Guest Article: Cuneiform, LOLspeak and Your Crazy Client

From the earliest recorded history of our world, people have used pictures to illustrate ideas, label items and communicate with each other. Pictures have united and divided people groups for millennia. Some of the earliest symbols exist to this day as signs of people groups and their identity. Today, in whatever country we reside, we salute our flag and say our vows to our countries, proud to be called by its name and pledging our allegiance to it’s undying success.

Why is this? What is it about an image that so enthralls us, so captivates us, and so unites us? Images have always been used as uniting factors, from the brave marches of armies across the ancient world to the TV shows we watch every week and talk about over the water cooler breaks.

Today, graphic designers are faced with understanding the subconscious attitudes of our customers, and are so many times asked to read minds and predict the future with startling frequency. We have to understand what is it about a logo that so captivates people that they will buy no other brand, and in some ways identify themselves with the company they purchase from, whatever company that may be.

If we’re to get some bearings about where we are in the evolution of the image and it’s current term ‘logo’, we need a little history. The earliest forms of writing were of course cuneiform scripts written on clay tablets, being used for everything from receipts of cattle to royal decrees.

The interesting thing about this though, is that the language began to be shortened to one symbol for many things, and a combination of two letters could mean a business, grocer, or even an event in a city. This was the beginning of what we could consider to be a typographic and logo evolution into our present logos such as GE, Nike and NBC. The ‘shortening’ patterns continued through history to the illuminated manuscripts in Medieval Europe which would illustrate individual letters for a chapter, or even just a few with a picture on a book cover. Illustrated entirely by hand, the books would be a prototype mass communication before the Gutenberg press. The manuscripts are a prime example of the first use of letters and images to create a lasting impression on the reader.

What does this mean for us? Does this mean that cuneiform could have been the beginning of a language shift and shortening that has continued across the ages, only to find itself in our most recent and highly debated language shift into what many people are calling “LOLspeak?”

This brings us to today, as you sit in front of your computer, your client’s desires scribbled on a napkin. The client wants the logo to explode, bring world peace, solve all of their problems, be 3-D and use a ton of bright colors (each pair that bickers with each other on the color wheel and should never, ever be used together).

The client says that their cousin who has a degree in beer can smashing did a great job on Microsoft paint, but they wanted something a little ‘fancier’ and ‘more elegant’. But they still want the giant bunny eating a carrot swinging from a rooftop attached to a dump truck hauling a ton of cement. And they want it by tomorrow.

In these crises, how can we hope to attain the perfect logo when given these insane parameters?

So how does history come into this? Well, armed with the knowledge of how things have been designed over the ages, you actually find yourself in a place that thousands, maybe millions have been before since ancient times! You’re not alone! So how did all of these people over thousands of years successfully combine art and letters into something memorable?

Pragmatically, it’s not possible to have an ultimately ‘perfect’ logo, as individual tastes vary, but it is possible to have a logo of excellence. Here’s the difference be between perfection and excellence:

Perfection is not satisfied with anything, and tries to get it ‘perfect’ no matter what. This will lead you into worlds of anger, frustration and discouragement. So many designers want their logos to be perfect, but the reality is that we rarely have the time and budget to spend months and months on a logo tweaking it. However, excellence is doing the best you can with what you have. This includes time, money and abilities. Professions frequently talk about the work ethic and drive of a potential employee or freelance designer in terms of excellence. This means with X budget and Y time, you push yourself as hard as you can to get the logo to work within the parameters of the Elements and Principles of Design. Even if your logo doesn’t bring them to tears of joy, it will show them that you are capable of so much more and are worth investing in over the long haul. The absolute worst thing a designer can do to the design community is to be flaky and lazy. (This is not to say that life events don’t happen, but consistently missing deadlines will kill your business faster than anything else).

The answer is the Elements and Principles of design. As you sit in front of the computer, with your client’s inane scribbles asking for the moon, you have the choice on how to go about designing this ‘perfect’ logo. You can haphazardly put together what they want, or attempt to apply the Elements and Principles to this insane logo. The Elements and Principles were the main ingredient to any and all successful architecture, sculpture, and even typography in history. You can never go wrong if you successfully apply them to anything. Color theory can destroy horrible color combinations and bring the most horrible logos into the realm of toleration. The elements and principles can be a course to navigate the treacherous waters of dealing with the many types of clients you will encounter.

The most successful graphic designers in print (Paul Rand, Margo Chase, Marty Neumeier, etc.) have consistently used them, and continue the ancient great tradition that all true designers follow. Studying those who are successful will help in any endeavor or situation you find yourself in, because they have been there too.

So, you the industrious designer, not so alone in history or the world, begin that design process armed with the weapons of design to conquer the problem and give the client the best logo you can muster. You may not be able to read minds, but every human is the same, and we all respond to design. They very well may think you can! And who knows? You may end up as the next Margo Chase or Paul Rand if you keep on doing the best you can with what you have.

Michael Dambold

Michael Dambold is an independent design and illustration professional that specializes in print and web. He currently resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Follow Michael on <a href="">Twitter</a>.

  • Thank you for an awesome read. I can not help to smile when it gets to the sections of how you describe client requirements… but that is how it goes. For the rest – it is a good reminder of Elements and Principles of design.

  • Graphic design plays such an enormous role in the customer subconscious. This article really got me considering graphic design’s progression from cuneiform to the way the Duane Reade logo has evolved. As a consumer, I know I generally make decisions based on graphic design rather than quality a lot of the time. If it comes in a shiny, colorful package – i think it will taste that much better.
    Great read Michael !

  • I can’t do anything but agree with the previous reactions :-)

  • Eric N.

    Great article to remind us to adhere to design principles! I have to admit that when brainstorming I frequently put aside all structure, and things only pull together when I apply the basics of design priciple to come up with something effective. It’s also a good practice because your result is something you can logically and easily justify in terms of accepted design practices and “rules”.

    So when your client asks why you chose two complementary colors instead of fluorescent day-glo hues, you can speak logically that they asked for “something that popped off the page” so you used colors with ‘maximum contrast & impact’ rather than inappropriate (I wish I could say “cheesy”) colors.