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Five Cardinal Branding Sins
From your lawyer’s unintentionally groovy Mary Tyler Moore typeface (Peignot if you’re curious) to the local plumber’s crudely-rendered homage to Yosemite Sam, logo design atrocities abound. No business ever sets out to be a running sight gag, but the harsh reality is that for every sharp, succinct, well-executed brand identity, there are easily thirty others that run the gamut from banal and forgettable to truly abominable.

As someone who has made and managed visual identities for decades, I have developed what I feel to be the most direct route to the heart of any given company’s brand essence. In learning the right way, however, I have also borne witness to a great litany of wrongs. The following list encompasses the most egregious of these sins.

Every organization has a brand, whether it has been consciously developed or not. It’s shorthand for describing how a company relates to its stakeholders. On a municipal level, a strong brand impacts everything from the ability to recruit top talent and foster a positive public image, to maintaining a competitive edge and establishing the organization as a professional and forward-thinking business entity. The reality is that the lion’s share of municipal brand strategies fail to achieve these goals. Most date back to a time when the local sign shop was the brand architect. Many are the result of community design contests or other misguided attempts at public engagement. Some were ham-fistedly art directed by council or committee. Not surprisingly, precious few municipal brands truly represent the people who manage, work for, or live within the brand’s boundaries. More often than not, homespun brand strategies take a wide arc around killer and land squarely on kitsch. But this need not be the case.

Don’t be trendy.

When I mention neon pink and yellow triangles you probably think of the 80s. In the nineties we strip-mined the Copperplate typeface deposits. Swooshes and drop shadows? Firmly rooted in the early 00s (though these hackneyed devices continue to be employed to this day). The stylistic and typographic trends that appear cool, edgy and unique today have a way of becoming dated rather quickly. Any designer worth their salt can help you steer clear of transient and ever-shifting cultural ephemera to ultimately land on a brand identity that will stand the test of time.

As a logo design ground rule, always opt for timeless over trendy. Don’t be the company with the mullet and acid wash jeans.

Don’t do it yourself.

Having a realistic grip on your corporate values, differentiators and future ambitions is essential to your brand strategy. However, this clarity in no way equips you with the sensibilities of a designer. In almost every case, engaging a fresh, objective and – most importantly – QUALIFIED third party to visually articulate your brand essence will pay considerable dividends. Inviting under-equipped talent to your table will almost certainly yield a less-than-satisfactory result that you will probably have to live with for years to come.


Don’t overcomplicate.

A logo is a distillation of everything you stand for – and aspire to be – into its purest, simplest essence. It is a symbol; it is (usually) not an illustration. The idiom “less is more” has never been more apt than when applied to the art and science of designing the symbol that will represent your company. This process of making a visceral connection with the masses via the purest and most succinct visual language possible is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult and rewarding milestones to achieve as a designer.

Don’t steal.

Researching competitors and drawing on visual inspiration throughout the ideation phase of brand development is good practice. In fact, this is a near-daily part of any professional designer’s workflow. However, finding an existing logo you like and copying it in whole or in part is theft, plain and simple. And the days of hiding your tracks are long gone.

Want to know if you’re paying for pure creative or just a cleverly-disguised counterfeit? Here’s a handy little trick: open a web browser, visit and upload a picture of your new logo (in GIF, JPEG or PNG format). Anything on the Internet (and there are a few pics on the Internet) that is visually similar to your logo will immediately appear. You may be shocked by what you see.

Don’t skimp.

An authentic and enduring brand identity requires time, work, experience and resources. These things cost money. Thinking of buying your new logo from an online store for thirty five bucks? Congrats: you’ve just invested in clip art as the device that will identify your company for years to come. Hey, how about running a logo design contest? Sorry, no talented designer would touch this “opportunity” with a ten-foot pole. Maybe you could hire your colleague’s nephew who just got into art school and has a pirated copy of Adobe Illustrator. I think in your heart you already know the outcome to this approach.

The plain truth is that there is a lot involved in crafting your company’s visual identity. Great logo designers are worth their weight in gold, and for good reason: they create your company’s first impression. They craft the visual language that can impact a customer’s brand perception, purchase decisions and overall attitude toward your offering.

Bottom line: you invest significant cash in the right people, equipment and processes to run your business well. Use this same strategy when creating your brand identity.

Sean Mellis is a professional communicator with more than two decades of dedicated expertise helping local governments and non profit organizations prosper. His firm Tangent Civic has been engaged by public-sector administrators whose business goals are often thwarted by fragmented communications programs and hit-and-miss vendors. He helps these clients by becoming an adjunct to their existing communications resources – providing the strategic thought and creative output that each engagement requires.


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