Logo Master Tim Nielsen: Style and Substance Condensed

In the 37 years he’s been in Traverse City, graphic designer Tim Nielsen has created countless logos for small- and mid-sized local firms, as well as high-profile national clients. Like a lot of downstate folks who end up in the Grand Traverse area, Nielsen had a family connection. His parents moved to Suttons Bay from the Detroit area when they retired in 1977.

By that time, though, he had studied Fine Arts for two years at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and completed a four-year program in graphic design at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. He was primed for a career in corporate America.

His first job was at Ken Parkhurst & Associates, a large, L.A.-based corporate identification firm with a national and international portfolio. From there he moved to Toronto, Ontario, to design logos for Burton Kramer & Associates.

“Things were going very well,” he recalled. “But I began to get frustrated with corporate life.”

In late 1979, he moved to Traverse City and, after a short break, formed his own firm, Nielsen Design. He and his wife, Emily Mitchell (also a designer) raised their two sons, Jens and Soren, here. Both are graduates of West High School and have creative careers. Jens is the lead engineer with consumer electronics firm Fitbit and Soren is a New York City-based film maker.

Stand-alone Art

A visit to Tim Nielsen’s website, ndgworks.com, is likely to tell you two things right away: First, his work is worthy in many cases of being shown in a gallery as stand-alone art. Whether it is a logo for Northport goat cheese producer Idyll Farms, a northern Michigan vineyard or the well-known symbol for Oryana Natural Foods Market, Nielsen leaves an impression.

Second, his art communicates a strong, simple and upbeat message about his clients, which, he explained, requires designs that complement the business content and aesthetic style (something he calls the “sensibility”) of the commercial enterprise he represents.

The Process

These are not logos that have been thrown together. Behind the finished work lies an interactive process between Nielsen and his clients. Before he ever sets pen to paper, Nielsen asks a lot of questions. What products or services does the company offer? What makes these offerings unique? What is the purpose of their corporate identity effort – to establish a worldwide company or to project a folksy, local brand? What type of image does the client want to project? Is the style to be laid back, buttoned down, cutting edge or traditional? Are there other logos – perhaps those of a competitor – that they especially like? He even pays attention to seemingly less obvious angles, such as how employees dress.

He uses that extensive background information to come up with one design, not the half dozen or so that a less experienced designer might produce.

“I figure that if someone comes to me, they respect my work,” he said. “We set up goals and expectations. All the criterion are clear. So I bring in one solution, not a multitude, and say, ‘this will work.’”

Finding the Right Style

Logo creation is in many ways a reductive process, a matter of eliminating all but the very essence.

Early in his long career, he tended toward what might best be called a sparse, European aesthetic – simplicity, with clean, straight lines and a lack of adornment. It’s a style he still incorporates today.

But he’s flexible.

Sometimes he uses just two or three letters for an entire logo, leaving the viewer to figure out what that sparse information refers to. The hope is that with repeated use consumers will come to recognize the brand as much as we would have no trouble identifying IBM or Apple.

And as with those internationally-recognized brands, Nielsen emphasizes that for all customers, consistency is what sears a brand into consumers’ minds.

Sometimes the logos are more complex, with visual tie-ins. That is the case with Stormcloud Brewing Company’s logo which, in addition to the company’s full name, contains a cluster of dark clouds to reinforce the message. The Rare Bird Brewpub logo features what has become the company symbol – a bright red bird.

Experience has also taught Nielsen that while an informal, more rough-hewn approach might work for brewers or a maker of beach wear, a vintner or law practice, for instance, leans toward a more sophisticated look.

Visual Metaphor

Why does all this matter to businesses? Because, as Nielsen described it, “logo development is the foundation of all strong branding systems.” It is a visual metaphor of sorts, a physical presentation that even in its simplest form – just a couple of letters – tells an important business message: This is who we are, remember us.