Something to Remember You ByBy Greenfield Belser, a Finn Partners Company
April 1, 1998
The process that created the LMA logo can guide a successful visual identity makeover for your firm
Creating a logo is a challenging design assignment at any time. In the case of the LMA logo, the assignment was made more difficult by real time pressure. On December 15, 1997, the membership voted to change the name of the organization to Legal Marketing Association. The board swiftly ordered that new materials be in place in time for the annual conference, beginning March 3. Allowing four weeks to print stationery, paint signs and fabricate "novelty" items (coffee cups, coasters, t-shirts and so on) left us just six weeks for the design process, start to finish.
With the year-end holidays in-between, the time frame was even more compressed. A tall order for a job everyone considered so important to the future of the organization.
Designing a logo is not magic. It is a long and arduous process that can take from a few weeks to a few months. At our firm, the stress is on the process—a path we've developed in creating visual identities for more than 40 law firms.
For the most part, the process can be explained. For everyone involved in the LMA logo design, understanding the process and agreeing on its steps was as important as the final product. Why? Because, as each step was taken, decisions were made that had to be explained to the board and, ultimately, to every member. We knew our decisions had to be justified and supported with credible evidence that the design reflected the goals of the organization. We know that the success of the process depends on educating the client along the way.
If we succeed, it is because we create apostles who preach our case when we're not there. Without apostles, the process fails. The secret lies in convincing those who don't attend the logo development meetings, by teaching those who do. Unless we teach those who are there how to defend their decisions, they will wilt at the first substantive challenge. This is true in the development of any communications tool.
Big advantage: working with marketing professionals
Fear of change—a formidable obstacle in the development of a law firm logo—was hardly at all in play with LMA. But, no matter what the organization, we've found it wise to listen hard to vocal objections to change and cautiously ferret out tacit objections. "It's not professional" is often just another way of saying "I want my old letterhead back, thank you." Managing the emotions related to change is plain smart. Fortunately, the LMA board were experienced at managing change in their own law firms and quickly sorted change issues from design issues in the logo process.
Step one: Interviews and research
The approaching conference loomed large. But we insisted that we follow each step of our process. The board, with some coaxing, agreed.
In a law firm, we begin with a day of interviews with key partners and associates. We come away with a clear idea of the how the firm is perceived by its lawyers, clients, prospective clients and the community at large—and how those perceptions need to be changed by the logo and other materials. Since we had no time to arrange in-person interviews with far-flung board members, we faxed a questionnaire to each board member.
Step two: The Creative Work Plan
From the responses of the board members, we drafted a Creative Work Plan, a one-page document that summarizes the key messages of the interviews. Its advantage lies in its brevity—a single page creates a far different response from the reader than a one-inch thick strategic plan. Turning pages is not required. Nor is a cup of strong coffee. The answers lie right in front of you. Of course, the disadvantage of the Creative Work Plan is also its brevity. The depth and complexity of individual responses can hardly be plumbed on a single page. That is what makes the Creative Work Plan so difficult and so valuable.
Once approved by the board, the plan became the touchstone for our thinking and design throughout the project. The final draft states the design goal as "having the legal community recognize LMA as the best source for law firm marketing ideas, insights, information and support."
What do those few words tell us about designing a logo? Quite a bit, actually. For example, notice that there is no focus at all on conservative values typically associated with the legal business. The stress is on ideas, insights and information. That told us this must be a solid logo, supporting bold ideas. No excuses. No weakness. No fear.
Step three: Evaluating typographical styles
Our charge was to create a "brand," an image that would burn into memory. We were delighted with the new name. Trimming six words to three is a communications plus. And throwing away the 'national' word signaled both broader vision and greater confidence. But we know from positioning theory and memory studies that people will always try to edit a long handle ("Legal Marketing Association" has 10 syllables) to four syllables or fewer.
If your law firm name still has three or more surnames, you may have experienced the same effect. Outside the firm, as well as inside, you are known by your "street name"—inevitably four syllables or less.
The committee quickly agreed to pursue a logo based primarily on the organization's initials, "L," "M" and "A." The full name would remain an integral element of the design, but play a subsidiary role. (Losing the unlovely street name "NALFMA" to be replaced by "L.M.A" played no small role in the final choice of the new name.)
So we were working with just three letters. That should be easy, right? The problem is that there are more than 7,000 typefaces with new ones being drawn every month. In addition to upper and lower case (what you're reading now), each face has an italic font, special characters and other special features. Some fonts have as many as eight thickness or weights. The challenge is to find the one font, or combination of fonts, that fits the letterforms and reflects the design goal. Mathematically, the possibilities run into the millions. To reduce those choices to manageable size, we have developed a software protocol to run the permutations for us.
Step four: Modifying letterforms
Using the major type families, our software printed dozens of variations. We studied the letters L, M and A in every way possible—upper and lower case, all lower case, caps and small caps. Condensed. Extended. Italic. Bold. . .and so on, until we exhausted every logical combination.
We were looking for the effects that different fonts have on the string of letterforms. We are alert for possible ligatures (letters that tie together well) and other happy accidents. All the while we are searching for ideas and visual analogies that the design of an individual letterform or group of letters might inspire. In the process, we are ruling out obvious misfits and narrowing the choices we will explore, because we know that the permutations will expand again in the next steps of the process. In this case, about 10 variations survived for presentation to the board.
Along the way, we typically don't make formal presentations. We bring in a stack of design solutions—color printouts—along with scissors and tape. This keeps the process informal and encourages participants to suggest changes, that nothing is precious. We scribble on the samples, sometimes with no intent other than to defuse the formality of the presentation and ensure that it stays a "working session."
Step five: Architectural additional and type groupings
At this point, the process becomes less mechanical and more creative. We put the type in boxes and other forms, add bars, squeeze and stretch the letters to form new shapes—all in the effort to find meaningful and memorable images.
Step six: Adding a mark
We often explore the possibility of adding a separate mark or symbol to accompany the letterforms, but in this case, we decided LMA could be act as a mark and logo all in one, just as the IBM and FedEx logos perform those dual functions.
The LMA board directed us to steer clear of scales of justice, classical columns, books or globes. The most promising symbol we proposed was a compass, which we submitted along with 41 other possible solutions in mid-January. The design solutions cast a wide stylistic net, from conservative legal to postModern to cutting edge. Consulting with Deborah McMurray and Robert Denney, we narrowed the possibilities to 10 designs that would be developed in color.
Step seven: Bring on color. Apply to an envelope
During the process, we tested a broad range of colors from every part of the color wheel. But we know a logo must work well in black and white as well as color, and the board was explicitly looking for a design that would perform without color. Although our design solutions for LMA were bold letterforms, the colors chosen proved too close in value to hold up in tests through the photocopy and fax machines, so we modified colors and provided alterations to the design to accommodate contemporary communication modes.
If you could only wear one suit the rest of your life, you'd take plenty of time and care with your decision. We try to keep the decision making process relaxed and open so decisions aren't hurried or forced. Even now, with plenty of time pressure, we tried to maintain the illusion that there was time to burn. It's much more important to take the right time at the beginning than start over in a rush later. But our final presentation to the board had to be a bit more formal. The logo finalists were presented as "polished," on black boards. We applied the logos to envelopes so the board could see the logo on a familiar stationery piece. At this point, to preserve our focus on the design itself, we purposely don't show the logo on the letterhead and business card, both of which tend to stir up strong emotions and side issues that have nothing to do with the logo itself.
With five weeks left before the March conference, Burkey Belser presented the three designs, in two color palettes, to the LMA board. The board selected the design that sets forth the letters LMA most clearly and even suggests how to read them: The M steps palpably forward, while the L and A recede politely, suggesting that "marketing" is the operative word. That's not an optical illusion. The M forms its own rectangle and is slightly larger than the letters in the adjacent boxes that surround the letters L and A in the adjacent boxes.
The new logo proved quickly to be hardy in application. A tight unit of geometry and letters, it fixed itself easily to the letterhead, fax form, business cards, labels and conference banners. All in time for its introduction at the annual meeting on March 4.
The designer's job is to find some meaningful device, some idea, that reinforces the name of the organization. Just as our work ends, the life of the logo begins. Designers alone can't make logos work, only the people in the organization can do that. A well designed logo is only a reflection of the organization it symbolizes.
Originally published by LMA Strategies