In recent years, I’ve been completely obsessed with brand strategy. When I see anything – a business, a product, a service, an event, anything – I’m immediately consumed with thoughts about how that thing might be differentiated, how it might be positioned in a way to exploit its competitive advantage over the competition. I’m always interested in the business case to be made for that positioning. But I wasn’t always so obsessed. When I was a teenager, it was the symbol of the brand, the logo, that captured my attention. And I wasn’t even curious about the meaning of logos. My only fascination was with their graphic form. Again and again, I would try to draw the four logos shown here. For example, I would try to get the bluntness of the Playboy bunny’s snout just right and carefully locate the forward positioning of its eye. I’d try to mimic the exact angles, graceful curves and precise attachments of its ears. I’d painstakingly replicate the negative space around the bow tie. But, at some point, I started to look beyond my admiration of these really great graphic designs. I started wondering about what these things called logos were supposed to be. I started wondering about their purpose or use. What are they for?
The first known commercial logo appeared in the 1st-Century Roman Empire. A Lebanese glass-blower named Ennion started adorning his wares with a rectangle and two triangular “ears” attached. Inside the rectangle appeared the words, “Ennion made me.” It was a simple identifier, a claim of ownership over his craftsmanship and reputation. No one knows why he chose the funny “eared” shape. Interestingly, the logo wasn’t used as a discreet signature like a small label sewn inside the neck of a t-shirt. His logos were prominently featured as part of the overall decorative motif, like a huge Nike swoosh across the front of the shirt. So it’s reasonable to surmise there was some status associated with owning Ennion glassware. Still, as far as we know, Ennion’s was a true identifying logo, the first of many, many more to come. Even as recently as the nineteenth century, most logos were merely I.D. tags – burned into a steer’s hide, for example – solely as a means of establishing ownership.
The next milestone in logo design came from Wedgwood, the English pottery established in 1769. At first, it too had a simple wordmark identifier. But later it began adding pictograms of some of the vases they created. As far as I can tell, this was the first time imagery was added to an identifier and it changed everything because, as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words. First of all, now, anyone, even the illiterate, could understand Wedgwood’s business. But, beyond that, a picture of a thing can be portrayed in a thousand different ways. Style, context or attitude, for example, can each be applied to add meaning to the picture – to tell a story about it – about its brand.
And that’s exactly what started to happen. Businesses large and small began employing designers to tell their story in a single, thumbnail-sized graphic.
Fast forward to the 1960’s, the golden age of logo design. Designers like Saul Bass and Paul Rand were creating classic logo designs that are still in use today. Logos like IBM, Westinghouse, UPS, ABC, Girl Scouts, AT&T, Quaker Oats, Kleenex, United Way, Avery, United Airlines, Dixie Cups. The list goes on. It’s a remarkable portfolio of work adding enduring value to each organization’s bottom line because each one of those little marks is just that good at telling its brand’s story.
At about that same time, designers began to grow outside of their thumbnail-sized frames. They began to augment the logo with color palettes and font families. They extended their design explorations through letterhead ensembles, packaging, signage, collateral and advertising. They began creating corporate design systems so the story would be consistently told across any and all media.
In more recent years, corporate identities were made to be more flexible, to give follow-on designers more options to keep their designs fresh but still on-brand. The identity Boardwalk created for STAPLES Center, for example, has elements that are designed to be “peeled” away for use on all sorts of collateral. Case study here. This system, by the way, had to successfully tell two stories, one for the arena’s developer and one for its naming rights sponsor.
The most exciting current trend is to create not a logo at all but an integrated system of modular parts that can combine, sometimes, into something that serves as a logo. But built into that system is the elasticity to morph into many other graphic signatures as well. This gives the identity full range in design freedom and creativity for whole teams of designers. But it also harnesses maximum strength in delivering the brand story. See Pentagram’s work for MIT Media Lab for a stunning example. Be sure to watch the video.
Which brings us back to our original question. What should we look for in a logo? Throughout history, the answer has always been the same. You want a logo that tells a story. Each of the four logos I drew in high school said something: about the Playboy ethos, about Woodstock’s celebration of peace and music, about the LA Rams’ willingness to batter their way through any opposition, about the MGM Grand Hotel modernizing its glamorous Hollywood heritage.
MIT Media Labs’ super-modern system tell the story of their many forms of inquiry and experimentation. A legacy logo, like Coca-Cola tells an origin story; its elaborate calligraphy is derived originally from their first bookkeeper’s flowery handwriting style. Even abstract logos like the NIke swoosh tell us something. It is nothing if not energetic. And, with the tag line, "Just Do It", it echoes a check mark, as if of a task completed, something crossed off a list.
When commissioning a logo, look for a design that will say something true about your brand. By no means should it try to say everything about your brand. You can’t expect a tiny little graphic to tell your whole story. But it should focus on one important truth that reveals what your brand is all about. In your logo, you want to give your market an emotional shortcut to connect with you.
Best Branding Reads – Week of June 12, 2017
The Origins Of Brand Positioning
RIP Jack Trout, marketing genius and godfather of brand positioning.
The Emerging (and Ever-Changing) Practice of Employer Branding
I always say, the same messaging that attracts your best customer also attracts your best employee.
How Brands Can Best Leverage Data
It’s all very good to measure what people do as long as you don’t lose sight of why they do it.
Brands That Invite You to Sleep Over—And Even Move In
I’d be happy to retire in Levi 501s-ville. Or Fender Stratocasterland. Or MINI Cooperstown.
New Logo and Identity for World Design Weeks
This won’t knock the world off its axis but it’s a tasty little identity built around an interesting concept.
Origins and making of the Porsche crest
For automobile lovers and logo lovers
How Stunts, Social Activations, and Revolving CMOs Ruin Brands
Gimmicks never build lasting value. Your brand must grow organically and authentically.