Two frequent problems in logo design

For context:

  1. This is based on some mastodon posts and I might turn this in a blogpost (or a community resource?) at some point, but I think it fits here.
  2. Logos are requested often and also likely to get responses. However, creating logos is a complex craft. And it is not my specialization in design.

Logo only works when big

I have looked at a lot of logos in open source projects. The problem that is most common and easiest to check is that logos only work when they are big. Try if the logo still looks good and is easy to recognize when its small – max 32x32px.

As a positive example: The logos of bigger companies and services in your browser tabs are usually professionally designed and this is something professionals check for (they also create a small version for that purpose, so their tab-icons look even better than just their small logo, but the check still applies)

As a negative example:

Take this logo for a collaborative map editor (no shaming, I created this, no real projects harmed):

A faux design draft for a logo. It shows a simplified map with a position indicator; the corners of the map look like icons for people stetching out arms so they define the edges of the map

This is how it looks on 32x32px:

same as previous logo, but small. Barely recognizable elements

What?! It is hard to recognize anything and at the small size, the problems become very clear: The black border is very dominant, the map is hardly recognizable as such, nor is the position marker; the grid is just faintly visible to the point of looking like a scaling artifact.

Adding too many metaphors

Metaphors are frequently requested: Projects ask for symbols of community, education, productivity…
Like with texts, many metaphors can be trite flourish and it is tempting to add many, because it makes a nice story: X stands for ____, Y stands for _____, Z stands for ______…
This often interlocks with the issue of logos being created very big, since you rarely see that you add too much to it.

Many famous logos do not include any metaphors and only very slight ones (up the the question if they are not retroactively constructed). There is no need for a logo of an open source community tool for education to include a network-diagram and a book and a reader or for map editing tool to have interlocking hands, a map and a pencil.

If I would give advice (and as I said, I am no expert in logo design) it would be this:

  1. Do you actually need a logo? If yes…
  2. Go with one simple core element or metaphor and work with that
  3. Design on a small size, either on paper or digitally. Zoom out frequently and/or use a live, small-size preview if possible; use a pixel grid of the intended size to remind you what the actual size will be at the end.

Often this is because there’s too many pieces that are required for the logo to work. Having on composited shape or mark becomes easier to work at small and large sizes because it plays with the space around it. Your example needs way too much brain analysis to work out what it is.

I expanded this with a worked example of a logo design process: