Logo Design Inspiration or a Bad Habit?

Logo Design Inspiration or a Bad Habit?

My creative process has radically changed over my twenty-plus years of designing logos. The greatest change is the shift away from visuals, and towards words for inspiration. Back in college, every graphic design project I completed had to be accompanied by the material that inspired it. As design students, we had to show how we got from point A to point B through the reference materials. We looked towards other designers work for inspiration, and rarely towards things like data, articles, or market analysis.

For many years after, I began every project leafing through design magazines and award books for inspiration. I would sit with my sketchbook taking notes and drawing thumbnails as I searched for images to spark creativity.

I look at this approach now as a terrible habit that took a long time to break. I now cringe a little when I see this same practice being encouraged by graphic design ‘inspiration’ sites that focus solely on the final visual without acknowledging either the process that created it or a glimpse into the creative brief. This method of looking for inspiration can encourage design trends and the borrowing of design elements all without strategic reasoning.

I still begin every project with research and a search for inspiration but rarely in a visual form. Writing, discussions, and tools that involve words drive me now. My favorite resources are mind maps, a dictionary, and a thesaurus. I also develop a vocabulary for each project before sketching any visuals. There is, of course, a need to understand the visuals currently being used in the market space, audience preferences, etc., but even these are translated into words. I find this allows me to work with a much clearer mind, unencumbered by my old habit.

Recently, I have been exposed to how other graphic designers work through my site Processed Identity. Seeing the tools they use has me thinking about how I currently work and has inspired me to consider different tools and approaches. Mood boards for example, are something I can see working very well alongside my written vocabulary, creating an abstract visual representation of the creative direction.


  • Steve Zelle says:
    Apr 25 at 09:15

    Most used tool or resource: Dictionary, Thesaurus and Mind Maps

    Least used tool or resource: Design books

    Tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate: Mood Boards

    Greatest change in how I seek inspiration: I no longer look at logos when designing logos

  • Dav says:
    Apr 26 at 03:34

    Most used tool or resource: Blank pieces of paper, a pen, and everything around me (as an inspirational resource)

    Least used tool or resource: Design inspiration books or websites/lists; ‘Trend reports’; Hypes

    Tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate: More custom lettering/typography; Design wise more of my own photography, maybe

    Greatest change in how I seek inspiration: I probably no longer explicitely look for inspiration, as I may just not find it, when I ‘need’ it; On the other hand everything (unexpected) may provoke inspiration and be a spark of thought for ideas

  • Rajesh Pancholi says:
    Apr 26 at 09:26

    Most used tool or resource:
    Blank Paper and pen/pencil with mind maps – you have to put initial thought s down before you go any further.

    Least used tool or resource:
    Inspiration sites, I think its dangerous to rely on these especially if you are easily led. Learn to play with the forms yourself rather than mimic. Even worse seeing something you like and making it fit your project, even if it doesn’t really work. You have to remember than some of these projects are not live jobs.

    Tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate:
    Creating custom forms and pictograms. Really simplify the visual elements.

    Greatest change in how I seek inspiration:
    Remind myself to take time out to doodle and scribble notes down, you always have a small amount of time even if the deadline is tight, its worth taking 60mins out of your day away from the computer.

  • Rajesh Pancholi says:
    Apr 26 at 09:31

    Behind the final logos are conversations, personalities, brick walls, a design process and brief… Besides it looking appealing does it (the logo) perform as intended.

  • Leighton Hubbell says:
    Apr 26 at 01:01

    Most used tool or resource: Sketchbook, mind maps, reference materials on the subject matter or business I am working with.

    Least used tool or resource: Design books and inspirational sites. I still purchase design books for my resource collection, however there is too much inspiration going on in the blogosphere these days. I don’t want to be influenced by something I might have seen recently. Besides, they often make it more difficult for me to concept clearly.

    I will, however check some major logo design sites to see if the designs I have been working on have already been done or are too similar to my initial thoughts.

    Tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate: Mood Boards, however I am wondering if I will be able to devote enough time to these in the concepting process.

    Greatest change in how I seek inspiration: I would say that I no longer look at logos when designing logos.

    1. Rajesh Pancholi says:
      Apr 26 at 01:16

      “I would say that I no longer look at logos when designing logos”. I think you hit the nail on the head there.

      I worked with mood boards with a UX Group when preparing for a presentation, its not something I’ve done to any great degree but it did take time which I felt I could have directed somewhere else…. Interesting process all the same as it became a very solid focal point during the following stages of design and build.

  • Michael says:
    Apr 26 at 08:28

    Most used tool or resource: Memories, experiences, plain old thinking, design books (but I mean the ones with words, like Beirut’s “79 essays” or the Looking Closer series,etc.)

    Least used tool or resource: Design inspiration sites? While I do view them (and even, gulp, have one), I don’t really look to those sorts of sites for inspiration. I mean, if I don’t seem to be making any headway on a design problem, looking at other people’s work probably won’t inform the project I’m working on. At that point, it means taking a step (or 2, or 3, or 4…) back and perhaps rethinking the entire approach.

    Tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate: I would like to explore different print processes.

    Greatest change in how I seek inspiration: I think Dav (above) said it best: “I probably no longer explicitly look for inspiration, as I may just not find it, when I ‘need’ it; On the other hand everything (unexpected) may provoke inspiration and be a spark of thought for ideas”

  • Tim Lapetino says:
    Apr 26 at 11:24

    Very interesting thread–it’s cool to hear other perspectives on the process.

    I don’t use other logo designs as inspiration in the initial concepting/research phases, choosing instead to do some mind mapping, extended word/symbol/metaphor lists, and metaphor melding. Then I’ll build out many, many concepts to get the ball rolling. Once I’ve exhausted everything in my head, I *do* refer to great reference books (I prefer the LogoLounge series) to serve as additional jumping-off points to push myself into directions I wouldn’t have hit on otherwise. It’s not “inspiration” per se, but using existing logos as a springboard to new conceptual arenas.

    Jack Gernsheimer explains pretty much the same process in this excerpt from his book, “Designing Logos”. Definitely work checking it out.

  • john mchugh says:
    Apr 27 at 10:16

    most used tool or resource: mood boards, digital scrapbook, keywording

    least used tool or resource: logo books/sites

    tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate: tagged and searchable digital scrapbook

    greatest change in how I seek inspiration: amount of content at your fingertips

    i stopped accepting jobs and projects for just logo design. instead i have focused on providing a complete visual system, which i think is more flexible in today’s media environments. as such, i really don’t spend a lot of time looking at logo books or sites whilst working on a specific project. that is unless i have developed an idea and am looking to see how another designer might have solved a similar problem execution wise. for example, maybe they added dimension to the mark to make it read stronger.

    what has been a great resource for me is the wealth of inspiration available on the internet. anytime i come across an image that strikes me—whether it is other design work, a photo with colors i like—a funny drawing, a piece of type, furniture, whatever—i save it to my inspiration folder.

    when i create my mood boards, i limit each to a certain theme or idea that i discussed with the client or collaborator. i am looking for images that i feel communicate this theme or idea. after a while, a common thread that starts to appear once all of the images are in front of you. there’s a sort of visual vernacular going on. i don’t like to work in a vacuum. i want my design to be informed by what is going on in the world right now so that it effectively communicates the reality of the project.

    because of the size of my scrapbook—growing every day—i am spending way too much time trolling though imagery. i would like to be able to set up my own personal, tagable and searchable image archive.

  • Isabelle says:
    May 5 at 01:14

    Most used tool or resource: staedtler markers (F&M) and letraset marker pad in a environment other than the studio (usually a coffee shop)
    Least used tool or resource: mind-mapping (I tend to do a looser word association thing)
    Tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate: custom lettering
    Greatest change in how I seek inspiration: I use printed or web materials to shift my focus. I always start with a moodboard but after that almost entirely move away from visual inspiration. I sketch until I find that I’m revisiting the same ideas. Then I look at books or websites (not necessarily related topics and not logo sites) to allow some jamming to occur.
    Interesting post Steve, as ever.

  • Scott Duncan says:
    May 8 at 04:29

    1. Most used tool or resource:

    Thesaurus. Just from following links in a thesaurus, it opens up a vast amount of possibilities and inspiration

    2. Least used tool or resource:

    Logo design “inspiration” sites. I do look at these sites, but I do not use them as inspiration. I prefer to view them to see the beauty that other designers can create.

    3. Tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate:

    Although I do sketch, I think that I shouold do more of it. This is more like an action statement on my part rather than a normal post!

    4. Greatest change in how I seek inspiration:

    Again, I was taught to use images as inspiration, which was dangerous in my opinion as, whether consciously or subconsciously, a design will follow a particular route and can sometimes, unintentionally, look like another logo you have viewed previously. The amount of hours I have scrapped after the above has happened isnt worth considering!

    Great post and great discussion thereafter too!

  • Eric D. Simpton says:
    May 12 at 03:12

    Wow. Well I did enjoy this article but I was really turned off by all the comments. All 11 comments are basically the same. Everyone really has the same exact process as eachother? Mood boards, word assoc., no design sites!?!? Really. I think you all are just trying to sound smarter/ better than the othr designers.

    I for one will be honest and say that I start by pouring over the design questionaire. Making notes. Pulling out words. Etc. Then sketch. And yes I then do look at logo books and sites. Maybe I should drop that from my process. This article made me really think about my process. I for one can say that I’m not a copy cat comment like those above.

    Thanks for the article.

    1. Steve Zelle says:
      May 12 at 09:41

      Dav: Great point — Inspiration often comes from day to day exposure to things and not on demand.

      Rajesh: As you say, a good number of the logos are not for actual clients. They may also have been designed without any thought as to how well they reproduce, scale, survive trends, and most importantly how they translate into the visual brand identity of a company beyond a symbol.

      Leighton: Using these sites to see if something similar already exists can be a useful tool. I do on occasion use LogoLounge for this purpose.

      Michael: Design books with words. Made me laugh. Thanks.

      Tim: Thanks. Your link to the Jack Gernsheimer excerpt also led me to this list based on his Ten Characteristics of a Logo That Endures http://www.graphic-design.com/DTG/logos/design_that_endures.html

      John: I know we spoke about this privately but for anyone else looking for a digital scrapbook option, you may want to check out http://www.imgspark.com/ although it lacks Safari support.

      Isabelle: Would love a peek into your word-association method!

      Scott: Thanks for joining in, glad you enjoyed the post.

      Eric: I don’t believe any of the folks that commented are being dishonest. I think all chose to take the time to share because they are also interested in how other designers work. Glad to hear you liked the post and that it got you thinking about your process. Hope to see more of you.

  • Melissa says:
    Oct 26 at 01:49

    1. Most used tool or resource: sketch pad, mind mapping, inspirational websites (*cringe*)

    2. Least used tool or resource: magazines, print work

    3. Tool or resource I am most interested to incorporate:
    more input from the client!

    4. Greatest change in how I seek inspiration:
    would love to incorporate more hand drawn typography instead of always using purchased fonts

    love the article. it really got me thinking.

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