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On the Evolution of a Visual Identity
As part of my portfolio capstone way back in college, I was challenged to find my own personal branding. Through some explorations I landed on the idea of making an illustration so minutely detailed and perfect, a person looking at it would mistake it for the real thing. This was inspired by a designer folk tale of an illustrator who had painstakingly drawn a stamp on a letter so perfectly, the US postal system mistook it for a real stamp and sent it along anyway.
In retrospect, I thought I was performing a skill flex. I also had a fancy accordion-folded résumé, which is lost to time in favor of human resources printer-friendly single-page pdf files. I think I even designed stamp graphics on which I placed the little photorealistic bees. Skill, however, is not enough to get a good creative job. There’s also an element of cleverness, socialization, and understanding potential workplaces. I digress. This is about logos, not careers.
This bee looked great. I made stickers, then a sticker business card, so that people could preserve my contact information in an entertaining way. The illustration as a sticker was startlingly realistic and served to jostle attention. However, there was a design problem: the people who encountered my logo would then go to my website and see something like this…
There was a style mismatch. It didn’t matter that both my logo and the illustrations were vector graphics. They looked like they came from two different illustrators, one preoccupied with photorealism and the other bouncing off into cartoons. People who were hiring didn’t know what they would get out of my work. Like any recent graphic design program graduate, I also had the problem of too much variety in my portfolio. Was I working in print? Electronic media? Illustration? What? What was I doing?
When briefly gearing my portfolio for iconography and UX design, the bee looked more like this. I hijacked Google’s Material Design spec to make it look like paper cutouts but in vector. I was hired for inordinately stressful jobs with this design. I’m certain that machine learning image generation AI (like Midjourney) was specifically developed to make sure no one in corporate environments ever has to work with someone like me again. Somewhat joking, but, in my experience, most middle managers despise working with creatives. It’s funny how often they’d openly complain about it within earshot of me, as if it wouldn’t affect them later. I’ll happily let machines take over that world.
My final tech contract was so stressful that I had stopped taking care of myself. Nothing I made was right. I had clearly been hired not to produce a final product, but to endlessly, and meaninglessly, revise and iterate on very simple art assets that did not need that level of attention. The end goal was to have options explored and presented to a committee, not necessarily to make anything or bring it to the finish line.
I let that final contract go.
I deleted my entire homepage and scrubbed all mentions of tech from my LinkedIn profile.
I didn’t know who I wanted to be, but it wasn’t whatever the tech industry wanted me to be.
I dropped the ‘vector graphics’ aspect of my work. I decided to embrace a sillier side of myself. My express goal was to horrify design managers at big companies. With this in mind, I returned to skeuomorphism. In 2016, skeuomorphism was dreadfully out of style, and at the time of writing this post, it still might be. Time to crank up the photoshop layer styles and effects. Skeuomorphism was perfect for letting people know I didn’t want to work on their corporate icons anymore…
…but it wasn’t quite me, you know? I’m not this whimsical. I let the honey ‘H’ sit around for awhile before going into more depth on what my personal iconography could be. At the time I was also experimenting with more of a medieval aesthetic, to possibly reflect my new graphic novel, Warlock’d.
Before long I realized I’d let myself get really silly and far away from good logo design conceits (such as ensuring that details still show up at very small sizes). Also, I wanted something that could exist on my other projects, in case I wasn’t always going after medieval aesthetics.
I explored dropping the bee altogether, and was going to forward with more fiery, bee-less branding before I remembered that my internet moniker is ‘hannahcomb’ — a pun on honeycombs with my name. Darn! I have to keep the bee somehow.
This was getting closer, but the bee was too abstract.
I’d like to point out here that I’ve always been fond of the open-source Alegreya typeface family. The letters are organic and a bit frivolous-looking. Perfect for eschewing geometric perfection and the idea that I’d endlessly iterate for the right hourly fee. It’s just geometric enough for something even more organic (the bee) to contrast with it, using interesting gestalt shapes.
One time, as an icon designer in a corporate setting, I created the image of a square safe with a locking mechanism to represent something or other, like the kind of safe that a bank would use. The design lead met with me in person, then proceeded to remove everything from the design, all the while lecturing me on the beauty of simplicity, which I needed to embrace if I were to have a career as a designer. Then he stopped, as if in shock. All that was left of the safe icon was a single blue square with round edges.
Flustered, he admitted he had no idea what he was doing and gave the icon back to me. I never saw confirmation on what that asset was supposed to be in its final form. What’s really interesting about the whole exchange is that I’m still doing design work today…
So it was with great joy that I added spindly little legs to the bee.
Next was a topcoat of gold foil to reference skeuomorphism, if not outright incorporate it. I used a Creative Commons concrete texture for this, and a couple of layer styles to indicate gold foil shining and flaking off a little bit.
Playing with Gestalt Shapes in Illustrator
In my opinion, the only fun part of logo design is figuring out gestalt shapes. I used a gestalt shape to define the bee’s wing in my logo. Getting a hang on gestalt shapes is difficult to describe. It’s useful for any sort of visual development, because gestalt shapes tie into tangents and other concepts of composition. Being aware of positive and negative space can help you direct your readers to see what you want them to see.
An easy way to start practicing is to set up a document in Adobe Illustrator with random black shapes on a white background. Add a new layer and on this layer, pull some random white shapes.
This example is on a gray background so that you can see the black and white shapes. Stuff like squares and circles are perfect.
After your background is white, try dragging white shapes on top of the black shapes to see how they cut into the black shapes and form new shapes.
Can you determine what shapes were used from this combination? The white shape’s identity may be more difficult to discern from the black shape’s identity if you can only see one corner of it.
Dragging a second and third black shape under the white one gives a better impression of the white shape’s identity.
Letters also make great shapes for gestalt exploration. How much of the letter needs to be visible to be read as a letter? How about an entire word?
Some questions to ask as you explore gestalt shapes:
1. How much of the shape do I need to perceive to get the full sense of the shape? And how little do I really need?
2. Do any of my shapes have meaning, unintended or otherwise?
3. Am I aware that letters in the alphabet all fit into squares, circles, and triangles?
Care to read more?
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