Designing Effective Logos

As a video game developer one of the seemingly least important, and therefore most overlooked, tasks is creating a product identity — essentially, this outward idea of how players view your game. Logos are a major part of that identity, and effectively designed logos are often the most recognizable aspect of a game.

Take these examples:

Do you recognize any of them? If you do, it means the designers did a good job. Now granted, designing game logos is a bit easier than designing logos for a company or service. For one thing, there’s more obvious stuff to draw upon. See the Half Life logo? That’s just lambda, the Greek letter most often used to represent radioactive half life. Gears of War? It’s a skull in a gear…pretty straightforward. And the SSB: Brawl logo is just a stylized version of the Smash ball, one of the most important in-game items.

Why, then, do I go on sites like IndieDB or ModDB and see so many horrendous logos (both for games and for companies)? The answer is that AAA games have experienced designers to draw upon, whereas most indie developers don’t have a lot of creative work under their belt.

Now I’m no expert, but I have taken 3 years of graphic design classes and I do know the ins and outs of logo design. For anyone who’s ever taken such a class this should already be common knowledge, but for anyone else looking to refine their game logo, please read on and enjoy.

Step 1 — Know Your Goals
What kind of game are you making? What would you like your game to say to people? Gears of War is dark and gritty, so obviously if the logo was a pink happy face people would be thrown off. When designing your logo, keep the end product in mind. But in the world of games there’s a bit more to it than that:

  • Keep your logo bold. It’s (hopefully) eventually going to be on a cover with a lot of stuff going on. The trend today is to put a beautiful, snazzy image or a close-up of the main character on the cover. Thin, wispy logos won’t stand out.
  • Make sure it’s recognizable even in black-and-white. There’s a few cases where the logo may only be rendered in monochrome, so heavy detail or fade-off gradients aren’t always a good idea.
  • Keep it simple. A lot of great game logos, like Guitar Hero or GTA, are actually just the title of the game written in a stylish, noticeable way. You don’t need to go all-out thinking of a weird symbol/image to represent your game.

One thing that’s helped me a lot is to write down a few “keywords” that define what I want to capture in a design. As an example, let’s consider a logo for a fictional AI system called Llengyll, which works by learning and adapting to its environment. What keywords would best capture the idea of AI? Smart, learning, robot…these are just a few.

Now think, can you draw any of these words out? How would you draw “smart”? What would “smart” look like? Hmm…maybe not the best keyword choice after all. Let’s replace “smart” with “refined” and “learning” with “growth”. It’s easy to draw a refined design, easy to demonstrate growth, and really easy to draw a robot.

Step 2 — Sketch it Out
Now it’s time to put pencil to paper. You might think hopping on the computer is the best idea, but it’s not. A lot of great ideas actually start with just doodling on a piece of paper (case in point, I designed my personal logo on a napkin): don’t worry about mistakes, don’t bother to erase. Just let everything flow.

Here’s my brainstorming process:

Let’s break it down. I started in the top left with the idea of a robot, the eyes replacing the double-L of Llengyll. That immediately brought to mind Android, so I scrapped it. Below that I thought of making the arms of a robot BOTH sets of double-L’s. Then I began to experiment with the idea of growth by making one L bigger than the other and adding an arrow into the mix. Most of the bottom right is refining this idea, making the L’s thicker and the arrow negative space. None of the arrow designs really worked, until I settled upon a mouse-like arrow; just a triangle pointed sideways indicating the direction of growth.

The final sketch is sideways — it’s the biggest one on the top.

Step 3 — Vectorize It
It’s time to put your design on the computer. Although you could use any program from here on out, by far the easiest way to do this is by using a vector program like Adobe Illustrator. Not only do these programs sport tools specifically designed to trace out sketches, but the end result is infinitely scaleable. You can make the logo one inch wide or thirty feet wide without any loss of quality, because to vectors size does not matter.

For more complex logos you may want to actually scan your image and place it in the document to trace over it. But my logo is pretty simple, and moreover it’s geometric. Let’s take a look:

By using a grid, I was able to make sure the rectangles and arrow were the correct size. The smaller one is exactly 75% the larger, and spaced a half-rectangle away. The middle line of the arrow connects the centers of both rectangles, and the top line of the arrow is horizontal. Of course, this doesn’t look good at all, so we continue to work:

After filling in the arrow, we round all the edges manually using circles and the ever-useful Pathfinder menu. The final logo is on the far right. Note that because it is a single color, it will work in both black-on-white and white-on-black, as well as with pretty much any color you can think of. However, to finish this design we need some Photoshop action.

Step 4 — Finishing Touches
Simply drag the final logo into a Photoshop document and experiment with color and placement. In this case I wanted to emphasize growth yet again, so I chose a warm yellow-orange gradient spawning from just above the top right corner of the logo. This suggests that the larger rectangle (the more “mature”) is closer to the light, warmer, and more generally “better”. The name of the system and a subtitle completes the design:

How does this function on a real cover?

It’s bold, it’s simple, and it stands out. This is definitely not the best placement for the logo (bottom right would have been best), but I didn’t want to alter the design of the cover too much. Even so, it is clear that the logo works well even over a complex background.

Of course, there are way more than 4 steps towards making a great logo. If you’re designing for someone else, prepare to do a lot of modifications just to make your client happy. And even if it’s just a personal logo, there may come a time that you want to change things. I’m not saying that following this article will help you make a “perfect” logo. It will, however, make it easier to make better ones…and sometimes a little better is all it takes.


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