Why Bigger Isn't Better for Logo Design

Why Bigger Isn't Better for Logo Design
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This story appears in the December 2012 issue of . Subscribe »

As Americans, we're conditioned to assume that bigger is always better. Bold, bombastic, intrinsic value--bigger stuff packs more punch!

But in the world of logo design--particularly among those who create logos for mobile apps--big is the enemy. Instead, the goal is to convey the power and reliability of your brand in an image the size of a piece of Chex cereal.

The marketing team at HitFix, a Los Angeles-based entertainment news company, learned this last year when they set out to create a logo for the Android version of an iPhone app they had published in 2009. Business development manager Dave Huff says the goal was to upgrade the iPhone app's logo into something sharper--familiar enough to register with veteran users but eye-catching enough to dazzle newbies as well.

"We needed to create a tiny image that represented our brand perfectly," he says. It's difficult, he adds, "to convey what you need to accomplish in such a small space." Depending on the platform, mobile-app icon sizes can range widely, but typically at smallest they should measure 16 by 16 pixels.

HitFixHuff placed the challenge on 99designs.com, a crowdsourcing graphic design marketplace. After receiving 45 viable submissions in 11 days, Huff picked one designer, with whom he worked to create the image in multiple sizes. Then Huff came up against another challenge: clarity. Though the image looked great on its own, when it was scaled to actual size and plopped into an Android test environment, the image details were not easily visible. "When we got a good look at it on a mobile device, it was hard to see the details," Huff says.

At the last minute, the company hired a different designer to create a simplified but brighter and bolder logo that drew upon the same elements as the first.

Anatomy of a Mobile Logo
Want to build a better app logo? Here are some parameters.

Older screens were capable of producing just 16 high-quality standard colors. New device models have far greater color depth and smoothness, but offerings vary widely.

For this reason, it's wise for designers to work within that original 16-color palette to ensure consistent high-quality hues across all devices.

Be sure the icon relates at least tangentially to full-size logos from the parent brand. (Some designers refer to this as "visual legibility.")

Keep the concept simple and clean; elaborate doesn't translate on small devices or in a competitive marketplace.

Graphic designers say that making an app logo stand out among thousands of others is perhaps the toughest challenge. Dale Nigel Goble, creative director at dng Studio in Duncan, British Columbia, has designed hundreds of logos and says competition is always a bugaboo. "If you can design a 16-pixel mark that is interesting or memorable, you are on to something," he says. "To make [a logo] shine or stand out when dealing with that few pixels can be as daunting as a great masterpiece."

The final challenge in designing logos for mobile apps is in making them adaptive. For Micheline Crawford, owner and principal designer at Crawford Design in Reno, Nev., this means making sure icons are scalable and ready to work in standard or landscape orientation.

"It's a real balancing act," she says. "Desktops, tablets and mobile devices have different screen sizes, and the interface should be designed specifically to serve that device." She adds that logos must be optimized so as not to impact performance of the app overall.

It all comes down to perspective. While many graphic designers and in-house marketing professionals consider logo design an art, most liken creating logos for mobile apps to a science. The formulas are out there--it's how you apply them that can make the difference.

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