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.
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.
It’s one thing to use a piece of clipart to spice up a banner or sign, but quite another thing to incorporate clipart into a brand mark or logo. In fact, it’s a very bad idea.
There are almost always copyright issues associated with clipart. Many clipart collections have stringent usage restrictions and may even specifically forbid use in a logo design. For example, iStockphoto prohibits the use of any royalty-free images purchased from their site for logo designs. This is stated very clearly in the iStockphoto license: “You may not … use any of the Content as part of a trade-mark, design-mark, trade-name, business name, service mark, or logo.”
Most clipart collections, whether ‘royalty free’ or not, retain rights to their work. They may license an image to you, that is, let you borrow it, for a limited range of uses, but you cannot own it.
If a company uses a clipart image as part of a logo, not only does that mean that the company does not have complete ownership rights to their own logo, but they may be exposing themselves to a possible infringement claim. Besides, using artwork that everyone else can use—does this not defeat the purpose of branding?
Obviously, images we use in creating a logo or mark should be original artwork, or artwork to which we own all rights.