Postpone Logo

At my university, I'm in a social entrepreneurship class where we're working on using self-sustaining businesses to make the world a better place. It's an interesting class, and it's challenged my ideas about which parts of society should be performed by government, and which should be performed by the private sector. (Having started out from what would be called a leftist perspective, thinking that the most important social functions and especially those with opportunities for abuse by profit-seekers should be reserved for government, I now see that, sometimes, social inequities can be better solved by private organizations—as long as they have a public benefit structure that excuses their managers from seeking profit above all else. Grameen Bank, a micro-credit institution, is a good example of that because it provides an equitable, private sector alternative against inequitable, private sector incumbents.)

We have spent at least three class periods talking about logos—not branding, but logos—analyzing them, and even writing a mid-term essay about them. It's frustrating, first of all, because our instructor doesn't know very much about graphic design. That's okay—I don't think that one needs to have experience with branding or an art degree in order to make meaningful judgments about an organization's visual identity. But in this case, our instructor is instructing and judging us based upon our perceptions of social enterprises' visual identities. That's an inappropriate role for someone without design knowledge to perform. She pronounces “sans-serif” and “serif” as “sans-sereef” and “sereef,” for example.

But the more concerning thing than her pronunciation of typographic terms is the way we're founding our own social enterprises. When we introduced our own projects this week, we had to present our logo. Not our mission statement. Not our strategy or core beliefs. Our logo.

Starting an organization with a logo might be a good opportunity to think about all of those other pieces—its mission, key activity, strategy, and core beliefs—but I think that, more often, it's not. Logo design is not central to who we are when we form a group, and what we want to change about the world. When we set out to do something, we should talk about why we want to do it and how we're going to start, right now. What is our first action step? Surely, it's not to create a logo.

This is a college entrepreneurship course and I don't mean to use this space just to complain about pedagogy. But I thought the experience might be helpful to share because it relates to a bigger problem about prioritization in projects, and how we can make sure we're doing the stuff that actually matters.

I've made the mistake of letting branding get in the way of the real doing. In high school, I ran a t-shirt company called Buck Tees. It started in Spanish class, when my friend, who draws, and I decided to screen-print his drawings on t-shirts. Over the course of the company, we sold about 100 shirts, which was exciting, but it wasn't enough to even break even because I had spent so much money developing our visual identity, buying business cards and stickers (which I thought were central to our success, because they made our user experience better), and over-optimizing our website. If I had spent more time developing our t-shirts and finding people who might like them, the company might have lasted longer. But I was mostly interested in making a brand. Brands need to make things (or do services) and deliver them to people in order to be healthy, though. The logo, and everything you use to present the things you make, are only instrumental to the intrinsic thing that you do, like making t-shirts.

I don't regret the time that I spent on Buck Tees' branding, because it was fun and I learned a lot from it. But now I have a better idea of when to step away from the branding draft table and go do something that might matter more. A brand without products or services behind it is hollow. And that's not a great brand, after all.