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Logos. Most of us are familiar with what a logo is. Some love them, some hate them and some just simply couldn’t care less. When I was young, I would cut my favourite logos out of magazines and collect them. To this day, I’m not sure why, but I was fascinated with them. I don’t expect many people to have that same level of interest as I did and still do. However, logos impact all of us each day. Just try preparing for your day—let alone getting through the rest of your day—without seeing a logo. From your phone/alarm clock to your shampoo to the coffee you brew and so many others in between. We’re bombarded with logos every day. So why are logos so important and what makes a good logo? In a time where branding has become such a buzzword, we can forget the simple, yet the very powerful role of the logo.

To be clear, I am not seeking to undermine branding in any way. This is simply a microscopic look at one element of a brand; the logo. A good logo does not make a good brand and a good brand does not necessarily mean a good logo. The same goes for you as a person. There’s more to you than an outward appearance. Being consumed with your appearance will not lead to lasting relationships in your life. However, your character and personality will. But even when you have good character and a winning personality you don’t just let your appearance go. I mean bathing is always a good idea and regardless of your view on beauty products, deodorant and toothpaste are key. It’s also not a good idea to show up to a job interview in your boardshorts and “I’m with stupid” tank top. Your personality and your appearance aren’t one and the same and you need to be mindful of both.

Enough about people and appearances… back to logos!

The word logo is derived by the shortening of the Greek word for logotype. It’s the combination of two words, lógos meaning “word” and týpos meaning “impression.” A logo is the identifying mark of a brand and serves the primary purpose of recognition. If a logo achieves recognition, then it’s doing its job. That doesn’t mean it can’t be improved to be more effective in other areas such as application. But the priority should be recognition. This is why redesigning a logo takes careful consideration, research and should be designed by a professional with a solid track record. When a new or redesigned logo truly fails — I don’t mean when some of the public are vocal about not liking its appearance, I mean truly fails — it’s because it did not achieve recognition or worse, it lost the recognition previously built into the old logo.

This is what makes evaluating a logo from an outside perspective so difficult. Today, people are quick to share their critiques of a logo that has been just launched. I’m not just talking about the general public, either, the design community is just as much at fault. The problem is that, when seeing a logo for the first time (often out of context) and offering a critique, the onlooker hasn’t had time to develop a relationship with the new logo so, at that moment, it means nothing to them. Only time can tell if a logo is truly successful.

However, there are six guiding principles that can help to evaluate the potential of a logo:

Simple

Simplicity is important. Remember, a logo is the identity of a brand that must achieve recognition. If a logo is too complex it limits its ability to be easily recognizable. Research shows that the first thing that people will recognize is the shape, then the colour, then the content. This is why the most recognizable logos are simple in shape.

Distinctive

If a logo isn’t distinctive it cannot achieve recognition. All copyright infringement issues aside — which is a big issue — if a logo isn’t distinct, the brand is in serious danger of being forgotten, overlooked or even confused with another brand. A logo should be distinctive enough to be recognized at first glance. For the most part, people don’t read logos, they recognize them. Just like a brand, a logo should not be generic and cannot be all things to all people. It must be distinctive.

Relevant

A logo needs to be relevant. It should be easily connected to the brand that it represents. Some of the best logos can be a painfully obvious solution. That doesn’t mean all logos should be literal, a relevant logo connects with its audience and communicates an appropriate message. Relevancy can take many different forms and is especially important for gaining traction with new audiences.

Enduring

A good logo must endure the test of time. Truly iconic logos are around for decades although they may undergo slight modifications that are often unnoticeable to the untrained eye. Because people form relationships with brands and the logo is the visual representation of the brand, people also form relationships with a logo whether they know if or not. The reason this happens is that people identify their experience of a brand (both positive and negative) with the logo. That’s why a seemingly simple swoosh can represent fitness, a “you can do it” attitude, or shoes with bad arch support.

Memorable

This one should be obvious. If you aren’t memorable, then you’re either chasing the one-time customers or banking on being in the right place at the right time, every time. A memorable logo will greatly increase the impact of advertising. As mentioned earlier, people form relationships with brands. When they see the logo, they immediately connect their previous experiences with the current situation. When done properly, some ads won’t even require words.

Adaptable

In today’s world, adaptability is crucial. A logo must be able to easily adapt to a wide range of media, from an icon to a billboard. It must produce well in both colour and black & white as well as being applied to many different backgrounds. Logos are required to work in many more situations than even ten years ago. This also reinforces the need for a logo to be simple. If it’s too complex, it won’t work on a small scale or in various types of production. It also supports the need for a logo’s shape to be distinctive. A logo cannot solely rely on colour. Otherwise, when it’s used in black and white, it will be overlooked. Finally, a logo is part of the visual identity system. The logo should enhance the system, not restrict it.

Today, whenever there’s a logo unveiling for a brand that’s big enough for people to care, the internet loves to get involved. More often than not it’s to express their distaste for the logo. How their “five-year-old son or daughter could have done that in five minutes” or they wish they could get paid that much to “choose a font.” It’s never fun hearing someone speak that way about your logo, especially when you just invested a good amount of money, research and time into designing it. Unfortunately, that’s our industry and the only thing worse than that type of attention is no one noticing at all. Regardless, it’s important not to make a decision as big as your new identity based on what the internet thinks.

The internet hasn’t done the research, they don’t understand the objective and have rarely seen the application. In most cases, they’re attached to the old logo because to them it represents everything they love about the brand and having just seen the new one for the first time, they have yet to form a relationship with it. People typically fear change, it’s uncomfortable and unknown. It will take time for the new logo to represent the experience of the brand. To quote Michael Bierut (Not Diving but Swimming: http://designobserver.com/article.php?id=39218),

“anyone evaluating a brand new logo at first glance is — to paraphrase my partner Paula Scher — reviewing a three-act play based on what they see the moment the curtain goes up. Or, to put it differently, they think they’re judging a diving competition when in fact they’re judging a swimming competition. The question isn’t what kind of splash you make. It’s how long you can keep your head above water.”

As with many things in life, logos can take time to appreciate and to build a relationship with. Quick decisions are rarely good decisions. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, it means there’s a significantly higher chance that the wrong decision can be made due to a lack of understanding or not seeing the whole picture. This is especially true when it comes to evaluating a logo. Logos are too often criticized for being too simple, boring or lacking “wow factor.” Excitement and “wow factor” don’t come from making a logo more complicated, they come from the application of a dynamic identity system. In other words, how the logo is used and experienced. Paul Knight, the founder of Nike, when presented with the swoosh logo replied, “I don’t love it, but it will grow on me.” The success of this mark could not have been known at the time it was launched. Over time it has become iconic and effectively represents the Nike brand.

At the end of the day, a logo presents potential for a brand. When it’s first introduced, it has no meaning because people have no relationship with it. However, it provides the potential for meaning. What a good logo provides is what Paul Rand called “the pleasure of recognition and the promise of meaning.” A logo isn’t to demonstrate how creative the designer or design team are but to uniquely identify the brand, embody meaning and build recognition.

In review, a logo serves as the identity for a brand with the primary purpose of achieving recognition. In order to achieve this, it should be simple, distinctive, relevant, enduring and memorable. However, only the test of time will tell if a logo is successful.

Jon Allison

Jon Allison

I am an award-winning designer and an outdoor enthusiast, and my approach to design is undoubtedly influenced by the great Canadian landscape. Just as the perfect sunrise can transcend language, so too can smart design when it is the right choice, for the right audience.

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