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A Logo for Product Layer

Two of my friends and me have been working on an idea for a startup in our spare time. The idea for this came to me when I started to experiment with applications using barcode scanning and when I found that there is really no good API on the web that would allow me to get some basic product details for a scanned bar code.

Granted there are several data silos around and the 500 pound Amazonian gorilla, but the general problem remains. Generally those services only want you to use their product infos for helping to sell more products. My idea was that there should be a neutral service that lets you get product names and images for any kind of product and you should be free to do whatever you like with this data.

I was using the name PAPI (Product API) internally until Jonathan Libov suggested to me to paraphrase Mr. Foursquare himself, “the product layer for the internet”. This name immediately caught on with all people I told about it, it stuck. So I went with it and also reserved the name on Twitter as well as .com and .net domains.

The next step was to have some sort of cool logo. A project name is step one to make it “more real”, step 2 must be to have a logo that inspires us. This is the story of how I got a logo designed on 99 Designs.

The general advice I hear is to built something first and then worry about the marketing later. Build a good product and the customers will come.

This might be generally true, but I believe that having a catch name and logo contribute a share to the general motivation as well. The product name and logo are like the motivational posters you see on the Internet and some companies are even putting up on their office walls. It is something that reminds you of the story you want your product to tell.

Nobody knows if this name and logo will eventually end up be the actually used ones in communicating with clients and users. The important thing at this stage is that we have something to relate to ourselves. A project name is sort of the name of your baby. A logo is sort of its face. A freshly started project must first and foremost market itself to you. You are the first client and user since it is you that needs to believe in it, be motivated to invest your valuable time into it, to further it.

Getting a Great Logo

Consider this Dilbert strip:

Not having any budget for this project meant I had to either come up with the logo myself or spend a little bit of money on 99 Designs. I’ve been meaning to try out such a service for quite some time, now I finally had a good reason to do so.

99 Designs is a bit controversial in designer circles. There are designers on this service competing for winning design contests that we as users of their service create and judge. Then there are designers who publicly hate on 99 Designers every chance they get because they argue that such services greatly devalue their services. They cynically remark that you get what you pay for.

Actually I’ve used 99 Designs once before. They have a ready-made Logo Store where I found a design for Julia Grill’s If you are lucky and can find an already-designed logo to match your business then that’s great. For Product Layer I needed to have an entirely new design.

The steps of the 99 Designs process are:

  1. You create a design contest on the 99 Designs system, on a brief questionnaire you specify some characteristics you would like to see
  2. You can decide to make the contest public or private. On the latter all designers who want to see it have to accept an NDA.
  3. Over the next few days you receive a ton of design concepts, I got about 130 designs by 24 designers.
  4. Then you select a few of these designers to make it into the final round. This again lasts for a few days and those short listed designers can submit improvements on their designs or entirely new ones.
  5. Finally you select a winning design which is to receive the €229 prize money.
  6. The final stage is only between you and the winning designer to hand over the files for the design as well as to digitally furnish a transfer of rights contract.

Of the 24 designers I had selected 3 for the final round: Starvin, PenTool and Mas Ariek. Those were able to come up with the best original designs and these guys also had proven to me in the initial round that they have the design talent to match our tastes.

For a 99 Designs contest to be fruitful you have to act as a moderator. There is a “wall” where the contest owner can post directions and messages that can be seen by all designers. You are also able to comment and give a 5 star rating on each individual design. A general problem for all involved is if less-creative designers begin to take an original design you rated highly and make it a bit better.

Obviously the more you direct the design process by giving public hints about what you like, the harder it gets to select an individual designer. This is why you need to encourage novel ideas in the first round to weed out the designers who are just good copyists. It is quite tempting to have a very personal back and forth with individual designers, but you should try to refrain from asking one designer to take part of what you liked about another designer’s design. This sets yourself up for much in-fighting.

Asking the Public Opinion

I had thought it to be a great idea to ask my Twitter followers to share their opinion on multiple logo designs that I had ranked for both rounds. On the first round I got 48 respondents, on the final round 39. Those are quite meager numbers, considering that I have more than 8000 followers. I suspect that there must be something about these surveys that prevents people from participating in them.

My premise for the logo was based on the hope to get a logo that could also appeal to the general public. But there I was shown to be wrong. A logo that you like probably does not win public approval, especially if you are doing the logo mainly for yourself.

One aspect of Product Layer is the ability for users to rate and review any product that has a barcode on the box. To symbolise the social aspect I wanted to have two speech bubbles, one representing the product and/or manufacturer, one the consumer. I had favoured the winning design by Starvin since the beginning, but the general public (as judged by the two surveys) didn’t agree with me.

The responses were that the bars were too noisy, too many shapes, not nice without a border and too many colors.

Another problem I discovered was that the terms “product” and “layer” are abstract concepts that you cannot easily represent visually. Instead of a barcode we tried a box: “too much like Dropbox”. We tried a shopping bag – this was the big hit with the ladies – but there were other problems. Technically-minded people would tend to see a “heavy weight with a handle” instead of the bag.

Another problem is that designers don’t live in a vacuum and they will ask their friends to rate their designs anonymously. This unfairly skews the results, if you get a relatively low number of respondents then it does so significantly.

I still don’t know what went wrong with the surveys.

Too Many Audiences

This was the point where it dawned me that I might be trying to please too many different groups of people. Product Layer is supposed to have clients and customers from many different markets. If you want your logo to tell a story, then this story can only ever be for a limited audience. A B2B customer needs to see a different story than a B2C would.

You can imagine that I got quite frustrated towards the end of the design contest. We project owners were having a couple clear favourites that where generally dissed by the general public. My friend Christian saved me. He pointed out that the solution to this conundrum would be to go with the logo that gives us the best feeling. For the different kinds of audiences there would have to be different kinds of logos anyway, once we go public and get investors.

The main thing I learned from this was that logo design is best done by “the people in marketing”. We engineers will almost always fail to predict that the general public would like.


The design we ended up choosing tells the above mentioned story of a dialog between a product and a consumer. The tangible product represents a statement put forth by the product vendor and the consumer responds with his opinion.

Product Layer 51

Because of the bars you cannot just arbitrarily scale the logo. The barcode bubble is made up of 51 pixels, the thinnest bar is 1 pixel in width. This means that there are one distinct sizes where the number of pixels per bar is an integer. 99 Designs preview thumbnails are scaled down and thus people would always see the gray anti-aliasing pixel between the bars.


After having seen through this first contest on 99 Designs my verdict is that it is an awesome resource to get something quickly whipped up for little money. Your milage will vary widely depending on what goal you have in mind. If you have something very simple in mind then you will be very happy to find dozens of designers competing for your business. If you are overthinking it – like I did – then you are setting yourself up for a big disappointment.

Paying €229 for a logo is an exceptionally great deal, considering that you can pick and choose it from more than 99 designs. I can understand why this is the go-to website for small startups which don’t have much capital to spend on design and marketing, at least at the very start.

In our case we ended up with something that gives us a good feeling about the product we are working on. Just looking at the logo and thinking about all the hidden details in there makes me smile. I’m still hoping that the logo will grow on you as well.

Also published on Medium.

Categories: Design



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