The OpenPilot Logo


A little over two weeks ago, I got an email from one of the developers of a project called OpenPilot asking if I’d be interested in creating a logo for the project. OpenPilot is an open source project developing an autopilot system for model aircraft – interesting stuff. Always looking for a creative challenge to focus on, I accepted the offer. It was an interesting challenge and I thought I would post a little about the process I went through.

Before I get started I must thank Troy Sobotka for doing his usual best and being a great soundboard for ideas and great creative discussion. It’s good to have someone around who’s willing to encourage but also throw out some really honest opinions on things – even if you don’t ask for them! :)

I emailed the developer back and asked for some background information on the project. Its primary use was on model aircraft, so the audience for this would most likely be aircraft enthusiasts. Also figuring that they’d be more technically minded, I knew I wanted it to be simple, but interesting. The goal was to give the project an identity that was modern, and which expressed a feeling of quality and accuracy. After all, would you want to risk your expensive model aircraft by using an autopilot system consisting of duct tape, and a few bungee cords?

I first frittered around and sketched a few things. The first idea I had involved a sort of ‘horizon flyover’ concept:

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A quick trip to Inkscape yielded this:


That initial quicky mockup felt devoid of any character to me – and it looked a bit too thin and wispy. The bottom line was that I didn’t like it, so I dropped it and decided to pursue other ideas.

More sketching yielded this sketch of a sort of takeoff flight path:

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While I thought it had some potential, it looked like it would end up too complicated for a logo. So I simplified the concept somewhat and came up with these:

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The lower one really caught my fancy as something that had real potential so I chose to pursue it. First I attempted a traceover of the sketch in Inkscape but immediately realized that I’d get the perspective all wrong, so I dropped that and decided to model a simple square path in Blender to get it right (the initial part of the path is semi-transparent so that I could see the shadow beneath):

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I took the result into Inkscape and traced that. An initial mockup gave this:

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This really had potential. Unsurprisingly, I made my usual mistake of going a bit far with gradients and shadows. This was too complicated and fiddly for a logo. Troy suggested stripping it down until it broke – and that didn’t take long. ;)

I found that without the gradients I lost the feeling of slope in the path. And without the drop shadows.. well, let’s just say it broke – big time. I had to try playing with the path more to get that elevation feeling without the drop shadows and gradients.

I found that by crossing the path over itself, I could ensure that the path moved ‘up’ in elevation. Even better, I found that by adding some subtle breaks in the path I could even give the feeling of a shadow at that crossover:

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At this point I also had to confirm how this would work in monochrome options as well:

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Two things became apparent. First, I had the happy accident of getting the letter P in some of those orientations. Second, it was so much better to have the plane going up instead of heading down. Even with the paths crossing, (arguably) inferring increasing elevation, the overall direction of the plane is downward. And that can’t be good. ;)

So the next iteration involved horizontally flipping one of the options and coming up with:

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In addition to rotating the logo slightly to better achieve the ‘P’ effect, and squaring off the dark grey background pill, I also decided to have a play at the text. While I hadn’t been terribly disappointed with it, I wanted to try something different just to see:

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I felt I was almost there. Troy suggested I man up and create a simple style guide for the logo. This would better guarantee against misuse of the logo (stretching, colouring, bling-ifying etc) and may teach me a thing or two about how these things should actually be done in the ‘real’ world.

Also useful is that creating a style guide can surface issues you hadn’t initially considered. In fact at this point I had to come with a horizontal orientation of the logo for potential uses as a wider format web header graphic. I simply hadn’t thought of that. Of course Troy had to stage a mock conversation between a few swarthy Italian-Canadian web designers over Google chat for me to understand how this situation might arise. If you don’t believe me, I’ll post the chatlog. ;)

The final logo with alternative horizontal layout turned out like this:

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I’m proud of the style guide as well. Not proud that I used Inkscape instead of Scribus to do it. That’s kind of like using the back of the pliers to hammer in a nail. It works, but it’s far from the best way. In any case I plead newbieness for mistakes like that. It’s all a learning process.

Here’s the completed style guide if you want to have a look.

OpenPilot Logo Style Guide

This was a fun project. I’m proud of the logo because it took a lot of work (at least compared to most things I’ve worked on in the past), it proceeded rather logically, and I feel good about the result. As usual I learned a lot of useful things along the way which can’t be a bad thing either.

11 thoughts on “The OpenPilot Logo

  1. Having just gone through a merger at work and ending up w/ a new (parent company) logo, I can say that having a style guide is a really important part of having a new logo–it make using the new logo a LOT easier.

  2. @JakeT – Yeah, there’s a lot that someone could do to butcher the logo if you’re not careful. And while a style guide is no guarantee against it, it does give people some guidelines so they realize how easy it is to mess it up.

    @Fab – Glad you found it useful. I just took a look at the Wipeout HD thing on YouTube. Not much of a gamer these days (I do remember the first Wipeout as a PC game ages ago). I guess it’s that circular sweep style symbol. That game looks pretty cool, but on an HD screen I think it might make me throw up from motion sickness after a while! :)

  3. Wipeout is an amazing game, got it pretty cheap on the Playstation Network some time ago. Their whole menu design has the same futuristic vibe as this logo. They have a very cool, futuristic vector style throughout the game. Compare this graphic with the ship logos to get the gist of it:

    Again, great work, mate! :D

  4. The logo looks great! I love how you’ve shown every step. It’s really neat seeing how the “P” shape came about…it looks so natural in the finished logo. Question: are style guides common for logos? Did you use a template for yours?

  5. @Don – Yes, style guides are really a necessity actually. They simply reduce the chances that a logo will get misused (stretched, miscoloured etc). There’s no guarantee of course, but without one it’s really a crap shoot when it comes to using the logo for different things.

    Not having any experience with style guides (none!), I used the following two links as references. Note that the first one requires you to sign up for a free registration before you can download it:

  6. @Curacao

    I extended the tail of the ‘P’ characters to mimic the plane’s trace. At first I didn’t connect them up with the preceding letters but liked it better when I did. Personally I think it makes a more distinctive wordmark, and I think it’s still quite legible as openpilot. Thanks for reading! :)

  7. Wow, I really learned alot with your post. I’m not a graphic designer, but was a web developer I can certainly appreciate your approach and the style guide. Great post!

    Out of curiosity, why didn’t you leave the word “pilot” as a different color? I liked that version. :)

  8. @FergatROn – I think I went with a single color for the logotype when I reworked/customized the font. I couldn’t split the colour in a way that made me happy once I joined them up like that. I did like the two-colour option too though.

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