Paul Rand, arguably the best graphic designer who’s ever lived and the genius behind logos for IBM, Westinghouse, UPS, ABC and others, said this about logos:
“If, in the business of communications, ‘image is king,’ the essence of this image, the logo, is the jewel in its crown.”
That’s a whole lot of power for such a singular piece of graphic design to hold all on its own. Knowing the goal is to create something intended to carry this massive responsibility, graphic designers approach these projects with a mix of thrill, dread, anxiety, fear and pride.
Fortunately, there are principles (how many and what they are depend on who you’re talking to) that guide the development of effective logos, seven of which we’ll cover in this post.
The Thinking That Leads To Effective Logos
If all you’re hoping to do with your logo is stand out, your designer’s job is blissfully simple. Doing something outrageous graphically will make you stand out; creating something painfully minimalist will make you stand out, too. But “standoutability” is just one element of good logo design. There’s much more to consider before you get a designer working on your brand’s logo.
For a logo to function effectively it has to make a strong statement – and the right statement – the first thing you must do is figure out what you’re trying to say.
What Do You Want to Stand For?
Logos are symbols, and as such should tell people what you mean to them (or what you hope to mean to them – logos should be somewhat aspirational).
Understanding your meaning and value to customers and prospects will help you pinpoint what you stand for (or should stand for). If you’re not sure, ask yourself what makes your company better than competitors; better yet, ask your customers.
Depending on your product or service, your competitive advantage might be speed, authentic old-world craftsmanship, precision, attention to detail, reach, intelligence, variety, coolness, good health, power, innovation, elegance, efficiency or one of a thousand other characteristics. What you choose should be important to your prospects and customers, not exclusively to you. Having been in business for 57 years might be a point of pride for you, for example, but probably means very little to prospects looking for solution.
Apple’s logo reflects how the company thinks and how its products perform: simplicity, artistry, and user-friendliness.
Evernote, a popular notetaking app, uses an elephant with a dog-earred ear as its logo. The app is used to gather and remember lists, images, ideas, etc.
Once you’ve established the attributes that make your company valuable to customers and prospects, use them as communication goals for your logo.
Understand your audience
A logo should not only reflect the company for which it stands; it should reflect its target audience, too. If your audience is middle-aged male gun owners who take part in the annual deer hunting season, your logo should be designed to appeal to them, with elements that suggest things like ruggedness, nature/outdoors, camaraderie, strength, etc.
7 Principles of Kick-Ass Logo Design
Once you’ve taken the time to understand what you need your logo to “say” and to whom it should mean the most, you can start directing a designer. As you review the options presented to you, evaluate them with these 7 principles in mind:
1) Keep it Simple
The best logos – the ones that give the viewer an immediate and clear sense of “you” – are clean and uncluttered. In general, less is more and simplicity is more impactful. Like these:
Remember that logos are used in a variety of ways, on different platforms and in various formats and sizes, so fine details will be lost. A strong logo will have few elements, each of which can be identified easily and integral to what you’re hoping to communicate. If you have elements that don’t contribute to the whole, get rid of them.
The logos below are trying to stuff a whole lot into their logos. No one has the time to spend trying to figure them out:
2) Make it Memorable
A logo should be easily recalled after just a glance. A glance, after all, is typically all your logo is going to get from most people.
Like any symbol, it should stand for something singular, and it should be easily recalled if, after a person looks at it, he or she can immediately describe its basic elements (“It’s three interlocking circles” or “It’s a dog with a bone”). A logo that’s complex, fussy, has multiple parts and pieces or is overly stylized will be difficult for the viewer to “get” and, as a consequence, easily dismissed.
3) Make it Fresh
Don’t settle for a me-too logo. Do a quick search of logos in your industry and look for patterns and avoid mimicking them. Telecomm is filled with logos featuring globes, technology and electronics with logos that involve swooshes, and dentistry with logos of teeth or smiles (or both – see below).
These all make sense and communicate what the companies want them to, but if you do the same you lose all hope of getting noticed.
4) Make it Modern Yet Timeless
“Modern” is “today,” but not so “today” that in five years your logo will look silly.
And, modern is different than trendy. A trend is “hot today” and will naturally (sometimes thankfully) run out of steam – probably sooner than later. Modern, on the other hand, is less stylized and more restrained; it captures the relevant characteristics of the times without losing itself in detail.
A logo should be modern in that it should be contemporary, yet not so nuanced with “hot” components that when that trend has run its course you’ll be left with something that feels outdated. Because then your company feels outdated to your prospects.
Your overall approach should be modern as should specific elements, colors and typefaces.
Some logos have changed little over time, only tweaked to make them more modern but keeping essential elements intact, like UPS, Starbucks and Burger King.
5) Make it Proportional and Well Balanced
The best logos are designed using principles of proportion and symmetry. Illustrated below, you can see how both the Apple logo and the Twitter logo utilize circles of proportionate values as well as symmetry to create a pleasing, balanced aesthetic quality.
6) Make Sure all The Pieces Work Together
Your logo’s graphic device and your typeface work together (in what’s typically called a lockup) and enhance one another. Or they should. If your graphic device is clean and linear, don’t select a typeface that’s complex and playful (Fajita comes to mind). The two elements are really one, even if you determine times they can be used separately, and they must be complementary.
7) Make it Versatile
Your logo will be used in a number of ways and in multiple contexts. Here are just a few:
On t-shirts, baseball caps and, alas, fanny packs
On pens, keychains and water bottles
On very horizontal and extremely vertical banners
On both black and white backgrounds (make sure your designer creates your logo in black and in white to satisfy these needs if necessary)
Very large and very, very small
Alongside other company logos, like those for specific products and services
Imagine how these logo would look on pens:
Your logo has to maintain its integrity and serve its purpose no matter what the use. A good designer will understand all this and create a logo that works in all situations. He or she will also take into consideration any other branding elements, like textures or patterns, that are part of your brand and create a logo that complements them.
So, how do you know if it “works”?
Here are two quick tricks that tell you if the logo design you’re considering fulfills the “make it memorable” and “keep it simple” principles:
Print your logo on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper (don’t fill up the page – make it about 1 inch high)
Hand that paper to people who haven’t seen the logo or been a part of conversations about the design project (in other words, pull a guy off the street)
Ask these people to look at the logo – for just 3 seconds!
Now ask each to describe it to you
If your logo’s intended meaning was immediately clear to them, you’re onto something!
Put your logo and 8 others on a piece of paper (arranged in 3 rows of 3); make sure they’re about the same size
Show this to as many people as will participate; let them view it briefly – no more than 30 seconds but at least 15
Take the paper away and ask viewers to recall and describe as many as they can – is yours among them?
This is a poor-man’s research that replicates (somewhat) what your customers and prospects go through every day: they have just seconds to consider a logo and it’s often at a time when other logos are competing for attention.
For your logo to do what it’s expected to, you first must understand what your value and meaning is to your customers and best prospects. Then, by following design principles that are the foundation of some of the world’s best logos, you’ll have a symbol that stands for something. A logo can never represent everything a company is, offers or wants to be, but a good one will say something distinct that your target will naturally respond to.
Originally published Jan 17, 2014 12:00:00 PM, updated October 20 2016