by contributor Paula Scher

… And what you can’t learn from blogs.

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 organization,” 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 (often a truck, and regardless of what school they attend, they all seem to magically use the same generic truck drawing.) 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 recognizable, 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 he/she 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 organization 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 market place. 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 organizations are larger, their identities often need to be designed as systems (kits of parts) that allow for complicated organizational subsets to exist and therefore give organizations and corporations the ability to partially personalize 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 organization that has many subsets can best be brought to life by the use of its supportive materials within the systems (promotion pieces, packaging, websites, signs, merchandising materials). 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. 

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 in the marketplace, just as it takes a magazine a year or so to establish its personality. 

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 organization 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 is worth money.  That’s what clients pay for. The process, usually a series of endless presentations and refinements, persuasions and proofs, results, hopefully, in an accepted identity design. 

Some branding firms employ strategists and account executives to manage the process. I’m in favor of designers doubling as strategists, or at least working extensively with them. I think the designer needs to be involved every stage of the complicated 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 innocently, 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 this is the designer.  And the reason that the designer knows it is… well, they learned it in design school.

94 Remarks:

  1. By Tony Spaeth
    02 MAR 2010, 19:57 GMT

    Many thanks, Paula, for this compelling topic. You’re dead right — strategy and design must stay on the same page. And its true; some strategists (who may come from a research, PR, marketing or advertising perspective) are clueless in design.
    I have known designers who are competent strategists, and enjoy the work. But many other designers would rather let someone else do the necessary research, planning and often tedious consensus-building. For them, my best advice is to find one of the strategists who have chosen the identity business because they understand and love great design, and will fight for it. (Several are Contributors to this forum.)

  2. By Blake
    02 MAR 2010, 22:09 GMT

    Great thoughts Paula! I especially love the point on what designers actually get paid for… with growing opions of design becoming a commodity, its great to articulate one of the true values of the identity process, aligment and clarity within the organization. Some could argue that process is more valuable than the best visual mark ever created.

  3. By David Airey
    02 MAR 2010, 22:55 GMT

    Great read, Paula.
    When I started commenting on design blogs, and publishing my own posts, I was too quick to critique logos in isolation… I’ve learned a lot since those earlier days.
    I can definitely agree with how designers get paid not just for the final result, but for the negotiations, the planning, the revisions, the ego-management, and a host of other facets of the overall process.
    Love your work. Particularly this design:
    New York Philharmonic logo

  4. By Paul B. Cutler
    03 MAR 2010, 0:30 GMT

    Great article. I too am in favor of designers doubling as strategists for one more reason: when you let third parties negotiate you do not get properly clued in to the psychology of the people that will make the decisions. That, for me, is the most important part.

  5. By Jerry Kuyper
    03 MAR 2010, 1:15 GMT

    Thanks Paula, this is a timely post for me. In two weeks I’m conducting a week long workshop on logo design for sophomores at UArts. 
    To avoid having an identity opportunity fall through the cracks, I think the best combination is a visually attuned strategist partnering with a strategically focused designer.

  6. By Tim Parsons
    03 MAR 2010, 2:36 GMT

    Great analysis and pretty funny how the “real world” plays out once you have real clients.

  7. By Chris Lozos
    03 MAR 2010, 2:54 GMT

    Bless you, Paula! You understand and had the guts to say so!
    “Mostly, designers get paid to negotiate the difficult terrain of individual egos, expectations, tastes, and aspirations of various individuals in an organization or corporation, against business needs, and constraints of the marketplace.”

  8. By Jenn Logan
    03 MAR 2010, 3:42 GMT

    Thank you for a great post Paula. Having fallen victim to the failures of strategists a few times myself I couldn’t agree with the second part of your argument more. I specialize in design for not-for-profit performing arts which is notorious for producing any and all visual communications via committee. If you, as a designer, aren’t answering to a marketing or executive staff, it’s a board of directors with varied agendas, tastes, opinions, egos and goals. A designer who has done their research and the necessary exploration will be able to not only save the integrity of a design, but help shape its inevitable evolution…. provided that they’re in the room. 
    More designers need to insist that they present their work directly to the decision makers whenever possible. It’s the middle-man (the strategist) who so often allows the work to be compromised under the guise of making the client happy. Where they may think they’re saving the day (ie. protecting their profit) by “yesing” an ill-advised idea, they may actually be wasting time (profit) and sadly enabling sub par design. 
    I suppose then we could take a cue from our design school days when you couldn’t pass the class unless you were there to present your work.

  9. By Carolyn King
    03 MAR 2010, 4:22 GMT

    That is SO true. So much of logo/brand design is about the context - physical, social and political. I guess they can’t teach that sort of experience in design schools, it comes with time…

  10. By Hian Battiston
    03 MAR 2010, 5:45 GMT

    Congratulations Paula, I loved your article. Every design student or everyone who wants to become a designer should read your article.
    Every pieces of information that you gave was amazing. I would say that the hardest part of logo design is to fulfill all the client’s needs and expectations, with just one piece of graphic, and it’s when the brief shows up. In my opinion, every little piece of information that you get from your client will help you to develop the logo. If you get a great and complete brief you’ll be able to see, while you’re reading the brief, the logo in your head.
    Thanks for it!

  11. By Anthony Hawkins
    03 MAR 2010, 6:51 GMT

    Very well written and true.  It is imperative that the designer be in control and have a strategy when working in the real world.  It might be easier to persuade your peers in a design school but persuading an organization that may not understand the principles of design is a skill that every designer should strive for.

  12. By Dan Dimmock
    03 MAR 2010, 9:49 GMT

    “I’m in favor of designers doubling as strategists, or at least working extensively with them. I think the designer needs to be involved every stage of the complicated negotiation between the clients, their expectations, tastes, aspirations, marketplace concerns etc.” 
    Thanks, Paula – I couldn’t agree more. An appreciation for the importance of ’both sides of the brain’ is no doubt fundamental to the future success of any identity change programme – the cause of which generally originates from a combination of any number of both visual and/or strategic drivers. 
    However, a thought: Recently, I was invited to take part in a Visual IQ test, for fun. The assessment consisted of a collection of optical illusions, various visual and verbal deceptions and playful mind games. One exercise in particular tested the individual’s ability to change, or not, the rotational direction of an image of a figure-skater. The outcome would reveal whether a subject was predominantly a right-sided thinker, a left-sided thinker or, a combination of both. 
    So, taking the skater-test in to consideration, I wonder whether the ’designer doubling as strategist’ thought raises the age-old nurture versus nature argument. If so, maybe only those able to change the direction, at will, of the figure-skater are truly able to fulfill the combined role.

  13. By Mokokoma Mokhonoana
    03 MAR 2010, 10:03 GMT

    It’s sad how clients, and at times fellow designers, judge a designer’s worth purely based on the simplicity (or complexity) of the final design.
    They fail to realize the journey (and thinking) it took for one to achieve the form that the final design is in.
    Almost anybody with a design software can redraw the Apple logo in 10 minutes, but most wouldn’t have thought of such an idea (behind the logo) even if they were given 10 years to design the identity.
    And I agree with David Airey, critiquing a logo that’s in isolation should be discouraged.

  14. By Manuel
    03 MAR 2010, 10:13 GMT

    I’m happy to see the term ‘negotiation’ associated with the practice of graphic design. It’s a stereotype that creative people see the client relationship as a conspiracy against the designer’s talents and vision rather than a political situation to be navigated and steered towards the best possible outcome. The term negotiation has the messy connotation of entanglement, but on the flipside, that entanglement can be positively viewed as engagement with the process of the world and its institutions. I think designers, as outside consultants, are also paid to provide hope, as they bring to institutions the ability to imagine how an organization can communicate its mission more clearly to the world.

  15. By Petchy
    03 MAR 2010, 11:19 GMT

    Great read :) I’m grateful for my degree in Design Management - it really backs up my graphic designer role and means I have more legs to stand on and a deeper understanding of the strategies that apply to the identity design process. As a norwegian-based designer I am hoping to visit Visueltdagene in Oslo in May - I understand Paula is due to speak there :)

  16. By Sobre el diseño de identidades corporativas | Weblog de Sergio Ortega
    03 MAR 2010, 11:26 GMT

    [...] he descubierto en Logo Design Love y su título lo dice todo: What they don’t teach you about identity design in design schools… (Lo que no te enseñan sobre diseño de identidad en las escuelas de diseño). Sus párrafos [...]

  17. By david Gale
    03 MAR 2010, 11:29 GMT

    This is going to come across as being completely off the wall but here goes:
    It’s refreshing to hear a message that insists on design governance over the innocently made, destructive decisions of business managers. In motorsport, my historic professional background, this is a given. No one would seriously contemplate not having governance from the design team as a formal part of any decision-making process.
    Bizarrely, in an another, much larger scale area that affects all of our lives, this design governance doesn’t happen. Billions of pounds continue to be wasted in public sector IT because government doesn’t empower the IT equivalent of the design director: an IT architect. Worse still, strategic IT decisions are made by clueless civil servants and ministers, with only low-level code-monkeys inputting into the design. What’s missing is vision and a strategic design. Which neatly (?) makes my point: behind every successful design there needs to be a clear vision and those who map out the overarching design to deliver that vision need to be empowered keep it on track.

  18. By Rahul Jha
    03 MAR 2010, 12:56 GMT

    I work as a developer for a dotcom giant and have painfully realized over the years that the same thing applies to programming in the industry. Here’s another take on the same issue:

  19. By Denú
    03 MAR 2010, 13:32 GMT

    I agree completely. At first the NY Phil logo, in isolation seemed terrible to me. Because i saw it sad, alone, disturbingly out of context. When put on liveries, stands, paperwork it’s just beautiful. Don’t know if the person who designed the logo and the one that designed the context was the same.   

  20. By Rana Majumder
    03 MAR 2010, 14:31 GMT

    Nice post! But what I think is Identity/Logo design can not be teach in Design Schools. Design Schools can only teach you what is a Logo/Identity and what tools or process helps you to make them.According to me designing a Identity or Logo something more deep than that & which is someone’s inborn quality to seeing things in different way but depicting them in simple, easy to recognise & creative way. As creativity can’t be teach, its only can describe. So what these design school do is describe their students why some Great Logos/Identities are so ‘Great’. It will help students with great potentiality to be another Identity or Logo maestro to dug in his/her grey cells.

  21. By Ian
    03 MAR 2010, 14:33 GMT

    Great article, and I finally I feel validated and understood as someone who doesn’t just create (hopefully) attractive logos. I agree with Jerry Kuyper that ”the best combination is a visually attuned strategist partnering with a strategically focused designer’, especially in presentations. Both these people are often harder to find than one would expect, especially “the strategists who have chosen the identity business because they understand and love great design, and will fight for it” that Tony Spaeth refers to.

  22. By Link to: Paula Scher Article – FSU Spring 2010
    03 MAR 2010, 16:11 GMT

  23. By Naina Redhu
    03 MAR 2010, 16:15 GMT

    Most identity-designers understand this - especially the ones who have been around for at least half a decade. But their understanding has never been the problem. It’s clients [ mostly first-time-identity-needing ones ] who don’t realize this - and hence negotiations turn into a trip-to-the-weekend-flea-market-bargain-shrill. Attempts at explaining what the job entails get scoffed at with references to “It’s just design”. Personally, I find myself stuck between investing time in educating a thankless client and actually working for someone who already ‘gets’ it. One part of me wants to spend time cultivating awareness and one part of me screams to forget about it.

  24. By debbie millman
    03 MAR 2010, 16:42 GMT


  25. By Anthony Lingwood
    03 MAR 2010, 17:00 GMT

    as you said: “… when a designer is trying to get their client to feel comfortable assuming a new identity.”
    When you dress a pig in furs, how does it see itself then? ;)

  26. By felix sockwell
    03 MAR 2010, 18:37 GMT

    i speak from experience (competing for identity assignments against Paula) when I say good luck to anyone thinking they are going to “out creative” Pentagram for that big important assignment. Honey, you’re already toast.
    I think whats been key for me is being honest up front; I tell potential clients I am an extrememly difficult genius and the if too tightly rendered briefs are written I will erupt and go medievil on their asses (somehow I think Paula does this too). Then, moing forward they are scared shitless. After, when they find out its all a hoax they call Pentagram and pay out the wazoo.
    I love design.

  27. By jay colvin
    03 MAR 2010, 18:49 GMT

    Amen. Thank you Paula.

  28. By heather
    03 MAR 2010, 19:08 GMT

    Wonderful Paula. Great insight as usual. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  29. By Nathan Ford
    03 MAR 2010, 20:23 GMT

    Well said Paula! I very much agree.
    I take one issue with the above: designers need be psychologists, not psychiatrists. Psychiatrists can—and often do—prescribe meds. We designers only wish we could some times.

  30. By “Any design student could do a better job” |
    03 MAR 2010, 20:52 GMT

    [...] and refinements, persuasions and proofs, results, hopefully, in an accepted identity design” What they don’t teach you about identity design by Paula Scher. No Comments, Comment or [...]

  31. By Indra
    03 MAR 2010, 20:59 GMT

    That was inspiring. I’d made me rework the concept of my class into a more realistic one.

  32. By jeff stone
    03 MAR 2010, 21:23 GMT

    when i first started out, one of the early pioneers in corporate identity, joe selame, told me to remember that clients don’t pay thousands of dollars for design–they pay it for strategy. design is subjective but strategy is objective, and it’s what ultimately defines a successful identity program. thanks for your great articulation of this reality.

  33. By What they don’t teach you about identity design in design schools… « Room 357
    03 MAR 2010, 21:45 GMT

    [...] 3, 2010 · Leave a Comment Shelly shared the following article by Paula Scher about ‘the other side’ of identity design and [...]

  34. By Identity, from Paula Scher « Graphic Design Practicum: Spring 2010
    03 MAR 2010, 21:55 GMT

    [...] Identity, from Paula Scher Please read this and we’ll discuss at start of class on 16th. [...]

  35. By Jonathan Patterson
    03 MAR 2010, 23:53 GMT

    Brilliant! Thanks for this poignant post.

  36. By Janet Giampietro
    04 MAR 2010, 0:59 GMT

    A great commentary, thanks for putting it out there.“I’m in favor of designers doubling as strategists, or at least working extensively with them.” Designers become a pair of hands if we’re not in on the discussion. We can’t receive feedback filtered through another voice. We have to hear the expression and intention of comments and proceed accordingly.
    Is there a book out there of culled comments heard during the development of an identity project? If not, maybe there should be.

  37. By Jordy
    04 MAR 2010, 12:29 GMT

    Great story;
    I definately agree with it. However, it depends I guess which school.
    Currently, I am a student in communication & multimedia design. We are taught branding as well. On this subject, we’re actually trained to not just (visually)design stuff and make it nice, but as well this process you talk about.
    I guess our uni is a bit more strategic, because our main teachers have a marketing/psychology background, rather then just visual.
    Gotta make a remark about identity/branding though. Often is referred to just visual, and in some cases sound, but identity is so much more. Of course, visual is where to start.

  38. By Sebastiany
    04 MAR 2010, 20:13 GMT

    We can add to this article, that the students can also count on the experience of their teachers to avoid any big design mistake.

  39. By paula scher
    04 MAR 2010, 21:07 GMT

    Thank you everyone, for your generous responses.  
    To Jordy: It’s nearly impossible to simulate the client experience in school. Even if a  client-type comes to give a crit, they will be on their best behavior and separate from their organization and therefore not operating within their given milieu, and it will not likely to be an accurate representation of the client/designer relationship. You can hear about it, the way some one may describe a party,  but you don’t actually experience it unless you are there.  With clients, experience is the best teacher.

  40. By Doug C
    04 MAR 2010, 21:15 GMT

    Interesting and very true as it applies to almost all design.  In the world of architecture the saying is; you need a great client and I think the same is true of logo design. This sadly explains why so much design goes wrong.

  41. By Jordy
    05 MAR 2010, 0:00 GMT

    To Paula,
    This is true; we don’t play those situations. We actually get assignments for companies; and believe me, they are an ass sometimes :-) we’ve learned from those experience as well.
    We also share our thoughts and experiences on those subjects; how clients are. Usually from student to student, because most of us do freelance work.
    I guess this helps us a bit in advance.

  42. By Jordy
    05 MAR 2010, 11:06 GMT

    Question; are we talking about visual logo’s or visual identities or identities?
    I also think is that visual is the most easiest to judge, and everyone has an opinion about it, but in my opinion, design goes further then that. Because visuals are the strongest part of an identity, it’s understand to have it’s imortant of pleasure.
    Sometimes, you need to understand that when a company does not like the logo; even though it is brilliant, the identity can be shattered.
    This is why bigger clients are better because they know why they hire you, instead of not have the time to do it themselves.

  43. By Patrick
    05 MAR 2010, 12:51 GMT

    The nike logo was in fact designed by a student.

  44. By So… i’ve been busy! « design i like
    05 MAR 2010, 20:21 GMT

    [...] What they don’t teach you about identity design in design schools… by contributor Paula Scher [...]

  45. By Camille
    05 MAR 2010, 21:06 GMT

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful article.  Your mention of the importance of strategy and diplomacy during the design process is key.  Most (if not all) clients are looking for design that authentically represents who they are and, in my experience, the success of the final product is directlly related to the quality of the conversation throughout the process.

  46. By Tony Spaeth
    05 MAR 2010, 21:40 GMT

    Well said, Camille. One further thought: our best work is done for clients to represent who they want to become, rather than who they are; it’s the vision, in the mind of a leader, that our work can help to make a reality. This makes it all the more important to win the leader’s respect, trust and confidence.

  47. By Andy Johnson
    06 MAR 2010, 3:31 GMT

    Excellent post Paula. I’ve had many experiences discovering the true beauty of certain marks through the process of implementation - and in fact had a recent one with your NY Phil design, building some PPT temlpates for Pentagram. Context, it would seem, is everything and only time in the marketplace seems to provide the ability to identify that context.
    Looking forward to future posts.

  48. By Tyler
    06 MAR 2010, 19:20 GMT

    As an inexperienced graphic designer, this post was very interesting. Very real and you put it very eloquently. It is so challenging to get clients to realize that you as the designer have their best interest in mind while wearing so many hats at the same time. In my limited experience, I have felt this reality all too often. I totally agree with you about measuring logo’s success….It’s not just the logo itself, its all the collateral around it as well!

  49. By Scott Lerman
    06 MAR 2010, 20:05 GMT

    How do you teach a design student to become more than a designer or get a client to expect more than design from a design firm? Words matter. But what term really fits and sets the right expectation? Design? Identity? Branding? Do more words help? Design thinking? Corporate identity? Strategic branding and identity? 

    Early design firms once dubbed themselves identity firms—but most were really logo and design-system makers that institutionalized the notion that identity=logo design. Having fouled the sweeping term “identity,” many firms moved to branding as a descriptor for a deeper set of strategic and creative services. 

    Are we business consultants that use an array of analytical and creative tools? Are we branding consultants? Are we, at our best, designers that also double as strategists or specialized partners with more strategic brethren? Or are we a rare spark of creativity to be added the mix as needed?

    It’s our own fault that clients, teachers, and students don’t understand who we are and what we do. Without clarity, there’s little chance we can recast our reputation, attract the right kind of students, or craft an education that will set professionals on the right path.  

  50. By Henry Kaye
    07 MAR 2010, 0:16 GMT

    the designer has to be a strategist…”
    Bravo, absolutely right! Never let history or self-sustaining prevailing wisdom guide what you can, cannot, should or shouldn’t do! I personally think ‘mind-set’ and lack of reflective awareness of it… is the single element holding back designers from progression. More people like Paula please, in education especially.
    In branding we got it the wrong way round, planners prefer the moniker of strategist for its grandoise connotation. Generally speaking strategies must not be separated from the object of the strategy (inc, aesthetics consideration), also strategies need not necessarily be communicated through words and numbers (though often is for continuity-sake).

  51. By Tony Spaeth
    07 MAR 2010, 0:27 GMT

    I agree, Scott, that clearly we have a problem — “clients, teachers, and students don’t understand who we are and what we do.”  And I agree that words matter. I suggest our problem is primarily an identity problem (where identity = definition) and only then a branding problem (where branding = labelling).

    I used to think “identity” and “branding” were interchangeable. It now strikes me that identity is ‘what it is,’ an accumulation of perceived facts; branding is how we then choose to label it, dress it and communicate it.

    I’ll still choose to label myself “identity consultant,” with a minor in “branding.”

  52. By Paula Scher
    07 MAR 2010, 1:27 GMT

    Scott, Henry, and Tony,
    If you look up “design” in the dictionary, definition 1a is “a plan”.  Design is the art of planning and designers are planners.  Graphic Designers specialize in creating plans that involve language and communication. Sometimes the plan is three lines of typography that accurately expresses the spirit of the contents of a book, sometimes the plan is wayfinding system for Paris, and sometimes the plan is the motivation, methodology and system by which a multi-national corporation can create products and services and express them  globally and locally at the same time without losing consistency of their message, and yet being able to customize the message for specific situations and audiences.
    Planning and strategy are synonymous.

  53. By Tony Spaeth
    07 MAR 2010, 1:35 GMT

    Planning, strategy and design are synonymous. I think we agree, Paula. Now let’s get the rest of the world on the same page!

  54. By Jordy
    07 MAR 2010, 11:44 GMT

    I agree partly on what Scott says.
    It is indeed all those things… and we might perhaps make it ourselves too difficult; but isn’t that just evolution of our profession?
    Design is not something (yet) that really can be defined..everyone seems to think different about it. I think design also needs to be able to make an emotional connection; but therefore you need to know your client’s customers … other may disagree.
    I think when the entrance of the applied web, design has begun to make a leap forward in many different practises; like scott says; branding, design thinking, interaction design, user experience design..etc…
    there is a hierarchy forming slightly now things get more understandable. The use of Neuromarketing/psychology helps it a bit to understand design better;
    but as far as we’s like art, except with a different purpose (debatable)
    a) you do it well. b) you’ve got a style. c) I like your work. d) make me something nice which fits to my customers.
    And in a very simple way; it still goes like this… no matter in what level of quality you bring.. the process is very different.

  55. By Svend Design
    08 MAR 2010, 0:21 GMT

    [...] partner Paula Scher tells us “What they don’t teach you about identity design in design school”: “I never knew a designer that got hundreds of thousands of dollars to design a logo. Mostly, [...]

  56. By Philip Graves
    08 MAR 2010, 13:00 GMT

    AN excellent article - thanks!
    I too have long held the view that designers (and creatives in all disciplines) should be involved in the so-called ’strategy’ aspects of development.  In most cases the planning process, whilst admirable up to a point, is simply an exercise in extracting more revenue from the project.
    It’s also crucial that market research can offer virtually nothing to the process of design development and certainly nothing at all to its evaluation beyond out-sourcing the responsibility for decision-making (something I hope to lay to rest once and for all when my book Consumerology is published later this year). 
    I agree with you: without doubt, the designer should be ever-present and learn to influence, tolerate and control the non-designer contributions of the client.

  57. By Martin Boath
    08 MAR 2010, 14:04 GMT

    Couldn’t agree more on a lot of what Paula says here. Here speaks a woman who quite clearly knows what’s she’s talking about, to put it in the most simplistic of terms. What she says about the ‘anyone could do a better job’ brigade is spot-on, as is the ignorance of people when it comes to design fees.
    And whilst I agree that logos become iconic over time, I cannot agree that they “shouldn’t be judged purely as form and out of context” Isn’t it the whole point of a logo that it is strong enough to stand alone, without the crutch of its supporting brand to support it?
    The ‘logo is dead’ message has been doing the rounds for a while now and, whilst it is something I really disagree with, I recognise there seems to be a change of tack in that design agencies are now very keen to put across the idea that a company is not identified by its logo alone but by the whole brand look. This has always been the case but it is being more keenly proclaimed. Is it an excuse for allowing substandard logos into the marketplace?
    The marriage of a logo with its brand identity is a beautiful thing when done well but for me there seems to be a number of logos emerging of late who quite simply are not good, but are given the get-out of ‘not being seen within context’. Surely it’s not at the point where a logo cannot be looked at without reading an agency-released rationale?

  58. By Monday Quick Links | design work life
    08 MAR 2010, 16:01 GMT

    [...] What they don’t teach you about iden­tity design in design schools… [...]

  59. By felix sockwell
    08 MAR 2010, 20:28 GMT

    All this hi-falutin bizz talk would drive a design student straight into law school!
    Design is plan. Design is strategy. Great. Been there. Heard that. No one can argue against some of the disturbing truths in Paula’s diatribe. Bottom line; designers are creative. We read. Listen. And then put our “magic” on the page. This has little to do with “planning”. 
    1. to cause to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary processes.
    2. to evolve from one’s own thought or imagination, as a work of art or an invention.

    Is “planning” not a foregone conclusion?

    If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it? —Picasso

  60. By Jordy
    08 MAR 2010, 20:51 GMT

    Agree with Martin Broath;
    Logodesign is/will be iconic; visual identity through icons is the most powerfull thing; the no logo is indeed a bit of a guideline to help understand that a brand identity is more then just a logo, however it’s one to not be forgotten.
    Identities are more dynamic then they used to be, as Felix Sockwell sais… it’s still magic, however.. i do believe you need to know your market before you can create something for them. Which is in the end what you are doing.. if you don’t do that; you’re design is not design.. but art perhaps…

  61. By Armando Angeles
    08 MAR 2010, 21:56 GMT

    It’s my first time in this forum. This post was the best welcome I could get here. I’m about to finish school and I do agree with you. Most people in school, and even in the ‘real world’, design pretty logos, as you said, to “stand alone” when a logo will never be standing alone. It will be standing always with all the characteristics of the brand that represents on its shoulders and that is why the functionality is the goal here. The combination of functionality and clarity is what opens the door to the beauty of a logo.

  62. By anushree
    08 MAR 2010, 22:26 GMT

    Design students need to be taught how to design, and not how to sell a design.Design education is about a time in their lives, where they should design thinking about utilising all the possibilities of communication. When a student is out of design school, it is a good time for him to deal with the way clients work (which is, communicating to someone who is unaware about the science of design). Here sometimes, a student fresh out of college has the ability to have a fresh line of thought as compared to people working in the field. It is not only important to create a good, suitable piece of design, but it is also important never to rule out the possibility to communicate to the client and be able to convince a client to agree to this fresh line of thought, which sometimes may work for them. It is always important in a presentation that there is workable, suitable and beautiful identity, but also a risky route which might work for them. Huge clients are the ones who can afford to go the risky way and appear unusual in their category. It is all about conviction. Anything can be sold, if you believe in it! :)

  63. By Henry Kaye
    09 MAR 2010, 5:16 GMT

    “Huge clients are the ones who can afford to go the risky way”
    Not strictly true! Design functions within a larger system, the business or corporate-level system driven by and accountable to finance and accounting, usually meaning risk minimization if not adversity. It generally helps to speak the same language to avoid unpleasant trade-offs, but remember both corporations and design also function within yet a larger system, society among others, so shouldn’t be seen as a purely market-driven device. At least that’s my opinion.

  64. By anushree
    09 MAR 2010, 6:37 GMT

    It is not about going the risky way and appearing frivolous, but sometimes taking to a route which is so different in category that it attracts attention instantly. This may not be the case always that is why we should have the best of both worlds.
    Design students should not be subject to market driven strategic design and should be made to explore all possibilities and experience the joy of designing.

  65. By Roger van den Bergh
    09 MAR 2010, 6:42 GMT


    Thanks for initiating the “identity-strategy-design-branding-education” discussion. Indeed, the “ideal identity designer” needs to be incredibly versatile, capable of utilizing many disciplines. Because the institution of an “ideal identity designer” is quite rare (I can only count three: one from the US and two from Europe), one resorts to a tandem, comprising designer and strategist.

    Three observations:

    1. Training
    Design schools could learn a great deal from identity creation practiced in the real world: design students would not only learn to analyze and solve problems, but also get familiar with making decent presentations, run projects, work in budget frameworks, write proposals, and get along with clients. This could be addressed by not just tweaking a curriculum, but structurally changing it, with help from (part-time) teachers who actually practice identity design.

    2. Designers
    In general, identity designers, need to get a much more open view (to the world) by not always being interested in CA magazine, the AIGA, Logo Lounge  and “logos” per se. Also, the graphic identifier should not be the sole objective in identity creation. Remember design is a means, a tool to resolve all kinds of different communication problems. Thinking design makes it possible to analyze problems, to visualize them and to distill possible solutions. Too often is the “logo” regarded as the one and only solution of this process. Aren’t designers hired to approach things in a different, unconventional way?

    3. Clients
    A well informed client will contribute to at least 25% of the identity solution. It is more efficient to have a knowledgeable client of an identity project participate in a useful and constructive critic during the consensus building process. Informing and educating a prospective client is therefore imperative to avoid potential disappointments and endless working sessions. In addition to the many jobs of the designer, described by you, Paula, one of them is certainly that of an educator in the broadest sense.

    Roger van den Bergh
    Onoma, LLC
    New York

  66. By Jordy
    09 MAR 2010, 11:09 GMT

    I would really want to disagree on your point.
    Why is actually a very simple thing; well..say..hypothesis.
    If you want to design somerthing, you do it most likely to attract people, or have the identity set..the goal is communication. You want to communicate the message. But if you do have zero knowledge of your market…how can you design a clear message for them ?
    As can indeed sell anything you want; but good design sells itself :-), if it communicates, it doesn’t need to be sold =), it will be adapted!
    On the part of risky design or something…
    Doesn’t matter if it is big or not big companies; it’ about the vision of the client.
    Like the UK brand Method; I’ve heard the case from Karim rashid where he talked about that case, how he made the bottle and how the client is. If their vision is just making money, they might wanna go for safe, if they got a more clear message, they want to try things, and know more the possibilities and let people do their thing. Because good clients do understand that you are good in your profession.
    In my design manifesto; I write about that in design, there is no concurrency if you are authentic. People believe in you and your work, are attracted, and your/their customers would love that too. If you know they won’t… it will not work as well.
    It’s a matter of looking at it though.

  67. By anushree
    09 MAR 2010, 11:33 GMT

    I completely agree with you, knowing the market is important, but too much knowledge sometimes ends up creating limitations in the process of design communication, this problem is often faced by people in the field for a long time.
    and you’re right, It is a matter the way you look at it.

  68. By Jordy
    09 MAR 2010, 11:50 GMT

    Depends… yes it does limitate design when you fire things off straight away. Of course, in this phase, it’s a matter of delay of execution.
    As my specialization is concept development; this is the key elements of those things

  69. By Nick
    09 MAR 2010, 14:43 GMT

    Wholeheartedly agree.  As a designer it seems common-sense that we should see our ‘baby’ through to maturity to safe-guard it  - I suspect that those on the ‘business-end’ overlook this entirely - not even seeing it as a need.

  70. By anushree Kapoor
    09 MAR 2010, 19:18 GMT

    Thankyou Nick,
    I’m glad you agree! :)

  71. By Tushar
    10 MAR 2010, 0:30 GMT

    Great article, great discussion. I’d like to add only this:
    Perhaps it is about knowing when it is time to ‘let go’ of the need to control the creative output, and when to ‘allow’ for client’s comments & criticism to influence one’s work, and by doing so, somehow, make the result seem natural, appropriate and visually elegant. 

  72. By What they don’t teach you about identity design in design schools… « Digital Fireball
    10 MAR 2010, 7:27 GMT

    [...] More on identity design > [...]

  73. By till1
    10 MAR 2010, 20:19 GMT

    @Roger: what are the three ideal identity designers in your opionion? dont want to start a debate over these, just being curious …

  74. By Vickie Nicely
    11 MAR 2010, 1:03 GMT

    Paula,  I have no idea what kind of designer you are, but if you put lines and colors together as well as you do words, phrases, and sentences, you are one fine designer!  If by some chance (unlikely) you don’t make it as a designer, consider writing as your second career.  You really have a way with words.  I wonder if most creative people can write as well as they are with design,  since both can truly be artistic as yours must be.

  75. By beyondwords | a blog for professional writers, editors, and designers » Blog Archive » 140+ Tweet Feed: Feb. 27-Mar. 5
    15 MAR 2010, 7:16 GMT

    [...] What they don’t teach you about identity design in design school: Pentagram Design’s Paula Scher looks at how identity design is taught in school or written about on blogs, and how that differs from real-world logo and branding design. [...]

  76. By Christa
    15 MAR 2010, 21:46 GMT

    Paula, thanks for this inspiring post. I spend a lot of time explaining to clients that it is the navigation of their own egos and fiefdoms that will cost the most. In the end, earning the clients trust is the first step to a great design result.

  77. By el_mariachi
    29 MAR 2010, 21:50 GMT

    I would primarily like to specify that I detect a hint of arrogance from you Paula, especially in explaining your definition of how educational institutions execute identity design within their curriculums, “…spend the better part of the next six months refining the form of a mark (or a word mark), and then they sometimes transfer that word mark to a piece of stationery, or a shopping bag, or some other item (often a truck, and regardless of what school they attend…”
    With more and more universities fighting for the same cattle of potential students, not entirely based on the quality of their portfolio but primarily on their ability to pay the tuition fees, creative departments within universities have been driven to maintain a current with today’s industry including the example Roger van den Bergh had mentioned, drawing in practising designers.
    Roger had also commenced where my thoughts are leaning towards, “…This could be addressed by not just tweaking a curriculum, but structurally changing it,…”
    The observations that you have illustrated in your article of the current curriculum format within universities stating that they do not prepare their graduates for the industry well enough is outdated and I am sorry, but just blatantly wrong to put it in the kindest way possible. It is actually these Art Directors, Design Directors and Creative Directors that have driven the industry to lure individuals as if they are a variant of an “al-Qaeda for Artworking”.
    They have baited on the most part, ambitious and fairly talented individuals with extroverted ideals into a den that convinces them of initially undertaking a lengthy and barely survivable unpaid internship with the driving capabilities to literally absorb all creative liberty from their minds thus creating a team of middle-minded technically savvy politicians that then conceive mediocre work that in turn wins contracts for undeserving amounts of value as well as the possession of awards gladly regulated by ‘friends of friends’ within the industry. It is a format that demands confirmatory; those that attempt to regulate themselves outside of this box will have the surety of not surviving.
    With your statement that the industry wants strategically focused designers. With myself as a prime example, I had graduated two years ago from what is arguably the first design degree in the UK that combines the investigative tactics to formulate observation successfully, the psychology of how and why we engage with aesthetics and then the capabilities of how to visually execute these concepts effectively. All of the mission statements and USP’s preached by the Fitches and the Frogs and the Brand Union’s of this world, the industry had no idea what to do with graduates with this education. These directors are scared than an industry that they have been loyal to since they had started in the late 80’s/early 90’s could potentially execute them so they in return, make sure evolution and new processes is preventable.
    In conclusion, a doctor enters their industry because they generally have the aspirations to make an impact for the greater good with the attachment of emotional wealth. Today, a designer enters their industry because they most likely didn’t get into medical school to be that doctor and are intelligent enough to know “that family owned insurance company in town” will always need a business card without any sense of ingeniously executing purpose. It is thus the industry that needs to step back and look at itself and not the educational establishments and it needs to be done now because the industry risks the loss of recruiting potentially qualitative successors to the field.

  78. By paula scher
    29 MAR 2010, 23:09 GMT

    To el mariachi,
    I confess that I don’t understand most of your e-mail.  But, I have been teaching identity as part of my SVA portfoilio class, for 28 years.  Many of my former students are very, very successful, accomplished and influential designers who learned a lot about form, thinking and applications in my class. But, in 28 years I have never found a way to accurately simulate the designer/client realtionship in a classroom.  It would be like simulating a marriage.  It’s a fake.

  79. By el_mariachi
    29 MAR 2010, 23:45 GMT

    To Paula,
    My response to your report is driven through your observations of how identity design is instructed within university programmes and then my receival by the industry having studied what you had outlined as how identity could be instructed in an ideal world. Although I commend the achievements of your past students, with all due respect this is a very, very small percentage compared the vast amount of graduates entering the industry worldwide.
    My opinion is drawn from that it is not the graduates entering the industry whom do not posess the ability to combine strategy and creativity but there is no place for them in the industry to be utilisied. Specially in the worldly renowned agencies. The industry demands that the graduate to choose if they want to go into either accounts or creative thus preventing them from using the skills that they had obtained with the impression as the industry grade.

  80. By Scott Lerman
    30 MAR 2010, 0:15 GMT

    el_mariarchi: I disagree. Great firms, big and small, actively seek talent with creatively strategic minds. Individuals that deliver clear strategic insight and powerful expression are prized.

  81. By felix sockwell
    30 MAR 2010, 0:31 GMT

    scott this is true. however, a good deal of the time it really depends on your handicap (ask Mr Beirut, he’s convinced golfing sucks). the general malaise seen in the branding industry should come as no surprise in such a crappy economy.
    I don’t understand a lot of what “el mariachi” is ranting about… lost me @ “al queda for artworking”

  82. By Tony Spaeth
    30 MAR 2010, 2:01 GMT

    Thanks anyway to el Mariachi, for struggling with language barriers to express big ideas. He’s on target, in expressing the age-old cultural divide between shirts and suits. Seems it still exists.

    Scott is right to point out that shirts who can talk good suit are highly valued, paid more especially because they can more effectively sell good design product. It doesn’t work as easily in the other direction, however; shirts generally don’t welcome suits in the design process.

    At Anspach Grossman Portugal, as I recall, my friend Gene Grossman did his best to keep strategists like me out of the studio. That stung; the designers were my soul mates. In the long run however, I have found that the best of them have the confidence to welcome creative ideas form anyone, even from suits.  

  83. By el_mariachi
    30 MAR 2010, 2:22 GMT

    By felix sockwell 30 MAR 2010, 0:31 GMT
    ” I don’t understand a lot of what “el mariachi” is ranting about… lost me @ “al queda for artworking” ”
    Those individuals that manage some of the world’s biggest creative houses are dumbing down the industry’s talent in exchange for awards by their peers and financial gain, that in turn means the quality of work has got worse. With its evolutionary strengths compared to its predessor a side, do any of these solutions honestly break any new ground? -
    The branding and communications industries have become lazy. The edge and desire doesn’t exist anymore. The ideal to strive for the best. As the fashion industry for example, it is necessary for designers to create with the intentions of being vogue as well as being timeless. If they don’t strive. They are dead. We as an industry have settled for visually crap work. We have settled for one sentence captions (like Twitter) because its easier rather than timeless fairytales.

  84. By felix sockwell
    30 MAR 2010, 2:41 GMT

    and what does this have to do with al queda?
    i agree that the profession is in bad shape thanks to CEOs not adhering to some of the good advice generously donated by Paula, Mr Spaeth + others here. As far as conspiracy theories pertaining to “awards by their peers and financial gain” I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve been a judge at a few of these industry publications and I’ve never seen that sort of thing going on. 

  85. By Jen Walter
    01 APR 2010, 7:45 GMT

    Wonderful.  So many articles out there and this one actually goes into depth.  The designer really does have to play in a world of creativity mixed with psychology mixed with sales.  Because of that, I think a lot of places sacrifice quality.  We all stand on the edge of technology, it’s our job to help to transform a business or a brand and make it ready for the next wave that technology presents.  But mix that with the ability to suck up to the corporate egos, to pitch the big ideas, to play the corporate game.

  86. By Rob van den Nieuwenhuizen
    12 APR 2010, 13:05 GMT

    When I was studying graphic design at the Royal Academy of Art we got a rather large identity design assignment from our then-teacher Petr van Blokland.The first question he asked us: “I’m your client and I’d like a corporate identity for my company. How much is it going to cost me?” Pretty much everyone of us students named figures ranging from 250 euros to 250,000 euros. He then, of course, picked the student who proposed the lowest amount of money and told him he got the job and that he wanted a logo, stationary, website, signage, merchandise, lettering for trucks, forty different kinds of forms, business cards, ads, etc. etc. That was a valuable lesson in realising that a (corporate/identity) design process is much more complicated than we would’ve expected and that there are a lot of questions that have to be asked, answered, researched and asked, answered and researched again.We spent a couple of months designing the entire identity for a fictitious company and even though most were indeed focused on designing the coolest, most bad-ass logo, he urged us to design as much items as possible and - more importantly - design a manual so another (in-house) designer of said company would be able to design all items necessary exactly corresponding to the design we made.
    That manual was the hardest to design, because instead of solutions, we got more questions. During the process (the course was about designing the process, so the coolness of the logo wasn’t even that important) we learned a lot about asking the right questions, about iteration, about how to be as clear as possible, about functionality, about grids, about presenting your possible solutions, about the role of the designer and the role of the client, about personal taste (”I don’t like a yellow logo because my wife hates yellow.”) and much more. We learned that a design process isn’t about just the design at all.
    One of the assignments I learned the most from during my study.

  87. By el_mariachi
    13 APR 2010, 1:33 GMT

    i am surprised that an intelligent person such as yourself would use the term “al qaeda” so literally. i ask you to conjure thoughts when i use this term in its broadest sense. my intentions are to illustrate “al qaeda” as an example stem from the methodologies undertaken in order to recruit individuals to promote their cause rather than literally blowing people up!
    it is also not only the ceo’s. that is too much of an easy exit. it is the creative directors in tandem with the client directors. it is a creative director’s role to administer the agency/team’s proposition to promote the ideals of the solution and to convince the ceo that their solution regardless of however radical it may be is the best result to go with. a bad creative director and there are a lot out there will change the colour from yellow to another as rob van den nieuwenhuizen described without a second thought…
    my comments of the “awards to peers” is executed through gentlemen’s agreements…if you scratch my back….potential to gain future business….it cannot be denied that it is all political.
    today, i was reading some design blogs that are coordinated by designers working in agencies and the biggest thing they have to be excited about within their industry at the moment is the launch of adobe cs5. some are convinced that they will become better designers because of the programme updates. one designer even said that he is not even going do any work on his/her computer until they have received the new software. this is our industry today.

  88. By till1
    13 APR 2010, 14:41 GMT

    one thesis ive been chewing on for a long time:
    “maybe identity design is not about radical or new solutions, but more about known and pragmatic (in the casual meaning) solutions?”

  89. By elizabeth!
    28 APR 2010, 4:12 GMT

    Sometimes it’s the same in music!

  90. By Kriszha Krishna
    03 MAY 2010, 17:11 GMT

    Thanks Paula for the inspiring piece. Just shared the excerpts on my blog.

  91. By Apisak Eddie Saibua
    21 JUN 2010, 10:45 GMT

    so very well written. so true. 

  92. By Derrick Harvey
    08 OCT 2010, 2:18 GMT

    Great article! I would have to say that a designer with multiple disciplines or knowledge of, can make them strong. I think a strong designer like that can adapt into any firm.
    As a student who is currently in school, I do not understand how some students do minimal construct on their projects, and during presentations, student and instructors alike will commonly accept the lacking by saying things like, “well you’ll have someone doing that for you”. I think its absurd and takes from what a really good designer can become.

  93. By Jeremy
    30 SEP 2011, 8:06 GMT

    Hi Paula, what you wrote is very interesting and so true. I do believe that one of the reasons why sometimes design students at school find themselves stuck in producing logos which finally does not have that memorable impact; though beautiful, is due to the lack of time spend on developing a strong concept, to the time spent on the design process. This unbalanced process often makes it difficult to come forward in producing that simple approached and memorable logo; like the swoosh logo of Nike. A success-story, the swoosh logo mark of Nike holds a strong concept and philosophy behind, which contributed to make it not only memorable but also powerful. My main approach when developing a logo for a company or product is to focus on the main characteristics and philosophy, with the aim of finding the focal point.
    Last year, I did a logo for a security company. I customized a bull head that illustrated the company’s character of being very hard and on alert. I tried to make it as simple as I could, but still had to put some details so that it could reflects the appropriate temper the client wanted.  - Jeremy

  94. By Daniel Braxton
    21 DEC 2012, 7:43 GMT

    I read this several years ago when first in design school and I remember focusing specifically on the points you make concerning the multiple demands of a high-end designer.  I appreciated the advice, knowing that as a designer - my training in the design process often leads to larger picture system-oriented thinking.  This served as inspiration.  Six months out of school and into the market - I find your piece again, at the behest of a former teacher, and gladly so.  This time it means even more to me, having spent the time (albeit just beginning) making design decisions for clients at a new more rapid rate, learning to trust the instincts that your professors told you you were building, and not getting the luxury of the long critique on every project.  This pushed me to focus on being an even more salient communicator - an inherent part of the process of becoming a competent (maybe someday very good) designer.  I look forward to reading it again in the future and finding yet another layer of truth.

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