A Penny's Worth

Identity Designer, Armin Vit

Armin has worked for a number of notable identity design firms including Norman Design in Chicago, Decker Design in New York and Pentagram Design in New York. He now runs UnderConsideration's Department of Design.

» Quotes by Armin Vit» Straw poll votes by Armin Vit

What are the common criticisms of identity design and is there any validity to them?
There are a few recurring themes:

- The client is a douchebag: Where he or she did not allow the designer to do anything and instead enforced his or her poor taste and bad decisions on the unsuspecting designer.

- The designer is a douchebag: Where the designer is blamed for phoning it in or not trying hard enough or is accused of being manhandled by the client, see above.

This is overly simplified and while it may happen from time to time, it's rarely the case. Most identity design projects for large corporations or popular consumer products or services are excruciatingly complex and there are so many decisions that determine the final logo or identity that the result can rarely be pegged to designer or client. It's mutual relationship and when things turn out well, it's the result of a visionary client and his or her committee and an engaged designer or design firm able to listen to the client. In the end, it's 25% design and 75% seeing that design through.

Another common criticism is that a logo looks like another logo. It's fun to point out similarities and claim design malfeasance, but there are only so many visual representations out there and it's not the end of the world for two designers to arrive at a similar idea twice.
Business owners often pay to have everything taken care of by professionals except their identity mark. Why should a business care about its logo?
It's as important as the way the receptionist answers the phone to the furniture at the office and as relevant as the shoes he or she is wearing. It's really all about the appearance one wants to portray. You pay $50 for a pair of shoes you get crappy shoes. You pay $500 for a logo, you get a crappy logo. It's about investing in your image, and a good professional logo with a fee of at least four figures is well worth the investment.
What constitutes a good identity mark?
The answer is different for many designers, for me it's something that is individually crafted for the client, something that no other organization or service could use. If it's an icon it should be clear and memorable, if it's a wordmark it should be superbly crafted if custom or carefully chosen if off the rack. It's about creating a mark that stands strong in its context and can serve as an identifier for the corporation or product in the eyes of its intended audience.
What are some common mistakes which identity designers make?
Not listening to clients and thinking their feedback is useless. Clients know their audience, and designers need to interpret that feedback into something useful for the project.
Can you detail the identity design process and how long this usually takes?
Yikes... Well, it begins with a conversation with the client and, if needed, other interested constituents. At this point it's about asking a lot of questions and gathering as much information as possible about why these people have approached a designer to design an identity. They might want to change, they might want to evolve, they might want to beat their competition to a pulp, whatever it is, all those things play a role in the design. After you have those conversations, which can be one or twenty, it all comes down to the process of each designer. Some might go into deep explorations of the audience and the mark and the competition and do a first presentation just on those findings. Others, like us, we just get to design and follow our instinct based on what we heard and what we know about the context in which the identity will need to perform in. We usually then present three, five, seven, whatever number we have agreed to or arrived at of logos and a few key applications like business cards or the logo on the facade of the building or something else easy to Photoshop. We present a PDF that outlines what we heard in those initial presentations, we explain our own criteria for the project and then bombard the client with visuals. From there it's typically narrowed down to one or two that then get shown around to bigger groups or other interested parties for further approval. This can take hours, days, weeks or months. Then you arrive at a decision and provide all the files and applications you agreed upon at the outset of the project.

Again, for every designer and client there is a different process. So this is only one way to skin the cat. Or brand the cow.
What are common challenges which identity designers encounter?
The biggest challenge is having buy-in from the ultimate decision maker, if you can't get that, you will always be battling an uphill battle. This is specially important in large projects, but even if you are doing work for a five- or seven-person organization, if you don't have access to the CEO or founder or principal you are kind of doomed.
How do you account for the great disagreement over the quality of identity marks even among identity designers ?
It comes down to subjective opinions. What's good for me is not good for someone else. And it's about the standards that one judges the designs against, some might have lower standards, other higher. It really becomes a matter of who can stick to their opinion the longest and make the other throw their hands in despair.
Can you talk a little about the rationales and explanations which often accompany the press releases announcing a company's new identity.
Company's or products that are large enough to require to issue press releases are typically mired in layers of lawyers, PR people and marketing folk who all have their own jobs to do. This combination rarely leads to enlightened reading and more often than not is a combination of puffed up pieces of marketing to make the product or corporation sound as the best thing since slice bread and qualify the identity change or introduction in a way that impresses shareholders. There is nothing wrong with this practice in essence, but it just makes understanding the rationales rather difficult. Every now and then you will read a press release that manages to explain the rationale behind the change, but those are rare.
What is the difference between a company like Logoworks which charges hundreds of dollars for logos compared to a top level identity design firm like Turner Duckworth which charges upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars?
Without getting too snippy or objective: It comes down to talent. Talent in designing, talent in listening to the client, talent in interpreting the clients needs, talent in assessing the business, cultural and political contexts that may surround any given project and talent in being able to see a project from Point A to Point B. With Logoworks, you are interfacing with a computer model that doles out parameters that determine how to be a client and how to be a designer, it does not allow for all the specificities that a client might need. The designer at the other end of the computer has little to no vested personal interest in the project, it's just pushing pixels around. Whereas firms like Turner Duckworth are able to listen and interact with clients and respond to their needs at a more personal level and deeper connection. After all, their names are on the line. And again, you get what you pay for.
How much do top identity designers usually charge for a logo and how much is it really worth?
This varies so much too. But let's assume you are designing the new logo for, say, AIG. Just for design fees -- no marketing research, no testing, etc. -- the price can run anywhere between $200,000 and $500,000. Some of the bigger identity firms offer related services -- like defining a strategy, establishing brand positionings, doing brand audits, tracking results -- where the actual identity work is a small part of the whole scope and that's when budgets can balloon into the millions of dollars.

Work for high profile cultural institutions like, say. the Whitney or MoMA, could be in the $75,000 to $150,000 range.

It just varies so much.

And I do think the price put on those projects is worth what firms charge. They are as much worth as what you would pay your shrink or your dentist. You don't question the cost of a root canal, it costs what it costs, based on industry standards in relationship to each practitioner's experience and expertise. The price of doing, say, the MTV logo back in 1981 may have been handful of thousands of dollars, but the value over time of that logo is well worth millions in what it represents, so if you compare actual cost to eventual worth, we are all getting shortchanged.
In your opinion who are the top five identity companies in the world?
Wolff Olins
Turner Duckworth
johnson banks
Studio Dumbar
Can you list a few of the best well known identity marks and what makes them good?
I'll just do one, because I could spend weeks alone in this question: Nike.

It may seem obvious, but I like this mark for some non-obvious reasons. Most clients will tell you they want something on par to the Nike swoosh for their logo. The swoosh represents some sort of ideal in logo design: It's memorable, it's simple, it's successful, it's the visual epitome of a profitable business with infinite cultural impact. But none of that has anything to do with the logo. The logo says absolutely nothing at all. It's a check mark. When Carolyn Davidson famously did this logo for $35, Phil Knight didn't even like it, he just said something like, "fine, this will do." He said the same thing of the name, by the way, that it "would grow on him," having had to make the decision right before they printed thousands of shoe boxes and the printer needed a name. Is the logo one wing of Nike, the greek goddess of victory' Maybe. Is it a positive reinforcement' Maybe. Is it cool or pretty' Maybe. But it doesn't matter, because the logo takes on the meaning of what Nike stands for: the athletes, the Just do It tagline, the amazing commercials, the prospect of victory through hard work. The logo represents that and nothing more. I like to remind clients that the logo will only have as much meaning as they put behind it through their actions.
Can you list a few of the worst well known identity marks and what makes them bad?
There are many, of course, and I think what makes them poor in general is that they are generic or fail to have any contextual specificity: Verizon, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Microsoft, Walmart. But, again, what may feel wrong to me may be right to others. So to each his own I say. Live and let live.
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