[.opening-paragraph]I don’t envy a small business owner trying to decode today’s fractured graphic design industry. You’d think hiring a designer for something as common as a logo would be reasonably straightforward. But a quick Google search reveals a dizzying array of vendors, offerings, and price points. Where do you even begin?[.opening-paragraph]

To help un-muddy the waters, let’s explore three increasingly prevalent types of vendors that promise impossibly cheap prices and quick delivery. And we’ll explore the potential risks of using each of them, for your next company or product logo.

Stock Logos & DIY Logo Makers

By far, the worst place to find yourself a logo is from a stock image website or library.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s define “stock” as any existing content that is being sold with a royalty-free, non-exclusive, commercial-use license.[.tip-wrap][.tip-button][.tip-button][.tip-box][.tip-tri][.tip-tri][.tip-text]For most content that you buy online today (images, software, e-books, movies, etc), you are not buying a product so much as a “license” to use that product. There are various types of licenses, but the most common are "royalty-free" (that is, you only pay for it once, and the price is a flat fee, regardless of its intended use) and “non-exclusive” (meaning the seller can resell the product as many times as they like).[.tip-text][.tip-box][.tip-wrap] Stock photography, illustration, music, and similar content has been around for decades, but more recently, content advertised as logos have been appearing on the same sites.

Stock logos are also offered within image libraries of DIY logo builder systems (apps like Canva and Figma offer free or low-cost logo builders like this, as do services like Wix, VistaPrint, and Shopify).[.tip-wrap][.tip-button][.tip-button][.tip-box][.tip-tri][.tip-tri][.tip-text]I’m only calling these companies out because they’re some of the largest in their markets, and I’m familiar enough with their offerings to write about them. But as far as I can tell, nearly all their major competitors offer the same problematic services we’re discussing here. This article is not about a few bad companies. It’s about an industry-wide practice.[.tip-text][.tip-box][.tip-wrap] While these tools make it feel like you’re “designing” your own logo, any ready-made art they’re providing for you is a stock image.

Now, I haven’t worked with too many business owners who thought that their product was generic or cookie-cutter (even if they sell cookie cutters!). But these stock logo companies apparently think your business is basic enough that—without knowing anything about you—they can pre-bake a logo that perfectly represents you. (And then they can sell that same logo to a few dozen other companies that —as luck would have it— perfectly represents all of them, too.)

But, the really troubling thing about stock logos is that the companies offering them clearly understand that [.highlight-yellow]the content they’re offering cannot—and should not—be used for the purpose they’re advertising them for.[.highlight-yellow] Just look at “content licensing agreement” that applies to every image sold on iStock, including the ones they clearly label as “logos”:

(3) Restricted Uses...(D) No Use in Trademark or Logo. Unless you purchase a custom license...you may not use content (in whole or in part) as the distinctive or distinguishing feature of a trademark, design mark, tradename, business name, service mark or logo. Additionally, you shall not be entitled to register (in any jurisdiction) such content (in whole or in part) as a trademark or rely on any such registrations, prior use, and/or accrued goodwill to prevent any third party use of the content or any similar content (including by us, our customers, or the copyright owner of such content).[.close-quote][.close-quote]

And for Canva’s “Free Logo Maker”:

Canva’s logo templates are customizable and can be used by anyone. This means that your rights to the logo are non-exclusive and you can’t register it as a trademark.[.close-quote][.close-quote]

Check the fine print on any stock image website, logo template service, or DIY logo builder app, you’ll find similar language. That’s unavoidable, because their entire business model depends on being able to sell these images over and over and over again. But a logo, by definition, should be unique to the entity it represents. [.highlight-yellow]This is an inherent and unresolvable conflict.[.highlight-yellow]

So, why do these companies have thousands of images advertised as “logos” on their sites, if actually using one of those images as a logo would be a clear violation of their own license agreements?

I won’t speculate on motives, here. I just think you should be aware of these limitations, before you build your entire brand around a logo you can’t own or protect.

Logos Created by Generative Artificial Intelligence

I’m as fascinated as anyone about the possibilities presented by these emerging technologies. It’s no surprise companies are trying to capitalize on its abilities for things like graphic design and advertising. But, especially when it comes to the graphic serving as the foundation of your brand identity, please tread with caution.

Apart from the creative and practical concerns of handing off your brand to a machine that creates—not by understanding—but by mimicking, there are legal landmines here.

Consider what the US Copyright Office says[.tip-wrap][.tip-button][.tip-button][.tip-box][.tip-tri][.tip-tri][.tip-text]You can read the Copyright Office's full statment on generative AI, here.[.tip-text][.tip-box][.tip-wrap] about AI-generated art:

It is well-established that copyright can protect only material that is the product of human creativity. Most fundamentally, the term ‘author,’ which is used in both the Constitution and the Copyright Act, excludes non-humans.[.close-quote][.close-quote]

In terms of copyright, images generated by AI are owned by no one, because, in the eyes of the law, they are created by no one. [.highlight-yellow]Ultimately, these companies selling you something they don’t actually own, and that you cannot own, either.[.highlight-yellow]

Crowd-Sourced Design Services

I have to admit, the concept is compelling: rather than putting your eggs in one basket, let’s have a hundred designers compete for a winning design, and you only have to pay for the winning one!

But regardless of the talent pool you’re drawing from, given the time that each designer could afford to devote to a 1% chance of getting paid, this option probably isn’t any better than the stock or AI options. In fact, I’d wager that many of the designers on these sites end up using stock or AI-generated art, to reduce their time investment, so they can enter hundreds of these competitions per day.

Now, the service selling you the logo would obviously have you believe that you’re getting 100 completely original logo ideas, and you have 100% legal ownership of the one you choose. [.highlight-yellow]But how can they credibly promise that every single one of their subcontractors is always creating new and original art,[.highlight-yellow] never reusing elements, never “borrowing” from other sources—including stock, generative AI, or even your competitors’ trademarks? Like the other services above, these crowdsourced sites put the burden on you to verify that you’re not watering down your brand (or worse, stumbling into a lawsuit) by accidentally using art that another entity has already established as their trademark.

Do Copyrights and Trademarks Matter?

If you want a brief overview of the general principles of copyright and trademark law, you can start here. If you want advice on your specific situation, seek out an intellectual property attorney.

Still, if I were a small business owner considering a low-cost logo option like these, I think the copyright issues would be unsettling, but the trademark implications would be downright alarming.

If I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into building a popular, trusted product, the last thing I’d want to see is someone cutting in and using my hard-earned brand equity to enrich themselves. Trademark law is my primary shield and sword against that kind of theft; if I can’t even protect my logo with a trademark, [.highlight-yellow]what is to stop a bad actor from willingly (and even openly) slapping my logo on their product?[.highlight-yellow]

The severity of the risk depends largely on your business model, scale, and reach. It probably matters much less to a neighborhood accounting office that it does to a consumer product developer with national distribution. But the fact that companies selling you these products are willing to paper over these potentially business-killing issues should give you pause.

The Opposite of Branding

Even if you’re not particularly worried about the IP issues, let’s consider the purpose of brand development. An organization invests in branding to distinguish itself from its competitors, to tell its story, and to create a relationship with its audience.

As design theorist Marty Neumeier argues, the opposite of branding is commoditization. If your product is interchangeable with your competitors (or, more to the point, if your customers believe it is), then you don't have a brand. [.tip-wrap][.tip-button][.tip-button][.tip-box][.tip-tri][.tip-tri][.tip-text]Neumeier's book, The Brand Gap, is a fantastic quick read on branding. You can purchase the book or view the abridged slide deck version here.[.tip-text][.tip-box][.tip-wrap]  

Building a brand is hard, but I think a lot harder to build it on top of a logo made from off-the-shelf clip art, or with an algorithm’s remix of other companies’ logos, or with a rushed submission to your design contest.

When you need a logo, hire a logo designer.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, considering the vast difference in price, is it really worth hiring a traditional graphic design firm to develop a logo for my small business? What am I getting for that extra investment?

  1. A good design firm digs deeper. Before the design process even begins, the design team takes a significant amount of time to learn about you, your product, your industry, your customers. This gives the designers the information they need to create a logo that is more than just a pretty label—it can be a communication device that is uniquely relevant to you, particularly appealing to your audience, and distinct from your competitors.
  2. A good design firm takes the time, so you don't have to. Done well, the logo design process takes a lot of exploration. But so does reviewing and evaluating countless options. Frankly, I think one of the greatest failings of the resources above is that they completely shift that burden onto you! A good design firm is going to engage in a robust exploration of the possibilities, but they aren’t going to waste your time showing you 100 options that have no relevance to the brand you’re trying to build, and they’re not going to ask you.
  3. A good design firm helps you test-drive, optimize, and deploy the logo. Sure, you can download a “logo” file instantly from any of the services described above...but then what? How do you actually USE that file for your website, your business cards, your building sign, your uniforms, etc? What if you need a black-and-white version for a newspaper ad, or a simplified bug for your Facebook profile, or a horizontal layout for a long banner? A good design firm understands how logos are actually used and how brand identity works. They do more than deliver a logo file —they equip you with the tools to start deploying your new brand identity, right away.

But it’s just a logo.

Sure. Even a weak, poorly designed logo is still serving its most basic purpose as identification of your company or product. But a logo has the potential to be much more than that. It has the potential to work much harder for your company—to make a carefully calibrated impression on your audience, every time they see it.

Of course, every business has to make tough choices. Maybe a $100 crowd-sourced logo is all your startup can afford right now. And maybe you’ll be able to upgrade, later. I’ve helped companies through that process, many times. But fair warning: the larger you are, the more expensive, painful, and time-consuming the re-branding process becomes. Assuming your company is growing, having a solid logo today will save you tomorrow. Plus, you won’t have to wait for your brand identity to start pulling its weight—it’ll be a powerful, ownable sales tool for your company, right now.[.end-marker][.end-marker]