My Journey Into Family Crest Design
Despite my many years of graphic design, experience, and despite my having stated many times to clients and even on the site you’re visiting now that I have “designed pretty much everything,” I was recently awarded a type of graphic design job that I had never touched before: designing a family crest.
I have occasionally daydreamed about designing family crests. Early on, as in before I was even in graphic design school, my father suggested that I give designing our own McAuley crest a shot, but I understood then that I didn’t have anything near the chops to do our family the justice I felt was necessary. Since it’s not the type of job one typically advertises or otherwise seeks out, a designer may not be awarded such a job in their lifetime. But having just completed my first, I highly recommend the experience.
If I had to describe what designing family crests is all about, I would liken it most to corporate identity design, where one designs a brand for a company usually with scant and uncertain starting information. It’s all about the sense you get from the person in charge, or from the organization’s “personality,” as much as they can possess one.
But first, how did this come about?
A Proud Commission
The bulk of my graphic design work since 2012 has been for established and startup healthcare companies. A short tour around this, the Company Man Design portfolio website, and you’ll see an inordinate amount of that type of work. While some clients have come and gone, some have remained with me uninterrupted since my pivot from exclusive website design to working independently as a full-service graphic design company. That kind of professional trust is infinitely rewarding.
But when one of my longest-served clients’ CEOs asked me to create his family crest design, I was immeasurably honored. Professional trust is one thing, but this was trust at an altogether more meaningful level.
7 Steps to Design the Reeves Family Crest
1: STARTING MATERIALS
Probably the most common truth about design — freelance graphic design, certainly — is that you get what you get from the client. Most design projects involve a few common elements:
- A general idea of what is needed to be produced
To receive all of these from a client is rare. In fact, it’s so rare an occurrence that, for all practical purposes, it never happens. And I’ve had plenty of time where I’ve gotten nothing from a client. “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” as the classic soul song goes.
If a designer is fortunate, they’re dealing with a client with a comprehensive graphic identity in place, with a standards manual and all. Personally, I find the logo is key to the success of business designs. You’ve heard of lipstick on a pig. An astonishing amount of massaging is required to make a piece look professional when it’s battling an amateurish logo. Having a corporate typeface and corporate colors also puts a designer leaps and bounds ahead, saving sometimes substantial back-and-forth trying to nail the right feel for a piece.
You’re also in rare air if the client provides a full, error-free copy that correctly targets the correct message for the right demographic. Likewise with images. On a few occasions, you’ll be blessed when a client had invested in professional headshots and/or product shots that are consistently sized and matching all others of its type, thus hugely reducing the amount of Photoshop work needed.
And last, the concept. Clients very often will say some version of, “I don’t know what I want,” leaving the marketing and design entirely up a graphic designer. When a budget necessitates nailing a design quickly, not having client direction can be a big challenge for a graphic designer. A sketch, a clear description, or example sites are always helpful. A presentation document outlining the company’s needs or goals is golden.
So I was extremely pleased to be provided a complete idea of what my client wanted in the form of a hand-drawn sketch of the crest, with all of its elements labeled. They’d even included colors to be used, rather than leaving those ultra-subjective choices to me.
Except for the simplest of projects, I typically sketch out my designs. The more complex the assignment, the more that step is necessary. But the sketch provided by the client was comprehensive enough to make that unnecessary. All of the family crest’s elements, relationships, colors, and sectional concepts were in place. Even parts of the design that I didn’t understand were noted clearly enough that I could simply start designing.
I say mostly because, as clear as the symbology was in most places — the cardinal, the crossed swords, the shield, the dual banners, and the text; even the “earth with a #7 on it” — there were the four shield sections that needed to be better understood. This wasn’t a shortcoming of the client’s sketch, but my work as a designer.
2: TACKLING symbology TO ACHIEVE design consistency
A family crest has a lot in common with a seal or a corporate logo. There are a lot of elements that need to be presented as a single unit. They must also be legible and understandable at all sizes, in black and white as well as in full color.
Even though the end goal is all about that cohesive design, achieving that is all about its individual elements. Less experienced designers may be tempted to start with the swords, the shield, and the banners. But I’ve been around the block and understood that, for a project like this, with illustration elements and designing symbology for abstract ideas — heart, soul, strength, and mind — you’re wise to work from hard to easy.
3: IDENTIFYING THE MOST CHALLENGING ELEMENT
So your first consideration, once you get started on the proper work of designing, is to identify the most challenging element first. Why start here? It’s simple, really. It’s far less problematic to design the most challenging element and fit the rest of the design to it, than to design the rest and struggle to make the most challenging element fit everything else.
Here’s what I mean.
After doing some visual research on all the elements, it quickly became clear that the cardinal element would be the most challenging. Looking around the Internet at how others had represented cardinals showed that there wasn’t a simple way to illustrate them without going full cartoon, which I felt lacked the seriousness and sophistication a family crest deserves.
Not being an illustrator myself, I purchased a vector illustration from a young artist in Europe whose style fit this project’s requirements. The illustration captured the cardinal’s piercing eyes, proud crest, and powerful beak, and did so in an astonishingly few colors. Color was a very important consideration because the family crest design needed to work in 1 color, grayscale, and full color. Which brings me to an additional design challenge related to this element.
The next step was to create a version of the cardinal element for representation in black only. After a few approaches, what worked best was as you see above. Eventually, I arrived at using a thicker line than I would have expected. It was necessary for a few reasons:
- To retain the strength of the cardinal’s character: a thinner line made it look faint, lacking solidity
- To allow for legibility at small sizes: scaling it down caused the thinner line to disappear
- To offset the delicate nature of the thinner line (really negative space that outlines the cardinal’s eye)
In some ways, the all-black version is stronger than the full color version, which is not often the case.
4: CREATING THE ABSTRACT SYMBOL SET
Very often, the primary content of a family crest will be the representation of abstract concepts that illustrate a family’s highest values. The challenges in approaching this part of design work is two-fold:
- You must find symbology that, as with finding the right cardinal image, that isn’t quaint or too common, either of which direction may diminish the overall piece’s authenticity and seriousness
- You must create a set that looks consistent, here based on the cardinal element, then — and probably more importantly — with one another.
One might think that this, more than any of the rest of the symbols would be the simplest. In some ways that was true. A heart is a heart. But as a designer and advocate for the client, I believe it is always up to me to think beyond (or into) the request. Sure, I could have just slapped a heart in there, colored it red, and have been done with it, but to do so would have failed the quaint test. So I found a symbol that superimposed the infinity symbol with the heart. Doing so communicates not simply love, but a very specific, personal and everlasting love.
The most challenging of the symbols turned out to be mind. Common representations of the mind tend to include the shape of the human head which, in my opinion, lacks the sophistication I’ve already mentioned. Knowing that the Reeves family was of Irish descent, I used the triskele, the Celtic symbol for the connection of body, mind, and spirit.
Keeping with the medieval origins of the shield, and leaning on the universality of the tower as a symbol of strength, it was only a matter of creating a symbol which fit with the other two in the set. All-black was too heavy. Outline, only was too light. A combined approach landed weigh-wise and also had the added benefit of appearing like a day and night tower. So by accident, I was able to communicate constant vigilance. By dropping the middle point of the bottom down a bit, I created a mock perspective and dimensionality to the symbol.
Again, it would have been easy to represent soul with a cross or praying hands, etc., but also again, those symbols likely would have appeared quaint or lazy. However, I felt it was important to honor my client’s devout Christianity. I chose a stylized union of the Greek symbols alpha and omega, which have been commonly used to symbolize God’s ever-presence and all-powerfulness.
5. BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER FOR ONE COLOR
Now that you’ve gotten the hard parts out of the way, you can move on to finishing the design. With all the difficult elements designed as isolated symbols, the rest of the work was much easier. I created the shield, crossed swords, and banner art was only a matter of matching the visual weight and overall feel of the existing elements.
Next, I found art of the continents — not too detailed but detailed enough to communicate that it was Earth behind the #7. Once I had these framing elements, I added all the symbols into place and again refined their sizes and positions inside their oddly-shaped containers.
At this point, the cardinal element was just floating above the shield. It need containment or some form of anchoring it to the rest of the design. I toyed with rounded frames but found they diminished the seriousness of the design. A diamond was close but it looked too much like a product logo. By modifying the diamond shape to curve back toward the shield, I achieved what I was going for. The addition of small echoing diamonds left and right, and olive branches underneath, the cardinal became part of the shield.
For the type, I felt that I needed to choose a serifed type — little “feet” details like you see with Times New Roman and other typefaces. The challenge here was that serifs tend to disappear at small sizes, so I needed to find a typeface that would retain its character and strength at any size. I chose an all-caps presentation of a face that had personality with its dropped arm of the “R” and the below-center midline of the “E”s. Adding spear point elements left and right and faint hash marks as faux shading popped the family name.
Last was adding the Bible verse reference. Right away, I saw that adding this element in a banner “sandwiched up” the design: top bun, ingredients, and bottom bun. This often makes for a claustrophobic feel or creates the impression that the banner content is more important than the parts on the shield. Knowing that was not the case, I called a design audible and scrapped the second banner container. Instead, I extended the bottom of the shield, allowing room for the verse reference. Adding the tiny cross element at the bottom did two things: it gave an additional nod to the client’s religious devotion; and it balance the two spear head elements in the name banner.
6: INCORPORATING CLIENT CHANGES
Client changes are a part of most design projects. Anymore, I neither invite nor begrudge them. However —especially the closer the changes come to completion of the project — they often present design challenges.
Once the client saw the design, they decided they wanted to add water to the Mind symbol. Water can be represented in a myriad number of ways. My goal remained the same, to draw upon choices I had made in choosing other symbols for the representation of water. I found a solid graphical medieval representation that fit the bill. However, adding the water element created an imbalance.
(Here, I should point out that the Mind symbol had been at bottom right, next to Strength.)
I needed to find a way to offset the now busier Mind section. The problem was that I couldn’t simply add weight to the other symbols: it would all start to look too heavy. The answer was to add a similar complementary element to another of the symbols. I couldn’t think of good options for either Heart or Soul, so that left Strength.
Adding stylized grass all around did the trick, but now the four elements were bottom-heavy. With a quick swap of Soul and Mind, the problem was solved. The client was very pleased with the outcome. Now that we knew the family crest design worked in one color, it was time to move to color.
7: FINAL COLORIZATION
As beautiful as the all-black version in, the work isn’t done until the family crest is colored. And that’s a good thing. A family crest is in some ways akin to a national flag. The colors themselves carry power to communicate concepts. Here, the client directed me to use red, white, blue, and gold: sacrifice, purity, nobility, and plenty being the common meanings for each of these.
But that’s also where the problems start. Whenever a designer sees “Red, white, and blue,” they are not wrong to shudder a little. This color scheme is often difficult to work with. Red and blue are basically at thirds from one another on the color wheel, making them about as unfriendly to one another as possible. Additionally, it’s hard to design in red, white, and blue and NOT have the design look like the American flag. Despite the client’s deep patriotism, I doubted he was going for American flag for his family crest.
Fortunately, I had some things working in my favor:
- I had vast experience with this color scheme, having worked for many conservative clients
- I have created graphical work for multiple political campaigns
- The cardinal is red
- And the client graciously added “gold” as a color to be used
If your goal when working with red, white, and blue is to avoid the mental association with flags, it’s important to consider the color distribution on the American flag. It’s mostly blue with an even distribution of white and red. So step one is to avoid this recipe.
Here’s a list of my color-related decisions:
- First, I colored elements that weren’t a matter of choice. The cardinal would be red, black, and orange. The water in the globe and Mind elements would be blue. And the grain (originally an olive branch) would be gold.
- Next, I made the shield, sword hilts, and continents gold.
- Next, I made the shield, sword hilts, and continents gold. With all the gold in place, I could add blue without risk of making the crest look like a flag. I filled the banner and reversed the family name to white.
- The spear head elements worked as they were in black and white, but reversed out on blue made them look like light bulbs, stealing attention away from the family name. But neither red, gold, or black provided enough contrast. Orange may have worked, contrast-wise, but I wasn’t going to add more orange as that color tends to cheapen a design. That left me needing to add yet another color. I chose a gray that was light enough to contrast against the blue of the banner, yet dark enough to stand out on its own on the sword blades. What started as a grudging decision turned out to be a lucky stroke.
- Since designs often benefit from a balance of color across the whole design, I needed to introduce red lower down to balance the bold cardinal. I colored the Soul symbol and the Heart symbol’s container. Blue was already close. For a moment, I considered changing the grain back to green so I could make the Strength symbol’s grass green, but in the end, I opted for blue grass instead. I had already added a sixth color (not including white) and felt it would be too busy with a seventh. For gray, I colored the Mind symbol and the Soul symbol’s background. Last, I balanced the black at the top with the Strength symbol and the globe element’s outline.
Finally, I was proud to present the client with a finished family crest design. They were very pleased. All that remained was outputting all the usable files and billing for the work.
Just when I thought I had worked on everything, this job landed on my desk. It just goes to show that there’s always new territory for graphic designers. And you never know how or from where it’s going to show up. The key is to always be ready, open, and confident when those opportunities arise.