Logo Execution: The Right Tools for the Job

Knowing your concept and having a set execution style in mind is one thing (well, two, but who’s counting). Actually turning your sketches or ideas into a working logo in the best format for the job is another.

First and foremost, vector file types are the be-all and end-all when it comes to logos. We touched on it in 10 Tips to Building a Lasting Logo on point number 10. To rehash, there are two basic image types you will encounter: raster and vector.

Raster images are used for photos and detailed graphics. They do a great job for smooth transitions and highly nuanced colour shifts. For the most part, everything you do in Adobe Photoshop will result in a raster image (there are a few exceptions to the rule). Their biggest drawback is that they are a fixed size. There is only so much information contained in a raster file.

When you enlarge a raster you will either get a blurry image or a pixelated one. Sometimes Photoshop can do a good job interpolating information, but it will never be as crisp and clear as the original. Common raster file formats are JPG, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and TIFF.

Vector graphics are most commonly used for logos, t-shirt graphics, and anything that needs to look great at both large and small sizes. Everything you create in Illustrator (again, there are some exceptions to the rule) will result in a vector graphic. Where raster images are best at the original size or smaller, vector graphics can be enlarged and shrunken without degradation.

Without going too deeply into it, this is because they are math based. That means that the circle on the screen is actually calculated at 2πr (recall those terrible days of geometry?), where r is a variable that can change. The result is always a circle. Basically, that means vectors are awesome because they will never pixelate. It makes them perfect for logos that could be plastered on a 20ft truck or an itty bitty gift card. Common vector file formats are AI, EPS, and sometimes PDF. We’re starting to see SVG on the scene more and more online as well.

You’ve fired up Adobe Illustrator for the first, or maybe second or third time now and aren’t quite sure where to start when it comes to creating the logo. I can’t pretend we’ll hit everything in this article, but we will cover my personal favourite and most used tools for the job.

If you’ve read anything before on the process, you’ll probably be able to guess that the first tool is the pen tool.

Pen Tool on Illustrator Toolbar
On the right of all tools you can see their shortcut key.

Tool # 1 - The Pen Tool

If you had to master just one tool in the entire application, it would be the pen tool. Controlling bezier curves with precision is its strongest attribute. Bezier curves are all of the rounded bent lines in a graphic. With the pen tool you can both create these lines as well as add points to existing lines and adjust them. Likewise you can remove points in a line to simplify it. Its power is completely reliant on the abilities of the one wielding it.

A line drawn with the Pen Tool
You can grab the blue handle bars to manipulate curve shape.

It is as easy as clicking and dragging. Start a line with a click. Move your mouse or pen to another spot and click again. To create a curved line do the same thing, but this time on the second click hold the click and drag. To finish a shape connect it back to your first point, its origin. To end a line without finishing the shape you can either grab the black arrow tool and click away, or more quickly hold the CMD/CTRL key (switching to the arrow tool) and click away.

There are three other sub-tools under the pen. These are the Add Anchor Point Tool, Delete Anchor Point Tool, and the Anchor Point Tool. Adding and deleting anchor points in a line are pretty self-explanatory. The reason for using them are to either add a new curve or sharp edge into a line or simplify it.

The Anchor Point Tool is where the power of the Pen comes in. With it you can click on an anchor and change a sharp corner to a curve or vice versa. You can also manipulate existing curves if their shape doesn’t seem quite right. For curves a click and drag will do. To create hard edges hold the Option/ALT key and click on an existing anchor point.

An entire article could be written on using this hugely important tool. Turns out there are plenty. We found a pretty good one here.

Getting perfect curves like a circle can sometime be a struggle with the Pen. This is where my second favourite and often used tool comes into play.

Tool #2 - The Ellipse Tool

Ellipse Tool on the Illustrator Tool Bar
These other shape tools are also extremely useful—except for flare, what the…

While entirely possible with the pen, perfect circles are best left to a tool designed for the job. You would be surprised how often you can use a circle and how it can speed up your design. Correctly using circles can do wonders for making your logo look more professional, even if your design is not a circle.

Twitter logo constructed with circles.
Image courtesy of Design Shack

That’s not to say every logo we design utilizes circles to the degree Twitter does. It is, however, a great example of a very well balanced design using only circles. Making a perfect circle is as easy as holding down the Shift key while clicking and dragging your mouse. The great thing about the tool is that you can create circles as well as ovals. Both of which can be starting points that you can manipulate with any of the Pen/Anchor Tools. Ellipses also play quite nicely with my next favourite tool.

Tool #3 - The Pathfinder

In some ways this might actually be my second most used tool (Pen is always #1!) of all of them and it doesn’t even live on the toolbar with the rest. The Pathfinder can be located under the Window Menu on the top of your screen.

The Pathfinder as found under the Window Menu
Open the pane by finding it in the Window Menu.
Pathfinder panel with all of its functions.
There are 10 functions in the Pathfinder.

Pathfinder and the Align tab that opens with it literally sit open in the bottom left of my screen at all times in Illustrator. Why bottom left? I just roll that way. You can put it where you want. I like it here because it is under my other tools and also is out of the way because I don’t tend to work in that corner. What’s the Transform tab you ask? I find it mostly redundant but it can be useful to have the skew and scale features at hand in a tidy little window.

Pathfinder is in no way affiliated with Nissan unless Adobe struck some sort of deal I am unaware of. That’d be some really insane cross-promotion that seems to be targeting an ultra specific target market. It didn’t work on me—I drive a Honda.

This nifty little window is full of goodies. Let’s say you are building the Twitter logo. You could potentially use only the Ellipse Tool and the Pathfinder to get the entire job done. In fact, this is precisely the way I would approach it myself.

The first function, Unite, combines two objects together to make one. You can see how Twitter would have a bunch of chopped up circles that ultimately would need to be joined. This is the tool to do that. This allows you to look at your concept in terms of basic shapes and how you can build it using shapes alone.

The second function I use most often is Minus Front. This allows you to cut shapes out of other shapes. Back to the Twitter example, there aren’t many full circles in the logo itself. The wings for example would need to have used one circle to cut another. It should be noted that none of the Pathfinder functions are limited to circles. Any shape you create with any tool you use can be used with the Pathfinder.

My third most used function is on the second line of icons in the “Pathfinders”. The function on this line is Divide. The great thing about this one is that when two objects intersect you might want to keep parts of both original objects without one of them cutting away from the other. This leaves the shape intact but split up into multiple pieces. Think of it like a puzzle. It’s all one image but made up of smaller pieces.

If Twitter had put all of their circles down in one shot and then used Divide, all that would be left to do is delete away all the parts they don’t want. They could then Unite them and have one solid shape.

Here’s a quick overview of what all of the functions in the Pathfinder window are and what they do.

The 10 functions of the Pathfinder illustrated.
The majority of the time we use just 3 or 4 of these functions.

If you’d like to learn more, Adobe themselves have a fairly detailed how to on combining objects.

Tool #4 - The Paintbrush

Creating shapes and manipulating bezier curves to perfection is all well and good, but sometimes a logo design needs the organic flare of the human hand. For this I like to use the Paintbrush and sometimes the Blob Paintbrush. Instead of a mouse I happen to use a drawing tablet. Currently I am on the Huion H610, a cheaper alternative to Wacom that does a bang up job if you’re interested, but I digress.

Paintbrush Tool on the Illustrator Tool Bar
Take the edge off rigid vectors with the Paintbrush.

By clicking and dragging with your mouse or drawing with your pen you can get fluid lines that are turned into vector lines. Depending on your settings, it will smooth out your corners and generally capture the essence of the line you are creating. This is fantastic for those that may not have the steadiest hand. Once the line is drawn you can always go back with the Pen/Anchor tool and tweak the lines just so.

The Blob Paintbrush on the other hand is a bit more like a real paintbrush. When you create lines with it you are creating shapes instead of paths. Also, when a blob overlaps another shape of the same colour, those two shapes instantly unite in the same way paint would. Using this tool can be most useful in Illustrative logos as oppose to those that are perfected icons like Twitter. I tend to turn on the feature where a blob will only merge with a selected object though. This allows me the ability to go back and adjust easily before ultimately merging my shapes.

Tool #5 - Smooth Tool

Hidden below the Pencil is one of my more recent favourite tools, the Smooth Tool. Under the Pencil you will also see the Join Tool which was my runner up to Smooth. If you have been playing around with paths, shapes, the paintbrush and putting it all together with the Pathfinder, you might find some transitions are less than ideal.

The Pencil Tool on the Illustrator Tool bar.
Check out the Join Tool for another time saver.

You might find strange little niggles where an extra point lives where one object used to be two. Sometimes a curved line isn’t quite as fluid as you would like but it would be a bit time consuming to adjust it with the Pen. Enter the Smooth Tool.

It simplifies lines by removing extraneous points. At times, for whatever reason, a curve will have about 30 extra anchor points when they aren’t necessary. Or sometimes you might find a small bump where a stray anchor is sitting. By clicking and dragging with the Smooth Tool over these sections you can remove extra points and even a line out. I find it particularly useful for curves.

Small things can be slightly misaligned when you are building them with the Pathfinder and you may not even notice at the time. Now you can zoom right in, smooth out the imperfection and Bob is my Uncle (I won’t try to force a new uncle on you).

And there you have it. These are my current top five favourite and most used tools when I am building logos. Since this really is just the tip of the iceberg for every one of these tools, please don’t hesitate to hit us up on Twitter. We could talk about this stuff all day and more often than not, do.

November 7, 2016
Posted on 
Author photo in a circle
Kyle Lincoln

Kyle is a logo crafter, avid reader, and writer. His experience expands across a wide spectrum of clients such as Nandos, Shaw Business, and Destination Canada. Growing up, it didn’t take him long to go from doodles to design. Kyle’s previous work in identities for conferences and events left him longing for something more enduring. He’s got a vested interest in helping businesses thrive and an eye for brand incongruences. In Vancouver he can be found scoping out his client’s location and/or the nearest gelateria and is always up to discuss your project or favourite flavour.

Knowing your concept and having a set execution style in mind is one thing (well, two, but who’s counting). Actually turning your sketches or ideas into a working logo in the best format for the job is another.

First and foremost, vector file types are the be-all and end-all when it comes to logos. We touched on it in 10 Tips to Building a Lasting Logo on point number 10. To rehash, there are two basic image types you will encounter: raster and vector.

Raster images are used for photos and detailed graphics. They do a great job for smooth transitions and highly nuanced colour shifts. For the most part, everything you do in Adobe Photoshop will result in a raster image (there are a few exceptions to the rule). Their biggest drawback is that they are a fixed size. There is only so much information contained in a raster file.

When you enlarge a raster you will either get a blurry image or a pixelated one. Sometimes Photoshop can do a good job interpolating information, but it will never be as crisp and clear as the original. Common raster file formats are JPG, JPEG, GIF, PNG, and TIFF.

Vector graphics are most commonly used for logos, t-shirt graphics, and anything that needs to look great at both large and small sizes. Everything you create in Illustrator (again, there are some exceptions to the rule) will result in a vector graphic. Where raster images are best at the original size or smaller, vector graphics can be enlarged and shrunken without degradation.

Without going too deeply into it, this is because they are math based. That means that the circle on the screen is actually calculated at 2πr (recall those terrible days of geometry?), where r is a variable that can change. The result is always a circle. Basically, that means vectors are awesome because they will never pixelate. It makes them perfect for logos that could be plastered on a 20ft truck or an itty bitty gift card. Common vector file formats are AI, EPS, and sometimes PDF. We’re starting to see SVG on the scene more and more online as well.

You’ve fired up Adobe Illustrator for the first, or maybe second or third time now and aren’t quite sure where to start when it comes to creating the logo. I can’t pretend we’ll hit everything in this article, but we will cover my personal favourite and most used tools for the job.

If you’ve read anything before on the process, you’ll probably be able to guess that the first tool is the pen tool.

Pen Tool on Illustrator Toolbar
On the right of all tools you can see their shortcut key.

Tool # 1 - The Pen Tool

If you had to master just one tool in the entire application, it would be the pen tool. Controlling bezier curves with precision is its strongest attribute. Bezier curves are all of the rounded bent lines in a graphic. With the pen tool you can both create these lines as well as add points to existing lines and adjust them. Likewise you can remove points in a line to simplify it. Its power is completely reliant on the abilities of the one wielding it.

A line drawn with the Pen Tool
You can grab the blue handle bars to manipulate curve shape.

It is as easy as clicking and dragging. Start a line with a click. Move your mouse or pen to another spot and click again. To create a curved line do the same thing, but this time on the second click hold the click and drag. To finish a shape connect it back to your first point, its origin. To end a line without finishing the shape you can either grab the black arrow tool and click away, or more quickly hold the CMD/CTRL key (switching to the arrow tool) and click away.

There are three other sub-tools under the pen. These are the Add Anchor Point Tool, Delete Anchor Point Tool, and the Anchor Point Tool. Adding and deleting anchor points in a line are pretty self-explanatory. The reason for using them are to either add a new curve or sharp edge into a line or simplify it.

The Anchor Point Tool is where the power of the Pen comes in. With it you can click on an anchor and change a sharp corner to a curve or vice versa. You can also manipulate existing curves if their shape doesn’t seem quite right. For curves a click and drag will do. To create hard edges hold the Option/ALT key and click on an existing anchor point.

An entire article could be written on using this hugely important tool. Turns out there are plenty. We found a pretty good one here.

Getting perfect curves like a circle can sometime be a struggle with the Pen. This is where my second favourite and often used tool comes into play.

Tool #2 - The Ellipse Tool

Ellipse Tool on the Illustrator Tool Bar
These other shape tools are also extremely useful—except for flare, what the…

While entirely possible with the pen, perfect circles are best left to a tool designed for the job. You would be surprised how often you can use a circle and how it can speed up your design. Correctly using circles can do wonders for making your logo look more professional, even if your design is not a circle.

Twitter logo constructed with circles.
Image courtesy of Design Shack

That’s not to say every logo we design utilizes circles to the degree Twitter does. It is, however, a great example of a very well balanced design using only circles. Making a perfect circle is as easy as holding down the Shift key while clicking and dragging your mouse. The great thing about the tool is that you can create circles as well as ovals. Both of which can be starting points that you can manipulate with any of the Pen/Anchor Tools. Ellipses also play quite nicely with my next favourite tool.

Tool #3 - The Pathfinder

In some ways this might actually be my second most used tool (Pen is always #1!) of all of them and it doesn’t even live on the toolbar with the rest. The Pathfinder can be located under the Window Menu on the top of your screen.

The Pathfinder as found under the Window Menu
Open the pane by finding it in the Window Menu.
Pathfinder panel with all of its functions.
There are 10 functions in the Pathfinder.

Pathfinder and the Align tab that opens with it literally sit open in the bottom left of my screen at all times in Illustrator. Why bottom left? I just roll that way. You can put it where you want. I like it here because it is under my other tools and also is out of the way because I don’t tend to work in that corner. What’s the Transform tab you ask? I find it mostly redundant but it can be useful to have the skew and scale features at hand in a tidy little window.

Pathfinder is in no way affiliated with Nissan unless Adobe struck some sort of deal I am unaware of. That’d be some really insane cross-promotion that seems to be targeting an ultra specific target market. It didn’t work on me—I drive a Honda.

This nifty little window is full of goodies. Let’s say you are building the Twitter logo. You could potentially use only the Ellipse Tool and the Pathfinder to get the entire job done. In fact, this is precisely the way I would approach it myself.

The first function, Unite, combines two objects together to make one. You can see how Twitter would have a bunch of chopped up circles that ultimately would need to be joined. This is the tool to do that. This allows you to look at your concept in terms of basic shapes and how you can build it using shapes alone.

The second function I use most often is Minus Front. This allows you to cut shapes out of other shapes. Back to the Twitter example, there aren’t many full circles in the logo itself. The wings for example would need to have used one circle to cut another. It should be noted that none of the Pathfinder functions are limited to circles. Any shape you create with any tool you use can be used with the Pathfinder.

My third most used function is on the second line of icons in the “Pathfinders”. The function on this line is Divide. The great thing about this one is that when two objects intersect you might want to keep parts of both original objects without one of them cutting away from the other. This leaves the shape intact but split up into multiple pieces. Think of it like a puzzle. It’s all one image but made up of smaller pieces.

If Twitter had put all of their circles down in one shot and then used Divide, all that would be left to do is delete away all the parts they don’t want. They could then Unite them and have one solid shape.

Here’s a quick overview of what all of the functions in the Pathfinder window are and what they do.

The 10 functions of the Pathfinder illustrated.
The majority of the time we use just 3 or 4 of these functions.

If you’d like to learn more, Adobe themselves have a fairly detailed how to on combining objects.

Tool #4 - The Paintbrush

Creating shapes and manipulating bezier curves to perfection is all well and good, but sometimes a logo design needs the organic flare of the human hand. For this I like to use the Paintbrush and sometimes the Blob Paintbrush. Instead of a mouse I happen to use a drawing tablet. Currently I am on the Huion H610, a cheaper alternative to Wacom that does a bang up job if you’re interested, but I digress.

Paintbrush Tool on the Illustrator Tool Bar
Take the edge off rigid vectors with the Paintbrush.

By clicking and dragging with your mouse or drawing with your pen you can get fluid lines that are turned into vector lines. Depending on your settings, it will smooth out your corners and generally capture the essence of the line you are creating. This is fantastic for those that may not have the steadiest hand. Once the line is drawn you can always go back with the Pen/Anchor tool and tweak the lines just so.

The Blob Paintbrush on the other hand is a bit more like a real paintbrush. When you create lines with it you are creating shapes instead of paths. Also, when a blob overlaps another shape of the same colour, those two shapes instantly unite in the same way paint would. Using this tool can be most useful in Illustrative logos as oppose to those that are perfected icons like Twitter. I tend to turn on the feature where a blob will only merge with a selected object though. This allows me the ability to go back and adjust easily before ultimately merging my shapes.

Tool #5 - Smooth Tool

Hidden below the Pencil is one of my more recent favourite tools, the Smooth Tool. Under the Pencil you will also see the Join Tool which was my runner up to Smooth. If you have been playing around with paths, shapes, the paintbrush and putting it all together with the Pathfinder, you might find some transitions are less than ideal.

The Pencil Tool on the Illustrator Tool bar.
Check out the Join Tool for another time saver.

You might find strange little niggles where an extra point lives where one object used to be two. Sometimes a curved line isn’t quite as fluid as you would like but it would be a bit time consuming to adjust it with the Pen. Enter the Smooth Tool.

It simplifies lines by removing extraneous points. At times, for whatever reason, a curve will have about 30 extra anchor points when they aren’t necessary. Or sometimes you might find a small bump where a stray anchor is sitting. By clicking and dragging with the Smooth Tool over these sections you can remove extra points and even a line out. I find it particularly useful for curves.

Small things can be slightly misaligned when you are building them with the Pathfinder and you may not even notice at the time. Now you can zoom right in, smooth out the imperfection and Bob is my Uncle (I won’t try to force a new uncle on you).

And there you have it. These are my current top five favourite and most used tools when I am building logos. Since this really is just the tip of the iceberg for every one of these tools, please don’t hesitate to hit us up on Twitter. We could talk about this stuff all day and more often than not, do.

November 7, 2016
Posted on 
Author photo in a circle
Kyle Lincoln

Kyle is a logo crafter, avid reader, and writer. His experience expands across a wide spectrum of clients such as Nandos, Shaw Business, and Destination Canada. Growing up, it didn’t take him long to go from doodles to design. Kyle’s previous work in identities for conferences and events left him longing for something more enduring. He’s got a vested interest in helping businesses thrive and an eye for brand incongruences. In Vancouver he can be found scoping out his client’s location and/or the nearest gelateria and is always up to discuss your project or favourite flavour.

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