Important elements of magazine design and creating good logos

A magazine’s logo is its identity. Where you place the logo on the page, the font and color you choose, and other key elements either enhance that identity or weaken it.

Every magazine struggles to establish and enhance its identity, and central to that identity is the logo. Some magazines have logos with high recognition–even mentioning the magazine conjures a vision of the logo. Life, red box with white sans serif logo in all caps; People, cap P, block letters with a bold outline; Elle, vertical serif font, widely letter spaced, all caps. Some magazines’ logos are so strongly ingrained in the reading public’s mind that even subsequent revisions fail to replace the original. Logos on early issues of The New Yorker, Esquire and Saturday Evening Post are examples.

The reality, however, is that most magazines aren’t strapped with that particular problem–and, in fact, would feel lucky to inspire such strong visual retention. More often, their concern is lack of recognition. Whether you are creating a logo for the first time, simply assessing the quality of your current logo, or actually planning to change it, there are several aspects of its design that can provide a higher level of recognition.

Font selection

Each publication has a persona–an inherent quality based on content, imagery and writing style. A good logo will reflect this. Choosing the proper font is critical. Every font projects different qualities. Some are more playful, others are more businesslike, while some are clearly masculine or feminine. Before you can design a logo, you’ll need to determine the character you want the magazine to deliver. Then begin designing with type fonts that convey those attributes. This will require researching font sources, scanning through type libraries, and experimenting with different weights or styles. You may find that your best logo requires more than one font–to create a serious, yet playful expression, for example.

Lately, several magazines have incorporated a mixed font combination, but be careful of hopping onto the tail end of a trend–especially if you don’t want to be changing your logo again anytime soon.

Dated versus trendy

One primary objective when redesigning an old logo is updating. A logo that looks dated sends the message that the magazine’s content is dated, as well. Equally dangerous, however, is the other extreme–a logo that’s so trendy that it is outdated as soon as the font or design color becomes passe. A major influence on how avant-garde you need to be is the nature of your publication. Fashion magazines are one extreme–readers look to such publications for statements about style and taste. And any publication catering to the vagaries and interests of a younger audience will need to be typographically savvy, as well. But fonts alone do not determine trendiness. How you manipulate and accessorize the logo will have an impact on its immediacy, too.

Accessories and manipulations

Some of the most enduring logos use fonts that are classic, established and familiar. Then through manipulation, they create a design twist that provides a distinctive presence–an identifying brand that makes the logo unique. Peruse your local newsstand and you’ll find gobs of magazine logos sporting a whole range of modifications–all the while using a time proven font. Font modification can incorporate a variety of tricks–from ultra-compressed or extended scaling to exaggerated drop shadows to building dimension into the letter forms. Software programs make this ever easier–sometimes to a fault. Therefore, be sensitive to font distortion that hinders readability, especially if your logo may appear against cluttered and busy backgrounds. Well-crafted font adjustments will retain the base appearance of the original type and limit change to tasteful kerning and tracking.

Equally compelling is intermixture of font weights and styles. Font modification need not be heavy handed and, in fact, a small change may add an element of sophistication. The logo for getaways, for example, is set in all lowercase, in a serifed, roman font with just the letter "y" in italic–subtle, yet effective.

Color

Here’s one simple rule regarding logo color. Pick a color for the logo–then don’t use that color for any other type on the cover. This helps set off the logo as a distinctive type element. Beyond that, use high-impact colors–red, black, white or gold. While any color will work on a logo (depending on the color of the background), the four high-impact colors are likely to satisfy your every color need. Properly using these basic colors will also ensure that your logo will project maximum importance.

Size and placement

Anyone scanning a newsstand for your magazine is looking for its name. Research shows that the upper lefthand corner has the highest visibility. Therefore, be sure your logo–or at least a large chunk of it–appears there. The higher up, the better. The same approach works for any cover. If the logo placement helps set the magazine off on a newsstand, it will do the same when it’s lying in a doctor’s waiting room fanned out on a coffee table, or delivered at the office with other mail.

Simplicity, consistency and originality

KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) really applies to logo design. A logo with too many bells and whistles is seldom attractive, and often indicates that the base logo is weak and logo font choice poor. Frequently, designers try to offset this shortcoming by accessorizing the logo. And many of the accessories available through your computer can be dangerous. For example, avoid soft shadows if your logo will frequently be placed on busy, full-bleed backgrounds. Outlines can also be a problem in these situations. And be especially careful with graduated tones. Not only can they be difficult to read in the best of situations, they can become lost when placed against equally gradated photos or art.

Keep the color scheme simple, as well. Incorporating a rainbow of colors will ensure color conflicts with cover images. And seldom does a mixture of colors enhance readability. Icons and related graphics can also be a problem if they’re too involved. Be careful with fine details in art elements that might fill in when printed against a background, or drop out when used small.

Whatever you do, however, be consistent. The more you change the logo, the more you undermine its value as a brand. Recognition is built through frequent repetition. Weekly publications have the benefit of regular exposure. But for magazines with quarterly or bimonthly frequencies, it’s essential for the logo to maintain a constant graphic presence. Don’t change the size of the logo from issue to issue. Keep it in the same position on the cover. And, if it helps, don’t change the color each issue. This may be especially effective for some trade magazines where instant recognition is built on such design consistency.

And just because you’ve seen something done on another magazine’s logo, don’t assume that it’s right for your publication. Each magazine speaks to a slightly different audience, and each has its own agenda. Seeing something done in or on a major magazine doesn’t mean it will work effectively for your title. Many art directors have been heard to utter, "I’ll never do that again." Don’t let their mistake become yours.

Other uses

The first priority in the design of your logo should be to ensure that it is effective on the magazine’s cover. But don’t overlook the other places where the logo will be used–in direct mail, and on letterheads and house ads, for example. A good logo will hold up in all those situations where, at times, its presentation may be limited to one color. Also be sure it will still work when reduced–on a business card, for instance, or one column wide above your magazine’s masthead.

A magazine’s cover is its most important page. Its logo is its identity. Strong magazines have strong logos. Those with weak logos–well, they just sort of fade away.

John Johanek is located at the Bozeman, Montana, office of Ayers/Johanek Publication Design Inc., which specializes in design consulting for consumer, trade and association magazines.