Logo Design: The Intoxicating Allure of the Undefined


As a designer, I know how much fun the concept stage of designing is. This is the point when no ideas are bad, all designs can be entertained and explored, all roads travelled. There’s an unrestrained freedom to this early part of the logo development process, [I like it so much that I initially wrote “love” instead of logo just then], a playfulness that prevails at this stage. Without being pinned down to any one design, I can pour out any concepts at all, without thought to which one of these creations will ultimately prevail, and which will simply represent hours of wasted inspiration.

Then reality rears it ugly head, and choices must be made. Logos must be rejected, some of them perfectly elegant designs, but one must come to the fore in order to become that snappy visual indicator, the torch-bearer of the entity that it’s been created to represent.

Sometimes this process is harder than expected. Maybe there just isn’t a clear winner because no logo outshines all the others in it’s perfection of form and line. When this happens the course is clear, it’s time to go back to the drawing board, something’s got to speak out. But there is another problem that sometimes arises and it’s got nothing to do with the quality of the designs, but much more to do with whether the entity itself is clearly defined (that the logo is being designed to represent). Then the idea the logo is trying to communicate isn’t clear… When this happens, it can be difficult to find only one visual. This is when the door opens for something very dangerous to happen. It’s something that designers both crave, and fear. The non-logo logo.

“Crave” because it’s fun to be able to design to a different concept continuously, not to get tied down to one design direction. In comics this is particularly rare, this freedom. Theoretically, rather than pick one logo, the title of the comic could be expressed in any number of ways. With every monthly issue the title is written differently. Every month it changes, either dramatically, or in small ways, picking up on whatever the style of that month’s particular cover art is. The advantages is that there’s no need to pin the entire run of the comic down to one specific mood or feel, there is complete freedom. The comic will never outgrow it’s logo, it will never begin to look incongruous with the logo, (which can happen as the characters and stories of the comic change since the initial inception of the logo). This can happen so quickly, especially in an evolving comic, that it can be restrictive to create a logo. What happens then, is there is no logo, the title is written, there is a word, but there is no brand, no clear tone.

The danger here stems from how a comic book logo traditionally functions. Every month people go to a store to purchase a comic, there they will look across shelves filled with brightly colored comic book covers. On first glance, their eyes will alight upon familiar logos, drawn there by the same title every month. Every month the comic cover is entirely different, but (traditionally) the logo is consistent, giving the customers a simple visual signpost to where they can find their comic. This is one of the reasons that traditional comic book logos are often so obvious and brash, they seek to stand out from the crowd, to be another visual shout in the roar of graphics.

If the logo changes every month, if the title is written in a different style every month, then there is no obvious visual hook for people to get caught on. This means that they need to look carefully for their comic, seek it out with great attention. This could be problematic for a relatively quiet monthly book, the book needs to stand out in some way, and if it’s not doing so visually, then it needs to be by reputation, so that people will make that extra effort to seek it out. Such a case can be made for a book like Promethea. Every month, the cover of this book was entirely different, the layout entirely different, and (to go along with this temperamental art), a new and completely different title treatment was used every month too. Painstaking care was taken to create a new title logo every month, which would echo and enhance the cover art. The amount of work involved in such an endeavor is pretty overwhelming. Rather than design one logo, dozens were created and the work multiplied, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Design can be a lot of fun, and when you’re working with covers as diverse and exciting as Promethea’s, the logo is an integral part of the design. As a design solution, this approach relates well to the character of Promethea, in her many incarnations, and through her own journey of discovery. To accompany this ever-changing goddess on her journey, one logo would never have worked. Just as Promethea couldn’t be defined by one single mood, art style, or feel, so the title echoed this grand, all-encompassing concept. There couldn’t be one logo, because Promethea wasn’t one person, and the book didn’t focus on one idea. It was an extremely well-rounded comic book.

Now much of the money made in comics is from the compilations of monthly issues, the nice fat, easy to store “real” books. It’s really not such a big deal that the logo no longer functions as a classic sales tool, why not play and enjoy the freedom of a non-logo logo? Who really cares if the monthly comic book doesn’t visually grab people by the scruff of the neck and force them to pick it up? In this market, it could be said that only the very committed are going to seek out a monthly comic of any kind, and those people are clearly willing to work to find comics, so maybe they don’t need a giant, flashy, never-changing logo to find what they need. For the rest of the world, the cover art will simply be something that is reprinted in a compilation that they buy in one go. They don’t experience each month as a trip of discovery, and it’s not so obvious that the book was just a little tiny bit harder to find than any other.



Sonia Harris is a Londoner living in San Francisco. She likes design, she likes art, and she likes literature (so comics fit right in on every front). She’s been in the graphic design 15 years now… which is too long really, but it’s fun.

Comments

  1. Promethea is a good example, but I’m suprised Planetary didn’t get a mention, I think they go the same route that Promethea does and change the logo design depending on the book’s content. Then again, I could just be a wrong useless git 🙂

  2. No chris, you’re right the themed covers were an important part of Planetary and it’s story telling technique just as it was for Promethea

  3. Wow, you guys are really on top of this. Yes, Planetary is another one that does this to great effect, but I have slightly more of a hard-on for the Promethea covers. I think maybe it’s because a lot of the styles of those covers are drawn from fine artists rather than popular culture.

  4. Good observation about Promethea (and Planetary). God, I really didn’t think about how intensive that would be every month. Now I have an even bigger appreciation of JH Williams’ efforts. I wonder: can this only really happen with books like this because they fit a special niche and carry a big name brand (Alan Moore)? You trade recognition with a cover that is a piece of artwork each time. The logo becomes part of the homage of each cover. Which works for a book like Promethea which is finite while catering to a special audience that’s going to a) prre-order and buy it every month regardless or b) buy it in collections (as you note).

    I wonder how it goes in editorial. i assume this cover concept came from Moore and Williams, so if you’re Wildstorm editorial, do you put up any kind of fight or just say "hey, you’re Alan Moore, do whatever the fuck you want."

  5. I love those old Doom Patrol covers from Morrison’s run.  Was it Simon Bisley?  The "o"s were situated so it looked like it said "D8m Patrol".  Classic.

  6. @daccampo Definitely a debt to be paid to Moore and Williams, but I believe Todd Klein did every one of those logos. So really it’s a triumvirate of talent there.

  7. @Sonia – Damn, didn’t realize that (been awhile since i actually had a physical copy in front of me). Yes, mad props to all three, then.

    @horatio – Bisley did do covers for a spell. I think the logo may have been designed by Rian Hughes, though. I did love that cover treatment. 

  8. (I think I was looking at some of the album/poster cover homages [like Sgt. Pepper’s], where the title was really integrated and assuming that Williams had to do it all.)

  9. @daccampo: A very quick google search just turned up this link: http://kleinletters.com/PrometheaCovers.html where Klein talks us through the creation of some of the covers. Bloody lovely.

  10. The title of this article is complete bollocks.

  11. Awesome link. Wow, it was the whole 60’s psychedelic poster that really had me in awe, and it looks like Klein did most of the design/layout, with Williams/Gray just supplying the figure. Very cool.

  12. Awesome article. Nice spotlight on something I usually never pay attention to. I now want to read Promethea, read comics in issues and I would love to see more dynamic logos.

    Now I’m interested to know if such a thing was ever done in a TV show – it’s more work but it seems appropriate to me for shows like Morse where each episode has a lot of meat and slowly progresses, and some show tidbits of the main character’s lives as the viewer progresses, making it not just another murder investigation show. I’m talking more about slight changes – font, location etc.

    I’m feeling like Bill Cosby right now 🙂 Brilliant article.

  13. I wish Joe Casey was my BFF in real life.  It would be me, Casey, and Tony Romo going on triple dates together.  I’m going to write an OGN about it.

  14. @ultimatehoratio-You should get Jim Lee to draw it

  15. @drakedangerz – Go ahead and pre-order it.  Jim’s got the script and it should be done, oh, 2023.

  16. I’m getting the first Promethea trade this week!  Thank you InStockTrades.

     

    I really like these articles Sonia.  Logos are something I’ve never thought about in regards to comics.  I think its great to read something and then better appreciate a part of comics that had gone completely unnoticed.

     

    And I agree with UltimateHoratio.  Bisely’s Doom Patrol covers are awesome.

  17. This article is so awesome I wanna bang it!

    Yeah, I went there.

  18. Bollocks! haha I love that!

    Very interesting perspective pointed out in the article, though the marketing folk likely have another opinion regarding branding and logo strategies. As for me, if the cover looks good I could care less if the logo changes from issue to issue.

  19. Awesome article. Your completely right about the design process, but if you actually know about the book, then you would know that the book was almost never on time. It took Alan Moore and JH Williams 6 years to finish the series with 32 issues. "Every month" was most curtainly not the case with Promethea. Just some food for thought, but dare I ask, have you actually read the complete series or just study the covers? Honestly now.

  20. @Ark: Oh get a life!

  21. @Ark – You’re always tryin’ to hurt somebody.  Why don’t you try lovin’ somebody?

  22. Great article Sonia, keep up the good work!

  23. there have been so many different kinds of logo designs this was a prime example. but sometimes its hard to find the title when you cant tell what the logo says lol

  24. there have been so many different kinds of logo designs this was a prime example. but sometimes its hard to find the title when you cant tell what the logo says lol