Site Statistics

  • Members: 156,508
  • Logos: 65,060
  • Sales: $2,366,188

So you're buying a logo? Keep these design fundamentals in mind

Chris Dickman Fri, 10/04/2013 - 11:48

Build Your Own Brand: Strategies, Prompts and Exercises for Marketing Yourself (HOW Books)
By Robin Landa

Telling Your Visual Story

A logo tells a visual story. Your logo tells your story. A logo is a unique identifying symbol. A logo compresses meaning into one small compositional unit, a unit that will be integral to all your visual communication solutions. It can take various forms. Determine which works best to communicate your concept, tell your personal brand story and differentiate you. Here are the form categories:

  • Logotype: the name is spelled out in unique typography or lettering
  • Lettermark: the logo is created using your initials or other representative letters
  • Symbol: a pictorial, abstract, or nonrepresentational visual or letterforms, which may or may not be coupled with your name or studio’s name
    • Pictorial symbol: a representational image, resembling or referring to an identifiable person, place, activity or object
    • Abstract symbol: a simple or complex rearrangement, alteration or distortion of the representation of natural appearance, used for stylistic distinction and/or communication purposes
    • Nonrepresentational or nonobjective symbol: purely invented, it does not relate to any object in nature; it does not literally represent a person, place or thing
    • Letterform symbol: letterform(s) used as the symbol, often coupled with one’s name
    • Character icon: an avatar, the embodiment of one’s personality
    • Combination mark: a combination of name and symbol
    • Emblem: a combination of name and images that are inextricably integrated, never separated

Type and Image Relationships in a Logo

To communicate the design concept and your brand personality, type and image should always work cooperatively, in a synergistic manner—the combined effort being greater than the type or image parts alone. Consider three categories of type and image relationships in a logo:

Supporting Role
Either type or image(s) has the major role and the other component takes the supporting role and is more neutral.

  • A strong visual statement with neutral type in a subordinate role, or…
  • Type makes the stronger visual statement and the image takes a supporting role

Shared Characteristics
Type and image share similar defining characteristics. The agreement in form produces consonance.

Congruence relies on agreement in shape, form, treatment/visualization of form, proportion, weight, width, thin/thick strokes, lines, textures, positive and negative shapes, and time period.

Type and images possess apparent differences, contrasting characteristics. The goal of contrast between type and image characteristics is to produce a unique communication that couldn’t exist without the contrast.

Two basic ways type and images work in contrast:

  • Complementary. Type works in opposition to or in juxtaposition to images, relying on contrasts in shape, form, proportions, weights, widths, thin/thick strokes, lines, textures, positive and negative shapes—for example, geometric versus organic, streamlined versus rough, refined versus sloppy, detailed versus loosely rendered. Mixing styles and historical periods also creates contrast.
  • Ironic. Typeface and image(s) are incongruous for an ironic effect.

The Logo Unit
As a compositional unit, a logo must be an independent entity, able to stand on its own, not dependent on the corner of a printed page or website screen or dependent upon any particular position within a format. A logo must be a freestanding unit because it is incorporated into many other solutions, such as a résumé, business card and website.

Locked Unit
A logo can be a locked (closed) unit based on basic shapes: circle, square, oval, triangle or trapezoid, as well as other clearly defined shapes. Locked unit logo formats can be organic, rectilinear, curvilinear, irregular and accidental shapes, or recognizable closed shapes (flower, human form, star, tree, animal, etc.). These forms can define the logo’s boundaries.

Unlocked Unit
There is a basic unit shape, such as a circle or rectangle, but part of the type or image breaks through the unit, extending into very nearby surrounding graphic space. Yet, unity is maintained.

A logo can be an open free-form shape(s)—not contained or locked by a geometric or other rigid shape acting as the boundary, but still a unit that is independent—a complete stable unit.

How type and image are visualized communicates meaning. Visualizing a dove using a line of varying width will look different and communicate differently than visualizing a dove using extreme light and shadow. The characteristics of all shapes, forms, typefaces, colors, images and symbols of a logo contribute to its denotative and connotative meaning.

Here are fundamental ways of depicting shapes and the illusion of three-dimensional forms.

  • Elemental form: line or flat tone used to reduce an image or subject to stark simplicity.
  • Linear: line used as the main element to describe the shape or form. This can be as simple as a notation or as complex as a fullout
  • High contrast: depiction of forms based on extreme contrast of light and shadow falling on a three-dimensional form.
  • Volumetric: light and shadow, gradation or modeling used to suggest the illusion of a threedimensional form.
  • Texture or pattern: lines or marks used to suggest form, light, texture, pattern or tone using hatch, crosshatch, cross-contour, dots,
    smudges and so on.

Line, value and texture also can depict different appearances, such as wood, wire or a carving. Logos can be flat shapes, such as geometric or silhouettes, or imply the illusion of three-dimensional form, such as droplets or spirals.

Logos can have visual textures or imply materials:

  • Animal skins
  • Brush drawing
  • Carving
  • Carved ice
  • Clay impression
  • Cut paper
  • Distressed leather
  • Fabric
  • Hand print
  • Metal engraving
  • Photographic fragments
  • Raised metal
  • Torn paper
  • Wire
  • Wood
  • Woodcut

Logos can be flat shapes:

  • Curvilinear
  • Geometric
  • Silhouettes
  • Closed
  • Open

Logos can be still or animated. They can imply the illusion of threedimensional forms such as:

  • Beveled
  • Coil-like
  • Cubelike
  • Droplets
  • Projections outward or canted
  • Shadows
  • Spirals
  • Transparencies


Color communicates on a visceral level. It also can be symbolic or come to represent or be associated with a brand.

People respond to color differently depending on their culture, religion, gender, personal preferences and other variables. The symbolic meaning or cultural association with any color is social and historical, tied to specific experiential contexts.

Color is elusive—it has optical properties that change. Color is physical and also lives in the digital realm. The human brain and eyes perceive color in a relational manner. Any color is seen in relation to other colors that surround it or that are near it. Surrounding colors may alter a color’s visual appearance.

To discuss color more precisely, here are three terms to know:

  • Hue is the name of a color, such as red or violet.
  • Value refers to the level of luminosity—lightness or darkness of a color.
  • Saturation (or intensity) is the brightness or dullness of a hue.

Essential Relationships on the Pigment Color Wheel
Whether designing for print or screen, essential color relationships can start with the pigment color wheel, which diagrams basic color harmonies. Three sets of color groups (primary, secondary and interval) comprise the basic pigment color wheel, which designers use as a guide for harmonious color combinations. From there, you can more easily conceive a unique palette—a planned combination of colors—for yourself.

The three primary colors (red, blue and yellow) on the color wheel are connected by an inscribed equilateral triangle, which indicates a basic color group and relationship.

Characteristics: Together as a color palette this basic group of pigment primaries is bold and elemental and may express nostalgia or childlike innocence.

The secondary colors in pigment (orange, green and violet) are mixtures of the primaries. They have less hue contrast among themselves than the primary group because they are mixtures.

Characteristics: Together, as a color palette, they yield a less bold relationship than the primaries, more serene.

Mixtures of the pigment primaries and secondaries yield interval colors between the two: blue (primary) + green (secondary) = blue-green (interval).

White, Black and Gray
The role of neutrals (white, black and gray, also called achromatic colors) in color relationships varies depending on amounts, positions and the hues they accompany. Within a group of saturated hues, white, black and gray might act as areas of visual rest or chromatic neutrality.

Depending on amounts, black may darken (as well as deepen) a design, and white may lighten (as well as open up or enlarge) a design. Black-and-white relationships may also be used for contrast, differentiation or drama. Surrounding a saturated hue with grays can turn the high-intensity hue into a focal point.

Color Temperature
A hue may be warm or cool in temperature, which refers to whether the color is associated with warm things (for example, fire or the sun) or cool things (for example, water or grass). The temperature of a color is not absolute but can fluctuate depending on the strength of the dominant hue of a color. For example, a red may contain blue making it look cooler than a warm red-orange. Saturation and value also affect temperature. In print, color temperature is affected by the color of the paper that any ink is printed on. Although it is more difficult to read the temperature of a dark or dull color, these colors do appear warm or cool. Grays mixed from colors, not neutrals, may appear cool or warm as well.

For representational imagery, it is best practice to use a color palette that is either cool or warm. When used in the same design solution, cool and warm colors may visually separate or appear disparate. For example, if you are depicting a green box, it is best to describe all the surfaces with cool values of green, green-grays or a palette of cool tones. If you depict the darker side of the green box with a warm brown or warm gray, the warmer tone will tend to visually separate from the cooler sides and detract from a three-dimensional appearance.

Cool and warm colors in opposition on the color wheel create visual tension or spatial “push-and-pull” effects when composed together. When placed next to one another, a warm color may seem to move forward and a cool color recedes, but this is all relative to the specific composition, amount of color, weight, saturation, value and the position in the composition.

In nonobjective imagery or typography, color temperature can be used for contrast. However, again, be aware that cool and warm colors do tend to appear inconsonant.

Color Schemes
The color schemes that appear below, harmonious color combinations, are based on hues at full saturation and of middle value range. When designing with color, always consider hue, value and saturation. Changing the value or saturation of a color will affect how it works and communicates. Also consider how colors will appear and interact on screen or in print. On screen, colors are more luminous. In print, the inert properties of ink applied to paper will look different from when designing them on screen.

Combining the below color schemes with black, white, and gray also affects how they behave and communicate, and can be altered by changes in value and saturation, and by the addition of neutrals.

Color palettes reach well beyond the pigment color wheel. Color groupings can be found in:

  • Nature (earth tones, minerals, the sea, etc.)
  • Seasons and climates (autumn, tropical, etc.)
  • Fine art (Prehistoric, Fauvism, Pointillism, Divisionism, Mannerism, etc.)
  • In global cultures
  • Fashion across centuries and countries
  • Periods of design history (Psychedelic, New Wave, etc.)
  • Textiles (Indian textiles with madder dye; various Native American rugs and weavings, batik, Scot plaids)
  • Ceramics (ancient Chinese ceramics, Greek red-figure vase period, etc.)

Always research color symbolism for meaning in relation to the audience, culture, region and country, because each has its own set of associations and meanings. Beyond color schemes, use color to denote, connote, symbolize, distinguish, differentiate, cue; as themes; to demarcate spatial zones or define a website section, to create emphasis, and more.

Monochromatic color schemes employ only one hue. These schemes establish a dominant hue identity while allowing for contrasts in value and saturation.

A monochromatic palette can contribute to a composition’s unity and balance. It can appear restrained, simple, and it can act as an alternative to black for a one-color project, which might be a good solution when there are budgetary constraints or if the design concept calls for a monochromatic scheme. (When used on a white screen or paper, a monochromatic scheme based on a hue that is naturally light in value, such as yellow, would not provide enough contrast on its own unless a neutral such as black was added.)

Analogous color schemes employ three adjacent hues. Due to their proximity on the color wheel, analagous colors tend to be a harmonious or congruent color palette. The harmony is created because of the colors’ similarity to each another. An analagous color scheme aids establishing unity and calm, like a monochromatic scheme, but it is more diverse. In an analagous scheme, one
color can dominate, and the other two colors play supporting roles.

Complementary color schemes are based on a relationship between any two opposing hues on the pigment color wheel. These opposing hues tend to visually vibrate and can express tension or excitement through their strong contrast. Used in small amounts placed close together, complementary colors may mix optically to form grays or to shimmer, which is called mélange optique (optical mixture).

Split complementary color schemes include three hues: one color plus the two colors adjacent to its complement on the color wheel. A split complement’s vibratory nature is high contrast but somewhat more diffused than a complement. It is also less dramatic than a complementary color scheme but still visually intense.

Triadic color schemes include three colors that are at equal distance from each other on the color wheel. Basic triadic groups are the primaries and secondaries. An example of another triadic relationship is redorange/blue-violet/yellow-green. The inherent equalibrium of a triadic group is visually diverse with good hue contrast, yet harmonious.

Tetradic color schemes are comprised of four colors in two sets of complements (a double complementary). Tetradic palettes offer great hue diversity and contrast. For student designers, this palette may be difficult to harmonize unless one hue becomes dominant with the others as supporting players.

Cool colors are the blue, green and violet hues located approximately on the left half of the pigment color wheel. When a composition is based on a cool color palette, it feels synchronized and congruent. Often the resulting effect is calm or serene. Cool colors are easier to balance than warm colors or combined warm/cool palettes.

Warm colors are the red, orange and yellow hues located approximately on the right half of the color wheel. When used together, warm colors look harmonious and are easier to balance than combined warm/cool palettes. The conventional associations with warm colors is the feeling or sensation of heat (fire, the sun), spiciness or intensity.

Extracted with permission from Build Your Own Brand: Strategies, Prompts and Exercises for Marketing Yourself by Robin Landa. Copyright HOW Books 2013

Get Inbox Inspiration

Sign up for the latest branding inspiration, industry news, and logo design tips & resources. Join thousands of designers and branding experts who stay inspired with our monthly newsletter.