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It’s hard enough to create a visually stimulating piece of cover art that encapsulates the tone of your story. It’s even harder to come up with a logo that does the same. That’s why Comic Foundry spoke with Tom Marvelli, creative director of creative services at Marvel, about tips and techniques to lighten your logo load.
At what point do you start the planning for the creation of a new title design? What is the process? Who has editorial oversight and input?
Our creative process I imagine is very much that of traditional publication design like that of dust jackets and paperbacks for novels. For traffic flow I am given advance notice on all upcoming titles and any special marketing pushes (such as House of M). It is then that I will meet with the respective editor to hear his or her idea on the approach and tone of the book. There is nothing worse from a design perspective then to see a horror genre book with a sci-fi aesthetic to the logo. Clearly, in those cases people aren’t communicating. I try to avoid these types of pitfalls by speaking up front with editorial. What is great about this bunch of guys and gals is they are working in a visual medium and most have a good sense of design because of their day-to-day. So it makes my life a lot easier in having people who can visualize before we even begin.
Once I have a point of reference (communicating with the editor and/or a copy of the story synopsis) we then can begin. Usually while we’re working on getting the logo right, editorial is getting together cover sketches and/or final covers that we will use later in the process. Knowing who the cover artist will be for the duration can sometimes be very important to the process. Traditional style versus someone who maybe very stylized in their respective art. It helps sometimes to play off that style.
When conceiving a logo I will then work from what I have gathered from editorial and/or the writer’s synopsis, I will then turn it over to one of my designers. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a very talented and motivated staff. Some are very passionate about the material and that helps me a great deal. One thing I tell them and I think this is good advice in general, and that is to be able to separate yourself from the work. This helps to be able to look at the work objectively, take criticism and apply it effectively.
Once my assigned designer to the project has some varying options to show me, we will meet and discuss. Depending on initial direction, I usually ask for the following:
1) A couple of options as editorial envisioned the logo to be
2) One the way the designer was thinking it might go
3) Something that is completely from a different perspective
After I have reviewed the designs I may knock it down to a select couple to show to the editor of the book as well as Joe Quesada (editor in chief) and our marketing person, John Dokes, at my weekly meeting with them. Everyone will weigh in and for the most part we are good to go. Sometimes we may have to revisit the approach and start with redesigns, etc. Once the logo is completed we pass it off to the production team. And it is their responsibility working alongside editorial to make the logo work from month to month with color variation etc.
What’s the typical method for creating a title design? What programs do you use? Are they hand-drawn or with fonts?
The method and approach I use is very simple. As mentioned earlier we will get our hands on the story and cover art. When we have this material I try to find something within that pulls from the high concept for the book and when possible try to incorporate the artist’s style to it. An example is the Elektra logo I personally did a few years ago. In this case I met with the president of the company at the time and the writer Brian Bendis. We discussed the approach to the book and what the overall concept was. I knew that Elektra was going to be a big push for us from a brand and marketing standpoint so I took the information and played with it. I knew who was on cover art (at the time it was Greg Horn) and I knew some background information on the character. I also researched what logos had been done before and looked at what they were attempting. Some may remember the “Grecian” style logo and a mid-nineties “high-energy” logo. What I wanted to bring to the logo was a little more danger, Asian influence, and what I thought the others didn’t have, a level of femininity. So I then went and looked at Asian influence in the entertainment world (movie posters, etc.). The conclusion I came with was to go with a dry brush for some part of the logo.
For the text I based the type on Trajan, a very bold yet slender typeface. It has been used to death on theatrical posters in recent years (Perfect Storm to name one). So I had base type and approach. I substituted the “E” with a dry-brush, hand painted “E” that extenuated behind the type. For the top and bottom I curled the edges. When turned sideways it is an abstract sai (her weapon of choice) To hold the brush style to the type I used an inner line where the color would connect to the type to help make it read. And finally I extended the descenders to add a little extra bit of “danger” to the type. The theatrical logo for Elektra picked up on these same things, but with a more literal sai translation. The programs I used to make this logo, like most were Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.
Other logos that I did that I tried to add a little touch of something in this same context was The War Machine logo (with a Desert Storm style tracer fire abstraction). I figured anyone who was watching television during these events would have that kind of imagery associated with serious warfare. Another was The Thousand, a story within the Spider-Man Tangled Web series. Here I used text within text because as revealed later in the book the idea was that a thousand spiders would inhabit a host body. Thus the grotesque type within a very normal structured type. And finally, Born, the origin of The Punisher. The concept was that he was “born” in the jungles of Vietnam long before his family was executed. So I went with a bold typeface and silhouetted in jungle brush at the bottom so the logo was rising from the jungle (much like the lead character) So I hope this exemplifies to some degree the approach that I try to bring to the logos.
What trends have you noticed over the years it title design?
As far as trends in logo design goes when I came to Marvel, both the big two as well as some of the smaller publishers were doing vector-based (Illustrator) logos solely for the most part. When I came aboard I wanted to bring some level of approach like that of theatrical poster logos. Traditional publishing like monthly article driven magazines (GQ, Cosmo, etc. They all use flat vector-based logos). Movies, when applicable, use more Photoshop textural design. I see our covers acting more as movie posters in nature and theme then I do a GQ magazine. So when it is right for the book and the art is simplified I use a “shopped up” version of the logo. When the art is too busy I pull back and used a flatter version of the logo. I have noticed that after the Ultimates line with their Photoshop aesthetics a lot of others have picked up this approach. The main thing is to find balance between the two. Some will overwork a logo in Photoshop making it illegible. Sometimes we too fall into this, and we have to assess from time to time what is working and not. At the end of the day, the logo in regards to publishing is to compliment the art and to establish the brand. In the end it will always be the content that sells a comic, not a fancy logo.
What does “content-driven” mean?
I think content driven is primarily that of knowing what approach to take with a logo thematically. As stated earlier, knowing the genre the book is playing in helps to define the designers course of action when coming up with a logo. The Star Wars logo type would not work on “When Harry Met Sally.” It would take on a totally different meaning. The love life of a couple of robots or something…so knowing what the content of the book and what genre it resides in, in a nutshell helps to focus the design approach.
Why is title design important - other than letting the readers know what they’re reading?
I think a designer would be very disillusioned if they thought their logo was driving sales of a comic. Sales can be traced two ways: character-driven and talent-driven, depending on the reader casual or fan. However, the logo as a “tool” helps a casual reader or passer-by stop and take notice. I think this can best be some upped with a little exercise. For example, the next time you are at a magazine rack, pick a title of any kind and I can almost bet, take GQ for example. You are looking for that initial logo, not some photography of some celebrity that is on a million other covers that month. So if a logo is that good it can be used as a quick identifier. It is then up to the content if the book is sold or not. However a logo can translate over for licensing and directly effect sales via branding. There are no two better iconic logos then the Punisher skull icon and the Fantastic Four “4″ seal. These two perfectly model how a logo is applied from character design, to comic logo, to the outside world for various merchandise tie-ins.
What are some tips to make an amateur logo look more professional?
To make something that separates the amateurs from the professionals is very similar in nature to someone in any art field. You either have it or you don’t. Like an illustrator, anyone can pick up a pencil — not everyone can draw with it. The scary thing is with today’s technology, computers and programs can take you through some design layouts and lead one to believe anyone can do this. What people fail and some times take for granted is that this requires a whole different skill set. From having an eye for layout, type and imagery to overall artistic composition. Very few people can design, paint, draw, etc. So I guess the answer to your question is there is no magic button that is going to take someone to the next level to look “professional” schooling can help, but I’ve seen people go through, that you know just didn’t have it.
What are the characteristics of a poorly designed logo?
Some pitfalls to stay away from when designing logos and/or compositions is not to over do it. Don’t use every Photoshop tool because it’s a click away. Don’t over-design either. It can distract and take away from the main point. If you have a lot of information that you are dealing with pull what is important to the facts and play down the rest. Not everything has to be a headline. I equate this to a writer who overwrites. It’s a visual medium at the end of the day. I don’t need captions explaining every detail that I am seeing. That’s overwriting, as a designer, do not overwrite the cover and/or any project you are working on. Let it balance.
Where do you draw your typographic influence from?
I pull typographic reference from everything I see on a daily basis. It depends project to project. It could be from print media or television, a movie poster or a local magazine. There are always places to inspire either on what to do, or not to do. Not to sound overly geeky, but once you know and learn about design, it’s all you see. Sales and marketing doesn’t work on people like us, because you know what they’re doing and where it’s coming from ahead of time. It’s like Neo seeing the Matrix. You look around you and you see what is working and failing. There is nothing worse for a design geek then to be sitting on a train for an hour looking at bad kerning on an information heavy poster. Pathetic aren’t I?
How versed in leading, kerning, ligatures, etc does an amateur artist need to be to create a logo?
When it comes to technical stuff like kerning, leading, etc. I think those are the things that separate a good designer from a great one. So many people don’t take the time to go through those types of things and I think, to your earlier question may be one of many things that separates pros from amateurs.
Where do you get your fonts?
For all of our typography we either will buy specific typefaces that we feel work for any given project or create something from existing type structures making a completely new typeface from it.
Is there a set art stylebook for Marvel? How do you have regulate design consistency throughout all the books?
For our library of books since I have come over to oversee all the Marvel Publishing output, I believe we have been better about a lot of the way the books have rolled out. Small stuff like when books are shelved spine out, the Marvel logo, title and volume number are consistent in placement. Look a few years back and you will see a “stepping” of the spine titles etc. This when shelved makes the books look too busy. A simple tweak and we have a cleaner library. And there are bigger projects that we have done such as The Amazing Spider-Man 500 covers book and our new Visionaries program I believe have been some of our most solid offerings in terms of design. You may have noticed if you look for these sort of things like the design geek I am, we have just about eliminated all of the clipped out versions of the art from inside the books. Yet again when I came over I noticed that a story would end and a figure will be clipped out and applied to some kind of background. This may be fine but too many times it either gave away a reveal or looked too much a part of the story. So I revamped the way we approach these design pages. If you look you will see for the most part that we now use collages, textural or patterned design pages. This helps to clearly delineate content from design. I try to approach the few lead-in pages that we are given to try and lead the reader into the material. I think of those pages as the open credit sequence to a film. Astonishing X-Men Vol. 1 TPB is a prime example of what I am trying to achieve. By pulling concepts of the characters (DNA, the “X,” etc.) I think is more visually interesting then a clipped piece of art that you will see later on in the book.
—Interview by Tim Leong