Logo Designer Interviews: Steve Zelle
Steve Zelle is an award-winning logo and identity designer with over 20 years experience, based in Ottawa, Canada. Apart from being an extremely talented designer, Steve also runs two websites; idApostle – his personal blog and portfolio site, and Processed Identity – a site dedicated to exploring the creative processes of visual identity designers.
I highly recommend you take a look at Steve’s sites to check out his outstanding work and read some very interesting articles and discussions on identity design and branding. You can also follow Steve on Twitter here and here.
Strap yourself in because this is a great interview.
Hi Steve, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Firstly, can you please provide our readers some background on yourself and your work?
Sure. I work on my own under the name idApostle in Ottawa, Canada. My focus is on logo and brand development for small to mid sized companies. In addition, I run the Processed Identity site—a community driven website exploring the creative process behind identity development. In the hours I have left, I write for my blog and contribute to a number of other sites on the subject of branding.
Through your blogs you really champion the creative process. Can you talk about why you think the creative process is important and how you apply it to your client projects?
My appreciation for the value of the creative process has developed over time. I recall client meetings when I started designing over twenty years ago that were very unfocussed. Conversations dealt with my clients’ preferences and not those of their customers—the end client. This is a very poor approach to graphic design and results in logos created purely for aesthetic reasons. Looking back, it was a shot in the dark approach to designing.
It didn’t take long to realize that engaging in a creative process that is targeted to meeting strategic goals is what makes identity work exciting to me, and valuable to my client. I am fascinated by the variety of ways different designers approach problem solving and am always exploring the unique nature of these approaches to influence my own.
My approach to developing identities for my clients is essentially about getting them to see the logo as a by-product of the creative process. The logo is realized because of a true understanding of the company or service. To get to a point of understanding, I ask my clients to invest a large amount of time figuring out just who they are before thinking in any visual terms. So I use the creative process not as a step-by-step guide (every project is different) but as a framework to ensure strategic thinking.
How do you sell your clients on the importance of the creative process?
I am not sure you can sell them on the process itself. Instead, I focus on the benefits and value they will gain by approaching identity development as an investment and as a strategic exercise. Clients come knowing there are $99 logo options out there, and the best you can do is offer advice and resources for them to explore before making a decision. I will often gauge the knowledge a potential client has about branding and recommend a few (short) books before they go any further. If a client understands graphic design must be strategic, it is easier for them to invest the time and money. My approach is to provide enough information for potential clients to make an informed choice.
How did you make the transition from working in design studios in Ottawa to becoming self-employed?
It was rather quick. Two years out of college the studio I was working for was closing its doors, and I decided to form a design company with a coworker. Looking back, it was both a spur of the moment decision and the best career choice I ever made. After eighteen years I closed the studio and now work on my own as idApostle. I love working on my own and can’t imagine that changing in the future.
When did you start becoming interested in logo and brand identity design in particular?
The Designers Republic work had a big impact on me. I was a big fan of the band Pop Will Eat Itself, and I think the way DR developed a visual brand was brilliant. That led to me reading and exploring as much as I could about logo design and branding. I have done nearly every other type of graphic design—packaging, user interface, exhibits, but I have always loved the challenge of designing a logo. Creating something that is very simple, works well in varying sizes and mediums, survives time, reflects a company, and manages to differentiate has got to be fun.
What have been that major challenges you have faced as a self-employed designer? (as opposed to working in a larger studio)
The obvious challenge is that you are responsible for obtaining the work rather than having a sales team do it for you. As with many designers, sales are not where I prefer to be spending my time. I want to be designing or writing about designing. The flip side is that I have complete control over the experience my customers have. It allows for a seamless exchange and produces a level of trust and commitment that I didn’t have when I had staff doing sales for me.
Another item I constantly need to be aware of is time management. With so many tasks besides doing paying work such as my blog, the Processed Identity site, and managing day-to-day business tasks, it is essential to prioritize and manage my time. Twitter and blogging can be easy distractions for me without anyone else yelling for me to get back to work, or, as my business partner would tell me, “Focus man. Focus.”
In your opinion, what do you think separates a good logo designer from a great logo designer?
Often, I think it is a great client. I think the ability to do great work in large part relies on the client’s ability to trust in you. Of course, it is the designer’s job to foster this trust. The question you pose brings up another one: how should we judge good design? I am tired of seeing pretty design void of strategic merit. Design that works (usually meaning “makes money”) for a client is, by marketing definition, great design. I think great design manages to do both in balance, usually in a surprisingly simple form with focus on detail.
I also think great logo design takes time to be realized. How a logo manages to succeed within a larger visual brand and make a connection with its audience is something that can only be gauged over time.
Do you have any advice for working with and managing difficult clients?
We all have them at some point, and it is likely they see the designer as the difficult one. My advice is to discuss all the common triggers that cause a project to go wrong before even beginning. Provide transparency in your quotation, timeline, deliverables, additional charges, responsibilities, dependencies, and all the things that can put a wrinkle in a project. Make the effort to address all these while both parties are level headed and you decrease the chances of them coming up during a project. This won’t eliminate the possibility of a difficult client and when it does happen, I try to be as fair as I can without crossing the line of being taken advantage of.
I have been quite a fan of your new Processed Identity since you launched it early this year. What are your overall goals for the site and how do you see it developing over time?
Processed Identity was created out of my passion for logo design and concern over the growing number of designers and clients who feel a process is something that can be removed to save money. The idea that a brand can be purchased off-the-shelf at one of the many logo warehouses or by crowd sourcing drives me mad. This approach to logo design and branding is damaging to our industry not only because of the confusion it creates over the value of what we provide, but it teaches poor habits to new designers. I felt that the site would be a good forum to highlight the benefits gained through a creative process and share with our peers alternate ways of approaching creative problems.
I am hoping to increase the frequency of contributors and have been more active in reaching out to designers, students, marketers over the last month. I would like to see the content become more in-depth and personal, highlighting the true quirky nature of the creative process. My concern has always been that the site avoid becoming a step-by-step tutorial on logo design, but rather a study of how structure can influence and strengthen creative solutions.
Lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring logo designers who are struggling to gain attention and find success in a very competitive industry?
How to get work in your portfolio without selling your soul? I realize it’s tempting for new designers to get involved in the online supermarkets that sell clip art as pre packaged brands, but try to avoid it. If you want to gain experience and exposure, approach non-profits or design an identity for your little brother’s dog sitting service. It doesn’t matter who it’s for, just make it strategic. Develop good habits, read books with more words than pictures and never use a swoosh or a globe in a logo if you can help it.
Thank you to Steve for participating in our Logo Designer Interview series.
Stay tuned for more in the series, including upcoming in-depth interviews with: