I was hired about three months ago to design a logo and consult on the brand identity for Plancast, a local San Francisco start-up founded by Mark Hendrickson and Jay Marcyes. As you can probably guess from the name, Plancast a way to broadcast your upcoming plans to your friends; or as it’s often described, Foursquare for the future. The site is exceptionally easy and helpful, and I encourage you to check it out.
By the time I joined on Plancast was up and running, but they were without a logo or distinctive visuals. I began work in December and we agreed on the finished logo a few weeks ago. The project was easily the hardest I have ever completed — as well as the most fulfilling. I almost destroyed myself developing this logo and I am really excited to share the process with you here.
The first thing we discussed was the dual visual representation of a product that is as fun as it is useful. A tricky combination! Mark wanted Plancast to feel fun and exciting, but also seem like a product that could actually help you. It had to feel reliable and well crafted. It had to be accessible and interesting. “Quirky” was included as a possible adjective, but with caution.
We also discussed the need for an imagery-based logo as well as a typographic one. Unlike many start ups, Plancast was to have a symbol that could stand alone to represent the brand. I agreed with them completely on this point; I think if you can pull it off, having a stand alone mark without type is always a good idea. I get the all type thing of course, but it can be a wasted opportunity not to at least try for an icon.
I researched tons of other start ups and immersed myself in that world for a long time. You spend enough time digging around and you find a lot being done right and a lot that is completely missing the mark. Vimeo for example was one site that we discussed as having successfully achieved a good balance of fun and utility. I liked how, even without a crazy logomark, they were able to portray an exciting world inside the site. There is a unicorn chilling on the bottom of the page and it still feels like a completely normal site. Balance achieved!
Initial Concepts and Sketches
Immediately thrown out the window was anything relating to broadcasting, radio signals, or antennas. These were the first things I thought of and this made them very unappealing. It’s tempting to go this route, with “broadcast” basically in the name of the company, but I knew I’d have to work harder than that. Would have been way too obvious and expected. These sketches were disposed of.
Next I started thinking about directional symbols and compass roses. Since so much of what Plancast did was centered around your physical location, I figured this could be a decent route to explore. It still sounded boring, but I thought it could be cool if I was able to render a slick enough looking symbol. Below you can see some of these attempts.
When these ideas were presented (along with 8 or so other options in this vein), the general feeling was that, while they looked cool and sophisticated, they were almost too refined. There was no fun! This was a wake up call for me — I was coming off of my Playboy project where everything was to be minimal and restrained — I had forgotten how to visually convey fun.
One idea I did kind of like was the cloud logo below. I always liked comparing the word “plancast” to “forecast” (because you are basically predicting/forecasting your upcoming plans with the site). The cloud, and the compass rose sun above were riffs on this concept. Still not quite fun enough though. (Though I had fun Twitterifying the type below. The typographer in me died a little bit)
Directional Shift / Character Introduction
Mark and I started to discuss the possibility of using a character for the logo after the initial passes weren’t that exciting. I love character logos and this was a very exciting shift for me. I dove headfirst into the world of character design. I can recommend the following books that helped me wrap my head around effective character rendering:
Below you can see some of my first sketches with this new direction in mind. I liked the idea of using a robot because they can look pretty much however you want them to. People aren’t able to say “hmm yeah I guess I know what that is, but you drew the feet a little weird.” I was excited to invent my own little species of electronic Plancast robo-buddies.
Oh if it wasn’t for reddit and Android (and every other robot logo)! I designed a number of robot characters that were basically rip offs of either of these sites or robo.to. It took me a while to realize it, but after time away from these designs I realized I wasn’t doing anything new. It was just too close to existing characters. There was also no soul. Look at the robot above. Do you want to make plans with him? I think not.
At this point, January was coming to a close and I didn’t feel very optimistic. I had projected completion by January 28th and I was running very low on ideas. School was about to start and I needed to finish things before that happened. I had generated hundreds upon thousands of sketches and ideas and nothing was at all exciting to me. How do you visually convey plans! I obsessed over this and drove myself completely insane.
For inspiration I started digging around for some of my weirder projects. One, which I rarely show anyone because it was so bizarre, was a book where a group of wild roaming letters realize they exist inside of a book and try to escape. This helped to spark a few ideas and get me off of the boring or expected track I was on. I continued on with a new sense of optimism and excitement. A couple of spreads from the book are below (one where the letters were docile and one where they begin their attack on what they perceived to be the belongings of the owner of the book. Like I said, a weird project):
The Penguin Comes into Play
Mark and I continued to meet and discuss the project. Throughout, Mark basically served as art director, and as founder of the company, he knew exactly what he wanted out of the logo. He was remarkably good at conveying these ideas to me.
During one of our discussions we started kicking around the idea of using an animal character instead of a robot. The question then becomes, which animal makes the most sense? My first thought was a lemming — since they follow each other everywhere — but they also have a reputation for batch suicide…I figured this was not something Plancast wanted in their brand message. Which other animals follow each other around?
Penguins! This sounded like a good idea and I began sketching. Like the users of Plancast, penguins follow their friends around all over the place. Whether it’s to go swimming, or marching, penguins are always following each other around and making penguin plans. This is the main concept behind the penguin choice.
We also had discussed the similarities of Plancast with Twitter. In both cases, you are broadcasting what you are doing (present or future, depending) to your friends. One crucial difference being that each ‘broadcast’ on Plancast is, on average, of more weight than your average tweet. On Plancast, you actually intend to do what you send out and there is no space for innocuous meanderings as there is on Twitter. Of course, we love Twitter for this, but the concept of having “weightier broadcasts” was intriguing. Given that Twitter’s logo is a bird, why not make Plancast’s a heavier bird. A fat happy penguin for the win.
At the end of the day, people love penguins — so even without the conceptual duo above, a penguin seemed like a good choice. We wanted the character to be approachable, friendly and cute — all things that penguins can easily portray if rendered correctly. (The Linux penguin for example looks like he would be a chill guy to hang out with).
With this new direction in mind, I began drawing penguin upon penguin. If you could only see the Illustrator document I have with all of the penguins in it. It is unbelievably massive. Having had fairly good success drawing a fox for my last logo project, I wasn’t expecting to hit such a wall trying to draw a penguin. Below are a few of my attempts:
Each of the above was at one point considered (by me) to be the new logo. Each had a lifespan of anywhere between three hours to three days. Eventually they all fell by the wayside as both Mark and I didn’t see what we were hoping for in the penguin. There wasn’t enough personality, they weren’t cute enough, they just weren’t right.
The Final Penguin
The goal at this point was “cute”. We were happy with the concept of a penguin, and some of the previous ideas were working, it just wasn’t cute enough. I remember just about all of this project development very clearly (given how intense it was), but I remember when I drew the penguin below the best. I was driving myself crazy trying to rework a previous design and I finally gave up in a fit of confusion. I decided to start over completely (I had been recycling eyes and fins here and there).
I had been working with the tagline “Hatch a plan” and thought it might be funny if the penguin somewhat resembled an egg. People wouldn’t pick up on the connection I knew, but I liked hiding this little conceptual easter egg in there. Once I drew the basic shape of his head I knew I was on to something. After about 20 minutes I had the smug little fellow below and everything felt like it clicked into place.
I really can’t explain how this one felt different than all of the other penguins I had created. He definitely had more personality, but I didn’t feel like I had done anything differently to conjure this visually. There was a magical twist that occurred somewhere along the line and I wish I could explain what happened so I could repeat it on future projects. In the end I felt like I wanted to make plans with this one — he looked like he had his situation figured out.
The great thing about this penguin was how easy it was to put him into different situations. Different expressions and positions of course, but also uniforms or anything! The idea being that the logo is not one specific pose of the penguin, but rather the penguin character as a whole. Whatever he happens to be doing at any given time is the logo at that moment. You will always be able to recognize him as the Plancast Penguin, but he is always up to something new. He’s got big plans after all.
I hate to shortchange the typography portion of this logo, but compared to the icon development, it just didn’t take nearly as long. We locked in on this typeface from the beginning and never found anything we thought was more successful. The choice to go with all caps was very deliberate and I really enjoy how it stands out amongst the infinite world of lowercase start-up logos. The juxtaposition of the cute cuddly penguin with a very serious typeface is a pleasing one. Going back to the original goal of portraying a fun and useful product, this penguin/typeface combination does this effectively.
Well that’s it. As I said, the hardest and most fulfilling project in my career thus far. Mark Hendrickson was great to work with throughout the process; easily one of the most judicious clients I have ever encountered. Each time I would come with a design he would clearly explain what he liked and didn’t like. No waffling or confusion. A refreshing change!
There is still much work to be done — tshirts, business cards, etc — but it’s all fun now that there is a happy Plancast Penguin in existence.
Don’t forget to check out Plancast!