Designing Around A Less-Than-Perfect Logo
[Originally written for Creative Allies]
It's inevitable - You land a rockin' design project that would make a great addition to your portfolio. Then you discover you have to design around a bad logo. Sure, one artist's Sagmeister is another's Paul Rand, but as a designer you know professional work from WordArt. Plus, you know that logos inform the design direction of your projects.
What do you do? After screaming out your window, you are ready to sit down and create a successful, cohesive design (believe it or not) despite a logo's bad looks.
Use the logo colors as accents
Apply the logo's colors throughout your design in small ways. I primarily design websites, so with this approach, I would use the colors for header text, buttons, borders, links and to some extent backgrounds. This method is great for providing an initial direction when you might feel lost at the start of such a project.
Use alternative color palettes
If you tried implementing a logo's colors but find they are overpowering your design, try different palette schemes based on those colors, such as complementary, split complementary, triad or tetrad. Color Schemer Designer and Kuler are handy online tools for experimenting with colors.
Apply a single solid color to the entire logo
Often times you will find logos entirely in one color against a contrasting background. This treatment helps tone down any clashing colors in the original art and works especially well if the overall shape forms a clear silhouette. The graphics below demonstrate how dramatic but clean logos can look when set in one color.
Stay with the logo style
As you know, logos come in a billion different styles, whether it looks antique, glossy, textured or three-dimensional. To develop a design unified with its logo, extend that logo's style into your work. Obvious point, right? Not always.
Once I designed a website a few years ago that was a complete departure from the client's logo, and I didn't notice it until she pointed it out to me. Why? To me the logo looked too cartoonish for a project management firm, so I subconsciously ignored it during the design process. Instead of the red and blue in the logo, I used navy and gold. Instead of reflecting a simple and clean style, I overpowered the design with heavy gradients and shadows.
In the next design iteration, I took a step back and re-centered on the logo. As a result the client was very happy and gladly provided a glowing testimonial.
In short, if a logo has textured effects, use related design elements to carry that forward. If you're working with an aged, rustic-styled logo, shiny elements won't do. Keep within the overall spirit of the logo to achieve design harmony.
Suggest a modification (or two)
Some logos were designed with a good concept and intention, but the execution needs either polishing or updating to fit your client's desired perception. If you feel a logo could benefit from improvements while maintaining its overall design, it is your job as a designer to step up and offer your critical eye with your client's best interests at heart. The suggestions could be minor, such has a new typeface; redrawing complex shapes with cleaner, simpler lines or tweaking color hues. Small changes can greatly improve the theme of a logo and the communication of its intended message.
Before you start picking apart your client's logo, approach the idea of changes gently. Some people love their logos, so begin by asking your client how they feel about their logo and if they are open to any changes. If they aren't, that's fine; move along. If they welcome your input, tactfully explain your ideas and why they will work better. If the client gives you the green light, apply your changes and send them for feedback before starting on further design work. This way you won't waste time developing a larger project around changes that the client might reject later.
You can always expect three things in life: death, taxes and bad logos. While you can't outrun the first two, you can create a design that happily runs side by side with less-than-perfect logos. These approaches will help you take the best of what a logo has to offer and create an end design that stays true to it.