The Paper Napkin Myth – Part I

Many people think that logos are created in one fell swoop, probably sketched on a cocktail napkin over martinis in a dark lounge. They believe that in the heady mixture of alcohol and dim lighting, inspiration hits and designs are born whole, perfect, and completely satisfying, ready to brand a company tomorrow.
This type of thinking frustrates a good designer’s efforts again and again. There are many business owners who understand perfectly how much hard work and thought and time are put into their own businesses, their products, their customer service. But because of that blasted cocktail napkin myth, these same intelligent people think that logos spring forth like Venus from the foam, or like Athena leaping from Zeus’ head.
Years ago, I worked with a company that provided security systems. They wanted a new logo and told me they had been unfulfilled with three designers before me. “They couldn’t give us what we wanted. They gave up on us,” said the client. Well, stupid me! Now, in my older and wiser years, I would have asked a few more questions. I would have realized that three designers in a row couldn’t possibly have been that unwilling to work. I assured them that I could help, that I would gladly see this project through to their complete satisfaction, I would give them a logo they could stand proudly as the representation of their brand.
They answered very few questions for me, leaving everything very open-ended. They were open to graphics, they were open to type treatments, they were open to colors and they were open to styles. “Show us what YOU think,” I was told. I thought I had hit the creative jackpot – I can present a wide scope, give them so many options – things they’ve never seen before! This would be an exciting project as we work together to accomplish our goal!
I went to work and researched and designed, sketched and tweaked, went off on tangent after tangent of concept and idea. At our next meeting, I enthusiastically presented about 10 completely different directions, explaining that these were drafts, jumping off points, not the finished articles.
Dead silence in the room. Concerned brows furrowed. “Well, we don’t really love any of these,” was the rather terse statement.
A little wrong-footed, I said, “Naturally, I don’t expect you to. Our next step is now to examine what you really dislike, find out what does attract you, talk about colors now that you’ve seen where we’d like to take this, really start pulling these ideas apart and putting them back together to arrive at your logo, something that will really brand your company.”
And their reactions showed me that I had seriously misjudged this situation. These are professionals, I had believed. They know how to communicate. After all, in their own business, plans are made, schematics drawn, products suggested in an initial proposal. Those plans must be tweaked, products changed out, systems changed and adapted until the correct elements of the appropriate package are accounted for and in place.
Or maybe not.
They stared at me blankly. They looked confused. They exchanged furtive “again?” glances with one another.
I started asking questions. “How does the red and black make you feel? What about the blue?” “Is this type too blocky, is this one too fragile?” “Do you like that we’ve included this eye? Or this camera? How about these rays? They are meant to signify being everywhere at once. Do you feel that?”
And again, they stared at me blankly. And then they made the statement that shifted into perfect focus why three designers before me had failed.
“We thought you’d just give us something that we’d just know was the right one.”
I managed to put on a cheerful face, managed to get through the meeting and glean a (very) few kernels of information, managed to muster up the confidence to tell them we’d make this work. I promised again to work with them until we found the graphic, the design, the logo that would represent their brand.
I went back to the drawing board with an extremely heavy heart. At this point in the process, there should have been a clear direction, a list of both objections and consensus points, a color palette, a feeling of a path through the woods. The hole in my stomach reminded me that I got none of that. They wanted me to shoot bullets completely in the dark, and hope that I hit on that one target that they didn’t even know existed. I did my best and tried to massage what input they’d given me and tried some new designs as well. The client wanted them emailed and I pushed for a meeting. I knew that if they were emailed, they’d click them open, say, “no, nope, nah, nope, nada and NOT” to each and every one. They refused a meeting, saying they were crunched for time. I hit the “send” button with a huge sense of dread – and failure.
And sure enough, when I called to arrange a time to meet and discuss the concepts, try to help evolve and form those ideas into a real logo, I was told the arrangement wasn’t working out. They really believed that someone would be able to hit a million-to-one shot in the complete blackness of their miserable communication.
These people believed in the myth of the cocktail napkin. They couldn’t fathom working through designs, considering different type faces, colors schemes, graphic elements. They really didn’t care about how the logo represented their brand. They didn’t see the value of making real decisions. They didn’t see the value of thought and strategy.  They had run through four designers now, and unless they changed their processes, could run through every one in the greater Midwest and still be unhappy. They need to change the way they think about logo design.
You see, for every story of a cocktail napkin, there are hundreds of thousands of logos that were designed the right way – strategically, with building a brand at top of mind, with thought, care and artistry going into its design, balance, typeface, color and theme with every step of its evolution.
A smart client communicates with the agency or designer to achieve a visual identifier of the brand. A smart client is strategic, a smart client thinks about relationships and typeface and impressions and above all, understands the evolution of ideas into final product. A smart client will result in a happy client, each and every time.
Want to know how it really works? Email and ask for the complete “Paper Napkin Myth”.