to get Emily’s feedback and begin the process of finalizing the logo. And it was, indeed, a process (just like it is with our clients). In part 2, I’ll detail parsing feedback and managing the discussion loop, as well as how I finalized concepts to get to the final logo.

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