Creating a Coat of Arms

In many ways, crests and coats of arms were the brand logos of the medieval era. Back in the days when knights would clash on the battlefield or in jousting tournaments, the designs on their shields, helms and other pieces of armour would clearly identify each individual to their friends, enemies and audiences, helping them keep track of each knight’s prowess in the fray.

These soon evolved from being simple visual aids to family emblems, containing designs with coded intimations of personal history, honour, status, achievement and other moral or religious values. By the 13th century, every aristocratic family in Europe boasted a unique coat of arms that would be passed down the generations, with new generations updating or modifying the designs on the shield (known as the ‘charge’) to reflect their personal values, while maintaining the integrity of the upper portion (‘crest’) – the overarching symbol of the family.

As the centuries passed, coats of arms and crests evolved further, growing from representing individuals and families to organisations and companies, even entire nations – the birth of the modern-day logo.

Today, the traditional coat of arms is still an effective means of communicating heritage and prestige in print, and many individuals and organisations choose to adopt one in order to convey their history and values via their stationery. In Britain and many Commonwealth countries, to be officially recognised with a Royal Warrant, a coat of arms must be formally granted, and have its design approved by the College of Arms – the body responsible for maintaining the register of heraldic insignia since 1484. Unofficial coats of arms and crests have no such formal regulation. 

When creating one’s own coat of arms, the first step is the design. Each element of a coat of arms – the colours, shapes and symbols used – is rife with meaning. The language of heraldry is rich in allusion and metaphor, drawing on the perceived qualities of animals, mythical creatures, trees and flowers and even everyday objects to tell a visual story about the bearer. Red, for example is the traditional colour of military prowess, whereas orange often denotes ambition. An image of an oak leaf could denote age and fortitude, but acacia leaves typically represent some form of remembrance. A financial organisation might choose to include a chain to indicate a long history of service; a hawk to connote the determined pursuit of a particular goal; and a dragon, to suggest it is valiant in the defence of treasure. Your profession, background and individual ethos can all be translated into distinct symbols, as can significant personal events, places and hopes for the future. At Downey we have been creating coats of arms stationery for over a century, and maintain an extensive knowledge of heraldic symbology, so will be happy to advise on selecting the appropriate design elements.

From the point at which the essential visual components are decided, it will usually take a commissioned artist two to three weeks to complete the artwork, which can then be translated for use in digital or print media.

In print, a coat of arms might appear on letterheads, envelopes, business cards, books or important invitations. Given the weight of significance imbued in the emblem, care should be taken to maximise its impact on the paper. Specific printing techniques can help with this. Engraving / Die stamping (whereby the coat of arms is impressed onto the paper, then layered with individual colours using separate engraved printing plates) can result in a crisp, high-impact look and feel which captures the finest details of the coat of arms. Alternatively, the high-precision, ink free technique of blind embossing can create a 3D interplay of texture and shadow on the surface of the card or paper, resulting in a subtle, tactile elegance.

Ultimately, whether the coat of arms is a new creation or one that has been handed down for generations, the most important thing is to take care of it. After all, it is not simply a logo for the moment, but a piece of history to be cherished – a legacy for the future.