Monday, March 28, 2011

Creative Ways to Track Down Vector Logos

As a designer who works with non-profits, I often get artwork submitted to me that is a lower quality than I'd like to use. So I always go out of my way to find/recreate raster logos so I don't have to use JPGs, GIFs, or PNGs in my printing. Even for presentations going on screen, I will replace raster logos with vector logos. If a logo looks bad at one inch tall, it's surely going to look worse at three or four feet tall.

A typical reason I see for getting raster logos is corporate sponsorship. Let's say I'm designing for a non-profit group or educational organization, and they work hard all year long doing their best to raise awareness, help people, and contribute to the betterment of their community. And they've managed to find businesses who believe in their cause and are willing to give them thousands of dollars to further the worthy cause. And the corporate sponsors' reward? Generally, it amounts to warm fuzzies and a ten second splash of their corporate logo at the annual banquet. And maybe the logo also gets posted on a website or in a newsletter somewhere. And perhaps they'll even get a very small banner on the outfield of a community baseball field. So their corporate logo is basically all that other supporters will see from corporate sponsor. In my opinion, their logo it needs to look its best. Web images might look suitable to most people, but not to me.

So I ask the non-profits for vector logos and the response is generally something along the lines of, "What's a vector? This is the only logo I have."

The folks I work with at the non-profits are not designers. No do I expect them to be. I am grateful that they take the time to gather photos, write some articles, and happily send everything over to me so that I can make it look nice for them.

Here are some ways I've figured out to make my client's artwork look its absolute best. This list goes in my preferred order of use. I start at the top, and work my way down, as I get more desperate.

Brands of the World Website
I am so grateful for the designer who told me about this. That designer was also the one who encouraged me to go freelance after the printing companies I worked for kept going out of business. Anyhow, Brands of the World has got thousands of vector logos, many of which I'm sure you have heard of, but many more that probably no one has heard of. One logo type you won't find there: major league sports team logos. Those organizations have the tightest vector logo-protection that I've ever seen! I once needed a San Diego Padres logo for a non-profit newsletter, and I had to get in touch with their Communications Director to verify that the project was legitimate.

Contact the Corporate Sponsor's In-House Marketing Department
If the corporation is large enough, they'll likely have their own marketing department. If you can track down a phone number or an email for someone in the marketing department, you have a good shot at getting a vector logo. As a passionate designer, I am impressed and grateful when I encounter other people who are concerned abut logo quality. And apparently, I am not alone. Marketing department people have been very nice to me, and when I have managed to track them down and talk with them, they always give me the vector file I need to make their company look its best.

I once had to recreate a form for a fire department, and I didn't want to use the grayscale logo that I had scanned from the hardcopy. So I contacted the city's marketing department and they happily sent me the 6-color vector logo. (That was years ago during the boom years, and that particular city had 6-color business cards with a gold foil emboss and a design that did not easily accommodate business card masters. I can't help but wonder if that city has redesigned their printing to be more affordable...probably not!)

Very large institutions, like military forces and colleges, often provide vector logos right online, on their own websites. Some even give usage guidelines. If you can find the logos posted on the corporate website, they often offer the logo in different color combinations and different orientations, to accommodate different printing and designs needs (1-color versus 4-color, etc).

Use Google's Advanced Search
I figured out this one while working in the marketing department of a civil engineering form. My job was to create marketing graphics for water treatment project proposals to city and county governments. So I  had to track down all sorts of city and water district logos. While we had a decent in-house collection of  logos, I wasn't satisfied with using existing raster based images for my work. As a picky designer, I figured that other picky designers also preferred to use vector logos in their designs, and those designs would often end up as PDFs posted on the web. Unless you're working for a place that has tight communication between the marketing, legal, and IT departments, chances are good (excellent actually) that you can find a logo embedded in PDF on the website of most larger organizations.

In Google's advanced search, choose the domain within which you want to search, and then choose filetype: PDF. As more and more people are creating and uploading PDFs, you'll have more and more documents to sift through. But there are very few times when I haven't been able to find what I need using this method.

If you want to quickly filter out a lot of PDFs, you can also add the words untitled, .indd, or .qxp to your search. "Untitled" is the default name that InDesign gives to a new document, and it's not uncommon for designers to save files first as "Untitled.indd" and then go back and change the name to something more meaningful later on. So unless the designer changes it, chances are good that the word "untitled" will be located in the metadata somewhere, usually in the Title (not to be confused with the file name). The same thing applies to .indd and .qxp.

Once you find a PDF that looks like a good candidate, zoom in really close. If it's vector, you can generally open the file in Illustrator and extract the logo from there. But if you are extracting logos from PDFs in Illustrator, be very careful and be sure to grab all the parts and pieces of the logo. PDFs from InDesign can be very complex when opened in Illustrator, and they are riddled with ridiculous numbers of clipping paths and groups. I like to select each part of the logo individually with the direct select (white arrow) tool, and then cut and paste into a new document. Double check your work, as it is easy to mess this up.

One thing to note about university logos: they are often tightly controlled. Universities have a variety of logos in different color combinations, orientations, and uses. Some university logos/seals are restricted for use only on official documents, like letters from the president, or diplomas. Other logos are restricted for use only by the athletic departments. These athletics logos are often used on t-shirts, hats, and other items for resale. Try to locate the "Logo Usage Guidelines" document and follow it closely. In addition to offering very detailed information about acceptable use of the logos, another bonus of locating this document is that typically, all the vector logos are located all in one place. How handy!

Search for Annual Reports
If Google Advanced Search doesn't work for you, or it generates more results than you want to search through, search Google for an Annual Report. From this designer's standpoint, the Annual Report is typically the most respected document in the year of any organization. For the Annual Reports, many organizations will do fancy layouts and get high-end printing. And you can bet that any annual report that's been designed by a professional designer will have a vector logo. Not all organizations put their annual reports on the web, but many do. Non-profit groups and credit unions are good examples.

Contact the Web Designer
Sometimes, corporate sponsors are large enough to make big contributions, but not large enough to have their own in-house design departments. But many of these types of businesses do have very good websites. And behind every good website is a good designer, or maybe even a team of them! Look at the bottom of the web page to see if the web designer has a link to their own page. Sometimes, web designers are modest, and they don't put their contact information in the visible part of the page, but they'll hide it in the source code near the top. If you can find the web designer's contact information, give them a call and see if they can help you out with a vector logo.

Whenever I have tried this, it's been successful. My conversation/email usually goes something like this: "Hi there, I am a graphic designer So-and-So and I see that you designed the website for Big Corporate Sponsor. It is really beautiful and nicely done. Well, I'm contacting you because Big Corporate Sponsor recently made a donation to My-Client-The-Non-Profit. I'm working on the slideshow for the My-Client-The-Non-Profit's annual fundraising banquet, and I'm trying to track down the vector logos so that the Big Corporate Sponsors look good. Would you be able to assist me with this?" And the answer is yes!

When All Else Fails, Rebuild It
I warn you against doing this unless are a really good, experienced, hot-stuff designer who's insanely particular about little details. Organizations (especially large ones with very good logos) have spent thousands of dollars designing, perfecting, and controlling their logos. Many of these organizations even have legal departments dedicated to prosecuting people who infringe upon their copyrights and trademarks. If you recreate someone's logo and you get it wrong, and they find out (and care), you could be in deep trouble, both professionally and financially. But if you skilled and detailed enough to recreate the logo correctly, probably no one will be the wiser. But again, recreating well-known logos is something that should be reserved only for professionals. I have seen designers recreate logos incorrectly, and besides demonstrating a lack of thoughtfulness and care, and it degrades our profession.

Conversely, recreating logos is an excellent way to gain experience with font recognition. I worked for about a year at a small, mom-and-pop print shop. Customers would bring in their old business cards and want us to scan them and use the logo on new design pieces. Not on my watch were they going to get scanned-and-reprinted logos! These customers were almost exclusively small businesses, and their logos were typically just their business name set in a standard typeface; so recreating these logos was generally pretty quick. If you're going to rebuild someone else's logo for use in your designs, start with something simple and work dilligently to get it correct. (And please, don't choose a major league sports team.)

First, you need to match the fonts. I like for it's character recognition engine. When that doesn't work, I go to and answer questions about the qualities of each typeface. In worst-case scenarios, has a font forum where all the font geeks hang out and identify typefaces that the rest of us can't recognize.

In either case, the font websites will refer you to page where you can purchase the font that matches. If you want to keep the integrity of the design (and you should!), purchase the font. Font designers work very hard to design all the little details of their letters. Typefaces, especially serif typefaces, are extremely time consuming to try to trace. Just buy the font. But if you work for a design firm or printing company with an extensive font library, they may already have it in-house.

Once the type is completed, you'll next need to recreate the company's icon. While you can trace in manually with the pen tool, Illustrator's Live Trace feature can also give excellent results. Live Trace was introduced back in CS2, and is a great tool for quickly creating vector paths from a raster image. The images that work the best are high-contrast, and well defined edges. Logos are the types of graphics that work particularly well with Live Trace's capabilities.

Take the image you'll be tracing and place it into Illustrator. You can set it on its own layer as as template layer, or you can simply lock the image down. By default, template layers will screen back the opacity of the layer by 50%. I prefer to keep the placed image at 100% opacity and instead, screen back the opacity of the object I'm tracing. But that's just my personal preference. Set the type as described above. Now, open the Links panel. Go to Window>Links. I'm an avid InDesign user, so I naturally press Command/Ctrl+Shift+D, which brings up the transparency grid. That's not what I wanted! (Because I've never found a use for Illustrator's transparency grid, I change Illustrator's keyboard shortcut for the Links panel to be the same as in InDesign.)

So once you have the type set and the Links Panel Open, click on Edit Original. This will open the placed image in whatever program you have set to open that that type of raster image. It will likely be Photoshop, but depending on your setup, it could also be a different program, such as Apple's Preview, or Windows Picture and Fax Viewer. But regardless, you need to open the graphic in Photoshop.

Once you have the graphic open in Photoshop, you'll need to erase the text. Be sure to set the background color to white first, or press "D" to reset the foreground and background colors to the default setting. Sometimes, the type within a logo crosses over or  touches the "icon" part of the logo. But do your best to erase the type. You want to isolate the icon part of the graphic. It can also be helpful to clean up other parts of the image in Photoshop by using the Posterize and Find Edges commands. Now, Once you have erased the letters and cleaned up the tracing image, save the image with the same filename. Now go back to Illustrator. You'll get a warning about missing/modified links. Click Yes.

Now, Live Trace the image. There are a variety of presets and settings you can use for Live Trace. For a great how-to on using the finer details of Live Trace, check out a article dedicated to Live Trace.

As a professional designer, take pride in your work and make sure you have permission to use logos. Whenever I have used any of the techniques listed here, it has been on projects that directly involved the Big Corporate Sponsors. It seems that the biggest potential legal problems come when stealing logos for use on items for resale, such as t-shirts, hats, etc. But of course you would never do that.

Good luck and may all your logos be vector!

For another way to extract logos from PDFs, check out the article I wrote for Creative Pro: Extract Vector Logos from PDFs.