As a logo developer, it is a rarity to run into a client who just can’t accept ANY new logo design. We have one. At those times, I always question myself…Is it me? Am I any GOOD at this anymore?

I don’t look at it as self-doubt. I think of it as self-assessment. There is nothing worse than watching, say, an aging NFL player get monkey-stomped in the backfield because he really should have hung up his cleats a couple of seasons ago. Likewise, I’ve seen designers in the same state. Sometimes, the artistic ability gets a little too banged up and all that’s left is a Hail Mary pass.

Time Warp

About a decade ago, I was in a particularly painful dog-and-pony show while working client-side in a university. The ad agency that was pitching us showed us work that can only be described as Unintentional Retro. It’s not that the agency was technically inept (well, save for the fact that, in the early 2000s, they were still doing mechanicals and REAL paste-up work sans computers…it was a bit of a shocker) as much as the creative was a couple of decades past its freshness date. It would have been excellent work for the University of Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Duran College.

All this is understandable. Every artist, writer, athlete, marriage–I dunno, whatever–has its prime. And then it goes past its prime. I recall reading deeply saddening accounts of Hemingway wondering why A Moveable Feast wasn’t as powerful as For Whom The Bell Tolls. He just couldn’t get it going again.

It it the Designer or Client?

What is NOT understandable–or, more accurately, what I never considered possible–is that CLIENTS can suffer from the same out-of-date-ness as designers. When I first moved to the relatively small town in which they were building the new university at which I worked as Media Director, I was told that my design style was “too upscale” and “too Big City” for the market. I had come from Buffalo, a place with 14 colleges and universities and a thriving advertising community that often worked between New York and Toronto. The talent pool was deep and competition was fierce. Before that, I was in Greensboro, North Carolina, another city that had more than its fair share of higher education and design programs. Add to that, a bustling economy fueled by old standards of furniture, textiles and tobacco and nouveau tech in the form of computers, telecom, and software kept the design styles fresh and relevant.

But, this place, Southwest Florida, had only a small, lackluster community college without any appreciable design program (if any). Design standards here seemed to be swimming in the stylistic backwaters of the 1980s. I mention Cooper Black a lot as the standard ‘80s logo typeface. I am fairly sure this is where Cooper Black flew in the winters to escape the snow. And it liked it so much it stayed.

It’s the Client – This Time

Our current clients wanted a logo renovation that would invigorate their floundering event entertainment company. Sales had flagged in the past few years, in part due to apathy on their part but also because they hadn’t updated their look since the company was founded in the mid-1980s. Since then, lots of competition had come to this once sleepy town, all of them with new ideas and contemporary approaches to identity and doing business.

So, after our usual in-depth discussion of where the client is now, what they want, what they like and dislike in a logo, and what their primary focus was for their business direction, we went to work on a series of roughs that were, we thought, pretty darned good. As we had discussed, the designs explored a conceptual direction slightly different from where the company is today. Graphically, they were contemporary and energetic, colorful and capable of hitting their competition across the jaw for the knockout.

The client hated them.

Okay, this happens. Back to the drawing board after another long discussion of what they wanted. This time, we really dug deep and put in way too many hours given the flat fee we charge for logos. And I have to say, came up with possibly the best group of logo designs of my career. And the client didn’t like ANY of them.

At this point, as a designer, you know you are up against it. It’s not that the client’s opinion hurts your feelings–you lose that bruisy ego the first year of design school–but rather it’s the fact that you really can’t easily come up with another whole set of ideas! The best recourse is to talk to the client, hash out what he really dislikes about what you’ve done, and pull anything else out of him that might give you some idea where to go. Then slog out more designs.

The Old One is Good

In this case, the client said, “I have my old logo and I really love it. Can’t we just kind of adapt it to the new company name?” The client’s serendipitous pride was evident in his voice. “It was just…terrific.” In this case, the old logo– originally “designed” in about 1984–consisted of a silhouette of a teal-colored man, arms and legs extending from a rectangular torso like teal lightening bolts. Beneath it was the old company name in, yes, Cooper Black. It looked like something from a very early video game. Teal Man.

It wasn’t so much that it was a horrible piece of artwork–it undeniably was today and, I am certain, it would have been considered ugly even back in the day when John Hughes reigned supreme at the box office. The real problem was that the client truly felt that it was probably the pinnacle achievement of the graphic arts. All that “modern and new looking” stuff I put together really just wasn’t going to compete.

This is a graphical Rubicon, and someone has to cross it.

In a perfect world, the client will come around eventually, dive in and dog-paddle to the more modern side of the river. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the positive good feelings of remembered success overpowers the reality of the current situation (i.e. the company was floundering, their look was dated and unappealing, and their share of the market pie had dwindled to nearly nothing). The whole purpose of a new logo, after all, was to help steer the company into a new era of good results.

The underlying truth is that designers–good ones–aren’t simply commercial artists, they are guides to new ideas and ways of seeing a business. That’s not to say a designer is a marketer (that’s one of my pet professional peeves), but a designer can help set the look and feel of a marketing initiative. The first marketers were psychologists, after all, and art itself is an exploration of human perception and the representation of reality via an abstraction. (All art is an abstraction of reality, even “realism,” which is one artist’s view of what looks “real.”) The art of design and advertising is not in the actual ART but in how to represent the almost organic complexity of a company in a small, fairly simple symbol. It’s a tough job, in many ways as compact and precise as poetry, but as experimental as science.

(So, what happened with this client? That’s the next blog…)