Logo Design Day: Functional Stationery

Logo Design Day: Functional Stationery

The Scribble I spent part of the day doing some personal logo work, and though I didn’t get to a place where I can call it DONE, it was a surprisingly enlightening exercise. I don’t usually take on logo work for other people because I think they are such personal things, and my approach to this kind of design can be very drawn out, and therefore expensive in terms of my time. There are other people who are much better at it than I, anyway.

That said, I figured it might be interesting to share the process. Read onward!

Dave Seah, Functional Stationery Designer

I’ve been trying out a new description for what I do: “I make functional stationery” or “I’m a functional stationery designer.” I like this because it includes the word “stationery”, which is something that people understand more intuitively than “information graphic designer” or “investigative designer”. This revision to my small talk algorithm is part of my journey for 2012l; I’m getting used to the idea of being someone who identifies himself by being someone who makes things instead of being a service worker.

Anyway, I was planning on spending some time today working on me-stuff, and of course this ritual begins with the selection of the proper bag. As I was reviewing my choices, I noticed that one of them still had my business cards, and this reminded me that they are all out of date. It’s time to make new ones. Seemed like a good place to start.

I decided to try having breakfast at my local municipal airport, which has a cafe overlooking the single runway that serves breakfast all day. I love airplanes and airports, and as I waited for my unexpectedly enormous breakfast to arrive, I doodled a few things in my notebook (above). Like any 1st year design student, I just took the letters F and S and jammed them together. Perhaps the F and S could be made to look like the same letterform, and maybe by making it look something like two nodes connected by a line would imply “functional”. Or, if luck smiled upon me, I could at least make it look interesting and mysterious.

The idea of functional stationery is something that everyone probably can appreciation, but for me is kind of a secret pleasure. This got me to thinking about secret brands, as described by William Gibson in his book Zero History. The idea of a secret brand is that it’s small and exclusive, not known by many except those who are really into it. This is kind of how I think of what I do; I’m not interested particularly in a traditional path of company growth. I just want to make something cool and obsessive that I liked, that would earn me enough living income so I could continue to make these things. That stationery is kind of my version of art is really bizarre, but I figure I might as well see where this idea goes.

So, I thought about secrets and symbols. The visual identity for a secret brand doesn’t have to be obvious. It just needs to be recognizable, and perhaps even a little cryptic. The f and s could be merged into a single totemic figure, perhaps, while conveying the idea of “function” as something moving from point A to B.

First Pass 1 I moved into Illustrator and made some vector versions of my scribbles. These weren’t working for me at all. They looked more like instructional diagrams, and after a while they started to resemble dancing worms wearing skirts. Idea (C) resembles some kind of moonwalking snake creature with arms.

First Pass 2 As I was constructing the vectors for pass 1, I did notice some pleasing repetition of the curves. I wondered if making some kind of companion form would work, so I made an “s” (figure D) to experiment with it. It’s a weird S too; if you look at the curves up close you’ll see they’re not exactly symmetrical, but I wanted it that way. I retained a tiny bit of a tail on the f, to let it have some forward slinking motion like (C) does, and gave it two crossbar arms (I think my reasoning was that if there were two next to each other, they wouldn’t read as arms). The slant of the arms adds a strange perspective effect (I’m fond of that), as does the slight offset between the baselines of the two letters. They start to take on a slight runic appearance or some weird logo from the 1920s that you might find on the bottom of a piece of pottery. A maker’s mark, in other words.

If it was a mark, then it belonged in a lozenge. And in the 1920s they might have made some kind of reference to stationery, so I stuck something that looked like a fountain pen nib on it, and tried a few variations (E-G). I showed these to my friend Sid, who liked (G) because it started to look sort of regal, like it was wearing a crown. Adding the vertical line to split the nib helped add some complementary line detail that helped balance out the letters.

First Pass 3 I wasn’t really satisfied with the way that the fs pair was filling the lozenge, so I tried various sizes. Figures H, I, and K were the original scaled sizes. H feels peculiarly flat, while K feels too contained. Figure J was my pick, as it feels comfortable to me.

First Pass 4 Looking this over, I started to wonder about the f. Did it read as an f? Probably not. In version L and M, I played with the letter a bit, removing the tail (which made it look like a letter “J”) and removed one curve detail. In N, I wondered if I could bring back the idea of a system node by replacing the crossbar, mirroring the round cutout of the nib. This was kind of interesting by seemed unresolved; I tried flipping the nib on the other side so the balls were more on opposite sides of the logo, but it really did nothing for me.

First Pass 5 After the second hour of working on this, I took a break and came back. I decided I didn’t like the pen nib, and removed it to see how the lozenge stood on its own, thinking of a secret, clean maker’s mark. This looked much cleaner, though the dot really didn’t work. I added a crossbar through it, asymmetrically bisecting the lozenge to make an f, but it started to look like the UPS logo or a drug capsule (Q). Tilting it helped break that look, and then it was a matter of playing with line widths. While I liked the fine line, the thickness really needed to match the letters, which ended up with (S2)

First Pass 6 I wondered if I could get a more robust feeling by cropping the lozenge, as T through V show. I stuck the nib back on it to see what it would look like. Seemed overly ornate, but with additional treatment it might have been the basis for some kind of fancy engraving approach. I decided, though, that (S2) was the mark I’d try to work with.

First Pass 7 The mark by itself, I found, didn’t really work with the typography I came up with, and it’s a bit awkward to use on a business card. And it’s lost some drama too. I find myself looking back at (P) and thinking that I like this better, because it just seems more mysterious. I don’t know…I’ll have to take a break from this and look at it again in a few days. For example, instead of a lozenge I could make it looks like stacks of paper. That might be more obvious. I may have to rethink my choice of typeface too, but I’ve pretty much standardized on Proxima Nova Condensed as my “official” font. I just like it.


  1. Mary A. Witt, M.M.F.T. 12 years ago

    Thank you for sharing your process. I’ve designed only one logo, ever — my own. I began with the fact that my name, what I do, and my city all began with the letter M. I also knew I wanted something that would be easy to align text with. I’m on the board of an organization who logo is a long rectangle that ends with a large circle — nothing ever looks quite right next to it.

    I also used a circle and a square because they are symbols used for genograms (one of the tools I use). Then I went through every M in my font list to see which looked the most friendly. M’s can look quite harsh. I don’t consider myself a creative person but the process was fun.

    I tried to paste a jpeg here but it won’t let me. If you go to my website, you’ll see it.

    BTW — regarding your logo. I don’t like black backgrounds because they don’t photocopy as well at the business card size. But perhaps very few people other than me do that. :-)

    Have a great day.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 12 years ago

      Hey Mary, I liked reading about your process too! Very cool. One note on reverse designs printed small on business cards: It’s not uncommon to make an “extra small” design that will work at that size, but retains the essential qualities of the mark. Many visual designs have to be adjusted at large or small sizes…one example is type spacing (kerning). At large sizes, you bring the letters closer together. At small sizes, you tend to spread them out if they have to be read at a distance.

  2. Jessica Peters 12 years ago

    I enjoyed reading about your logo design process! I really liked what you ended up with! I still like design L, though. But it might be too fancy for you. The design you ended up with is classic and clean. I would love to see your business cards when you finish up as well.

  3. Frances 12 years ago

    Love reading process notes, too. I see something else when I look at x and y, I see an ink bottle and the pen nib. It adds something to the meaning of the initials, to my way of seeing. I lean toward Y for that reason, plus integrative of the other elements as you described in your process that lead you to Z.

    Very cool!

  4. Nacho Jordi 12 years ago

    Hey Dave, here come my two cents of feedback! I like a lot of what is in here, and I think your after something great. In my view, most of the ‘mutations’ shown here are due to the struggle of two ideas trying to find balance; one is the ‘high range brand for a lucky few’ you speak of, the other with a bigger focus on the functionality you deliver. Some of the designs, W to Y, for example, speak of a robust, stable firm; but they don’t look functional to me. The stress seems to be more upon the brand rather than the product they brand. On the other hand, T to V, for example, seem more functional and lighter, like a brief reminder, ‘sorry to interrupt, this awesomeness is brought to you by…’

    I wonder if two ideas is not maybe too much for a logo. If you take the ‘high class’ path, I’d drop the ‘functional’ word, and use a noun instead of an adjective. Describing with and adjective is in a way as if one in fact had doubts about it. Big brands do not explain or describe themselves too much. Mercedes does not have a tagline saying ‘Classy cars’, or Nike ‘High Quality Sportwear’. Just boom, the image, and that’s it (“you don’t know what Mercedes or Nike are about, you kiddin’ me?”).

    The fountain pen detail implies elegance and sophistication without fuzz, and I’d love to see it stay; but at the same time I find the triangle a bit aggressive to the eye in some designs. Maybe it could be balanced with a different form. Your mention to a stack of paper (I’m dying to see what comes out of that) made me think of a variation; how about including the fountain pen and an ink trace, or the paper? That would be a more dynamic approach, on the functionality side: the moment when the pen meets the paper is when something gets done. And besides, pen+paper are a barebones representation of stationery, I guess, although I don’t know which products are at the works…

    Just a few loose ideas, you know how I like to scatter random paragraphs here and there. Thank you for sharing your creative process here, it was very instructing, and ‘thrilling as a novel’, like they say. :)

    • Author
      Dave Seah 12 years ago

      Hey Nacho,

      Thanks for the awesome critique! I think you’ve identified a useful dimension about balancing “high brand” and “functional”. I think the high-end brand is the kind of distinction that is earned over time, and the logomark evolves. My storyteller hat tells me that this is OK, so I want a mark that is almost a little bit dorky.

      The logomarks you mention: Nike, Mercedes…their original logos were quite dorky, and as the brand grew and found their footing, the management of that brand changed. Being at the very start of my journey, it’s important to me to (1) be humble and (2) identify a core value while (3) having a competent graphic mark that will serve as the seed for brand development. While I could perhaps make a very slick corporate logomark with the confidence to stake my claim of being high-end luxe…I think this is dishonest to myself and to the product I’m starting with. And I think people these days, with the kind of media literacy we have, sees through it. We are exposed to SO MANY clever marks and brand names that I think they no longer stand out.

      It is mark + product + customer experience that builds the lasting brand, I think. At this stage of the game I think it may even be more about managing the story of the company’s development. The origin story for the Nike logo, for example, is a great example of how brand can start from most humble beginnings.

      I think you’re right about the aggressiveness of the triangle…this was bugging me too, but I didn’t want to spend a lot of time drawing something before just testing it. And I like the idea, despite of what I just said, of using a noun for the brand. There is something appealing to me these days about literal company names, though.

      Thanks again for the stirring and excellent critique!

  5. david thrale 12 years ago

    Dave – I love your stationery. I even use your CV design. It has a consistent design. The odd thing about your logo ideas is that they don’t look or feel consistent with your beautiful stationery. Your logo should represent your brand – it doesn’t!

    • Author
      Dave Seah 12 years ago

      Hi David! I’m probably too close to myself to know what my brand is.

      When I think of making stationery and designing forms, I’m basically trying to figure out what to organize concepts in an attractive and easy-to-read manner.

      When I think about producing physical stationery and related goods, I think about choosing great paper to work with my small selection of beloved writing utensils, which tend toward affordable but well-designed products like Lamy Safari fountain pens, Japanese rollerball gel ink pens, and 0.7mm architectural mechanical pencils. I want the products to have that extra bit of sturdiness, and be friendly to people who need to work on-the-go in coffee shops.

      When I think of why I’m doing this, it’s because I imagine people who are trying to figure out their destinies wanting to buy a product that recognizes and supports that, and I’d like to be a part of it in some small way. That’s the deep deep part of it that is never explicitly put on the packaging, though it should be implied somehow.

      I guess the logo itself doesn’t capture all that, but I’m not sure how it can. I think in time, perhaps it will be associated with these ideas? Spelling them out seems a bit pushy to me, but that’s my personality.

      I’d be curious what you (and others) think of, brand-wise…what would you like to see a brand reflect back?

  6. Meagan 12 years ago

    Hello again David!

    I agree with the last comment, the logo mark is not consistent with your style. For example… most of your pceo tools have a uniform look (clean, grids, minimalistic, thin line wieghts, yet still personable with rounded corners, etc.) So to evaluate if your logo is “consistent with your brand” you should be able to seamlessly integrate it with your existing stationary. And honestly I just don’t see that logo mark fitting.

    Either you can re-style your brand if your not happy with it, but then your forms wouldnt be as readable… and I love your forms as is; no unecessary bells and whistles, but still aesthetically pleasing enough for me to actually not want to spend my day making a prettier version (I am weird).

    I love your “dorkiness” and unsystematic outlooks of what your branding should represent; however in my opinion a branding isn’t meant to be a quiet secret with meager aspirations for success. The notion of this is an oxymoron; as brands/logos are meant to be recognized and the whole world’s perceptions of you unconciously depends on it’s design. A logo can be sucessful and humble at the same time. Also, if your products are meant to help people reach thier goals and be productive (which they do and you should win a NOBEL), why would you want to keep that a secret?

    You have something great, so don’t afraid to be shoot past the moon. Off the top of my head for inpiration you might be interested in I would suggest: 1. Those old timy romantic melted wax seals imprinted with a stamped mark of the sender (exploring that maker’s mark thing) 2. (Yeah i’m dorky too…) The mathematical function symbols like greek lettertype fancy lowercase “f”s and f(x)(subscript x) which resembles the Rx… a stationary mark too??meh.. etc etc tons of math symbols to explore (which are cryptic and secret to normal people that aren’t mensa- A secret society!?-) my brain is bouncing around… 3. My favorite stationary brand that has a great logo design: Papyrus.

    And this is getting long… but I could go on an on… if you want to have a brainstorm sesh I’d be honored!

    Best of luck and (thanks for the name of that badass font!)