Many believe that good logo design is only a judgment call. That there are no rules. Yet it seems reasonable that there are basic principles that, generally, should be followed for a design to be effective.
Jason Li, a co-founder of TomYum, a design firm based in Toronto, made some insightful comments on this subject. See if you agree.
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
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 at 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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 viewing the display of its logo as free advertising, the company owning the mark may be more concerned about how its good name and reputation might be affected by unauthorized use. 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 might Alcoa not view this as desirable 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 that it is in the business,
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 help protect the good name of a brand. Further, if a siding company has a customer that is unhappy enough, the customer may decide to start a lawsuit, even naming Alcoa in the suit, since the Alcoa logo appears on the siding company sign.
Consequently, Alcoa avoids this whole bundle of problems by simply not allowing their logo to be used on siding contractor signs. Alcoa may feel that the small amount of advertising the sign gives them is not worth the potential problems. So it may prohibit the use of its logo in a siding contractor’s advertising. Of course, this story is hypothetical and may not represent Alcoa’s actual policies, but it may illustrate why a large company would be selective about how its trademarks are used.
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.
The termirradiation illusion was coined by German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz in the 1860s to describe the visual perception in which a light area appears larger than an identically-sized dark area. The effect was observed as early as the time of Galileo, who refers to it in his observations of the sizes of planets when viewed through a telescope at different times of day. The illusion is illustrated below. The white square in the black field on the right seems larger than the black square in the white field on the left. It’s as if the white area on the right spills outward beyond its edges into the surrounding black. At the same time, the white field on the left appears to encroach upon the black square making it shrink.
The drawing below shows how the irradiation illusion can affect lettering. The top halves of the letters shown are clearly bolder looking than the bottom halves. This means that, on a dark background, a white letter with a heavy stroke will look even heavier, sometimes to the point that legibility is compromised. Counter spaces that are already small become even smaller. Interletter spacing shrinks. Heavy white lettering on a dark background can take on an unpleasant bloated look, and the effect is more pronounced as the viewing distance increases. The solution, simply, is to use lighter stroked letters and increase the letter spacing when the background is dark.
This phenomenon of white letters appearing heavier is not always a bad thing. The effect can be put to use at times. It can even save an otherwise weak layout. How so?
Put the Irradiation Illusion to good use
Computer font collections tend to have a disproportionately high number of light faced letter styles. These typestyles are designed mostly for print, not for signs. Times Roman, as an example, is an inherently weak letter style on sign work. It looks fine in print, up close. After all, it was designed for newspapers held at arm’s length, paper whose porous qualities actually help thin-faced letters. Paper, especially newsprint, allows inked letters to bleed a little through capillary action (the printer’s term for this is dot gain). This effect allows the hairline strokes characteristic of many romans to achieve a little more thickness when printed. But in large sizes on signs, the thin strokes of painted or vinyl lettering remain thin lines. Add to this thinness the effect of the irradiation illusion, and the strokes become even thinner. The result is that a large sign lettered in all Times Roman has a distinctly anemic look. In printspeak, the lettering is not ‘black’ enough. It appears insubstantial, weak. The thinnest strokes eventually disappear as viewing distance increases, leaving visible only a series of meaningless vertical strokes. But if you create a reversed color scheme—putting white roman letters on a black background—the letters instantly become a little stronger.
Similarly, the legibility of some scripts can be improved by a dark background. Computer scripts are often so light faced as to be useless for sign work without some kind of ‘stroking’ to beef them up. Using a dark background can sometimes solve the problem with minimal effort.
Before computer fonts
In the days of painted signs, the expanding/shrinking illusion of irradiation was a problem easily addressed. For one thing, sign painters did not use fonts [related post: Sign painters didn’t use fonts], so they were not burdened with picking through hundreds of unusable typestyles to find the few that worked well. Their letter styles, “alphabets,” as they called them, were all hand drawn specifically for sign work. Generally, these styles were not duplicates of typestyles that were created for print. And letterers tended to rely on medium and medium-heavy stroke weights for the bulk of their work. When a light typestyle was required, say, by an insistent client, or when an architect specified a certain typeface, it was easy to thicken the strokes slightly if needed for legibility. This could even be done on the fly during the brush lettering process. When a sign painter used script, it was most often a medium weight, sometimes heavy, infrequently light. Experienced sign painters knew that light faced lettering often produced weak-looking signs that lacked impact.
Good design is rarely accidental
In sign design, legibility is dependent on the interplay of light and dark images. Letter recognition relies not only on the positive image of the letterform but also on the negative space surrounding and within it. When one or the other is overpowering, there is always a compromise of legibility. This is why medium weight letters tend to be the most legible on sign work. It doesn’t mean heavy or light faced letters should not be used at all. Rather, it means using them prudently.
Being aware of, and carefully manipulating, effects like the irradiation illusion can help a sign artist produce good layout. Effective design is not an accident.
My inspiration for this article is an archived blog by UK designer and typographer Jon Tangerine from 2010: jontangerine.com
Hermann von Helmholtz bio from Encyclopedia Britannica. His pursuits as a scientist were broad. Perhaps best known for his invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1861, still an essential diagnostic tool used in medicine today.
Hermann von Helmholtz from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Details of his interests, philosophies, teachings and accomplishments.
Often, in the US, a trademark registration is for the wording only rather than the design of a logo. The terminology used for this type of mark on a US Trademark application is “standard character mark.”
A registration for the design of a logo would be a separate application. What is the difference between the two types of registration? Which is better?
Standard Character Mark
A registration for a standard character mark covers all variations of the wording that you want to protect. It covers the wording in any letter style and any color or size. That means it covers the wording if it’s part of a logo design, too. In other words, a standard character registration is more comprehensive than a registration that is for only the design of a logo, because it covers all forms of the wording (including its use as a domain name).
A design mark
On the other hand, a trademark registration for the design of a logo applies only to the exact design as it appears in the drawing that you send with the application. So, what happens if you want to change the design later, or add or remove a word? You will have a problem, because you will be required to apply for a new trademark registration. In effect, then, a registration for a standard character mark may be stronger, more versatile, than a registration for a design mark.
Why not register the wording of a logo as a trademark and its design as a copyright? Because, so often, a logo does not qualify for copyright protection in the US. [see related post: Can logos receive copyright protection?]
Consequently, many trademarks are protected by two trademark registrations, one for the wording and one for the design. You may even see two registrations just for the design (one in color and one in black and white). If you want to apply for only one trademark registration to save money, an attorney may advise registering a standard character mark rather than a design mark. There are more infringements related to words than to designs. Sometimes, though, a particular word mark may be considered “weak,” so that protecting the design may take on greater importance. Again, the advice of a trademark attorney can be valuable.
The ideal, of course, is to protect both wording and design by separate registrations, though it’s more costly.
One dictionary defines it simply as “a symbol that represents an organization or company, used, for example, in its advertisements or on its products.” In the words of well-known designer Michael Bierut in his new book, How To:,
The logo is the simplest form of graphic communication. In essence, it is a signature, a way to say, “This is me.”
A logo can be very abstract. The Nike swoosh, for example, or the red triangle for Bass ale, one of the oldest logos. Other logo marks carry a more literal, less abstract, meaning. The Target target is an example. It is an obvious play on the word. The yellow shell for Shell Oil, and Apple’s apple with its cutesy bite, are two more examples.
Many logos are nothing more than typography. The 3M logo is simple Helvetica Black, in red. Other than the fact that the two letters kiss each other it is completely unstylized. The current Microsoft logo is a combination of typography and abstract symbol —the letterstyle Segoe is paired with four colored squares.
When a logo is designed it is hoped that it will eventually come to provide instant recognition for a company or a brand. So that means that the design of the logo is extremely important, right? Well, isn’t it?
How important is the design of a logo?
My answer to that is that maybe it’s not as important as you might think. I believe that too much ado is often made of logo design, in the symbolism involved, and in the psychology of color. Michael Bierut, a partner at the design consultancy firm Pentagram, said, “people forget that a brand new logo seldom means a thing.” Noted designer and author John McWade said plainly, “The job of a logo is to identify, not sell or explain. That’s for marketing. Any simple image thatdoes this will usually work. It helps if it’s attractive.” [my italics].
The current 3M logo, in its tomato-y helvetica-ness, might be considered a fail by many design standards. Yet it replaces an older logo that many designers found to be downright ugly. The two designs are as different as night and day. Would you consider either one to be the product of design genius? Nevertheless, the 3M brand has enjoyed a positive reputation for many, many years, through all of its design permutations, and there have been many. Does a logo make a company look good, or is it the other way round?
I am reminded of the words of a king considered to have been exceptionally wise: “A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.” (—Ecclesiastes 7:1 in the Christian Bible). How can the day of your death be better than your birthday? Well, when you are born, your life is like a book with blank pages. Will you be loved or hated? Admired or reviled? No one knows. On the other hand, by the time of your death, the pages are filled. Your reputation is established. If you die as someone beloved and admired by others, perhaps having lived a remarkable life of good works, then your day of death will be better than the day of your birth.
And so it is with the birth of a logo design. It is relatively unimportant.
The term logo is commonly misunderstood outside the graphic arts world.
At times we have had clients ask us to put a “logo” on a sign and then they provide us with an image they obtained from a clipart service. Once, someone asked me to “find a house logo” on the internet to put on some sign work. Both these requests illustrate how the word logo is commonly misunderstood by the general public. The misconception is that a logo is any graphic image or any piece of artwork.
What really is a logo?
Here is a clear and accurate definition of logo: a specially designed mark or emblem used by organizations to aid in promoting instant recognition. It may be composed of letters only or a graphic symbol, or a combination of both. It may embody a trade name or a trademark or both.
The word logo is actually an abbreviation of logotype. A logotype, in the days of printing with metal type, was a single word cast as one piece of type. A logotype was similar to a ligature, except that a ligature was only two or three letters joined in one casting rather than an entire word. In a ligature, the letters themselves are joined, too. Ligatures were created as a way of solving an awkward or unsightly spacing problem between a letter pair. In a logotype, letters may or may not have been joined, but they were cast all together as one large piece of metal type.
By extension, logotype eventually came to mean more than just a casting of an entire word, but referred to any uniquely arranged set of letters. In common usage today, a logo is a specially designed word or symbol, or combination of word and symbol, that officially represents a company or organization, or that represents goods or services of an organization. Legally, the name of a company is known as its trade name, and a logo may embody a trade name. If a logo or a name identifies a product or service of a company it may function as a trademark or service mark. If a trade name identifies goods or services of a company in addition to being the company name, it may serve as both trade name and trademark. For example, Sony is the name of an electronics company. On letterheads and business cards the Sony name functions as a trade name. But when it is used on consumer goods, such as televisions, it is a trademark.
A logo may be very simple, such as the 3M logo,
or elaborate like the Anheuser-Busch logo.
It is of note that the 3M logo is type only, devoid of any design treatment other than the fact that the letters kiss. And it is composed of one of the most ubiquitous of letterstyles: Helvetica. By many logo design standards, it would be considered a fail. Yet the 3M brand has been highly regarded for many years, proof that a logo is not what constitutes a brand. Further, while a logo is important, its design may not be as important as some (designers) would have you believe. Logo design, along with other trade dress is not unimportant or trivial. But successful branding involves far more than the design of a logo. Indeed, a brand may develop a reputation of high esteem quite apart from any graphics design associated with it. In contrast, another brand may acquire a bad reputation in spite of excellent design work in its advertising and trade dress.
Some logos are not composed of type at all, but are abstract. The Nike swoosh and the McDonald’s arches carry little meaning intrinsically, but have acquired meaning with time and can easily stand alone and convey meaning without words. The McDonald’s arches are so distinctive that, sitting atop a highway sign, they can be recognized from distances long before lettering is legible. The triangle shape that is part of the Bass ale logo is one of the simplest as well as one of the oldest logomarks in existence.
Can a photograph be the basis for a logo? Well, the Michael Jordan “jump man” silhouette, a logo created for Nike, is based on a posed photograph. Other logos incorporate photos also, though it’s not a common treatment.
What a logo is not.
Can a clipart image be a logo? Generally, no.
Remember that a logo represents a company or its products or services. It serves to aid in identifying a company, making it recognizable apart from others. By definition it should be unique. A graphic image that is sold by a clipart supplier is legally available to anyone and cannot function as a unique identifier. For example, if a number of house painting companies all use the same stock image of a man with a paint brush on their signs and printed literature, the image fails to identify any one company. Rather, using the same image can give the appearance that the companies are related in some way, perhaps even all part of the same company. Does this not defeat the purpose of a having a logo? Further, none of these companies could legally own their logo if it contains clipart that they don’t own. What good is a logo if you cannot own it and protect it? Clipart companies do not normally sell complete ownership of their images. They are merely licensing them to users, usually for limited use. A company’s logo should be a design that belongs to the company, not a design that is just rented. If a company tries to exercise ownership of a design that incorporates clipart, it is a violation of many clipart agreements. Many clipart providers, in fact, specifically forbid the use of their images as part of a logo design or branding scheme.
Here is a link to iStock Photo’s license agreement forbidding use of its images in logo designs:
A logo design that incorporates clipart would probably not be granted trademark registration in the US. It is not protectable as intellectual property.
Can a logo design use an image that is in the public domain? Well, how could such a design function as a unique identifier if it’s available to everyone? And again, how could it be protected? How could it receive trademark protection if it cannot be owned?
Does it really matter how we use the word logo?
Is using terminology correctly really so important? After all, the word logo is not really a legal term in the world of intellectual property. And its meaning has changed over the years. So what’s the big deal?
Think about this: as designers and makers of signs, we are actually in the business of communication. Good sign work involves effective communication, and should impart information clearly, and ideally, in a minimum amount of time. Signs that do not clearly communicate serve only to create problems, and in the end, waste a client’s money.
Clear communication is not just important for the messages on signs. It is necessary for business in general, at all levels and in every aspect. Using incorrect terminology in the sign and design world may not be life-threatening or create health risks like it does in some fields (healthcare, for example), but it can have detrimental effects in many areas leading to: lost productivity, duplication of effort, poor quality, increased costs, wasted time, client dissatisfaction, liability issues.
Communication between sign designer, sign builder and sign buyer should be free of confusion and clearly understood. The sign/design game has a unique vocabulary of terms that are often misunderstood by those outside the business. The continued success of the industry depends, at least in part, on clear communication among all the players.