Clipart has no place in logo design

It’s one thing to use a piece of clipart to spice up a banner or sign, but quite another thing to incorporate clipart into a brand mark or logo. In fact, it’s a very bad idea.
There are almost always copyright issues associated with clipart. Many clipart collections have stringent usage restrictions and may even specifically forbid use in a logo design. For example, iStockphoto prohibits the use of any royalty-free images purchased from their site for logo designs. This is stated very clearly in the iStockphoto license: “You may not … use any of the Content as part of a trade-mark, design-mark, trade-name, business name, service mark, or logo.”
Most clipart collections, whether ‘royalty free’ or not, retain rights to their work. They may license an image to you, that is, let you borrow it, for a limited range of uses, but you cannot own it.

If a company uses a clipart image as part of a logo, not only does that mean that the company does not have complete ownership rights to their own logo, but they may be exposing themselves to a possible infringement claim. Besides, using artwork that everyone else can use—does this not defeat the purpose of branding?
Obviously, images we use in creating a logo or mark should be original artwork, or artwork to which we own all rights.


Legibility versus Readability

Legibility and readability are not the same.

A sign is legible when it is not impossible to read. That is, letters are recognizable, words are spelled correctly, the message makes sense. But is legibility enough for sign work to be effective? No. To say that a sign is legible is like saying that shoe leather is edible. But are you going to eat it?

Effective sign design is more than legible. It must be readable. It must do more than inform. It should entice and please. It must invite, welcome, convince. While legibility asks, “Am I able to read this?” readability asks, “Do I want to read this?”

So, what makes for readability in sign work? In reality there are many things that can contribute to readability. There are proven design principles, best practices, even a few rules, that work most of the time, though nothing works perfectly all the time. For example, good letter style choices, good prioritization of copy, good contrast, generous amounts of white space and appealing graphics are among many factors that can transform a sign design from merely legible to highly readable.  Much of what makes sign work readable is simplicity and clarity balanced with eye appeal. A mix of beauty and utility. And just as a song may be performed differently by different musicians, there may be many approaches to how we deliver a visual message as well.

In my opinion, anyone can learn effective sign design. It’s like learning a language, though perhaps not as effortlessly. It takes focus and doesn’t happen overnight. In the introduction to his book, “Graphics for Business,” John McWade observes that “The hard work it takes to make good design is almost universally underestimated. Even to designers, design looks easier than it is. To many people, design looks easy enough for a child to do. Reality, however, is very different.”

Yet it’s not as difficult as learning a second language, which may take years of intense persistence. It’s easier than that. Still, historically, good sign layout has been an elusive skill for sign makers. And now that practically anyone can be in the sign business by purchasing computer equipment and software, mediocre and ineffective sign work is flooding the market.

One of the most important steps in producing effective sign design is the realization that it is not the result of spontaneous wizardry. It is learned. Sign design is a form of communication, like speaking a language or learning to read—and anyone can do it. It is problem-solving visually, using principles that work, principles that can be learned. Good sign design is not to be confused with fancy or elaborate sign design. It’s not about outlines and shades and highlights. But it’s more than legibility.

Effective sign work is readable.

Upper and lower case is easier to read than all capitals

Lettering in all capitals is, generally speaking, more difficult to decipher than lower case or mixed case.

A word in all capital letters creates the illusion of a straight line at the top and bottom. The word shape created by all caps is basically a rectangle.

However, a word in lower case creates a unique word shape. The shape actually aids in word recognition. In addition, the ascenders and descenders of lower case add visual interest.shapely05

White space is not wasted space

“Wasted space” —this is a term often used by those who don’t understand the value of white space. Inexperienced designers fear white space on sign work and attempt to fill it up with copy or graphics. Or, commonly, they open up line spacing so that copy covers the sign from top to bottom. I have even heard some say they are trying to give their client their money’s worth by not allowing any empty areas.

But white space, also known as negative space, is not synonymous with wasted space. The true meaning of wasted space is space that is poorly used. As Alex White said in his enlightening book, The Elements of Graphic Design, “The ultimate wasted space is overfilled space. It is space that has been crammed with content, artlessly and uninvitingly presented.”

A designer’s job is not to fill in all available space with information. It is to make information accessible, and more than that, to make it appealing. Think of negative space as something that illuminates positive space. It makes the positive elements, the lettering and graphics, readable, or to use a common web design term, white space makes these things “scannable.” Because of this, negative space is just as important as positive space in sign layout.

Think about this: What makes a single letter recognizable? It is not merely the positive strokes that make up the letter, but also the negative space within and around the letter. Both positive and negative space are necessary elements of design.The problem is that most of us learn from an early age to see only one part of design—the letter—the positive. Sign-buying clients have the same problem. And it is a problem that inexperienced designers need to consciously work on to overcome.

“Make the letters as big as possible,” sign buyers are often heard to say, “so the message will stand out.” The result is a busy, crowded-looking sign. Instead of “standing out,” the message is often lost in the edge-to-edge busy-ness. The design becomes visually noisy, a chore to read, easily ignored.

Adequate white space, on the other hand, enhances the readability of a sign. It makes the layout look accessible, manageable. It becomes comfortable to scan, easier to read, with thought groups easier to recognize. White space can even be used to add emphasis or drama, to make a design element stand out, punctuating it, making it clearer, more recognizable. This is why branding guidelines developed by large corporations carefully stipulate the minimum white space required to surround their company’s logo. A logo surrounded by space stands out better than a logo that fills up space.

for negative space blog

Open a typical Yellow Pages book and look at the ads. Are the pages easy to read? Hardly. Is there any empty space? No, none. Are the advertisers getting their money’s worth? The overall look of the ads is a cluttered, mind-numbing visual mush, like the layouts were created with a shotgun. Ads in the Yellow Pages are the ultimate “wasted space.” Yellow Pages advertising succeeds, not because of compelling design work, but because buyers are actively seeking sellers. These ads succeed in spite of their ugliness.

One of the first objectives of a beginning sign artist should be a study and working knowledge of negative space. White space is not wasted space. It is not to be feared. Learn to see it and how it is used in good design work. White space used well can help us transform our own work from mediocre to polished. More importantly, our sign work can be made truly effective rather than something to be ignored.

Good sign design requires Prioritization


What is layout? Simply put, it is organizing and arranging copy and other parts of a sign design.

And one of the most important principles in organizing a layout, perhaps the most important, is assigning an order of importance to all design elements.

Determine what the most important element is, and give it absolute priority. It must dominate the layout and no other part of the message can be allowed to compete with it graphically.


In his book Layout & Design for Calligraphers, Alan Furber states, “When two, three or more elements in your composition are equally prominent … the design is weakened as a consequence.”

Why is this so? The reason is so simple that it is not always obvious—we can’t read everything at once. So it is necessary to lead the viewer’s eye through a composition. We do this by emphasizing one element, giving it dominance, creating a focal point. Or to put it another way, we create an entry point into the composition. It’s where you want the viewer’s eye to land first. Then we can decide what is second most important. What is left becomes least important, graphically.

What happens if you do not create a dominant element in your layout? Then your viewers will be required to find their own entry point into the design. You will be forcing them to think, to work. Many will find it far easier to simply ignore the sign.


The necessity of creating dominance and a visual hierarchy in your sign compositions cannot be emphasized too much. Prioritization is often the least understood principle by novice designers, but without it a sign can be rendered virtually useless. On the other hand, with good prioritization, and a dominant focal point, a message gains eye appeal, and in today’s ocean of mediocre sign work, it effectively communicates.

Design literacy is learned

It can be helpful to compare good sign designing to literacy. At one time, and it wasn’t that long ago, few were literate. Reading and writing were mysterious skills, the domain of royals and clergymen. Many today view good sign layout and design in a similar way —as the obscure talent of a  small minority. Some say, “You’re either born with it, or you’re not.” Like an extra chromosome. Often even talented designers can’t explain it. “I don’t know how I do it. I just do it.”

Yet effective design is really not so mysterious. When you strip away complicated definitions and overworked cliches, along with the goofiest of the art jargon, sign design is very much like reading and writing—it is a form of communication. Learning design can be likened to becoming literate.  And anybody can do it.

Through exposure to proven design principles, coupled with a willingness to learn, good sign design can lose its mystery. Design literacy may not be instantaneous, but it can happen quicker than you realize. Much of the obscurity evaporates by simply learning a meaningful vocabulary for design concepts. As author and sign painter Mike Stevens once said,

“The key to design success is an understanding of the theoretical terms of layout. …what we see, imagine and conceptualize as artists is controlled to a great extent by our vocabulary. If you don’t have a name for a particular thing—chances are you will never see it.” —The Mike Stevens Journal, May, 1983.

Further, good layout and design is not a luxury. It’s not something we do on special occasions. Rather, it’s the mark of a professional.