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I've been a professional graphic designer for the better part of thirty years. I've been an illustrator, magazine art director, a publisher, photographer and freelancer. Most people have no clue who I am, but many are aware of my company, The Logo Factory - a small design studio based just west of Toronto that specializes in, well, logos. Lots of logos. My 'story' has been linked with TLF for such a long time now, and reflects the ups-and-downs of "who I am", it's probably worthwhile if I tell you a little about the colorful history of my studio rather than some biographical puff-piece.
I had the original idea for The Logo Factory in 1993 as a last minute idea to save another failing business that I was attempting to run - a small sports magazine that I published, wrote, laid out and was the only photographer for. Previous to that I was a 'real' magazine art director (11 years) as well as their staff photographer, but lost my job due to internal bickering with a new editor. Specializing in logos made sense - I had always been good at designing them (the old fashioned way) but I came up with The Logo Factory idea too late (this was long before the internet - I was going to use mailing lists of newly opened businesses). The magazine was hammered by the early 90's economy and failed, leaving me with over $60,000 in debt (I did not incorporate), 3 months behind in my mortgage, and my marriage in ruins. In was at this point I began to learn Macintosh-based design. Previous to embracing Apple and Adobe, I had tinkered with desktop publishing on the Amiga platform, and used it to offer freelance design services, as well as publish 3 issues of my own magazine. I'm not entirely 'self-taught' - I'm a classically trained illustrator, attending the Sheridan School of Visual Arts in the late 70's, but for college students of the time, computer assisted illustration was something more suited to the cover of a Scientific American 'future technology' issue.
After my publication went belly-up, I went to work for a 'Marketing Company' as their 'Art Department'. I used my Amiga equipment, software, light tables, drafting tables, etc. Complete rip, but I needed the money to save my house. After 9 months of that, they owed me $8,000.00 - my debts were still piling up and I simply couldn't finance their art department anymore. I managed to recoup about $5,000 but the business relationship was finished.
I moved back into a home based office and went the freelance route. Shortly thereafter, my marriage collapsed. As did my Amiga (enter my trusty Macintosh). I managed to scrape up a few freelance gigs, design and a few book photography jobs (photography in those days paid very well). I starting sending resumes and flyers to local studios, agencies and magazines. Out of frustration (and if I remember correctly, after a few pints) I sent out a flyer that basically said - "If I can't Quark it, Illustrator it, or Photoshop it #*@*$# it!" . Funny thing was that at this point, I still didn't know Photoshop. The Amiga software Pro-Draw was almost exactly the same as Illustrator, but Photoshop was unrepresented. The Amiga bitmap-software Brilliance sucked. The flyer was so ballsy that I got a call from a local advertising agency, Crunch Inc. Communications - to help with some overload work (a pool supplies catalog). The owner liked me and I was asked to stay on. Between my work there, and efforts at home, I managed to get a real handle on Photoshop and Illustrator. The pay wasn't great, so I was always on the look-out for freelance gigs, and my experience with illustration helped me land a few high-profile jobs.
One of them was a job the City of Toronto website (they wanted me to create an illustrative image map like the old Apple e-world) and when I was interviewed they asked me if I knew HTML. I had never heard of it. In fact I had never heard of the internet at all. As part of the gig I was invited to spend two days surfing this thing called the web. That was end of 1995. I knew then that this 'triple w' thing would be big (Bill Gates didn't).
At my day gig for Crunch!, we landed a job for a show called Futurcom - a 'high tech' (for the day) display at the Canadian National Exhibition - and as a 'perk' I got free tickets for me, my new lady Sue, and my kids. We journied to the EX and went to see my work (icons, banners, etc) at Futurecom where one the exhibitors - a company called Interlog - were selling domestic dial up Internet access (2400 baud). Sue (who's now my wife) convinced me to get home internet access (she even had to put it on a credit card as I didn't have one). Part of the home access was a free 10 meg web site, and I posted a small web site (5 or so pages) that featured ALL my work. Illustration, photography, graphics, layout, and....logos. I set up an image map like the one I had built for Metro and called one section The Logo Factory (after the 93 idea). The other sections were The Library, The Gallery, Web Design 101 and The General Store. I then created the factory icon based on the house I was living in. That would later become the logo for The Logo Factory Inc.
I started getting requests for logo design from all over the world - the first was for a drum and bugle corp in California called The Black Knights. Right away I saw a business opportunity. In those days search engines were easy to manipulate and I had figured out how to get my site to #1 on EVERY directory (there also wasn't any one else doing what I was doing). I quit my day job, revamped my site (concentrating on logo design and The Factory motif) and began building the business in earnest. I couldn't copy anyone as there was no-one to copy, and I flew by the seat of my pants, making it up as I went along. There was no online credit card forms in those days - everything was by check - and business began to boom thanks to regular deliveries by Federal Express. There wasn't a day went by that I didn't get at least one request for a proposal. Then it become two. Then three.
In 1997, my site was banned by the Infoseek search engine (I had gotten carried away with keywords) and I had to quickly register a web address. I originally registered Logofactory.com, but let it expire because I wanted to be 'The' Logo Factory (despite some of the grammar problems it causes).
I officially incorporated the company and registered thelogofactory.com in March of 1998. At the same time, I made the dreaded mistake of taking on a partner (an old business associate and friend). That arrangement ended up as many do, and I had to wrestle control of The Logo Factory from him (almost giving myself a heart attack in the process) . I never recovered the money that was lost, but I managed to get the entire company (I promised him I wouldn't sue). The old studio was in his offices so we had a week to vacate. We moved into my new house (complete with designers) and turned the place upside down. Bodies, computers and Ethernet cords everywhere. It might have cost me my relationship with Sue if she wasn't, as she always is, so understanding. After 6 months of working from my house, we found a new office (our present location) - a two storey job just west of Toronto with reception, kitchen, etc. I started to hire staff and at one point (just before 9/11) had 7 designers working for me.
Since then, I have hired over 20 people full-time. We now have a staff of five, though some old staffers are on call for when things get busy. We bill $400 - $2500 for logo design projects depending on what the client is after and how long we spend. We do not use clip art, pre-fabs. etc. We try to do the best we can. Each and every day.
Thanks to The Logo Factory, I have a lovely wife, I now live in a nice house, my children are looked after and my staff are fairly content. From time-to-time we've been criticized by designers on everything from our pricing (a reflection of reality I'm afraid) to our name. That's all part of it, I guess. While a "logo factory" has some negative connotation with designers now, it didn't have when it was developed in the "pre-internet" days. It seems to resonate with our market too. At the end of the day, I'm kinda proud of where we came from and what we've managed to accomplish over the years. We were online before Google, Logoworks, Logo Design Guru or any other of the logo design companies you'll find on the internet today. I might go as far to say we were one of the first, if not THE first to hang a 'logo design' shingle on the internet. We've had mostly ups. We've had some downs. But everyone that works at The Logo Factory, and everyone that's worked with us in the past, all have/had one thing in common - a love for design. We could do things cheaper, or faster, but then we wouldn't be as proud of our little company as we are now.
When did you first decide to become a graphic designer? Was there a pivotal moment?
When I was a kid, I was pretty decent at drawing. My father encouraged me to draw. He's a fairly gifted illustrator himself - not professionally, he was always a blue collar union guy - and he saw whatever talent I have early on. I remember him spending hours on the living room floor watching me draw album covers (12" vinyl of course. Frank Sinatra was his his favorite crooner, so I drew A LOT of Frank Sinatras). I was always dreaming up weird things - robots were my favorite - and drawing them in pseudo-sketchbooks, or on poster sized boards that my mom brought home from work. I often got in trouble in school for doodling in my school books - I was raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the teachers were incredibly strict - and I was sent to the headmaster's office more than a few times for defacing my notebooks with monsters and mechanical beings. When we moved to Canada, the schools were much more lenient than those in Ireland and I became a very lazy student. I did just enough work to get by in academic classes (and to keep my marks high enough to avoid final exams), but never really put in any effort. I wasn't interested in sports and I really sucked in gym. I only gave it my all in art class. I was an 'art nerd' I guess, always hanging around the art department and taking extra classes that I didn't even need for credits. My art teacher - Miss Carlson (who I also had a terrible crush on) - recognized some talent in me and took me to life drawing classes at night (something that wouldn't happen these days) and she encouraged me to stay involved. Think she wanted me to be an art teacher - I remember her telling my parents that if I just "settled down" I could become one. I loved everything about art. Creating it. Reading about it. Learning about art history. I remember one of my art history essays - I basically called Any Warhol a hack who was conning the entire art world - caused a ruckus in the art department. While Miss Carlson loved it and gave me an A+, the head of the art department took a "who is this little punk to question the great Andy Warhol?" stance which caused a little bit of a commotion. The essay wasn't entered into some contest because it was deemed too "controversial". I was always a bit of a shit disturber - something which still manifests itself in my blog from time to time. Almost everything I was in too related back to art. I loved band logos - Yes, KISS and Rush were my favorites - and I practised getting the angles of the K and S just right. I could rattle off a perfect KISS logo in my sleep. I festooned my bedroom ceiling with a 4 foot Yes logo (by one of my favorite artists - Roger Dean). My first professional 'gig' was a logo contest - ironic, huh - when I picked up $100 (a lot of money back then) for designing my high school's radio station logo. Wasn't much of a radio station - they played music over the intercom system at lunch time - but I remember the thrill of seeing my winning entry 6 feet tall on the cafeteria wall. Don't have a copy, but the logo was an ambigram (was a mirror image that could be flipped and still read correctly) and considering the name was "Chinguacousy Radio" not a small feat. I loved logos way back then.
I also toyed with the idea of being a cartoonist - I was pretty good and modeled my style after Jack Davis (from the old MAD magazine) - but at some point realized that cartooning was a design niche inside a niche. I did a ton of cartoons for a couple of yearbooks (though I must admit to completely ripping off the little cartoons by Sergio Aragones, also featured in the margins of MAD Magazine) and was asked frequently to illustrate flyers for dances, parent-teacher nights and open houses. The one constant was my dream to someday own a "commercial art studio" (what we called them in those days) and I always planned to go to art college after high school. Which I did, signing up for the Illustration program at Sheridan College (world famous today for producing world-class animators) where I learned the basics of the trade. No, there wasn't a pivotal moment per se - I wanted to be a 'commercial artist' for as long as I can remember. Designing logos was always something I was pretty good at. I wanted to be an illustrator, but clients kept coming back with "yeah, your illustration stuff is nice, but we need a new logo".
Who or what inspires you?
Gonna sound sappy, but my wife Sue. She met me when I was at my worst, at a time when I was broke and out of work. We've been through some horrible times (some very recently) but she's always managed to prop me up while maintaining a grace and poise that, to be honest, I can't often muster - especially when under pressure. While I tend to get a little bitter and angry, she's always there with her gentle kindness and an optimistic word. If I could rewire my head, I'd like to think more like she does. I don't understand why she puts up with me, but I'm thankful she does. In terms of professionally, I get inspired by people with apparent enthusiasm about design - people like David Airey who's love for design is infectious. I find Jeff Fisher inspiring - his self-promotion is brilliant and I admire how he's turned himself almost into a 'rockstar' to younger designers. Von Glitschka is certainly someone who's inspirational - I don't understand when the cat sleeps, if he ever does - and I've never seen anyone who gives to the graphic design community like he does. I first met Von over at the HOW design forum, and we didn't like each other very much - it was during some hundred page 'hack designer' flame war and we got into it. Really into it. After lengthy back and forths and a personal e-mail from me, Von posted a public apology and offered to wear any avatar I designed - I created a Hillary for President design - for two weeks as part of our 'making up'. That showed a really good sport, took a lot of class (not to mention a hefty set of balls) and I never forgot it. I got to know him a little better after that, and followed his exploits with great interest. If any young designer wants to see the consummate professional, or to learn something about illustration, they only need to look Von's way. One of the funniest dudes in the business too. I also have many graphic design heroes from the day - Roger Dean and Patrick Nagel to name just a few.
Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?
Bit of both. As I mentioned before I took tons of night courses and went to college for illustration. Trouble is, that was old-school stuff - my trained 'skills' were in the use of rubylith, Bainbridge board, Letraset, stat camera, galley type, ruling and technical pens. When I entered the workforce as a junior graphic designer in 1980 (even back then there were very few full-time gigs for illustrators) desktop computers and desktop publishing were pretty well science fiction. Everything was done by hand on acetate overlays. As I mentioned earlier, my first exposure to computer illustration and design was at home through the old Amiga platform in the mid-eighties. My parents had bought me a Vic-20 when I was 14 and I never had any fear of computers. I loved tinkering on them and when I first discovered desktop publishing and design, I was in love. I remember there were two 'professional level' design programs for the Amiga - Pro Draw (pretty well a poor-man's illustrator) and Pro Page (similar to a very basic version of Quark) - and tooling around with them allowed me to understand the technical side of things. Fairly rudimentary stuff - only came with three fonts - but the basic principles (bezier curves, kerning, etc) still applied. I had a Laser Jet printer that needed a Postscript Interpreter cartridge to print anything, and downloading to the printer often took an hour per page. At the time it was state-of-the-art. I remember telling my old boss that desktop publishing was going to change the way design was done. He laughed at me, telling me that computers were a passing fad. That's how many looked upon computers as creative tools back in the day, so most "training" consisted of learning how to do things yourself. I used the Amiga loyally until about 95 (when it blew up) and I had to borrow money from my parents to buy a Macintosh. My first was a 6100/66 (the 66 referred to 66 megahertz processing power) and I had to, ahm, borrow Photoshop and Illustrator from buddies. In those days Photoshop took about 5 minutes to fire up, there were no layers, and only one level of undo. I stayed on top of the technology by reading books (the internet wasn't really in wide use) and by practising. Lots of practise. I considered going back to night school for some courses, but I seemed to adapt fairly quickly, so I never bothered.
How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?
My shop operates pretty well in a vacuum. We try not to follow design trends. In terms of the logo design niche, especially via the internet, competition has become fierce in the last few years. Anyone can set up a website featuring 'logo design services'. But the pressure on price has forced most online logo design companies to cut price and corners. It's a sad fact but most web-based logo design companies are charlatans. They either pitch out their work to logo design contests, use libraries of categorized logo templates or off-shore the whole lot to IT companies in developing nations. There's a couple of large IT companies in Pakistan that own a huge number of logo design company 'fronts' with matching websites. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the lengths they go to pretend they're based in North America is incredible. Postal drop boxes and remote office phone numbers. All to boast $99 logos with unlimited revisions on as many different sites as possible. Marketing logo design on the internet has become solely about Google rankings and cut-throat pricing. The level of design quality is secondary. Or worse. At my shop, we've always avoided these tactics - all our designers are in-house and we try to present as 'traditional' an approach to design as possible, even when working with remote clients. We've always pushed hand-holding clients through the process and open communication with their designers throughout the project. We could be more profitable if we followed our competitor's example, but we'd lose the one thing that we need - control over our work. Now, the price point we're competing against - as are all graphic designers - is free. Design contest sites - sometimes referred to as 'crowdsourcing' (which they're not) where designers submit their design work for free in the hope of getting paid. That's a tough thing to compete against. But it's not impossible. What we do at The Logo Factory is study these business models, identify the weaknesses and pitfalls, and try to be everything they're not. That gives us some real goals to set and we can constantly strive to improve our product, our delivery and our interaction with clients.
What are some of your current projects?
At any given point we've got dozens of logo and identity projects in house. All are equally important, so I'm hesitant to focus on one or another. In terms of my personal projects, I'm working on a logo design book - though I have been for years - and one day, I'll get around to publishing it. It takes a look at logo design from a utilitarian perspective without the hoity-toity window dressing. I've always looked at design as a business, so I think I can add that perspective to the mix. I'm also working on a couple of promising web based projects, one of them is a network for decent designers with a real handle on logos and branding. On most logo gallery sites, the bar of entry is moderate, and there's a very low signal to noise ratio. It's becoming more-and-more difficult to find decent designers on the internet, which is ironic because more-and-more people are turning to the internet to find one. I'd like to create a hub of the best logo designers around - not agencies or companies like mine - but soloists who are particularly adept at the niche. I'm also working on a series of videos, though I'm reluctant to even mention that due to the amount of time it takes. Probably be a few years before I'm ready to release those.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?
The project that I'm most proud of is a stupid black and white poster I designed back in the 80s for my favorite radio station CFNY and The Live Earl Jive Video Circus. - a road show for one of their DJs. I've had my work published in dozens of books and magazines, but that one really gave me a thrill. Not my best work, but I was a huge fan of alternative music, was a loyal listener to CFNY (now called the Edge) and it was a buzz to be part of 'the scene'. Another project that I'm particularly proud of was a Aldo Shoes ad cube project I developed while working at Crunch. It was this cool 3D cardboard puzzle that could be manipulated into many different combinations and shapes. Working out the die line on that project took two months (thank God for Obsessive Compulsive Disorders) and each cube had to be put together by hand. Was really impressive once built, but stupidly cost-prohibitive to construct. Luckily enough Aldo loved the pitch and told us "just go for it". At the shop, it's hard to say what project I'm the most proud of - there's lots of material that we've produced that I think to myself "wow - my studio made that". Our logos pop up in the weirdest of places. A few weeks ago, Sue and I were out for dinner at a local sports bar, UFC fights were on pay-per-view, and one of our logos showed up on some dude's ass. They were a sponsor of a fairly high-profile competitor and the logo had been silk-screened on his trunks. I got a chuckle out of that. When our logos show up in trade books - we just received word that one of our designs is to be featured in Logo Lounge's Master Series - I still get a kick. I can't take all the credit though - there's a whole bunch of people who are behind some of our best work - Steve Rodrigues, Leah Kampman, Paul Grant, Michael Cisco, Laurie Kennedy, Mark Kurtes to name but a few. I've added some of their logos to this feature.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?
I'm really interested in video and motion graphics, especially when applied to logos. I've pushed Flash and 3D Flash as far as I can, so I'd love to get into broadcast quality 3D animation. I've tinkered around with Lightwave (I originally got interested in New Tek's Video Toaster which ran on the Amiga platform and used Lightwave as it's animation engine) but haven't really had the time to master it. I keep promising myself that I'll start 'tomorrow'. I've been messing around with video editing using Final Cut. I've got it all figured out (I used my wedding video as my first project) but I haven't had the time to really learn to do it well. I like video - it lets me combine the things I dig - music, animation and design - into one moving piece. It's fun, but time consuming as hell. Alas, just don't have the time these days to really get involved. I've also become quite a fan of compsing my own music using Reason, Abelton's Live and a Korg keyboard.
Any advice to the novice designer?
Never stop sketching. Ever. If I have one regret it's that I don't sketch as much as I should and over the years I've become a little rusty. I've got several empty sketch books that I promise myself I'm going to fill up but realities of life keep getting in the way. While using tools like Illustrator and Photoshop are fantastic, there's nothing like hand-drawn sketches and illustrations. Nothing. Sketching keeps you sharp. Doodling helps you interpret things when you do use design software. From a practical point-of-view, many graphic design courses don't even teach drawing anymore - a shame really - and in a tough job market, being able to draw sets you apart. If I'm ever hiring a designer, I'll always favor someone who can draw over someone who can't. Software skills can be picked up fairly quickly. Learning to draw well takes years. And you have to keep at it or else you'll get rusty. The ability to draw is a decent advantage to have in the job search market.
Professionally speaking, I'd say to constantly up sample your skills. In general, the entry bar to graphic design has dropped significantly. Anyone can download a hacked version of Illustrator and call themselves a designer. The competition is fierce. Pricing and rates are being pressured downwards. The only real antidote is to learn new technology. I missed that boat a few years when CSS came along. I thought tables would always be cool. Now, I'm struggling to catch up and stuff that I used to do myself, I have to hire others to do. If you stay on top of the latest in technology, and even develop new skills like animation and/or video, you'll face less competition. Your value to your clients will be greater than some random low-priced designer they can pick out on the internet.
Also, keep in mind that you want this to be a career. Not a glorified hobby. Think really carefully about giving your art or design away for free. There's a ton of design contest sites which seem to popping up everywhere. They really concern me when it comes to the profession itself - especially for kids currently working their asses off in art school and college. If a designer or illustrator wants to have a career with any longevity, think long and hard before engaging in design contests or related sites (what graphic design organizations refer to as 'spec'). Not only are you doing yourself a great disservice in the here and now, you're stabbing your own future in the back. Design contests and spec sites are my bitch-de-jour and it amazes me that well-intentioned designers don't realize the 'bigger picture' effect that supporting them has. I understand - it's your art and it's your choice - just think very long and hard before giving away your talents for nothing. Design is a business. And giving design away for nothing isn't good business. I understand why the sleazeballs that run these sites do. Profit without expense. For the life of me, I can't understand why designers support them.
Risking sounding like "Dr Phil' I'd also suggest that designers and illustrators take any opportunity that comes along. And jump on it. When I had the opportunity to get involved in the internet in 1996, more or less on the ground floor, I almost passed because I didn't have a credit card. Sue insisted that I put the account on hers. We actually had a fight about it. And I caved. That simple $39.95 transaction changed my life forever, lead to the development of The Logo Factory and within a year I'd gone from being a few weeks away from home foreclosure, to earning a fairly decent living.
What makes a designed piece or illustration successful?
That's a tough question. I guess a truly successful project is one that both the client and the designer are equally proud of. I've seen projects where a client - with the purest of intentions - has butchered a brilliant design into something not so, ahm, brilliant with micro-tweaks and frankensteining bits and pieces from other proposals. I've seen mediocre designs, especially logos, that are seen by the client as 'over the moon' excellence. At The Logo Factory, a successful project is one that manages to work from the client, and the designer, point of views but ultimately, a successful design project - commercially speaking anyway - is one that the client embraces. In terms of logos, the design is their 'baby' - they'll be plastering it over business cards, letterheads and stationery, staff shirts and what have you. They have to live with it for years, while we're onto the latest, and greatest, thing. If they get invested into the design, then the project is a success.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?
Good question. Though probably not the best person in the world to ask. I do get burned out. I do lack motivation from time-to-time. I think it's natural - especially in a business and trade that requires so much energy and self. My burnouts are (hopefully) short lived. When I get burnt out, I simply walk away. Ride my motorcycle. Play with the dogs. Got out to dinner with my wife. Trying to work through burnout is a zero sum gain. You won't produce good work and you'll end up doing things over once the cloud lifts. We all want to finish projects. We all want to jump on the next design. Designers are famous for burning the midnight oil and when they work at home (as I often do) don't get up from their workstation until fatigue has completely worn them down. Don't. As hard as it is, set schedules and schedule time off. Walk away from time-to-time. Doesn't have to be a three-ring circus - a walk in the park with the kids has an invigorating effect. And when you're with your friends or family, give them your all. Don't let the problems of the day, or that unruly client, bleed into your personal life.
Finish this sentence. "If I weren't a designer I would have been a..."
If I weren't a designer/illustrator I would have tried to become an astronaut. Seriously (though the space program in Northern Ireland was a little sketchy in the 60's). Throughout my life, and other than an artist, that's the only other ambition I ever had. I took a little sideline as a professional photographer at one point - specialized in sports - and was pretty good too. Photography was a high-ticket item in those days, and location assignments allowed me to see a lot of the world, on someone else's dime. Was only a passing phase though, and I eventually became bored. I remember my last 'photo shoot' - was shooting some local celebrity working out at a gym, and half way through said to myself - "this is my last time doing this". And it was. I still have the gear - non-digital SLRs, medium format Bronikas and a ton of Norman studio flash gear - but I haven't touched them in years. I picked up an 'idiot proof' digital camera a few years ago and I've had more fun, and taken more photographs, than I ever did with my pro cameras. More pictures of the kids too.
And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?
Wow. That's a tough call. My never-miss shows are Dexter, Big Love, Battlestar Galactica (though it's become rather soap-operish as it winds down) and Flight of the Conchords. My guilty pleasures (don't tell anyone) are Rock of Love, and hurling obscenities at Bill while watching The O'Reilly Factor on FOX.
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