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Why I Use Greyscale When Designing Logos

posted by Matt Ward on Oct 20, 2010.

When I sit down to get started on a new logo project, I will usually do the first digital renderings of a concept in plain old greyscale. In this article, I would like to touch on a few of the reasons why I do this, and explain why it tends to help me in the overall design process.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a bit more logo work than I can really remember doing at any given time. That may also explain why I have been writing a of logo related posts, too! Over the past few weeks, I have written articles entitled “6 Quick Lessons from Logo Galleries” and “Would Your Logo Fit on the Moon?” both of which were a lot of fun to research and think about. Well, today’s article is another one of these logo-based pieces.

Last night, I was actually at a meeting with the board of an organization for which I am currently doing some work. The point of the meeting was to go through some logo revisions so that I could get feedback directly from the board. The meeting actually went better than I could really have hoped for, since we ended up settling on a finalized design. One of the main things we were looking at, however, was a discussion of colour.

As the meeting progressed, I found myself explaining my reasoning for having originally designed the logo in a simple greyscale. On my way home from the meeting, I got to thinking about this discussion, and I realized that this would make a really great topic for an article.

So, today, I want to talk about why I generally choose to do my first, digital rendering of a logo design in greyscale.

Focus on Shape & Space

Ultimately, the reasoning comes down to the power of shape and and space. When I start a new logo project, one of the things that I try to focus on the most is working to create a meaningful and interesting mark that will represent a business or organization in a unique, interesting and meaningful manner. Obviously, a big part of this effort is the careful use of both shape and space, and this is one of the key reasons why I like to work in greyscale.

Basically, doing using an all grey palette helps me simplify the early stages of the design process. By stripping away all the concerns about colour, knowing that I will bring that into the equation later in the process, I am able to concentrate more on those key elements of shape and space.

For instance, in one recent logo, I created a simple geometric shape that repeated in a circular pattern. During the process, I spent a lot of time carefully adjusting the size and proportion of the shape, as well as relative spacing between each repetitio. The whole thing involved a lot of working and reworking in order to achieve a mark that I felt had just the right weight and balance (some of my initial efforts felt very heavy and bloated).

Working in greyscale helped me concentrate specifically on these areas.

As an example, here is an old logo concept that I created for a client a little over a year ago.

An old logo concept done in greyscale (with the company name modified, of course)

An old logo concept done in greyscale (with the company name modified, of course)

Obviously, for the purposes of this article, I have removed the company name in replaced it with the generic “Lorem Sorem”. Still, even this simple geometric design done in greyscale really helps focus the attention more on the shape and spacing, without being distracted by issues of colour.

The Power of Colour

And make no mistake–colour can be very distracting. You may not think that it’s all that important, but colour can completely change the way that we see and understand something. Just take the following colour treatments of the same sample logo that we saw above. First, we have the logo in dark blue.

The same logo, but set in a dark, calming blue

The same logo, but set in a dark, calming blue

This particular colour is certainly a very safe selection, and perhaps the sort of thing that we would see in a big corporate logo (or The Gap…). That being said, it is also a very calming, subdued colour. It speaks to a silent, unwavering strength that, though perhaps somewhat somber, is also dependable and enduring. Contrast that against this variation.

The same logo again, but set in a bright, energetic pink

The same logo again, but set in a bright, energetic pink

Clearly, the colour here is much bolder than what we saw with the dark blue. It brings a significant vibrance and energy and passion to the whole design. In the proper context, the colour could also bears strong cultural connotations of femininity, unlike the blue, which is more strongly masculine.

There are likely a number of other comparisons that we could explore, but the point is simply to understand just how strongly a choice in colour can impact a design. If we start with colour right away, then the various concepts, connotations and ideas implied by a particular colour may start to work on us in exactly the same way that they work on anyone else, potentially influencing the decesions we make in terms of shape and space.

On course, on the other side of the coin, it could certainly be argued that this is not necessarily a bad thing. A predetermined palette could certainly help inspire and dictate the direction of a particular design, through the very type of connotation that we have already looked at. That’s why I classify the recommendations of this article as being a general sort of methodology. It is certainly not something that is an absolute requirement, but rather something that has worked well for the projects that I have been working on recently, and for my own particular design style–which does tend to emphasize shape and space.

Progressive Enhancement

I know, the term progressive enhancement is something that is almost exclusively used in the world of web design and development, but I want to borrow it here to underscore another important reason why I find starting in greyscale to be a valuable exercise. The clients that I have worked for thus far have been exclusively from that small-to-medium class of enterprise or organization, most of which tend to have smallish budgets.

As such, it’s not all that difficult to guess that there will be circumstances in which these clients may need to print something that’s not in colour. Maybe their invoices or other business forms are being printed on a simple black and white laser printer. Maybe they are running a small, black and white advertisement in the Yellow Pages or some other directory. Maybe they are just doing something where colour is simply not an option.

Whatever the reason, there is always a good chance that the client will need the logo in a simple black and white format, and part of my design process is to make room for this contingency, by supplying clients with a simple black and white version of their logo as part of the final package that I ultimately deliver to them.

So, in a way, I think of colour as a form of progressive enhancement for the logo. It is certainly important, and something that needs to be carefully considered, but it’s we also need to approach the design from the perspective that not all situations (like browsers) will actually support colour. A well designed logo will have a good, black and white fall back as a contingency plan for such situations.

Starting in greyscale helps with this, too, because it forces me to rely extensively on those concepts of shape and space that I’ve already talked about in order to bring detail and meaning to the design. It can be easy to start doing this by using complimentary or contrasting colours, but what happens when we pull all of the colour out in favour of something simply black and white, like this?

Three simple, white divisions easily prepares this particular logo for black and white

Three simple, white divisions easily prepares this particular logo for black and white

In this particular case, making the transition was simple, since I could use thin white gaps to suggest the same division that was created by the subtle gradients. As such, the design retains much of its inhrent personality. But, what would happen if the logo used a lot of colour to establish these details? They would either be lost in the transition to black and white, or the designer would have to make some significant adjustments in order to suggest the same details in a different way.

By starting in greyscale, and thus keeping my mind firmly focused on shape and space, I can avoid some of these problems.


As I’ve already mentioned, this is by no means an absolute, written-in-stone, ignore-at-your-peril kind of rule or methodology, and I’m sure there are all kinds of designers out there who are a heck of a lot more talented than me but don’t use this greyscale concept at all. Still, I have found it to be extremely beneficial in my own work and, after my client meeting, I thought it might be interesting to share it with you.

If anything, I hope that it gives you something to think about the next time you site down to tackle a logo design project!

How about you? Have you ever tried beginning a logo design in greyscale? How did it work for you? I would love to hear your thought, comments or own methodologies!

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Oct 21, 2010

tpodmani says:

Cool. That’s what I usually do when sketching with pencils on paper but now I’ll try transferred this approach completely. Tnx

Oct 21, 2010

benedetta says:

Thank you for this useful contribution, I think your post is really interesting!
I’m used to create logos and writings just for hobby and I have never thought about this way to proceed. It allows to pace step by step concentrating separately on each feature like shape, space and colour. I will try to follow your advice for sure!

Oct 21, 2010

Rich Miles says:

Such a simple idea when blocking out designs.

Oct 21, 2010

Radu says:

I’m with you 100% on this one, bro. I’ve been doing logos using a similar methodology for years and it’s brought me only good things. I think we can all relate to the feeling of getting your logo approved from version 1. :D

Oct 21, 2010

Brandon Cox says:

I heard David Airey say once that no amount of color will save a terrible logo. I took that to heart. You make some excellent points and you illustrate it well!

Oct 21, 2010

dave says:

Great tip. I think the key is focalize the effort in single, simple tasks. Grayscale design is one good strategy. You could also focalize on colors and then add the shapes, but perharps that’s more tricky

Oct 22, 2010

Ryan says:

I do the same, even when designing a web page. Black white and grey. I call it them the Dog designs as supposedly dogs see in black and white.

Oct 22, 2010

rafael armstrong says:

I start all my logo designs in a similar way . I like to think I’m working from the lowest common technological denominator (faxes and photocopies) on up. So far it’s worked well for me.

@Brandon– Couldn’t have said it better (but I tried). :)

Oct 22, 2010

Joseph Alessio says:

To tell the truth, if a logo doesn’t look good in grayscale, it’s a bad logo. Logos by definition are recognizable and simple, and must be versatile as well to retain their strength. If it doesn’t work in grayscale, it’s relying too much on color, and it needs to be simplified and less stylized.

Oct 26, 2010

David Airey says:

So you’re the one who listened to me, Brandon. Good to know.

Oct 26, 2010

Kelly Johnson says:

The old Burnbach/Ogilvy era saying is, “if it works in black and white, it will work in color”

The opposite isn’t always true. That at the notion of where the logo is appearing that you mentioned are the main reasons to get it right in black and white first, then tones and finally color.

Oct 29, 2010

Michelle Conlon says:

Totally agree with you 100% on this topic! I tend to do both Greyscale and Black and White for a client.

Whenever designing a logo I always ask myself if the logo lends itself well to being embroidered on a shirt. If the answer is yes… then I am good to go. =)

Nov 1, 2010

Chrissy Baptista says:

This is a great article. I also really liked your 6 Quick Lessons from Logo Galleries post. I’m a fan of logo work and you really broke everything down to make sense.

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