What they don’t teach you in design school

Students may spend months perfecting a beautiful logo but, says Paula Scher, in the real world, that’s not what designers are paid for…

One of the most often repeated refrains on design blogs, in the critique of a new logo, is “Any design student could do a better job”. This ubiquitous comment is especially amusing to me because, well, it’s mostly true. If you judge virtually every new logo designed today by classical design school standards, the kids in school are doing a better job. This is because of the way logo and identity design are taught in so many schools, and what that exercise is meant to accomplish.

In design school, identity design is all about the form of the logo. A student will be given the problem: “design a logo for such and such organisation” and then the student may spend the better part of the next six months refining the form of a mark (or a wordmark) and then they sometimes transfer that word mark to a piece of stationery, or a shopping bag, or some other item. And after six months of criticism and refinement, a good student will usually produce a formalistically beautiful logo. There may be some discussion
in class about the appropriateness of the logo for the business. But the
main goal will be to make the logo recognisable, with strong aesthetic attributes that will enable the logo to ‘stand alone’.

The design school exercise is indeed a good way to develop craft skills and, hopefully, when the student becomes a professional they will learn to get fast at it and achieve that work in the course of a week as opposed to six months. And there, any similarity between real identity design and a design school exercise ends.

Identity design, for any organisation containing more than three people, is the act of diplomatically negotiating personal egos, tastes, and aspirations of various invested individuals against their business needs, their pre-formed expectations, and the constraints of the marketplace.

Form is incidental
Making something formalistically beautiful, while desirable, is a more private part of the process, something that the designer needs to achieve

incidentally, not something that can appear to be an overt motivating cause. (This is because form is subjective and not an easily argued position when a designer is trying to get their client to feel comfortable assuming a new identity.)
When organisations are larger, their identities often need to be designed as systems (kits of parts) that allow for complicated organisational subsets to exist and therefore give organisations and corporations the ability to partially personalise departments or sub-brands. Systems often demand that logos become more neutral so they can more effectively accommodate all necessary secondary information. A complicated logo design, one that might ‘stand alone’ in a design class may simply look too busy in this real-world kind of context.

Often the identity of an organisation that has many subsets can best be brought to life by the use of its supportive materials within the systems
(packaging, websites, signs). This is an especially effective methodology because it can allow for a logo or identity system to gain resonance and recognition over time in connection to materials that are capable of being far more expressive than logos.

For example, the Nike logo, which has evolved over time into its current form, became a powerful symbol to the masses because of its effective use in advertising campaigns. The ‘cool’ of the logo happened in connection to some brilliant campaigns by Wieden + Kennedy and the effective positioning of the mark on merchandising materials. As pure form, if the ‘swoosh’ appeared alone in a design school critique (or on a design blog) it would most likely have been dismissed as too thin, weak and pointy, looking like a checkmark and not really conveying motion.

Showman, Svengali
Logos become iconic over time, through their use and in combination with an overall perception of a brand. They shouldn’t be judged purely as form and out of context, as they are on design blogs, because it takes a period of time for a logo to establish itself.

Another thing they don’t teach you in design school is what you get paid for. Right alongside the blog complaint that “any design student could do a better job” is the comment that the designer at hand got “hundreds of thousands of dollars to design that logo that could have been better designed by a design student”.

I never knew a designer that got hundreds of thousands of dollars to design a logo. Mostly, designers get paid to negotiate the difficult terrain of individual egos, expectations, tastes, and aspirations of various individuals in an organisation or corporation, against business needs and constraints of the marketplace. This is a process that can take a year or more. Getting a large, diverse group of people to agree on a single new methodology for all of their corporate communications means the designer has to be a strategist, psychiatrist, diplomat, showman and even a Svengali. The complicated process, usually a series of endless presentations and refinements, persuasions and proofs, is worth money. That’s what clients pay for.

Some branding firms employ strategists and account executives to manage the process. I’m in favour of designers doubling as strategists, or at least working extensively with them. The designer needs to be involved in every stage of the negotiation between the clients, their expectations, tastes, aspirations, marketplace concerns etc. The designer needs to be ever-present because, inevitably, at some side meeting, something will be suggested that will totally destroy the form of the logo. Something can be suggested with the best of intentions, that will scuttle all plans, compromise all standards and destroy the integrity of the design.

The only person who can know this and stop it is the designer. And the reason that the designer knows it is … well, they learned it in design school.

Paula Scher is a partner at Pentagram New York. This article originally appeared on the Identity Forum of identityworks.com. It has been reprinted with permission

More from CR

Claridge’s rebrand

London design studio Construct has given the branding of London’s famous Claridge’s hotel a thorough overhaul, starting with the hotel’s crest which has been redrawn and the logotype which has also been redrawn using a refined weight of typeface SangBleu…

Got, Got, Got Need

To raise money for his local hospital, illustrator Elliott Quince is producing 32 handpainted portraits of players in the forthcoming World Cup, all in the style of football stickers

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency