One of the first elements of design that any new business must face is its logo. This simple little symbol carries a lot of weight for a company. Being the visually-based creatures that we are, we use logos to help us distinguish one product or service from another, and this is never more important than when we're faced with similar choices. The reputation earned by a company rests on the shoulders of the logo, allowing us to instantly establish trust or distrust for the products bearing it.
The process of developing a logo has traditionally been left in the hands of professional designers and ad agencies. Logo development is often not inexpensive, but that's because it involves much more than drawing a simple little picture. Designers will research a company, its products, its competitors, and even its potential customers in order to find an appropriate design. Furthermore, the value of the logo extends far beyond the development process. A good logo will last a company at least 5 to 10 years; some last the entire lifetime of a business.
Many smaller businesses view the costs of professional logo design as too high, placing the service out of reach. Sometimes they have resorted to using generic clip art for their business cards and letterhead.
Enter the age of the cheap logo.
Over the last several years, services have appeared all over the Internet that offer incredibly inexpensive logo designs within improbably fast turn-around times. Some promise concepts in a matter of days and one boasts just 60 minutes.
One of the largest and most well-known of these logo mills is a company called LogoWorks. The LogoWorks claim is that they will offer concepts within 3 business days and at a cost starting under $300. From there, the customer picks the concept they like, which is then refined into the finished art.
The materials on the LogoWorks web site offer comparisons between their work and that of higher priced designers and agencies. In fact, at the time this article was written, the text on their web site claims that each of their designers is a specialist that provides higher quality logo design than traditional design firms. They also compare themselves to other companies that offer services similar to theirs and assert that many of those companies simply employ designers working on the side.
On the surface, this seems like a fantastic deal for smaller businesses, which simply don't have the budgets for agency work. However, as with any important business decision, one must look beneath the surface.
Recently, LogoWorks was caught in a rather embarrassing situation. Von Glitschka of Glitschka Studios noticed that one of the logos displayed within the LogoWorks gallery looked suspiciously similar to a design he was familiar with. After comparing the original design, created by Mark Fox (and appearing in the book “The New American Logo”), to the version in the LogoWorks gallery, it appeared that certain design elements were not just similar, but had been directly copied.
This prompted a flurry of activity within the design community as designers scoured the LogoWorks galleries looking for other examples of copied logos. The results were startling. It appeared that it was not an isolated incident. A number of designs that raised alarms were found both on the LogoWorks site and on the site InstaLogo.com (which is owned by the LogoWorks parent company Arteis, and sells additional logos created by LogoWorks designers). Some of the examples were obvious copies of existing logos, while others were more subjective, but the message was clear: Something funny was going on with LogoWorks.
Within days, the senior marketing officer for LogoWorks, Jeff Kearl, posted a statement to the HOW design forum defending LogoWorks and its practices. His assertion was that LogoWorks takes matters of originality very seriously. He further downplayed the situation by saying that some of the designs in question were not logos sold to customers, but rather had been used as "concepts" used to guide projects. Mr. Kearl denied any specific allegations of wrong-doing, suggesting instead that the designs in question were results of database errors and that the offending logos were promptly removed from the LogoWorks galleries. He also went on to say that designers caught submitting questionable designs are promptly dismissed from the LogoWorks system.
Unfortunately, the fact remains that these unoriginal designs had been in full display on the LogoWorks web site and on InstaLogo.com. No where does their site say that the designs represented in their gallery may not be examples of logos actually sold to customers, nor is there any mention that some of the designs might be "borrowed" concepts from other non-LogoWorks designers. All images in their galleries are presented as though they are examples of legitimate LogoWorks and InstaLogo products.
The problem with this is that displaying unoriginal designs in its galleries could be viewed as a misrepresentation of the capabilities of LogoWorks and its designers.
Regardless of the statements made by Mr. Kearl, or any actions LogoWorks is taking to address this problem, it is not unreasonable to use this as an opportunity to examine the operations of LogoWorks more closely.
The LogoWorks model calls for off-site designers who are not specifically in the employ of LogoWorks, but rather are paid by the project. According to the Arteis web site (Arteis is the parent company of LogoWorks) anyone wishing to become a logo designer in their network need only to apply with two design samples and a social security number. By comparison, examine the job listings in the newspaper for any graphic design position and note that they almost always require some level of design education and experience (ironically, the in-house positions within LogoWorks also require extensive experience and education).
Each designer is paid up to $40 for submitting a concept. Only the designer with the concept chosen by the customer has the potential to earn more money. Furthermore, each designer is ranked both by the jobs they win and the opinion of other LogoWorks designers. If a designer's rank falls, the amount they can earn also drops, so the pressure is great to "win" each job and remain popular among other designers.
However, this working model also raises other questions about how LogoWorks markets itself. One of their claims implies that LogoWorks is superior because other logo companies have designers working on the side. Yet this is exactly how LogoWorks designers participate.
Furthermore, they imply that their design specialists offer a superior product than other designers. If this is the case, then one might wonder why some of their superior specialists feel the need to "borrow" from the work of others.
In the midst of this controversy, some of the designers working for LogoWorks have come forth with their practices. While the information presented may not be typical of every LogoWorks designer, it certainly is enlightening.
One designer, who claims to have been working for LogoWorks for a couple of years, admits that her record for the most logos completed in one day is 16. Assuming an 8 hour work day, that is only a half an hour per logo. She went on to admit that she keeps files of her rejected concepts, categorized by industry, for future use. For example, she might have a "plumber" folder that contains any appropriate designs. When a "plumber" project comes up, all she has to do is pull one of those images, slap in the new company name and submit it, claiming her $40 paycheck.
In other words, if this practice is accurate, then any company using the LogoWorks service runs the risk of not only failing to receive concepts created just for them, but they might also be receiving work that has already been rejected by an untold number of previous customers
This doesn't seem all that far removed from simply using clip art. In fact, it appears that many rejected LogoWorks projects actually do wind up as clip art on InstaLogo.com, where “logos” can be purchased over and over again by an untold number of businesses.
Another area of concern regarding LogoWorks is whether or not they can manage to police their designs. Mr. Kearl has stated that LogoWorks has produced over 250,000 logo designs and averages as many as 9000 logo designs per year. That works out to about 24 logos per day (more than that if the LogoWorks staff doesn't work on weekends or holidays). With those kinds of numbers, it quickly becomes apparent that the task of policing every design for originality is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Making matters even more challenging, LogoWorks expects their volume to double or even triple in the next few years.
In all fairness, one area in which LogoWorks does seem to excel is in creating the perception of great customer service. Some ad agencies have a poor view of smaller clients with smaller budgets and they fail to give these clients the attention they deserve and crave. Attitudes of indifference, or even outright arrogance, will certainly make any business owner think twice about spending significant amounts of money with anyone.
LogoWorks offers a very quick response rate for their customers. Also, the logo design process begins with a questionnaire that asks pertinent questions about the customer's business and even encourages the submission of ideas that appeal to them. For the owner of a small business, who might be intimidated by the ad agency atmosphere, the LogoWorks process might seem to be a much friendlier alternative.
Also, most small businesses are very price-conscious, as they often have very limited working capital. This is where the LogoWorks marketing effort is really able to shine. They maintain that their quality of work is not only on par with agency work, but superior to it, and at a fraction of the cost.
Things that LogoWorks doesn't mention within its marketing, however, are some of the reasons why reputable design agencies typically charge much higher fees for logo development.
LogoWorks allows three days for the development of concepts. A good designer or ad agency will spend much, much longer than this just on research. The process begins with a considerable learning process, all in an effort to gain insight into what makes a particular business unique. The idea is to avoid the obvious and the cliche, which are often the first concepts any designer comes up with. All of this is done to create an image that is much more than just a pretty picture, but rather is an honest representation of the company -- a representation that can stand the test of time.
The ad agency isn't just thinking about the logo, but also how that logo will be used throughout the company. Where will it be displayed? How will it be displayed? How will its design elements compliment the rest of the company, including advertising materials? In essence, the primary question asked over and over is, “how will this design communicate the message of the client to the mind of the customer?”
The goal is to never settle for merely original. The final design should be more than unique; it should be a representation of the personality of the client. It should be the difference between an outfit bought at a discount retailer and a custom tailored suit. This is where the value is, and is a problem that can’t be solved by pulling some previously rejected concept out of a file.
Does this make a company like LogoWorks inherently bad? Not necessarily. Some small businesses will simply never need the type of in-depth brand development that an agency can provide. These are the businesses that aren’t any bigger than a business card, an invoice and maybe a logo on their awning. It would be foolish for them to spend several thousands of dollars on the efforts of an ad agency.
Yet, LogoWorks also appears to be attracting businesses that otherwise might better be served by the in-depth efforts of an agency. It comes back to the issue of customer service, something which LogoWorks appears to get right, and where some designers fail miserably. Many business owners have had bad experiences with designers that didn’t listen to their needs, and they are unhappy dealing with agency egos. In reality, some clients stick with agencies only out of necessity while waiting for a better option to come along.
This is where a company like LogoWorks can sway not just the small businesses, but bigger clients as well. Some business owners know that they won’t get the type of in-depth work an agency might provide, but they are willing to accept the trade off in order to get no-nonsense service. In these cases, the “blame” for the popularity of LogoWorks can only be placed on the design community, who must learn to do better in terms of client relations if they hope to compete.
Still, LogoWorks cannot be given a pass. The problem of allegedly plagiarized logos is a serious matter that raises important questions of credibility. Jeff Kearl claims that LogoWorks takes originality very seriously and this may be the case. However, it remains to be seen if LogoWorks can come up with a system that handles their volume of artwork in the short timeframe they advertise, and is still able to adequately check for originality. The best intentions simply won’t be good enough if LogoWorks releases another “borrowed” design for self promotion, or worse, in a sale to a customer.
Finally, while some designers and ad agencies have trouble relating to clients, many do not. Any business that desires personal service for the development of their brand may want to invest the time to find a reputable designer or agency. One thing that LogoWorks will likely always have trouble with, if they stick to their current business model, is sitting down face-to-face with their customers for in-depth discussions about how to find solutions to their design problems.
Perhaps the only logical last word on this issue is a sentiment that applies to any business transaction: Let the buyer beware.
©2005 Robert Wurth