And don’t underestimate the real costs in time and dollars
You’re a startup. You need a logo. But remember, the biggest success stories in tech started with cheap, often hideous logos. I’ve seen too many early stage companies tie up crazy amounts of money and human costs in making decisions about a little picture or block of text.
Go to Google images and enter ‘first logo Apple’ (or Google, or Facebook, or…). You’ll get a look at their hippy-style hand drawn logo (in Apple’s case). Considering that design is a core element of Apple’s product branding and company zeitgeist, they started out with a piece of crap. But at that stage it didn’t matter. As soon as they started making money Steve Jobs and Regis McKenna went out and hired logo designer Ron Janoff, to design their first iconic multi-colored apple, a logo that is still in use, though it has been refined multiple times in the years that followed. But until then they got by with a friend’s cheap drawing.
Things have definitely changed for startups since the seventies when Apple got started. Startup branding can be critical but I’d argue that the place to spend money and time getting things right is the name, not the mark. If you can get an original name, with a dot com domain (still the gold standard), that is easy to remember and say, and preferably somehow resonates with what you do, then you’re 95% of the way there, branding-wise. After I outline some of the nightmares I’ve experienced watching and guiding startups through branding decisions, I’ll look at the easiest way to wrap this up and get back to real work.
Nightmare number one: Using an agency
When you are starting out, one sure way to waste a ton of time and money is to hire an agency to create your brand. The old school agencies are experts at sucking every dollar possible out of you while brainwashing you into the entire branding mythology. Just remember, virtually no major tech brand was created by an agency. Jobs made up Apple, Google was a take on googleplex, an incredibly large number, that Page and Brin made up to reference the amount of information their algorithm could crawl and organize. Microsoft was a made-up word from William Gibson’s groundbreaking cyber novel Neuromancer. And on and on.
Naming a business these days is a big challenge. Try and keep it simple. You can always rebrand in iterations as the money starts flowing in and you know more about your business’s core competency. Using an agency assumes either they will define this for you or that you already know something that you actually don’t know (yet). Both are bad scenarios.
During my brief foray into the agency side of marketing I sat in a logo meeting with a small business client. There were two agency principals, the creative director, a director of digital marketing(me), and an account manager. The collective hourly billing rate for that meeting was thousands of dollars.
Eventually you’ll probably want a general branding upgrade that covers an array of elements. But that happens after you’re in growth mode, with revenue or investment dollars coming in. If you’re a consumer brand I’d probably recommend a design agency at that point. For B2B, look for a strong marketing leader and have them find a designer or boutique design agency to work with (more below).
Nightmare number two: The internal branding meeting(s)
You decide not to go the agency route. You look for an independent designer you can afford. This can work very well. Nike got the Swoosh for seventy-five bucks. It is now the most recognized mark on the planet (the designer was given some early stock that made her wealthy, but it didn’t cost the founders anything at that point). You look at the designer’s work and/or get some referrals, outline your ideas and what your business does, agree on a price (keep it under a thousand for 2–3 concepts) and she comes into the office to present her work.
You’re a startup and logos are cool, so it’s likely everyone in the company is in there.
What happens next is where things can go off the rails. The logos are spread out on a table or projected on a screen, and the creative feedback begins. Inevitably this turns into a brainstorming session, with everyone weighing in on colors, fonts, and anything else they can think of. The designer is asked to do things that they know are terrible ideas. Can you take this thing from the first one and put it with that thing from second one? Etc.
Put a stop to this. Limit this meeting to the founders and the marketing lead, if you have one. Look for clarity, impact, and simplicity (all go hand in hand). If there is an option with potential, have the designer take that one and refine it. If the logos are not working for you, try to be clear why they don’t. Try walking away and looking at the logos in different sizes and in monotone (grey scale for black and white reproduction). Think about it on a business card and on a billboard.
Keep this process brief. Ask the designer for her opinion and listen. I assume you looked at her portfolio and hired her for what you saw. Which means she knows what she is doing. If her work is way off base, pay her, thank her, and find another designer. Put a time limit on this process. And remember, you can use a logo now and then evolve it. The examples I cited earlier, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, all have seen multiple versions over the years.
Nightmare number three: The costs you aren’t considering
One of the reasons to keep the process between a few key people and to put a limit on how much discussion there is is the fact that these meetings cost money and distract from more important early stage work, like customer discovery or getting the product to actually work.
The acronym means Keep It Simple Stupid and it applies here. 95% of the time a simple type treatment is best. The common solution is one syllable or word in one color and font and the other in a complimentary color and font. Give the designer some leeway. Go the type route and you can add a visual element later. Remember the purpose here is to create a memorable brand which is, at its core, a word conveying an idea.
What about taglines, colors and other branding elements? This is an evolving process. Your designer should be offering a basic style guide when they present the logo choices. This will spell out fonts used for customer communication, core color scheme, and variations on the chosen logo for use in different formats. Taglines are a different subject that merits its own article. Suffice to say that coming up with ‘Just Do It’ or ‘Think Different’ is alchemy…(and those are from consumer brands).
A note about those dirt cheap logo designers: A designer needs to be a partner
There are multiple sites online where you can get a handful of logos for virtually nothing, a few dollars each. Two years ago, during a brand update for a client, I gave myself a budget of about a hundred dollars and tried these cheap design sites to see what they came up with. I think I ended up with ten logos from two designers, both based in India. None were usable. I can see where you might get lucky and get a decent one but having a relationship with a designer is for more than the logo. Stationary, signage, conference displays, website design, packaging, video animation…all of these things need to be coordinated down the road. Developing a working relationship with a designer who understands what you are going for and has a vision of it, is going to make all of these production challenges much easier.