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I'm looking for some opinions on how to approach an interesting problem I've encounted.

I dabble in UX/graphic design, specifically for the web. Mostly static sites. I do this all on my own time as a side business and it's something that I would like to go in to full time. By day, I'm a software engineer for a company that has absolutely nothing to do with design or UX. However, we do have an extremely out of date website. Today, our boss called a meeting to discuss with me and one other employee who specializes in back-end scripting to express a desire to redesign the site. She has seen my work and very much enjoys what I do, and will allow me to take credit for the site using my external LLC rather than advertising the site as an inside job. She also pointed me towards 4 other people in the same industry who are in dire need of the same sort of services that she would like to recommend me to. In other words, this would be a huge portfolio building opportunity.

But there's one problem. She is absolutely insistent on keeping the same company logo, and it's truly awful. The typeface has very poor contrast with the graphical elements, it's poorly kerned and spaced, and in places the text can't even be read. She had several horrible ideas for the web design that she very gracefully allowed me to shoot down but she made it very clear that she wouldn't bend on the logo. Partially because it was designed by her son, and partially because in our industry we intentionally try to minimize our exposure to a very small group of people and so consistent branding is important. It's a logo that has been going out on business cards, presentation watermarks, and the like for around 9 years, so she feels that changing our visual brand identity would be a problem.

What advice do you have about designing around an ugly keystone element like this? The website design will go through with or without me, and if I'm not involved then it will be rebuilt from the ground up completely internally, no other consultants. Plus I would lose out on the potential for a small handful of additional freelance clients. And I'd love to add some businesses to my portfolio and some quick consulting cash to my wallet so I can close out my last semester of university in the black and start paying off my student loans immediately.

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How did this work out? –  Ray Mitchell May 12 '11 at 21:07
    
@Ray the design turned out okay, the whole process ended up being a nightmare though. After wrapping up their redesign I ended up leaving the company entirely, as being a "client" gave me a lot of insight in to their business practices and in to the way they treated their employees the way they did. –  Doug Stephen May 14 '11 at 23:46
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One wonders if the logo couldn't be redesigned without actually changing any of the ideas? e.g. fix the proportions, perspective, fonts, and nudge the colour scheme towards sanity, while keeping all of the major design concepts. –  naught101 Jul 14 '13 at 9:06

6 Answers 6

up vote 27 down vote accepted

There are a few things you could try to do:

  • If the logo is simple, make it monochrome to neutralize any garish colors. Depending on the logo, you may even be able to do so if it's more complicated.
  • If they don't have the logo in vector format, you could recreate it, giving it a slight, but subtle refresh. This way you can improve any blurriness as well.
  • If drastic gradients are a problem, tone them down.
  • Minimize the logo in the design and emphasize either the products or people. Draw the eye away from the logo.
  • Use the company name as a logotype at the top, with the real logo at the bottom.
  • Emphasize the importance of testing and then offer to create a few variations that maintain the spirit of the original logo. Then test them. She may be more open to change if the logo tests poorly among people who have no stake in the decision.
  • Don't show her the GAP logo redesign.

At the end of the day, however, you may have no choice but to use the logo as is. In that case, many of the suggestions Jaips gave would be appropriate.

It's important to keep perspective as well. The hardest part of going to full-time freelance is building your initial portfolio. Don't forsake this job and the others for the sake of a logo. I've seen many very busy web studios that don't do good work. It's better to have actual client sites in your portfolio, even if not all of them are completely representative of what you can do, than to have no portfolio (or money) at all. Many potential clients won't know a good design from a bad one at first glance anyways. Also, you don't have to put every site you do in your portfolio and once they're there, you don't have to keep them there.

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+1, and you may even blur/white out the logo from screenshots in your portfolio if you really don't want to take any credit for it ;) –  Eric Bréchemier Feb 5 '11 at 9:18
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+1 for "At the end of the day...you may have no choice but to use the logo as is." My company's former CEO once went out and hired an outside designer to create a log for us that was terrible. Small size with small type, cliché shape, didn't fit with any other branding, but he insisted that we put it on every product that we made. No rhyme or reason, and woe be the designer that forgot to use it. We were forced to use that logo for years. Finally, one day he saw it in this impossibly small size—but it was "to spec"—and abruptly told us to stop using it. It happens. Just roll with it. –  Philip Regan Feb 5 '11 at 12:40
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I chuckled at the Gap logo bullet point. –  Doug Stephen Feb 5 '11 at 17:48
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+1 for 'update' rather than 'redesign'. Sometimes a client will be very open to 'polishin'g the logo as opposed to a complete redesign. –  DA01 Feb 7 '11 at 15:32

Unfortuately its difficult to answer comprehensively without seeing the logo.

Its my overall belief that the context design should play second fiddle to prominant branding like a logo. It should try to support and flatter the the logo no matter how awful (sorry). What the logo is like will affect your design response. These are some safe suggestions:

  • Keep your palette simple; neutral colours, and pull out one key colour from the company brand to play with and emphasis around the site as an accent colour.

  • Keep your design clean; if it requires it leave plenty of 'white' space around the logo.

  • Use a complementary typeface; see this question's answers

All the way through the idea is to try and identify the good and give emphasis to that, while allowing the bad to fade to the back.

As for actually changing the logo, your 'client' is right... partly; you don't want to throw out 9yrs worth of brand identity. That's why some company's spend a huge amount on a brand refresh and joe public probably wonders what even changed. i.e microsoft's recent brand refresh. But some of the issues you've identified, low contrast for example, may be able to be improved without a radical refresh.

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I like the suggestions. Some of them are things I have in place in my mocks (lots of negative space, typeface, palette). I think what concerns me the most is that the overall quality of the logo is the sort of thing that is intangibly awkward when your brain tries to extract the aesthetics out of what it's seeing... It just really looks like something that was designed by somebody's son (if that even makes sense... I obviously realize that everyone is somebody's son). I'd love to show you the logo but obviously after what I've said, there's an incrimination factor, hah. –  Doug Stephen Feb 5 '11 at 2:50

Doug,

This is a classic problem. In your case the logo was designed by her son , in other cases logo is widely used on every stationery and business card so its hard to change. I would suggest if you can sharpen the logo by adding some kind of effect like blur, shading or sharpen the text. IF you absolutely cannot even touch the logo then how about putting logo inside a slick circle or a square with Grenadian background and work your way around it ? Another option is to make the logo size smaller so it does less damage :D. I am giving this kind of silly suggestions because I am sure you must have tried hard enough to change her mind.

I would say this though, in past I have walked away from my clients if I see no value in it. If you only care about money then you should not care , just giver her whatever :)

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You could think of it as a challenge. A challenge to make clay into art! (Insert inspiring words here.) –  muntoo Feb 5 '11 at 3:49

How old is her son? Is there any way to contact him? I wouldn't advise going behind the client's back in regular business proceedings, but in this case, it may be beneficial to everyone if you could talk to the son directly and:

  1. tell him what you think of the logo and how retaining it could harm the company
  2. find out what he was trying to achieve or get across with the logo
  3. ask him how he feels about the logo now (maybe putting it up next to some more professionally designed logos)
  4. propose working with him to evolve/update the logo with the objectives from #2 in mind

Sometimes designers will be very proud of a design at the time of creation, but might not feel the same way over time. And, who knows, maybe the son is actually secretly embarrassed with the logo himself. If you can convince him that he can do better, he'd probably want to.

If you approach the son with a logo redesign proposal, maybe he can convince the client to use a slightly updated logo that still retains the main characteristics of the original but is executed better.

To strengthen your case to either the son or the client, you could present some case studies of how well-recognized brand logos have evolved over time while still retaining their brand identity. You might even create an "intermediate" logo that only implements some of the features of the new logo. If you can get the client to accept the intermediate design, then chances are good that the client will eventually adopt the final logo design. This would reduce the shock of a logo change to the client and their customers.

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Her son is early 20's, just a little younger than myself. He's also not a designer by trade. It was basically one of those mom needed a logo and he had Photoshop sort of situations. –  Doug Stephen Feb 5 '11 at 17:52
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@Doug: In that case, he's probably a lot less attached to that design than his mother his. And his mother may not be so much attached to the logo as the fact that it's designed by her son. So collaborating with the son may be a way to at least tweak the logo a little, which may open the door to a more radical logo change at some point. –  Calvin Huang Feb 5 '11 at 18:05
    
I'll definitely give it a try. –  Doug Stephen Feb 5 '11 at 18:29

I had a similar problem, once - not the logo itself, but a word in the client's company name was spelled wrong and she refused to change it because she thought it looked 'cute' that way (Not of a case of a pun or play on words or anything - it was '__'s Fantasys') and I was kind of embarrassed to include it in my portfolio.

I couldn't do anything on the site itself, but in the screen shots for the portfolio I just swapped out the logo for a correctly spelled one. Maybe you could tell her that since the logo wasn't designed by you, you didn't feel comfortable including it in your portfolio, even as a piece of another project?

I can understand her fears about rebranding, too, but so many major companies have undergone fairly extensive rebrands that it shouldn't be THAT scary. If you really want to get her to think about updating the logo, maybe you could dig up some case studies of giant megacorporations that have successfully changed their logo over time (AT&T, IBM, I think Starbucks just unveiled a new one - really, any company that's been around more than 10 years has probably at least tweaked their logo.)

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Show her what the logo could look like. Whatever suggestions you get here or think of on your own, flesh them out and let her see how much better they are. Start with the most different and end with one which is most similar, perhaps just cleaning up the issues you mentioned. Show them in place, on mockups of the website, on a hand-drawn business card, whatever you can.

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