Does a logo design need to tell a story?

Many, including designers, believe so.

For example, a website about logo design makes this comment:

When successful, a logo will tell the story of the brand without requiring any words. It will tell a compelling story about your brand, consistently. It’s how your customers will remember you, and it’s the way you will stand out in a crowded marketplace. It’s how the most beloved brands are born.

Is this really true? I would agree that a successful logo can eventually tell a compelling story without words. But is it how most beloved brands are born? Hardly.

A newborn logo usually tells nothing

nike-swoosh

There is no doubt that the beloved Nike swoosh tells a story that is both compelling and persuasive. It tells a story, not just of sports apparel, but of athletic endeavor in general. In addition, it has tremendous eye appeal in its simplicity, and it is quite memorable.

But did the Nike logo tell this story when it was born? No. It didn’t tell anything aadidas-logo-vector-01t all. In fact, when it was first presented to Nike executives, they did not really care for it that much. They were hoping for something along the lines of Adidas’s three stripes. But they went with the swoosh anyway and it has become wildly successful in the Nike branding scheme. It conveys a story of athletic achievement, even excellence.

But, again, it wasn’t born that way. And so it is with the logos of most “beloved brands.” Look at the following logo images and ask yourself: If you did not already have an accumulation of experiences and associations in connection with them, what would they mean to you? In other words, if you saw them for the first time, what story would they tell?

2000px-target_logo-svg               target_aust

walmart_current_spanish             walmart_old_spanish

On seeing these logos for the first time, they would tell you nothing. They might even mislead you a little. What does Target’s “target” say? The first impression might be a message about archery or firearms rather than “upscale discount store.” Looking at these logos now, and being familiar with the companies behind them, they are filled with meaning. Even the yellow star has quickly become recognizable as part of Walmart’s new look. Though the Walmart logo does not reveal much on its own, it seems to be part of a strategy to improve the image of the discount retailer. Notice the subtle difference in the tag line. The old logo’s tag line was “Low Prices Every Day. Always.” The new tag line is “Save Money. Live Better.” It’s an obvious effort to avoid the impression of peddling only price. Whether the changes have actually improved Walmart’s “discount” image or not, the revised design of the logotype has quickly become a familiar new look. It is no longer a dated-looking hyphenated name, and the capital M is gone. It is a nicely improved design (in my opinion). And, by the way, do you know the difference between the two Target logos? Did you know they are two different companies and have no connection to each other. One is US and the other Australian. Trademark infringement is not an issue because they don’t compete in the same countries. I know what the Target store sells in the US because I shop there. I don’t have a clue what Target sells in Australia. Why? Because the logo doesn’t tell me.

The Apple computer logo

The Apple computer logo has gone through a few permutations in its history. The rainbow version, Apple’s second logo design, was used from 1977–1998 and does not tell a story, at least not inherently. It has no implicit connection to computers at all. The first logo did. It was designed in pen and ink by an early Apple partner who left the company. But that first logo was quickly seen as unsuitable. Current Apple logos preserve the shape of the apple in the 1977 version, but without the stripes. Actually, the shape has been refined a little down through the years. There is now a starkly simple black version of the apple and some chrome-looking versions.

Apple_first logo.jpg   apple

Urban legends have arisen around the supposed symbolism connected to the Apple logo. One of them is that the stripes are a reference to the flag of the gay community—because Alan Turing, the inventor of the first real computer, was gay. Further, Turing reportedly committed suicide with a cyanide-laced apple. But according to the Apple logo’s designer, Rob Janoff, the various stories about its symbolism are all bogus. He said the logo didn’t have any symbolic meaning, other than the fact that it was a play on the company name. In fact, Janoff wasn’t even given a design brief, other than a request by Steve Jobs to not make it too “cute.” In an interview with Janoff, when asked what other designers should look out for when designing logos, he said, “The main thing is to make it simple, because designers especially young designers tend to over-design or clients want too many things in there. I think people who tried to work a logo too hard, having too much meaning, wind up with something that’s too complex.”

Janoff actually designed two versions of the apple. One with the bite and one without, in case Jobs thought the bite was too cute.

The swastika

historicnational_socialists_clip_art_small

The swastika tells a story, too, and not a happy one. But it was not born that way. In more than one of the world’s religions, this symbol has been beloved for centuries, and as recently as the years between the two world wars it was the proud emblem of the 45th Infantry Division of the United States Army. This army division was originally a US National Guard unit based in Oklahoma, and the crooked cross, a Native American symbol, was chosen as an acknowledgment of the state’s heritage. Does this surprise you? The swastika is a logo whose story has changed radically.

p12-with-swastika
This Boeing P-12, a fighter plane used by the US Army between the two world wars, bears the insignia of the 45th Infantry Division.

When we look at a well-known logo, we see more than just a stylized word or a graphic image. We see a world of associations and experiences that have accumulated over the life of the organization or product it represents. But a logo design is not born with these associations. They are the result of time and, likely, aggressive marketing. A newborn logo is very much like a book with blank pages. It does not tell a story. And it does not necessarily need to.

Does this mean that a logo should not tell a story? No. There are numerous logos that do reveal something of a business or the product or service of a business. There are many designers who have cleverly created marks that are simple yet contain visual clues that are revealing to some extent. But as to the question of whether a logo needs to do this to be successful, the answer is, no it does not need to.

What are some characteristics of a good logo? It should be memorable. It helps if it is attractive. Simplicity is good, but not an absolute requirement.

But a logo does not need to tell a story, at least not when it’s first designed. It’s like an empty pot waiting for meaning that will be poured into it by experience and the passing of time. Only then will it tell a story.

………………………………………..

ck4jrzhuwaaublo

1938-accroutments-510x444
This US Army captain in the 158th Field Artillery Regiment wears the shoulder patch of the 45th Infantry Division before the design was changed from the swastika to the thunderbird.

………………………………………….

An interesting read is the book, The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? by Steven Heller. Heller is author, editor and co-editor of more than one hundred books on design and popular culture.

The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? Steven Heller (2008)

Trademark law protects a company’s name and reputation

Registered symbol in gold (3d)

A logo can represent a company’s good name

A logo is often one of a company’s most valuable assets. A logo mark may represent the company, its image and reputation, or the reputation of its products or services. Many logos are protected by trademark registration. Many more benefit from trademark protection without registration. Because a mark may be such a valuable asset, many companies have branding guidelines in place to carefully control the use of company logos.

It’s a given that a company’s logo should appear prominently in its signage. But what should a sign maker do if a sign buyer orders sign work featuring logos that it does not own? Should sign companies act as trademark police and require proof of permission before they put a logo on a sign? Most do not. They simply produce the work in good faith, assuming that the sign customer is not infringing by displaying the logo, though many sign shops, when asked to place a national logo on sign work, make an effort to obtain branding guidelines from the sign buyer or the national chain.

Occasionally, a retailer will say, “We didn’t ask permission to use their logo, but we sell their product so it will be okay to use it.” The retailer reasons that he or she is giving their supplier free advertising—and who would object to that? In reality, the use of a protected logo without permission constitutes infringement. And rather than view the display of it as free advertising, the company owning the mark may be more concerned about how it might affect its name and reputation. Why so?

Here is a purely hypothetical example. A siding company believes it would be a selling point to put the Alcoa logo on their signs since they use Alcoa aluminum products. So they order signs with the Alcoa logo on them. Alcoa later contacts the siding company and tells them they are not allowed to display the logo on their signs and to remove it. They explain to the contractor that, while they appreciate his loyal business, his use of the logo without permission is trademark infringement.
Why does Alcoa not view this as free advertising in this fictitious scenario?

Trademark law protects a reputation by preventing confusion

Trademark protection is designed to prevent confusion among consumers. Alcoa may have no desire to be in the siding installation business, but the sign with Alcoa’s logo could give consumers the wrong impression.
And what if the siding company does shoddy work? The improper use of the logo on the sign could conceivably tarnish Alcoa’s reputation or the reputation of its products. It may have taken many years of aggressive marketing for Alcoa to develop a respected name in the aluminum products industry, and protecting this good image may be a high priority for the company. So trademark protection can serve to protect the good name of a brand. Further, if a siding customer is unhappy enough, they may decide to start a lawsuit, even naming Alcoa in the suit, since the Alcoa logo is on the sign.
Consequently, Alcoa avoids this whole bundle of problems by simply not allowing their logo to be used on siding company signs. They may feel that the small amount of advertising the sign gives them is not worth the potential problems.

fairly-good-siding-co05

It’s true that many people, including a well-intentioned siding contractor, may view this as a case of a large corporation using a ‘big stick’ unnecessarily. But that’s because most people don’t realize the potential danger to a trademark of allowing even small infringements to go unchecked. Trademark protection, for it to stay in force, requires watchful management. Trademark protection for a mark may live or die depending on how vigilant the trademark holder is in defending it. The government has put the responsibility for policing infractions squarely on the shoulders of the trademark owner. There are no ‘trademark police’ provided by the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), or any other government agency.

Trademark attorney Erik Pelton, in a recent blog, gives this advice:

Deal with any potential infringements quickly. The more investments of time and money someone puts into using a name [illegally], the more attached to it they become and the more complicated getting them to stop is likely to be.

Erik M. Pelton, Dec 22 blog entry     Pelton is not only a patent and trademark lawyer, but also a former examiner for the USPTO.

Think twice before stacking letters vertically

02h62732Vertically stacked letters, a common treatment a century ago, is not a preferred layout technique for sign work.

Though sometimes requested by clients, stacking letters vertically is not only awkward-looking but it compromises legibility. As explained by typographer Ellen Lupton in Thinking With Type, “Roman letters are designed to sit side by side, not on top of one another.” If it is necessary to stack letters, they should be all capitals. Lower case letters treated this way take on a precarious look that is visually unappealing. It also helps to carefully adjust the centering optically of each letter.

A simpler and more readable solution for a narrow vertical format is to rotate the entire line of text. A vertical axis is thus achieved, but the natural relationship of the letters sitting on a common baseline is preserved.

Does this mean that letters should never be stacked? No. In fact, sometimes this treatment is an easy way to achieve a retro look. But it should be used judiciously and with an awareness that it can limit readability.

 

stacked-letters-comparison02

…………………….

 

Ellen Lupton is a designer and educator, and the author of several books on design.    Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton (second edition)