Just Creative Design has recently had the pleasure to interview Jeff Fisher but not in the normal ‘tell us about your life’ style interview… This interview walks us through Jeff’s logo design process as well providing invaluable logo design tips on the side.
I highly recommend you to read this article if you have the faintest interest in logo design and if you don’t have time to read it now, print it off for the weekend. You won’t regret it. I have also made bold the key parts of the article for easy scanning as it is 4800 words long.
If you want to print the article at the bottom of this post look for the text “Print This Page”.
So who is Jeff Fisher?
Jeff Fisher is an identity designer, design book author, branding consultant, magazine writer and design lecturer and you better believe it – a blogger too. Fisher has received nearly 600 regional, national and international graphic design awards for his logo and corporate identity efforts. His work is featured in nearly 100 books on the design of logos, the business of graphic design, and small business marketing.
Fisher is also a member of the HOW Magazine Editorial Advisory Board, the HOW Design Conference Advisory Council and the UCDA Designer Magazine Editorial Advisory Board. His book, Identity Crisis!: 50 Redesigns That Transformed Stale Identities into Successful Brands, was recently released by HOW Books. His first volume, The Savvy Designer’s Guide to Success, appeared on bookstore shelves in late 2004.
NB: Jeff often ends his blog posts with “If you don’t toot your own horn, no one will.” Guess I just proved him wrong… I wonder how often he gets called a “famous celebrity logo designer”?
You can see some of his work below (my personal picks) and many many more in his LogoPond portfolio.
On with the interview.
Jacob Cass: First off, thank you participating in this interview here on Just Creative Design, it is quite an honour for a graphic design student such as myself to interview a designer of such high caliber – and I am sure my readers will thank you too – so once again – thank you!
Jeff Fisher: Thanks Jacob. I’m a regular reader of Just Creative Design, so I’m pleased to be interviewed by you for the great blog.
JC: I also noticed you had an interview on Freelance Switch last year so I am going to ask you a few new questions that weren’t brought up there – this time focused purely on logo design. Anyway, on with the interview…
JC: First off I would like to know how do you define “graphic design”?
JF: When I was in high school 35 years ago “graphic design” was not even a term being used. At the time such work was classified as “commercial art.” I’d never even hear the term “graphic design” until 1974 when I came across a copy of Milton Glaser’s book “Graphic Design.” That book gave a name to what I wanted to be when I grew up. In reading that volume, I “got it.” Graphic design was largely about communication in an artistic or creative manner, much like writing is used to convey ideas. Many designers completely miss that aspect of the “art.” Some are completely satisfied with just making things pretty, without taking the communication element into consideration.
JC: Now can you define “corporate identity design”?
JF: It’s funny, but the term “corporate identity design” immediately brings to mind some of the bland, uninteresting “designs” I was occasionally required to implement for some very conservative, traditional corporations early in my career. Perhaps that is why I tend to eliminate the word “corporate” when I discuss “identity design.” At times I feel as if I am involved in “corporate identity design” – but my work is simply not limited to corporations. At times it is “small business identity design,” “sports marketing identity design,” non-profit organization identity design,” “theater identity design,” or the like, Although I don’t particularly like the word itself, “branding” does seem much more appropriate to me. “Identity design” is so seldom about just creating a logo and then walking away from the client. For me, it is often about the implementation of an identity into every aspect of the business the stationery package, all collateral materials, advertising, signage, and even the basic culture of the company. The phrase “corporate identity design” seems to be a bit exclusive it sometimes frightens the smaller client who can’t relate because they don’t consider themselves “corporate.” The simple answer might have been to tell you that I feel the term is a bit outdated.
JC: Many logo designers have different key rules of what a logo should do (ie. be scalable, must work in black, be memorable, be only 2 or 3 colours etc) What are your key rules of a logo?
JF: The K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle was pounded into my head in school and I still follow it today in most of my designs. I know that my most successful efforts are the simplest. I always find myself trying to subtract detail from design concepts in an attempt to distill the idea down to the most basic communication tool.
I know that as designers we are influenced both consciously and subconsciously by everything we see around ourselves. Still, I always try to avoid anything that has been defined as the latest and greatest “trend” in design. One of my “Jeffisms” is: “When a graphics industry expert proclaims something a current ‘design trend’ it is a ‘breaking news’ message to designers everywhere that the specific ‘trend’ should be avoided from that moment on – rather than followed by a thundering flock of design sheep.”
I worked professionally as designer for nearly 13 years before a computer appeared on my desk in 1990. I created many effective logo design prior to that date so, as a rule I know that really successful designs can be created without software produced “special effects.” Identities do not NEED bevels, gradations, 3-D imagery, Web 2.Oh-Oh and other oh so “special” treatments to be great design solutions for clients.
I don’t like just slapping an icon, or piece of art, up next to a type treatment. In some cases it is appropriate and effective but its something I try to avoid in creating a strong and unique logo for a client. I enjoy trying to co-mingle type and graphic elements into a concise identity image.
JC: I recently wrote a post on The Secret Logo Design Process of Top Graphic Designers and in it states that the “secret” logo design process usually consists of:
- Design Brief: Where the designer conducts a questionnaire or interview with client to get the design brief.
- Research: Where the designer conduct research focused on the industry itself, on its history, and on its competitors.
- Reference: Where the designer conducts research into logo designs that have been successful and current styles and trends that are related to the design brief.
- Sketching & Conceptualising: Where the designer develops the logo design concept(s) around the brief and research.
- Reflection: Where the designer takes breaks throughout the design process. This lets their ideas mature and for them to get renewed enthusiasm. They also receive feedback here.
- Positioning: How the designer positions them self. ie. Client orders you what to do OR you guide client to the best solution.
- Presentation: Where the designer chooses to present only a select few logos to the client or a whole collection.
- Celebration: This is where the designer celebrates. They drink beer, eat chocolate, sleep, start on next logo design. Or maybe a combination?
Is this similar to your design process? If not, what may yours consist or not consist of?
JF: My process does involve various aspects of the list you provided and what is included in the process of a specific project is determined by the needs and desires of the client in question. For me, between “Reference” and “Sketching & Conceptualizing” is the “Get the Hell Out of the Studio” step. I most often NEED to shut off the computer, push myself back from my desk and escape the studio space to let possible ideas percolate in my gray matter before committing anything to paper or digital imagery as a sketch or a concept.
JC: What type of information do you usually gather from the client before starting a project? Do you use some sort of logo design questionnaire?
JF: As the vast majority of my identity design work is done for clients I never meet, I rely a great deal on the information provided by clients as responses to the “identity design survey” I usually send via email. The questions that are most helpful to me are those in regards to specifics about the industry associated with their business and requests for information about logo designs, and design elements, that they DO NOT like. It’s often very difficult for clients to define what they DO like. When it comes to what they DO NOT like it is easy for most to provide me adamant opinions and that information helps me avoid taking the client project in the direction of those dislikes. I rely on the client’s survey question answers to educate me about the specifics of their industry or to give me resources I can use to research that industry. I’m an expert on design and identity, not for example – home sale parties of sex toys for women (the actual business of a past client).
JC: After gathering the information you need from the client, what type of external research do you carry out? Does the amount of research you do depend on the pay cheque?
JF: External research never depends on the size of the payment being received it is primarily determined by what is needed to create the best possible solution to the client’s desires and requirements. The research required is also dependent upon the specific project or industry. If I am designing an identity for client in an industry with which I am very familiar less actual research may be necessary. For example; over the years I’ve done numerous logos for theatrical productions. I’m not willing to dive into the project process with no knowledge of the subject matter; just basing my concepts on a sense of the play or musical’s title. I actually take the time to read the play to find that one pivotal literary element that may translate to a graphic surprise within the identity for the show.
JC: After you have some concepts together how many design versions do you usually show to the client and are these pencil sketches or more polished digital illustrations?
JF: I’m a doodler, rather than a sketcher. I very seldom sit down at my desk, or elsewhere, with a sketchpad and deliberately sketch out rough concepts for a logo project (although I always suggest that less experienced designers do exactly that!). My best design concepts seldom come to me when at my desk usually it’s when I’m gardening, on the phone, in a particularly uninspiring meeting, driving down the road, in the shower or elsewhere. I end up doodling on whatever may be handy at the time post it notes, envelopes, meeting notes, a scrap of paper or the corner of a newspaper. (I’ve been documenting many of these examples as “excavated artifacts” on one of my blogs. With my rough doodles, or concepts archived in some dark recess of my brain, I will then go to the computer to “play” with the elements of the design. I then usually present 2-4 digital illustrations to the client but I wouldn’t say they are polished. Many are still a little rough around the edges. However, the concepts are clear enough to give the client a good idea of what I am trying to communicate.
There have been many situations in which I know that my very first concept is the perfect solution to the client’s identity design need. In those cases I’ve had absolutely no problem taking the logo concept to a client and say, “Here’s your logo.” No client has disagreed with me in such cases. About 80-85% of the time the final logo approved by the client is very close to my initial concept.
JC: Has there ever been a case when the client was not fully satisfied with the suggested logo designs? If yes, how did you handle that? Did you charge extra for the additional designs? How often does this happen?
JF: It doesn’t happen often but it does occur. In most situations all parameters of the job are very clearly defined by my project agreement. The client knows exactly what will be provided for a given fee and what any efforts beyond the initial project description will cost. I can only think of four difficult situations in the past 10-12 years. One project was completed and in the other three the projects were aborted.
In one odd situation I gave into the client, giving him EXACTLY what he wanted, against my better judgment and recommendations. The identity project had gone very smoothly and was nearing completion. In fact, the logo portion of project had been approved and I was working on stationery package elements.
Suddenly, out of the blue, the client contacted me and asked that I add a swoosh to the logo design. This was right after the dotcom swoosh-o-rama so well illustrated by the site LogoHell. I asked the client why he wanted a swoosh added and he said because everyone else had swooshes in their logos. He specifically mentioned that because AAA had swoosh in their identity, he wanted one in his to strengthen the possible travel industry customer association with his own business. Totally disgusted, I stuck in the swoosh, re-implemented the logo in all other designed pieces and charged a ridiculous amount for the additional work which he gladly paid. I just never show anyone the logo… [JC: Pretty Please?]
In the three other cases, I was hired as the identity design expert and then not allowed to do my job. Each situation involved the client not being able to get out of their own way in the process of creating an identity for a business or product. The problem was one of their personal likes not necessarily being the best identity and marketing solution for the target audience being address and they didn’t want to hear that from me, although that seemed to be what I was hired to do. I am usually so “right on” with an initial round of rough design concepts, that it always kind of stuns me when a client finds nothing they like at all, and it happens so seldom. I find myself stepping back to over-dissect all aspects of the project and make sure my own ego isn’t getting in the way.
With a project for another designer, we eventually agreed to disagree and split incredibly amicably after numerous rounds of rough concepts. Another involved a client who just got downright nasty with his feedback of all concepts; while his business partner was very complimentary. I felt as if I was dealing with a business which had a split personality and the project thankfully came to a blunt end without being completed. In that case, the problems were theirs, not mine, and I’m glad it ended without blood being shed.
The most recent situation is totally my fault and no one else’s. I failed to follow one of my own most important rules: Always trust your own “gut instincts.” From day one the project, and something about the client, didn’t feel right. When I got the deposit check – and no signed project agreement I enthusiastically started what I perceived would be a great project, instead of requesting/demanding the signed document prior to proceeding. It soon was apparent the client not only didn’t have a clue what they wanted; they didn’t have a clue what they didn’t want. I was stuck in a nightmare, without the legal backing of my project agreement wording to give me a way out. In “people pleaser” mode I pushed on unsuccessfully. The client was repeatedly saying things like “Well, you don’t want an unhappy client do you?” Then, after a ridiculous number of concepts, I got the a message that actually said, “what I got from you is comparable to self-service online logo designs.” That was enough for me. I ended up returning a portion of the client’s deposit, along with a very carefully worded letter, to bring the project to an end.
JC: Wow, so we’re not the only ones that have to deal with bad clients… so how long do you spend on average creating a logo? What are the factors that contribute to how long you spend creating a logo?
JF: There is no average. I’ve spent less than an hour on a successful logo design and some have taken months. One project even evolved over the period of a very, very long year. The shorter projects are usually the result of a client providing me with all of the information needed to produce the desired solution. These individuals usually step out of my way, and their own, allowing me dive into the project effort without a large number of restrictions or control. The longer projects are often for corporate clients, or nonprofit organizations, where the process may get bogged down by a Board of Directors or multiple levels of approval.
I often prefer to work with the one-person, or small business where there is more of a vested interest in the outcome of the logo project. The entrepreneur has an enthusiasm for the project that is missing in most larger projects. As a designer, it’s incredibly gratifying to graphically identify and brand a smaller company, or grassroots organization, and watch the growing success using one’s design as launching tool.
JC: How do you position yourself as a designer? Do you do what you want to do or what the client says to do?
JF: With 30+ years of experience, I feel I have become an expert on Identity and other aspects of design. Clients are hiring me based on that expertise and an archive of past identity work. I position myself as that resource. If a client is the manufacturer of tractors, I assume they are the expert on a piece of equipment about which I no very little. A successful solution to the client’s design needs requires a collaboration of my skills, talents and knowledge with the client’s information base, history in their industry and personality. It’s not a question of one telling the other how things are going to be. I’m not going to let my own ego get in the way of a design project and the client needs to step back from their personal investment in the business or organization to help me create the solution that will best communicate what is needed to the target audience for the desired result.
JC: Your well known LogoMotives logo challenges the “rules” of logo design and I know you have talked about it before but what was the intention of doing this and why did you choose a train as your logo?
JF: I’ve now used the Jeff Fisher LogoMotives identity for just over a decade and I’m surprised at what a recognizable image it has become worldwide. I’m always getting emails, forum messages and social networking comments from designers complimenting me on the logo design and often letting me know that they were shown the image in their high school or university design courses. Many of my clients have told me that they based their decision to hire me on my own logo design.
It’s difficult for a designer to be their own client. I struggled, for over a decade, to create an identity design that conveyed who I am, what I do and was a stellar example of my work. It needed to be my greatest marketing and promotion tool. My early efforts to make use of the LogoMotives name, and my personal interest in trains and toy trains, were frustrating and disappointing. I do think I listened to the input of others a bit too much in the process, However, it did push me to create the best possible image for the crankiest of clients myself.
I don’t know that my own identity challenges the rules of logo design. I’m not a big fan of “rules.” I do think that what are often taught as “rules” are actually just good guidelines for logo design. I’m a “rules were meant to be broken” kind of guy. If designers always follow the supposed “rules” for logo design some of the most creative concepts may end up in the trash. Pushing the limits can be a very good thing.
JC: Could you show us some of your favourite corporate identity work. How do these compare to your least favourite?
JF: In recent years my favorite corporate logo has been the Unilever identity. First of all, it was a great replacement for the old identity, which looked like that twin towers of the World Trade Center. Secondly, it breaks so many of the supposed “rules” for the identity of a major corporation it’s not a simple graphic; the type treatment is not conservative and traditional, the identity actually conveys personality, and much more. I’m always amazed at how well the design reduces in size and I appreciate the explanation/justification of the design at the link provided.
Joe Duffy’s identity for The Islands of the Bahamas is another favorite not surprisingly, it also break many of the “rules” of traditional corporate identity.
The Cotton logo by Landor has always been a favorite for its simplicity and integration of graphic and type elements.
A final favorite logo is one of my own. It makes me smile for several reasons. Over the last 18 years I have created over 100 logos for a small, local non-profit theater company. The producer has always given me complete creative freedom in creating the images. When it came time to create the logo for the show “2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night” I knew I was going to have fun. First of all, I knew the title of the play was going to tweak a lot of people. Secondly, the graphic image I immediately had in my mind was really going to push the buttons of some individuals. The final image was printed on the front a T-shirt without the text and on the shirt back as the complete logo. I loved wearing the shirt out in public, having people come up to compliment me on the great design, and then watching their faces as they realized what was going on in the image. I do think designers sometimes need to get people’s panties in a wad with controversial designs. [Wow, I’ve never seen a logo tell so much of a story!)
My least favorite corporate designs seem to fall into the “stick a ball next to a type treatment” category. I don’t think designs like the current identities for at&t and xerox do justice to the companies they represent. Once great identities have been “dumbed down” with images that will soon be dated. And what’s with Capital One retro-fying the swoosh? As designers, it would be incredible to sit in on the pitch meetings to hear the justifications for these highly visible designs.
JC: This may be a bit late in the interview but what motivated you to become an identity designer and what are the most challenging and most rewarding parts of the job?
JF: As early as grade school I had a love for art. Even at the age of 12 or 13 I was intrigued by advertising and design. I loved typography and was always playing with letterforms. In junior high and high school I was almost obsessed with artistic endeavors and even had one-person shows of my artwork. A painting instructor in high school once told me that I “wasn’t doing my painting correctly” and I went ballistic. As a result I was the first student in my school district to be put on independent study in art and the opportunity allowed me a great deal of freedom to “play” with many different forms of art and design. I was always toying with logo designs along the way including throughout college, as the designer for the advertising department of the daily college newspaper at the University of Oregon and into my early career. Still, I spent a great deal of time slogging through every project that came my way. I felt that’s what a professional designer was expected to do.
Over the years I’ve always been fascinated with, and inspired by, the identity design work of Milton Glaser, Art Chantry, Sayles Design, Michael Schwab, Saul Bass, Louise Fili, Seymour Chwast, Rick Tharp, Hornall Anderson Design Works, Chermayeff & Geismar and others. The identity efforts of such designers and firms has always pushed me to improve my own logo designs.
More identity design work began coming my way as my career progressed and I always enjoyed the challenge of trying to communicate the essence of a business, product, organization or event in a well-designed, simple graphic symbol. A wide variety of other design projects always seemed to be getting in the way of the logo design work I was passionate about. Just over a decade ago, in a discussion with my ad agency owning sister, I was expressing my frustration at starting to feel burned out as a designer. She asked why I wasn’t focusing on what I did best and enjoyed most. I looked at her with a silent, visible question on my face and she said “logo design.” It really opened my eyes, and led to me giving myself permission to focus my design efforts on what I enjoyed doing as a designer. I adopted the business name Jeff Fisher LogoMotives, finalized my own logo and gave myself the job title Engineer of Creative Identity [JC: Now that is a new one – I like it!]. I can certainly take on other types of projects that interest me, but identity design requests are always going to be a priority.
The most rewarding aspect of what I do as a logo designer is watching the growth, and increased public awareness, of start-up businesses or grass roots non-profits for which I have created identities. The personal relationships, and long-time client relationships, established along the way are also a huge benefit. The awards received, and publication in design books, is all just “gravy.”
JC: Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring logo designer such as myself? And any last words?
JF: 1. Keep It Simple, Stupid sorry, I had to do it. It’s been etched in my brain for over 30 years now.
2. Don’t be limited by design “rules” – push yourself to design beyond traditional, or expected, boundaries in attempting to create truly unique identity images for your clients.
3. Always remember that you are not designing for yourself or other designers. You goal is producing the best logo image to serve the requirements and desires of the client in giving an identity to their business, organization, product or event.
4.Trust your “gut instincts” – not just in determining who you may take on as an identity design client, but in knowing which proposed design solutions to present to the client. If you think you have one “kick ass” design that will best serve the client, trust yourself to present only that particular design. If you have any doubts about the strength of a concept, yank it out of your presentation. If you don’t remove it from possible consideration it will be the design the client selects.
5. Have fun! If your work is not fun you should find something else to be doing with your time.
Today, one of the great advantages of this profession is the ability to work from wherever I may be at the time. All I need is my PowerBook and a decent Internet connection. I’ve been able to work from locations around the world for clients throughout the United States and in foreign countries. As I often say: “It’s not that I don’t play well with others; it’s just that I want to choose where, when and with whom I play.”
JC: Thank you once again for your time and very well thought out replies. I have learned a lot from you and so too would have my readers – Readers if you have any questions please fire away, I am sure Jeff will be happy to respond – as will I.