Logos. They’re kind of like the molecules of society. Everywhere we turn, there are logos. They are ubiquitous. They are vital, but, consciously, they are practically unseen.
We might hardly notice them in our conscious lives, yet we still are able to connect these simple symbols with the companies, brands, countries, causes, concepts, and any other entity they represent.
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For the most common logos, the connection between sight and recognition is almost instantaneous, and a lot of the times when we don’t make those rapid fire associations, the logo’s identity at least sits on the tip of our tongue.
Logos are much more than a simple name tag. They represent a broad, complex set of ideas and feelings. They are an identity baked into a concise image. A logo is an organization’s face. What faces are to people, a logo is to a brand.
After thumbing through this leaked document that details how ridiculously meticulous PepsiCo’s $1 million 2008 logo redesign was, you could argue that mega corporations shelling out 7 figures for logo design is a superfluous waste of money, but you can’t argue that there is a real power in a memorable logo.
While I can’t argue for or against the effectiveness of Pepsi Energy Fields and how they parallel Earth’s magnetic fields, the case for the power of symbology is undeniable. Since the dawn of civilization, we’ve used geometry and other symbols to convey complex information.
Instead of words, logos use a rich visual vocabulary – Bill Gardner, logo designer
Our visual vocabulary is one that transcends common language, and taps into something that all of us are immediately able to understand.
You don’t have to be a designer or have a PhD focused in brand personification to benefit from understanding the fundamentals of logo design and mysteries behind symbols we see everyday. If you’re a bootstrapping small business owner, these fundamentals can help you stitch together a more effective logo. If you’re a marketer, understanding the inner workings of logos can help you craft a more complete brand identity. Even if you’re just a consumer, these concepts can greater improve your understanding of the world around us, and a foster a greater appreciation of the power of visual language.
Let’s examine the fundamentals of logo design, taking a look at some examples along the way. Finally, we’ll test the applied effects of basic visual concepts with the USImprints logo.
The Ingredients a Logo
The USImprints Logo – Our guinea pig
Since I want to highlight some of these visual concepts with our logo, let’s take a quick look before we dive all the way in.
At first glance, a simple typographic logo. As with all typographic logos, there’s no question as to who it represents, but there are some subtle visual elements at play.
First, there is the presence of color. Red and Blue.
Besides being two parts of a color triad (red, green, and blue), these are two of the most commonly seen, commonly paired colors today. For one, studies in color preference have shown that blue is the most popular color across both genders.
Red provides a good balance that also stands out, helping differentiate the ‘us’ from ‘imprints’.
This differentiation can help highlight several other tie-ins. ‘Us’ can refer to the word us, establishing a sense of unity, as well as implying that we’re on your side, so to speak. It can also refer to the United States, and help establish the identity of an all-American brand, which is further aided by the presence of Red and Blue, two of the three colors in the American flag.
Circles are the only symbolic element. Forming a trajectory across each letter ‘i’ the dots gradually connect the two, while using shade to establish an idea of transformation. The semi-circle formed can suggest at a lot of things. Perhaps “bridging the gap”, not only between the two letters, but also from your brand now and what you want it to be. Or you could even look at it like a rising sun on the horizon.
The repetition of the circles also creates a unique visual identity for the logo. Instead of relying simply on typography and color, it throws in a touch of unique flare.
There are plenty of things you can pull out from the simplest logos. Let’s start breaking things down and see what we can pull from other logos, as well as applying the same effects to our logo.
The Three Types of Logos
The easiest way to break down logo types is by the big 3: symbol, typographic, and combination logos.
Symbol – Symbol logos don’t use any form of text, but rely solely on visual imagery and symbolism.
Typographic – Typographic logos and wordmarks have no imagery beyond the brand name. The only visual elements at play besides the name are the typograpy and use of color.
Combination – Combination logos use both typography and symbolic imagery.
Geometry – The Building Blocks of Everything
Shapes are everywhere. The most common shapes are the circle, square, and triangle (I know that I’m not saying anything groundbreaking, but I still haven’t conquered the shape sorting cube yet, so this stuff is mindblowing for me). Examining each of these shapes illustrates the powerful effects each can have when applied to logo design.
These simple shapes can be endlessly deconstructed. Likewise, they can be reconstructed and compiled into limitless other shapes and symbols. Since the scope of possiblity is so vast, we’ll try to keep the look into each basic. Popping the can on the potential of each, so to speak.
Containers are one of the most common uses for basic shapes. Using shapes as enclosures or focus points can simplify the core meaning behind a logo. Taking that even further, the symbolic meanings the shapes themselves carry can greater reinforce the logo’s overall purpose.
The circle is everywhere. It’s ubiquitous in the natural world, and it is nearly as present in logo design. The circle can be manipulated to represent anything from a ring, to a sphere or globe, a halo, a spiral, unity, eternity, natural perfection, a cycle, and so on. As you can expect, each of these variations carry their own significance and symbolism.
And just like that, the endless potential of a single shape becomes evident!
As the most prevalent shape, and it’s universality, you probably find a shape with more symbolic value than a circle.
Using a circle as a logo boundary can have the simple effect of unifying the logo into a recognizable emblem, especially if it is a typographic logo. Even just toying around a little bit, you can achieve a number of different results and effects.
Of course, there are a lot of effects that can be achieved. One of my personal favorites is the idea of dispersion or energy emitting outwards. The BP Logo is a great example of this.
Ideologically, the square sits across the table from the circle. Squares, right angles, and straight lines are a rarity in nature. In this context, the square sets itself apart from the circle by acting as a symbol of man’s influence on the natural world. In fact, the red square is a widely used symbol among architects; further reinforcing the metaphor. You might even call it our signature upon the world.
Like the circle, squares are commonly used as a container for the rest of the design. In most cases, logo’s contained within a square (or circle, triangle, etc.) can stand alone on their own just fine, but placing them within a shape, such as a square, once again adds characteristics of the logo to the brand identity, and also infuses significance based off of the visual techniques applied.
In general, squares add stability or even the idea of security to a logo design. Structurally, we see this in our daily environment. No matter which way we turn.
We package and transport things in boxes, we protect things in safes — highly reinforced cubes — many of our buildings, from most houses to skyscrapers, tend to rely on the squares and rectangular shapes as the dominant form.
With this idea of shelter, safety, mankind, structure, and intelligence in mind, what other things might we convey by incorporating squares into logo design?
As we will find with the triangle, rotating a square can create an entirely different vibe. All you have to do is rotate a square 45 degrees and becomes something very different; a diamond shape. This small change takes the feeling of stability the square gives and morphs it into something unbalanced or unpredictable; even volatile. It can also easily introduce a sense of luxury or jewelry. Or, it could simply symbolize the idea of standing out from or above the rest.
The triangle is the last of our building blocks. Structurally, triangles are very strong. It is the dominant shape you see for some of history’s greatest architectural feats; from the Pyramids in Egypt to El Castillo in the ruins of Chichen Itza. In the natural world, the largest landmarks outline a triangle; mountains.
Triangles symbolize strength and the pinnacle of the world, but they can also be uninviting. They have very prominent, sharp corners. When used in logo design, it is common to see these harsh edges rounded out so that the feel they give off is more inviting.
Orientation has implications on the messages we can convey with a triangle even beyond that of the square or rectangle. Triangles can be very precise indicators of direction. Are we going up, down, left, right, backward, forward? These are things that squares and circles can’t tell us. All of these are concepts that tie-in closely with progress, while a downward pointing triangle is one of the least stable shapes in design.
Because of a lot of the negative connotations that downward pointing triangles bring, you’re less likely to see it in most logo design.
WIIINGDIIINGS! – Symbols
Symbology in itself is a fascinating subject, and our world is encoded with symbols everywhere in order to help us better understand and operate within various environments.
How do logos use symbols to communicate abstract ideas about the entities they represent? Let’s take a look at some of the most widely used, time tested symbols.
Hearts, Stars, and Horseshoes – Common Symbols
First off, symbols don’t necessarily have to take an actual form. For instance, color can be extracted from a symbol to find other ways to represent things. Nationalism is often conveyed through color. In the United States, red, white, and blue is synonymous with the American flag (a symbol in itself). Extracting these colors can convey a sense of patriotism (a symbol within a symbol… I think this is where I’m supposed to sell out and say symbolception).
From ancient to more recent, here are just a few examples and some of their meanings:
- Hearts – Is there a more universally recognizable, powerful symbol than a heart? Probably not. The heart as a symbol dates as far back as 300 B.C., growing out of the shape of a leaf; symbolic of the Tree of Life (of Biblical fame). The heart symbolizes life, love, and the human condition.
- Shields – prevalent in everything from badges, crests, government agencies, teams. Shields represent might, teamwork, protection, authority, justice, and heritage.
- Crosses – Another symbol packed with historical context. Besides being full of religious symbology, crosses are also the universal sign for medicine. Crosses can also be interpreted as the plus sign, or if tilted, as an X. Each of which carries its own set of meanings.
- Arrows – As mentioned with triangles, arrows are an indicator of direction, action, and usually something that has an ending. Arrows also utilize concepts such as repetition to change meaning (e.g., paired arrows indicating ‘fast forward’ or ‘rewind’
- The NO Symbol – AKA the prohibition sign, no sign, or circle-backslash symbol. A red circle with a diagonal line through it has practically become the universal visual cue for telling us, “NO!”
- The Question Mark and Exclamation Point – Though many languages do not use the question mark or exclamation point (? and !), these linguistic symbols have also come to signify ideas beyond their grammatical function. Question marks represent mystery, curiosity, the pursuit of knowledge, or even confusion. Exclamation points can indicate danger, a warning, excitement, or the need to take notice.
- Speech Bubbles – Speech bubbles are adapted from comics, but are something we all recognize as conversational. It’s a great way to represent communication or voice.
These are just a microscopic sample of common symbols, and I’m sure you could rapid fire off your own list of others, but one thing to keep in mind when including symbols into a logo is historical and cultural context.
As mentioned with the cross, some symbols might be laced with religious meaning that can apply to multiple religions. More so, these symbols can mean different things to different groups!
While symbols are a diverse, powerful vernacular for our visual language, a lack of understanding of historical, cultural, or religious context can lead to a logo taking on meanings that were never intended.
Even so, in our society today, we often borrow antiquated symbols that have expired historical and cultural meaning. We usually do this by incorporating mythology, which I’ll touch on a little later.
[icon name=”icon-zoom-out”][icon name=”icon-volume-up”] Modern Symbols [icon name=”icon-power-off”][icon name=”icon-zoom-in”]
Symbols are constantly being created and established. If we put some road signs in front of people a couple hundred years ago and asked them what they mean, there’s no telling what they’d come up with. Yet, to us, a passing glance is all we need to understand an entire message!
Technology has made the development of commonly recognized symbols a much more rapid process. Who could have anticipated the @ sign or hashtag (#) developing into symbols that denote modern times and the globally connected world we live in today?
Technology has provided us a lot of exciting new symbolic possibilities for creating a logo to represent a modern brand or make a brand in an old fashioned industry more relevant.
Lines – And Everything In Between
Lines might get overlooked by their more shapely brothers, but lines are everywhere. Lines define space, concepts, borders. Lines give us context and definition. Lines guide us. Lines represent whatever it is they stand for (e.g. guidelines, finish lines, queuing lines).
Lines can indicate a path, a route, or even eternity. As visual tools, lines are unlimited, thus you’ll find them peppered throughout logos of all types.
There are plenty of other techniques that can be applied with use of line in a logo to make designs that are both simple, yet sophisticated. Shade, negative space, perspective, are just a few of these tools that are used to create memorable logos with lines.
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Repetition is one way to emphasize numbers, scale, or diversity. Just as they can represent these concepts, repetition can take the idea of something like diversity or separation and create a sense of oneness within the whole of the work.
Motion and Transformation
Dots are a common way to show sequence and connectivity, They can convey anything from trajectory, order, or even an explosion!
In using smaller shapes to create a larger, greater shape, we demonstrate a very democratic approach or a coming together to achieve something greater than we could individually.
Many logos use smaller parts in such ways to show repetition, motion, transformation, organizational unity, and beyond. It might not be the most common trait in logo design, but in the right context, powerful messages reverberate.
Using simile in logo design relies on the implied equity of the symbolism used to portray brand identity. What do I mean by implied equity? Look at it as what we already know and feel about whatever symbolism that the logo is employing. Those feelings are what the logo aims to pass over from how we feel about the symbols, to how we feel about the brand.
Basically, a logo that uses simile is going to evoke characteristics of something else and imply that “we are ____ as a ____.””
We are as quick as a fox.
We are as wise as an owl.
What characteristics do snails make you think of? Slow is always the first that comes to mind. Unusual, quiet, steady, slimy, inefficient, protective, and solitary might be some others. All of these characteristics are part of the implied equity we would hope to gain if we used a snail in our logo.
Use of animals, personification of brands (via anthropomorphism), and borrowing from mythology are some of the ways we use simile to establish further meaning and identity in a logo.
Animals, Mascots, and Anthropomorphism
While you might only be familiar with it as a vocabulary word, anthropomorphism is a concept that inhabits our everyday world. Mascots, logos, movies, cartoons, books, and businesses often use animals by humanizing them in an effort to become easier to relate to.
For companies, anthropomorphism is a timelessly powerful way of personifying a brand because it lets us tap into something that everyone can relate to: animals.
Widely recognizable, most of us have a natural affinity for all sorts of critters, and throughout all of history we have been anthropomorphizing animals as part of common storytelling.
This gives logo designers and consumers a familiar framework to encode many levels of meaning and characteristics. Thanks to the continued study of brand personification and identity, we are beginning to understand the power that imaginability has on us as consumers.
Better put, the easier an object triggers the imagination of an individual, the easier it is for us to personify that object. The easier we can personify it, the more we will be able to relate to it. The better we relate to an object, the more likely we are to hold it in a positive light.
Simply put, animals are a terrific gateway for tapping into all of these concepts.
There are noticeable differences between simply using an animal or mascot versus giving that animal humanlike characteristics.
For instance, humans tend to picture animals in their mind through profile or side view. We typically picture other humans facing us. A common method for personifying animals in logos is to flip this around, and depict an animal like we do humans; looking right at us!
Not stopping there, this makes it easier to add other human characteristics, such as human-like facial expressions.
Sports teams are a great example of this in practice.
Finally, many logos borrow from mythology. In the past, we used mythology to explain the unexplainable, define nature with the supernatural, and to tell powerful stories. By mixing reality with the unbelievable, we gain a treasure trove of supernatural traits that can be associated with brands and their logos.
Of course, mythology is not limited to fables, fairy tales, and parables of the past. Modern day fiction continues to craft its own mythology, granted, one that we already perceive as fictitious. Nonetheless, modern day mythology is still grants us incredible visual power. A flowing cape might invoke a relation with many popular superheroes. When we see bats and gothic decor we think: vampires. Aliens, zombies, and other monsters are all representative of modern day mythology. Even Bugs Bunny developed new traits we might associate with other humanoid rabbits (clever, witty, easy going).
Animals, mythology, and simile are all powerful elements we incorporate into memorable logos. They allow us a powerful means of storing a large amount of information, or even a story we want to tell with a simple visual. Even though we are not using mythology to explain the world like we once did, mythology is still everywhere, even in our logos!
As you can see, many of the visual tools we use to break down abstract ideas go hand-in-hand both with brand identity as well as logo design!
Even if we’re not designers, familiarity with ingredients of great logo design is highly valuable knowledge. Knowing these concepts allows us to better establish brand identity, reimagine our logos, and take our businesses, small or large, in directions that we might have overlooked.
They are also great indicators of context: where we have come from, where we are not, how we got there. In the business world, it is easy to lose sight of these things, but from a strategic perspective, having such context in mind can play an integral role in your decision making.
Granted, there are plenty of other elements in great logo design that weren’t discussed here, and many concepts can be further broken down to a point well beyond what I went over. Hopefully this knowledge will come in handy with informing our decisions regardless of if we are an entrepreneur trying to do it all on our own, a brand manager giving input on design decisions, or even just as a consumer processing a world bursting with information embedded in symbols, logos, and visual language.
For anyone looking to further study on crafting memorable, effective logos, I’d recommend looking into websites such as LogoLounge (founded by highly respected logo designer, Bill Gardner, whom provided the basis for much of the knowledge presented here), which is a wellspring of inspiration.
Another great resource is LogoDesignLove.com, which is a regularly updated blog that focuses solely on all things logo design.
Finally, don’t be afraid to start a conversation with any designers you know, or experiment on your own! Applying the basic concepts in Photoshop helps connect theory to practice and nurtures understanding.
* original logo collage credit to Flickr User: captcreate – Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27845211@N02/2662264721/in/photostream/
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