Bad Logo

I'm working on a course for about self promotion for designers. As I've been called a media whore for twenty years, this seemed appropriate. One of the points I make in the chapter about identity is that your logo should be neutral and simple. I'm not a fan of the designer or design firm identities that have scottie dog icons and name like "Cutsie Pie Dezigns". There's something about the "z" and confusion over design being a noun or verb with the "s" that doesn't communicate "hire me to rebrand your Fortune 500 corporation."

For many years, I maintained a simple wordmark at AdamsMorioka. But then, something went horribly awry when I moved on and began Burning Settlers Cabin. I've broken my own rule of a simple wordmark and made not one, but many complex identities. Why have one logo when you can have thirty? So I've made multiple limited edition posters, business cards, letterhead, and postcards. I never give them to anyone because I forget.


Business Cards

I realize that the common element is the name. It serves as the anchor. The forms change, but follow the same concepts of reference and appropriation. I also realized I wasn't IBM and could give myself more latitude. I started with one mark, then added three more and planned to make that a small library in a flexible logo system. But like a bag of potato chips, I continue to reach back in and add more. 

The most recent series is based on film subtitles. According to my theory about a simple wordmark for a designer, this is way wrong. However, rules are made to be broken, and if you're going to do something wrong, go all the way. My next plan is to create a website for a terrible design firm and name it Cutsie Pie Dezigns.

The Film Series Business Cards

Nobody reads in Farenheit 451


Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Trademark Secrets

Identity design is not easy. Sure you can slam a couple of shapes together and call them a logo. But the core of the issue is perception and building a foundation. Over the last 20 years that we’ve been in business, we’ve been called in repeatedly to take on an identity project after another firm has failed. When I’ve asked to see what didn’t work, I’m given a pile of 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of paper, each one with a different logo idea. Whether or not any of these were great or awful isn’t relevant. The error was presenting like a smorgasbord of stylistic options.

First, no logo ever lives in a void. Showing a mark on an empty page is deceiving. It will never appear in this setting. Second, persuasion and consensus building is a large part of the job. We take for granted that a client knows all that we know. But they don’t. They only know what they’ve seen already. And they’ve been conditioned to think a logo is a wackadoodle illustration that demonstrates their product. Logos identify, they do not describe. If Apple had made a logo that looked like the first Macintosh, they could never create iTunes, or an iPhone.

Saul Bass told me to never speak about design to a client. He didn’t mean stonewall them when they ask about a typeface or color. The idea is to talk in a language they understand and give them reasons beyond simple aesthetics for your choices.

This is probably stupid of me, and I’m revealing some of our inner processes. But if this process helps another designer solve a problem, we all look better. When we present identities, we walk the client through each step and explain in simple English why we make certain choices. This allows the client to participate in the process and eliminates the perception that designers are just goofballs making pretty shapes. It also creates a document that can speak for itself. So, below, find a typical document we create to present an identity.




The Only Constant is Change

I recently completed an identity program for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. I typically don’t use the Cabin to show my work, but this time I had a reason. The LFLA identity is a perfect example of the nature of flexible I.D. It has 8 possible typeface options, and 8 possible color options. The user can combine any of the two, resulting in a whopping 64 possible combinations. This conceptually links to LFLA’s commitment to be not about one idea only, but the widest range of voices, concepts, and information.

Twenty years ago, a logo was required to be one single design, with a fixed state of being. This still works, but people view brands in a different way. Perhaps it was the complete overload of logos by the end of the twentieth-century. Or, the viewer is able to process multiple ideas simultaneously (think about the complexity of a CNN screen). I’ve found that people under thirty are especially “logo promiscuous.” A logo can change color, form, and location. If one element is proprietary, which today is typically, the name, multiple versions work fine as identifiers.

So the issue then becomes not about pure identification with a neutral tone, but the integration of a mark into a complex system. I often talk about quantum physics in presentations. This bores everyone to no end. But, I look at communication today as an ever-changing set of parameters existing in a constant state of flux. At the same time, the communications must talk to several audiences in multiple ways about different ideas. A flexible identity system allows for a wider range of communicative strategies.

This all makes me wish for the days of hard-core old school corporate identity. Paul Rand designed the abc logo, told them it was black and not to mess with it. Easy as pie, but to add another simile, the reed that cannot bend will break.