Why Won’t I “Just Make a Logo”?

There is a lot of confusion out there about branding. The language behind visual communication is very specific. I often get new clients asking me if I can "just make them a logo." My answer is invariably and emphatically, no. What is needed is for me to distill their brand identity and create a visual system that works for their brand and a logo will never do that by itself.

Just a “logo” is really not enough, but it can be enough to start a system, if you have the brand identity work done.

You see, the word logo is a greek word that literally means “word.” So technically, a logo is the wordmark. In other words, it is your company name written out in type. Hopefully you or a designer choose a typeface family for your brand that has the right personality (or none at all) for your brand and has a big family for expressiveness in copy and advertising.

Once that is done and you type your name on a page, you have a logo. Of course you would do well to customize the type in a few ways, so not just anyone can retype your logo in the same font, but that is not always necessary. Many companies have their logo in Helvetica. Now, we haven't even asked the most important questions. "Is the name good?" "Does the name speak to the customer, or does it speak to the person who came up with the name?" But, I am getting ahead of myself. I ask these questions in my branding discovery session as outlined below.

So how do we get here? How do we make sure that we pick the right typeface? How do we customize the type? What about the actual “logo?” I know that most peoples definition of logo is actually an icon. They want a stamp, a simple image that says something about who they are and what they are about.

The truth is, we are far ahead of ourselves. Before we pick a typeface and write out our name, before we make an icon and any imagery, we have a lot of questions to ask and have fully answered.

This is why I do a branding discovery session with clients before we even make anything. This is more like a day with a therapist and a coach. In this session, I ask a series of just over fifteen questions that go from the very simple and broad overview of the who, what, where, when, why of the brand, all the way to very deep and pointed questions like, “If there was nothing stopping you, no resistance or obstruction, what is the first thing you would accomplish for your business today?”

What a question like this does, is it allows the business to stop thinking about what they want people to see in an icon and start thinking about who they really are. Often, who we really are and what we want to look like are very different realities and in order to make a logo and an icon, or a full branding system, which is what is really needed, we need the truth first. Who are you, what is the soul of your company and how do your real world customers see you in reality?

The point of this initial discovery is many fold beyond just unearthing the truth of your brand. It does many things that make the process better for everyone:

1. Create a series of thresholds that allow the client and I to opt out of the relationship if it becomes clear that we aren’t a good fit. This is actually a good thing. If I do the initial branding discovery and find the client is not for me for some reason, I always know a designer that will be a good fit and that is what really matters here because you can’t get great work done if there isn’t full synergy. Humility around this is key to starting great work.

2. Find weaknesses the business leaders didn’t know they had in their brand. From supply chain issues to employee training and even small things like how well your parking lot works, all of this is a part of your brand. Every aspect of the experience is creating an overall perception of who you are. A brand is a lot more than a logo. You might have the coolest icon in the world, but if your customer service sucks then your brand will too.

3. Find strengths that the leaders can strengthen and develop. Often when businesses are focused on fixing details and getting better at the minutia, they forget what their core strength is. I have even had meetings where the business had completely lost track of their purpose, chasing every little stream of income and in the session, the owner had an aha and restructured to get back to their original purpose which in the end, made them a ton of money. That decision was more valuable than any typeface choice or icon I made and the visual identity cost more money!

4. Get to know the brand as well or better than the business owners and managers themselves. This is my goal. I cannot divine the kernel of truth for your imagery without understanding everything about your business as well or better than anyone. Believe me, when you have a third party learn about your business as well as you, and they lack the emotional attachment to the darlings of your business, you are about to learn a lot about yourself you did not know!

All of these questions serve to inform the visual decisions and make the process a lot easier as well as giving the client confidence about the decisions that are being made because they can see the reasons why at every step.

At the end of the session I spend the next day making a summary and creative brief, delivering all of my findings, advice and direction for creating the visual identity system.

This summary outlines how much work the branding system will take to build and the timeline and path to get there as well as all of the foundational info that we will be working with to create it.

In getting to this point the client has gone through a lot. This is an intense and deep soul searching session and the answers aren’t always answers the client wants to hear. Some of the answers mean we have to back track things that have been done improperly. This means wasted time and money. There can be pain involved and bedside manner along the way is everything.

There are exceptions to this. I have encountered businesses where they have someone on their team who is knowledgable and has been doing this work the whole time and they can submit all of the info I need without this session. Sometimes a team that is that savvy literally just needs a typeface and an icon, but in my experience that is  a one in a thousand chance. Most businesses aren’t that prepared, they have been focused on the bottom line, not how to do great visual storytelling.

So, if you are looking for a “logo” consider that you likely need a lot more than that and you would do well to do a branding session like I have described. If you need one with me, you know how to get a hold of me.


Peace and Love on your journey to revealing yourself to the world!

Jesse Barney

February 1, 2020