Review—The Elements Of Logo Design: Design Thinking, Branding, and Making Marks

It’s all too easy to get locked into seeing things a certain way and to get stuck thinking that way is the only one, even when the evidence suggests another course might make more sense. I think you’d agree it’s better to be open to more than one possibility, especially when it comes to anything with a creative component.

You grow by pushing past your boundaries, by challenging your existing thought and ways of seeing, by being open to new possibilities and new ways of doing the same old thing. You need to see things from multiple points of view in order to develop empathy for those who will use your design.

Learning to see things from different angles and new perspectives gives you a deeper understanding of them. The ability to see the same thing from many sides is an invaluable skill for designers to possess as it allows you to create and test multiple possibilities on your way to your best solution.

This is especially true when designing a logo, something you want to last and have viewed as timeless. It generally takes a lot of different ideas to reach timeless.

I recently had the opportunity to read The Elements of Logo Design : Design Thinking, Branding, and Making Marks by Alex White and I think it does a great job showing the process of designing a logo in a way you won’t typically find in a how to logo book. It offers a different perspective.

I’ve read and enjoyed two of Professor White’s other books, The Elements of Graphic Design and Thinking in Type: The Practical Philosophy of Typography. One thing I’ve noticed in all three is that Professor White tends to offer a different take on subjects than what I’ve read in other books. He’ll sometimes skip things most other books mention on the topic, even though I can tell he would agree with what the others books have written. He has a different way of looking at the same thing.

In his own words, “Alex White is a designer, lecturer, professor, and author of books on graphic design and typographic practice, theory, and philosophy.” That’s quite a lot and you can click on the link at the start of this paragraph if you’d like to know more details.

What’s Inside?

The book is divided into seven chapters, the first few discuss general principles about graphic design and the last few look at how those principles are specifically applied to logo design.

  1. Five Steps to Improve Your Design Process: Using Logic to Refine a Design Idea—I’m not sure I’d call them steps, but the five are: relationships, contrast and similarity, hierarchy, structure, and color. The chapter discusses what each is and how they’re used in graphic design.
  2. Putting It Together: Achieving a Unified Design—Unity is the goal of all design and it comes about through a design process of refining intentional relationships between parts, the clearer the better. You build those relationships through your use of the other four steps.
  3. Frozen Sound: Emphases and Pauses in Visual Language—This chapter is about typography, though instead of offering advice about the ideal line-height or which typefaces to pair with which, it compares letterforms to frozen sound and typography to frozen speech. It compares the visual treatment of type to music through the use of rhythm in both. Like I said, a different perspective.
  4. How a Logo Fits into a Company’s Branding Strategy—This chapter considers a logo as company dress. It talks about logos in terms of their benefit for a given company and what kinds of logos work better for smaller and larger businesses. It’s all about what makes for a good logo from the perspective of the company.
  5. How to Build a Logo: Type and Space
  6. How to Build a Logo: Image and Space
  7. How to Build a Logo: Type, Image, and Space

The last three chapters build on each other and everything else that came before them in the book. These chapters aren’t “how to” in the traditional sense as you might guess by now.

All three chapters discuss how designers only have type, space, and image to work with. The first of these three chapters talks about how to build intentional relationships with type and space and it does so mostly by looking at examples and showing you. The second chapter discusses how to do the same with images and space, and the third talks about unifying the relationships in all three.

My Take

I mentioned perspective at the start of this review. To give you an idea how this books sees things differently, here’s how the book opens in the two-page spread just before the first chapter.

Having “nothing wrong” with a design is a long way from having “something right” with it. If you can state what is right with your work, you have applied logical thought. If not, random prevails

If it’s random it’s wrong

I think that gives you an indication of the shift in perspective you might receive reading The Elements of Logo Design. It’s a subtle shift, but it leads to a book that shows examples of designs that have nothing wrong and it also shows examples of designs that have something and usually more than one thing right and why the latter are the better logos.

The book follows a format where the text is always about the images that accompany it. Text in the margin will state something like “good design is a balance of contrast and similarity” and then it will point to an accompanying image and note how both contrast and similarity are used in the design. You’ll find yourself scanning back and forth a lot between the text and the accompanying images if you want to get the most of the book.

I’ve found a funny thing happens when I read an Alex White design book, including this one. As I read I always enjoy what’s been written and I find the example images and graphics helpful. I also always find myself wondering at times how come he didn’t include X or why is a chapter about Y included in a book about Z. Then I get to the end of the book and realize that everything that needed to be in the book was in it and everything else was left out. And I always feel like my understanding of graphic design has improved tremendously.

You should also know this isn’t going to be like other design books that assume you know nothing about design and are for a complete beginner. I think Professor White assumes you know the basics. He’ll cover what he needs to so you can understand the rest of the book, but he isn’t going to spend time covering the details of a whole bunch of things you probably already know.

Because of that, you might not make this your first book on logo design, but I wouldn’t wait too long after you have read your first, to read this one. I think the perspective given is both good and interesting and I think it will help you build a context for what makes for a good logo and how to go about designing one.

As much as anything, this book will help you better understand and appreciate the logos you see all around you. I think the book gives you plenty of information to judge for yourself whether a particular logo is good or bad and perhaps more important, why it’s one or the other.

In the end I think the book isn’t so much a how to book as it is a way of seeing and understanding what makes for a good logo from the perspective of both the client and the designer.

Maybe it won’t be your very first book about logos or graphic design, but it’s definitely a book worth reading once you know a little of the language of graphic design in general and logos in particular. Then again that may simply be a perspective I’ve locked myself into since I have read other of Professor White’s books prior and find it hard to imagine The Elements of Logo Design any other way as a result. Perhaps I should read it again and gain a new perspective.

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2 comments

  1. Good review. I like that you described how it made you feel (wondering why a chapter about Y is in a book Z) in addition to other insights about the book. After reading your review and then browsing a few pages on Amazon, I ended up buying the book. Looking forward to reading the good Professor’s perspective on design. Thanks.

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