Adobe Photoshop can seem capable of anything. It is known for photo touch-ups, but it is so powerful that it can accomplish digital painting, video editing, web design and even 3D graphical artwork. As a result, you might assume it is possible to design a logo in Photoshop. The reality, however, is much more complicated.
In spite of appearances, Photoshop is not magic. It may be one of the most commonly used graphics software—by everyone from professional photographers and graphic designers to grandmothers touching up family photos. It may even have become one of those rare products to be used as a verb (any manipulated image is often accused of being ”photoshopped”).
As one of the premiere graphic design programs on the market, Photoshop is made for many people with many diverse needs, but there are some projects for which Photoshop is not only an imperfect tool, it is the worst tool possible. In particular, Photoshop should never be used for logo design. Let’s discuss why.
The requirements for a logo design
Logo design is primarily expected to play a role in branding, and this tends to demand the logo is ever present in all potential points of contact with a business. To this end, a number of standard best practices have been baked into both the aesthetic and technical requirements for logo design.
First, a logo design must be prepared to work in a seemingly infinite number of different contexts. Some of these are fairly obvious from the start: a business card, a website header, a letterhead, a t-shirt, etc. But assuming your business is going to last for a while, you can’t always plan for every situation ahead of time, and you may find yourself needing to use your logo on, say, a moving vehicle or an aerial banner.
All of this means that the creative decisions must account for versatility in logo design. The logo has to look equally good whether it is scaled up to 100 ft high or scaled down to the dimensions of a postage stamp. This tends to lead to styles that are simplistic in nature. For example, you could design a logo with twenty colors and complex shading, but detail like that tends to get lost at small sizes. In addition, extra colors can be expensive to print, which means you might all of a sudden find yourself bleeding money over a bulk order of business cards.
On the technical side, the software that creates the logo must be able to accomplish wholesale changes on the fly. Your designer might provide a full color logo, an all black logo, and an all white logo. But let’s say, for example, your company participates in a breast cancer charity event and wants to add a pink accent to the logo. Ideally, they shouldn’t have to contract another designer just to change the color.
Similarly, your final logo will be set up at one standard size, and you should be able to increase or decrease this at will without any loss in image quality, which you’ll be able to do with a vector file, but not with a raster image.
What we’re getting at here is that the ideal software for logo design should specialize in simplicity and should be capable of versatility. Now let’s take a look at Photoshop and see how well it meets these requirements.
How Photoshop works
Adobe Photoshop originally was what it sounded like: a program to work on photos. Most of its tools are designed for photo-editing, for example adjusting contrast and brightness, removing blemishes and combining photos in collages.
Photos are essentially hyper-realistic images as cameras capture all of the detail, lighting and color of the everyday world in digital format. The way a computer represents complex images like this is by simplifying the information through what are called pixels, which are microscopic squares of solid, individual colors.
When you zoom in close to a photo on a computer, you will eventually see it separated into these pixels, and when you zoom back out you will see pixels blend back together to a realistic image. Depending on the type of camera, a photo might contain thousands of pixels as more pixels means more detail—in other words, higher quality.
Pixel-based computer graphics are typically called raster images, and that makes Photoshop a raster program (as opposed to a vector-based program like Adobe Illustrator).
The upside to working with raster images is that you can achieve a great deal of complexity, which is why Photoshop has become the go-to program for any detailed artwork, from videos to illustration. All one has to do is add more pixels in order to increase the level of detail (be it color, shading or texture) using tools such as the brush tool, healing brush tool and the clone stamp tool.
The downside of working with pixels is that they are fixed in size and place. If you are drawing a character and want to change their nose, you will need to erase those pixels and add new pixels—just like drawing in real life.
Similarly, the only way to increase the size of a raster image is to add more pixels to it. But as you can imagine, adding the right number and color of pixels in the right places on a highly detailed image will be essentially impossible.
Because a computer is a machine, it sees a collection of pixels instead of a photograph. This means the computer can only guess at the color and placement of new pixels when an image is upscaled, and the result of resizing is inevitably a loss in quality. This is why when a small image is blown up and it becomes blurry, as the pixels fail to blend properly, we refer to the image as being “pixelated.”
Additionally, to change the colors on an image, you would need to change the colors of the corresponding pixels—again, potentially hundreds—and it is difficult to isolate the ones you want to change from the ones you don’t when they are all blending into the same image. Photoshop, of course, famously has tools for isolating and editing pixels, such as masking, but these largely still require you to separate those pixels yourself.
All in all, Photoshop’s tools do give you more control than you would normally have when editing complex images like photos, but for simpler images, they make editing unnecessarily complicated. Photoshop is ultimately ideal for fine-tuning photographic media that you expect to remain relatively the same size throughout.
Does Photoshop work for logos?
The answer is no, Photoshop cannot be used for logos. Let’s review what we’ve discussed so far: logos generally need to be simple and versatile, and photoshop is a software that creates complex artwork based on a set number of pixels. The two are incompatible on a fundamental level. You could make what looks like a logo in Photoshop, but all it would really be is a painting (in pixels) of a logo. You could also eat a steak with a spoon if you really tried, but…why not just use the correct utensils?
When can you use Photoshop for logo design?
At the same time, there are some steps in the logo design process that Photoshop can be useful for. First, sketching and brainstorming—if you have a graphics tablet and stylus pen, Photoshop can be a great alternative to pencil-and-paper sketching. Unlike real life, you can move your sketches around and the Ctrl + Z undo function is always great to have when you’re drawing.
Additionally, after you’ve created your logo in a vector program, you can bring the file into Photoshop for some finishing touches if that’s what you’re going for. As mentioned, Photoshop is ideal for working with detail, which makes it the best program for special realism effects like lighting and texture.
Photoshop can also be great for setting up presentational versions of logos, either for a client or your own portfolio, like product mockups.
With that said, both of these scenarios occur before and after your actual logo is designed. So what software will give you a logo file you can actually use?
Which program should you use to design logos?
Because a logo design needs to be versatile and relatively simple, vector programs have become the standard software for logo design. Whereas raster programs use numerous blended pixels to create images, vector programs create shapes simply through points and lines.
These programs make changing the design much easier as it is all a matter of adjusting the position of the points or the curvature of the line. Vector images are also infinitely scalable with no loss in quality for this reason. And since you are working with entire shapes instead of pixels, changing color is as easy as selecting a shape and choosing a color from the program’s color picker.
Because there are fewer graphical elements to worry about, the resulting images are intended to be much more simple. While this can be a downside if you are going for realism in your artwork, for logo design it is a perfect match.
Don’t make a logo in Photoshop—you’ll thank us later
Adobe Photoshop can often seem like it can do anything, but it should not be used for logos. It started out as photo editing software, and this has led to adjacent picture-based disciplines such as video and digital painting. Logo design is a different beast entirely.
A logo design is the mark of a brand, and it carries a lot of responsibility. To that end, so much creative thought goes into the designing of the logo—the color, the shape, the emotions it will evoke—that it would be a great shame to ruin everything on technicalities like the incorrect software and incorrect image files. The best software might not guarantee a great logo design, but the wrong software will give you trouble down the line. That’s why to get a real working logo you need both the right file type and the right graphic designer.