The ultimate logo manifesto (part 3)

Part 3: Use of Color

One of the biggest mistakes many professional and ‘weekend’ graphic designers make when creating a logo is their use or choice of color. It’s easy to get enamored with the idea of creating a bright, full-color logo that is just destined to jump off the page, make your clients fall in love with you and cure cancer … all in one fell swoop. But if you do that, odds are that you’d be setting yourself up for failure. Here’s why…

Start with lineart.

So what is lineart? When I ask customers to provide me with a lineart logo, what I get is a mix of puzzled expressions and a flurry of emails with attached graphics and messages like: ‘Is this one lineart?”

To put it simply, lineart is black ink on white paper. No halftones, no drop shadows, beveling, embossing or tints of color. Check out the image below for an example of what a lineart logo looks like compared to a grayscale logo.

When you compare the two images, you’ll notice the differences between the two immediately. Yes, both use just the black color to define shape, but the lineart version lacks all the subtle tints and shades of black. With a lineart image, it’s all or nothing.

The reason you start with a lineart version of the logo is because you need to make sure the logo will function in its purest, most basic form. If you look at the lineart and grayscale logos, you may prefer the shading of the latter, but when you compare the visual elements contained within, the logos are essentially identical. The lineart version doesn’t rely on special effects, colors or shadows to define its shape. It’s bold. It’s simple. And it will reproduce anywhere.

So why is this important?

When you design a logo, two things are critical:  reproduction and versatility. The logo must be able to be legible at any size and you have to be able to be able to put it on anything. The simplest application of the need for a lineart logo comes from the promotional products industry.

Ever seen a pen with a company logo on it? Lineart.

A t-shirt with an embroidered logo? Lineart?

One of those foam can holders to keep your beer cold? Lineart.

The primary reasoning goes back to what I wrote about using a vector illustration program in Part 2. It’s about versatility. Engravers, coffee mug printers and sign makers need to work with solid images. Their craft just won’t allow for the use of halftones, so if you’ve spent hours creating a really pimped out logo with bevels and drop shadows you might find yourself frantically trying to reproduce the logo in a lineart version when the client asks that the logo be engraved on a crystal trophy, bronze plaque or applied to a coffee mug. So it’s best to design a logo from the ground up.

The lineart logo is the foundation of your branded house; your corporate castle. You can easily build upon it and add color later, but if you don’t have a solid base to fall back on your corporate branding strategy could crumble around you.

Adding color: Spot color

Once you have your solid lineart version of the logo, you can then build upon it by adding in color. When talking about color, you have two options: Spot and Process. We’ll cover spot color first.

Spot color refers to a single solid color made up of a single ink. A logo can have multiple spot colors. The benefit to spot color is that usually it allows for faithful and accurate reproduction of color. Most often when a designer refers to spot colors, he has the Pantone Color Matching System in mind (PMS). The Pantone system is an industry-standard way of naming colors so that one printer can reproduce the same color over and over again — even if the files came from a different source.

So why is this important?

Think of how people typically define color. They assign some sort of name to it … Navy Blue. Plum. Chartreuse. Canary Yellow. Problem is that no one sees color in the exact same way and no one classifies their colors by the name names. You might say Chartreuse and I might call the same color Lima Bean Green, but what you would classify as Lima Bean Green would be vastly different than my definition.

So what the Pantone system does is provide a printed book of set colors. These colors each have unique numbers. If you specify a number from one of these books, it eliminates the guesswork. So if you have you letterhead printed at one place, and your business cards printed at another and both files call upon the same PMS number, the reproduction from one place should match the results from the other. Your choice of paper stock (i.e. glossy versus uncoated) can affect the way the ink appears, but with the Pantone system you can account for those variances during your color selection process.

Keep in mind that a logo should have one or maybe two spot colors to it. The most common is a 2-color application; usually black plus one spot color. The image below is indicative of a 2-color logo. In this case Pantone 300 (blue) and black.

There’s no print limitation that says you can’t do more than two colors. What you will find is a financial limitation. The more spot colors you add, the more that logo is going to cost you to reproduce. Each color requires a separate ink well on the press. Most presses have 4-5 colors, with some specialty presses able to do more. Your local print shop likely has presses that max out at five colors. I say max out your spot color at two and then go process if you want the logo to have more colors, but we’ll get into process color in just a second.

I had a client that insisted that we put twelve different spot colors into his logo. He pulled out a Pantone book and marked all the colors that he said HAD to be in his logo. I tried to warn him about the cost. He wouldn’t listen. He wanted a good, consistent image and he wanted all the colors. I pointed out that we could process out the colors and save money, but that he could experience color shifts. He wanted to make sure that all the colors were identical across all media. So we printed his business cards, just 500 of them. He paid $2,000. That’s $4 per card. Hardly a cost effective approach. Still, he liked his cards and the price didn’t seem to matter. Okay, no big deal for me. I had a happy client and received a greater profit from the markup. His true awakening came when he wanted to get his logo embroidered on some golf shirts to shell out in his company store. Each time he embroidered logo on a shirt it cost him $35. The shirts themselves cost $40 each before the embroidery. So just to break even, he would have to charge $75 for each shirt. Who here would pay that much for a t-shirt?

Since a logo is part of a good consistent corporate image, you want to make sure that it always reproduces the same way. The use of spot color is a great way to ensure that.

Adding color: Process color

Process color is more commonly known as full color. Process color mixes four primary colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black [also known as CMYK]) to achieve a nearly-full spectrum of glorious color. Magazines, newspapers and brochures — anything with color photography — are printed using process color.

If you design a logo and you want more than a single spot color, you might want to create a process color logo rather than adding a second or third spot color. Typically it’s cheaper to make the jump from a 2-color job to a process color job, than it is to go from a 2-color to a 3-color job.

The caveats to process color is that unlike spot color, where the inks used are based off an industry standard, process color isn’t so predictable. Process color often only invites press, registration and color issues as each vendor may lay the ink down differently. Your logo may come out too light, too dark, be muddy or, as mentioned earlier, not have color that is true to your original design. It also has to be cost effective to reproduce. So if you want to add color, do it. But make sure that you do it responsibly and keep the number of colors in check.

You can see from the above example, that the logo has the full effect of process color working for it. There is tone and shading as well as depth and variation of color.

As I mentioned earlier, process color does come with some liabilities depending upon how the press is run. If the ink is run too thin, the image looks light or if it’s run too heavy, it looks too dark. Compare the full color images below with that of the “true” branded corporate colors above.

The other issue is problems with registration. Registration refers to the alignment of all the individual colors on the press. If one or more of the plates used to apply the color are off in the slightest, you’ll see some color shifts. The best place to see a color shift is in your daily newspaper which are typically plagued by registration problems given the speed and medium on which they print. An example of poor registration is shown below:

Notice how you see some shading of the cyan and magenta plates? It makes the logo look blurry and is harder to read, which ultimately lessens the impact of your logo.

I tell you all this so that you know what to look out for when printing. Most printers are very capable and take great care when reproducing your logo to ensure the best possible output, but the onus still falls on you for the reinforcement of your corporate brand; it’s your job to make sure that your color is faithfully reproduced from project to project. Work with your printer to set standards and expectations up front for what constitutes acceptable color.

Gradients
The use of gradients in logo design is a slippery slope and one that I tend to urge other designers to avoid. If used properly, they can add to the effect of spot and full-color logos, but more often they are used poorly as a substitute or a means to generate definition of a logo.

Properly used, as in the examples of the above Health Advocacy Partnership logos, they add some dimension to the depth and feel of the logo. If you have followed the steps so far regarding logo development and created a solid lineart version of your logo that stands alone, then you should feel free with experimenting and including gradients in your spot and process color logo version.

One of the places where designers go wrong with the use of gradient is to create a fade effect where a solid color fades to nothing. The intent is to create the appearance that a color starts solid and then fades to nothingness. Problem is that it actually fades to white.

As an example, take a look at the images below. The top image is a sample of a common fade gradient against white. It looks like it fades to nothing. But when that same image is placed on top of a color, the effect now stands out like a sore thumb and doesn’t produce the intended effect.

If the intent of designing a logo is to ensure a quality reproduction in every situation, then the use of a gradient in this instance works against that goal. Keep in mind that a gradient is not achievable in a lineart environment, so any logo designed to use a gradient will not effectively reproduce in pure black and white.

Another issue to watch out for with the use of gradients in called banding. This results from a limitation in the output capabilities of the printer or device used to produce the final project. Banding happens when the printer cannot reproduce the smooth, stepped gradient desired. The image below shows an example of a banding effect.

Color choice
Many a business will obsess over which color or colors to use in its logo. In many cases, color choice is nothing more than a preference and it’s not necessary to read too much into your choice. The important thing is to ensure that whatever color or colors you choose complement each other and create an attractive visual presentation.

You can get into color psychology and choose colors based on the feeling and emotions you wish to convey. Warm colors such as red and orange are good for creating a sense of “action” where as blues and greens instill a calming or soothing effect. If you have a particular sense of how you want people to feel about the colors in your logo, then pursue a palette that complements your intent.

It is important, however, to not pay too much attention current trends in terms of color. Trends come and go, and you’re building a logo that needs to be timeless and works in all situations both now and in the future. Concentrate on choosing a color palette that suits your company’s needs and not one that become enslaved to a current fashion.

In today’s marketing environment, colors tend to be primary-based; bright and vibrant yet still respectable. Look at the Google logo for example. Primary colors tend to be timeless and hold up well over time. Earth tones, though a bit overused in the late 90′s still hold up in today’s market and will likely hold up for the foreseeable future.

Pastels and fluorescent colors however, are examples of fleeting trends that quickly rise and fall out of favor — I would suggest avoiding these colors when determining your brand’s scheme. Pastels are not strong colors and are difficult to achieve in process environment. They also tend to instill a sense of apathy so it’s best not to use them for any situation where you want an impact to be created. Fluorescents, while eye-catching cannot be reliably reproduced in most color environments without the use of specific Pantone colors, and their bright nature — while good for attracting attention — is difficult for the human eye to tolerate for extended periods.

There are many different philosophies with regards to the use of color in logo design. The important thing is to remember the basics for building a design that will work in any situation, and that means starting with a lineart version. That’s your foundation. You can build from there and add to the logo, but you can rest assured that if your logo works in pure black and white, it will work anywhere.

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