Brian Feeney

Designer & Front-End Developer

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Resident of Brooklyn, NY. Senior Product Designer at the Wall Street Journal.

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April 26, 2012

Logos on the Cheap

Tom and Phil of the Dolphin Plumbing Co. -- AKA Tom and Phil of London-based design firm Matt Dolphin -- spent the $42 to experience what it's like to purchase a logo from a discount design shop. The results are as you would expect: terrible. Their conclusion was this:

Maybe [the buyer of a cheap logo] doesn’t want his service to look premium. He’s a down-to-earth guy making an honest living for a fair price and he wants his logo to reflect that. Fair enough. But at no point throughout the process were we asked any questions about this. It was far too easy to let the designers get on with designing what they thought was right for a company they knew next-to-nothing about. Without this knowledge, can you really create something of any value, or are you simply choosing random fonts and adding clichéd clipart images based on the name of the company?

One of my first design jobs was as an in-house designer for a vanity publisher. I made book jackets -- at the pace of about 35 a week. That's a serious number. Because the work load was so heavy and steady, there wasn't any time to thoughtfully consider each design. It was a laughable work environment and I viewed it as a schooling experience more than a serious design job. Most of my designs were flat and extremely shallow. Of course they were. Aside from the book description and author suggestions (if there were any), I had nothing but my own intuition to guide me.

One thing I learned is that quality begets quality. And at a vanity press, the quality of 99% of the books published are astoundingly terrible. But here's the secret: the authors didn't know they were terrible. They didn't know how to distinguish between high and low quality writing. Nor were they able to see the difference between high and low quality design; which answers Matt's slightly hyperbolic question that "maybe [they] don't want [their] service to look premium." It's not a matter of wanting premium designs. They simply wanted a design because they needed a design and they couldn't do it themselves in Microsoft Word. It was never a concern of my employer to create book jackets that could compete with what was on display at Barnes & Noble. It was simply necessary to have a cover that somewhat represented the book and wasn't black text on a white background. The same goes for a plumber and his logo. For a plumber in a small town with an old van who may only make $42 in a day, all he needs is the smallest amount of distinction, not quality.

This is the reality of design. The $42-a-logo company is filling a need, and yes, they are creating something of value. They are providing cheap, lousy branding for companies that in all likelihood could barely afford even cheap, lousy branding but yet need it anyway. I understand why someone who runs a professional logo design firm would be irritated by a company that makes stupidly cheap, knock-off logos. I don't, however, sympathize with feeling threatened by them. Their service may be adjacent, but they don't overlap. If you make modern, functional logos of real quality, you will find clients to pay what you deserve. Matt and Phil of Dolphin Plumbing were not a client that would ever approach a professional design firm. If they were, they would have been the type to email for a price quote, see the response, and never be heard from again.

There was nothing wrong in Tom and Phil's article. It was a great look at the process used by that type of budget design company. I think they missed the bigger picture, though. We designers know by both instinct and experience that good design work isn't cheap or fast. I'm sure the designers working in that cheap logo company knew it, too. The mistake is assuming there is only one type of client.