Logos are dead.

It seems this is the required topic for a logo blog. Not that there are all that many REAL logo blogs—most seem to be hung out there as a way to promote ONE site or ONE designer. But, the few that I’ve read that are REAL logo design blogs seem to always come to this apocryphal point on either one side or the other of the argument. Logos are dead. Logos are not dead. Logos are in a state of flux. Logos in the traditional sense are irrelevant in the modern age.

Okay, logos are not dead. They are not even ill.

Back when I was in design school in the mid-80s at a fairly prestigious (and consequently insanely expensive) design school in NY, several of the instructors said something to the effect of, “You know, I don’t know why we are even teaching about logo design except as a historical footnote. Logos are dead. In a few years, logos will be a thing of the past and you won’t be making them as a professional  in a professional shop.” Two-and-a-half decades later, I am STILL making logos. I made them when I worked client-side (ie. in a corporate ad department), as a freelancer, as the owner and creative director of an agency. Now, I am part of a company that does nothing BUT logos (well, sort of). So, I can say from firsthand experience that logos are NOT dead.

Things have changed.

Over the past two decades, I’ve seen dramatic changes in logo design. Of course, the biggest change happened when computers became small and agile enough to outperform a pen-and-paper designer at a drawing board. That really didn’t happen until three events came together, almost at once: Photoshop made reliably detailed imagery that previously required a stat camera, Illustrator and FreeHand showed us how to bend curves easily and precisely, and PostScript became readily available on printers. It wasn’t really overnight, but in the grand march of progress it sure seemed like it. No more running to service bureaus for EVERYTHING. No more cutting and assembling strips of type. No more amberliths. Like everything that changed because of computers, the final product still took just as long as before, but the scope and complexity of that final product was worlds better than previously possible by hand (or the pre-computer equivalent of “by hand”).

The other big change engine was the Internet and the way it turned the world of design into a rainbow of colors. (Okay, you can also argue the decrease in the price of color printing via ink jet and color laser, but I will argue that all came after the Internet fueled the desire for printed HTML pages that looked like what was on the monitor.) Before the Internet, four-color process printing was the only option for a client’s work that was full-color. For designers whose high-end commercial clients could regularly afford magazine quality four-color work, color was not new, but the rest of the world—small business, universities, not-for-profits—the reality of design was very often targeted to two-color spot color.

For me and scores of other designers, two-color work became an art form unto itself. How can you trick the eye into seeing more than just two colors? Fades, screens, overlaps. If you had an agreeable pairing of colors, you might slip a cool duotone into the mix. To be honest, I miss the old days of pushing the minimalist color palette to do more than it should.

Logos, too, followed this same paradigm. It was simply impractical to design a full-color logo for all but the most deep-pocketed client. Sure, you could DO it, but the client couldn’t afford to work with it on a regular basis. Four-color was just too pricey for smaller clients, so the world of logos reflected this.

Back in that expensive design school, they told us that a good logo had to work in black and white. This was true not only philosophically but also practically. Some clients could print multiple colors on letterhead or promotional materials. Most could not. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with business cards and letterhead of companies in my home town (a bitterly cold steel town that was in the process of rusting, it’s people fleeing South to warmer climates and pleasant service-industry jobs that paid less but did not cause lung disease and finger-loss through stamping machine accidents). All where black on white, black on cream, black on gray. I had one or two that were blue (Pantone Reflex Blue, of course), and a rare brown ink on white, which even today imbues a design with warmth and trustworthiness if a little stodgy. Through the age of faxes, the a-logo-must-work-in-black dictum was still germane. You couldn’t fax in color. I owned a clip art company that sold scads of niche-industry clips…in black-and-white. Oh, we MADE a color package, but nobody but Motorolla and US West telephone company bought them!

The age of digital.

Along with the super-freedom of the Internet came design standards that were equally unbound by the rules. For better or worse, logos—like most of design—moved away from one or two colors to full-color, often resplendent with fades and gradations and drop shadows. Logos, especially, became explosions of color that often burst off the monitor in a dizzyingly raucous mix of colors, textures and patterns.

Personally I love the freedom. I also hate it. I love the possibilities for good designers that the current technology allows. At the same time, I lament the lack of restraint and artfulness that a lot of our contemporary logos flaunt. I wonder if all the designers out there that produce these colorful monsters can design for a real world client. My vendors often tell me that they have to render the two- and three-color logos for their clients whose original designers did not provide them. Too often, I’ve heard that a logo just won’t work for the given application.

To be fair, a lot of designers who make logos don’t bill themselves as making a piece of art that you can use in the real world. Logo designers have become fine artists rather than “commercial designers,” as they were called back when I was in school. Then we were graphic designers, then electronic designers, and now multimedia artists. Logos are not dead, they’ve become art… And that is not good.

A logo is a tool.

It’s one member of an overall team of items (slogans, web presences, advertising, PR) that help forge a brand and identity for a client. Too often, the logo wants to be the star of the team, with the flashiest clothes and a propensity for going for the goal on fourth down. Unfortunately, the rest of the team has to be more measured in its approach. You can’t always score a touchdown single-handed.

Put another way, metaphorically, a good logo is like a good actor…you don’t notice that he is acting. To combine my own metaphors, logos today are like the Richie character in A Chorus Line, running around yelling, “Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball, Yeah!” when it might be better just to let someone else carry it.

I tell my clients that their logos have to work. Full-color, black-and-white, two-color. It just has to work, and work in any number of ways. Designers today have to work in a world where the logo is dead but seems to be living a robust and busy life regardless. There’s a lot more to a logo now—it has be shrinkable, expandable, crop-able, and I would argue re-arrangeable. Pull it apart, use segments, change the perspective. In the world of Facebook and Twitter, even the most elemental of logos has to have room to be broken down and used in bits and pieces (and that will get me smacked by tradionalists).

So, like it or not, the logo is dead! Long live the logo!