An Inside View of What Makes a Logo Great

The Logo as an Icon

By Tom Dougherty

what makes a logo great? Simplicity
Simplicity is important in logo development

What makes a great logo? People the world over have come to expect a logo when encountering a company or product — It’s so ingrained in how we size things up. A logo will stand for everything a brand represents to us — and most often within an emotional context. Just think of the famous brands and your own personal reaction to them via their logos.

You see the Coke logo and you think/feel/associate “authenticity” and “relaxing good times and refreshment.” When you see the Nike swoosh you conjure up “winning” and “personal triumph.” These companies have done a brilliant job building emotional brands and connecting them with their visual symbols.  Business logos are no less emotional nor influential than consumer brands.

It’s all a matter of association in the hearts and minds of your customers. Who could deny the emotional power in the Merrill Lynch bullish icon? From an insider’s point of view —as the practitioner who creates these symbols — there is much to consider when evaluating or creating the little piece of art that will come to represent an entire enterprise. To the layperson, the logo is just there —part of the overall impression. They don’t actually study the logo’s form, color, and style in all it’s detail. They simply experience it. But for all it’s apparent simplicity, a great logo is really quite sophisticated.

Beginning with an Idea

There are rules for logos, at least there are rules for great logos. Like great advertising, all great logos start with a solid idea. The idea is the foundation for all that follows. Without the idea, a logo is just decoration — a ship without a rudder that is unable to steer itself or the viewer towards a meaningful impression of the brand.

The idea can be abstract or representational as long as it leaves you with a sense of the company’s unique personality and purpose. Here are a few examples.  Black and Decker uses a hex shape like that of a steel nut (nuts and bolts). Along with its caution orange color and all caps bold sans serif type, the logo (symbol) and logotype (name) convey this company’s product strength and industry category. CBS literally converted its “eye on the world” into a symbol that has successfully branched into all its many content venues. Sprint’s “pin drop” from it’s signature TV campaign – “So clear you can hear a pin drop.” was used as the inspiration for it’s updated “pin in motion” logo. The distinctive and contemporary “black on yellow” color palette helps separate Sprint from its competitors.

Understanding the Craft of Logo-making

what makes a logo great? Braad Strategy
The strategy must be paramount

Craft in logo making refers here to the formal design relationships. Like the formal relationships in an architectural masterpiece, there are basic rules of entry in order to even be considered architecture — size, placement, thematic structure. The construction must be sound and plumb, and the connective relationships must be elegant and true. Anything less and the viewer focuses on the imperfections and misses the message. It’s hard to imagine Frank Gehry or I.M. Pei allowing a wall to be out of square or out of proportion (unless of course they meant it to be that way as part of the effect).

Simplicity is the Way

A logo must not be complicated. As a symbol for an entire organization and brand, it’s job is to connect with the viewer in an instant. This can only be done when the idea is direct and unfettered by unnecessary ornamentation. This goes to the idea of using only one visual “trick” in a logo. Focus needs to be on the one main idea. For example, the three logos above for Black and Decker, CBS, and Sprint use one visual device and focal point – so there’s no doubt as to where to look — “nut”, “eye”, “pin drop”. Verizon however, has diminished their impact with two separate and disparate devices – the check mark over the “v” and the stylized “z” – that lead the viewer in two separate directions thus creating confusion.

The other value in simplicity is its flexibility. A simple design can be placed on nearly anything from a blimp to a golf ball – and everything in between. Tradition had it that logos were only to be created in “line art.” This is where the forms in the logo are either positive or negative with no gradations or tones. The reason for this is that tones are more difficult (expensive) to reproduce in certain environments like signage and specialty items – like the blimp and golf ball, for example. Tones also do not translate as well in small sizes and are more difficult to print consistently. Today however as the technology focus for online and video is greater than ever, more and more companies are sacrificing flexibility for animated on-screen impact.

what makes a logo great? You decide
The old vs.the new

Check out this update for AT&T.  AT&T’s venerable globe logo (line art — above on the left) created by Saul Bass in 1984 received a more 3-dimensional appearance in it’s 2005 (tonal) update (above on the right) by Interbrand. Some designers call it sacrilege. Decide for yourself what feels more “today.”

Style and Personality

Along with the idea and craft of the logo, there is much more to convey in terms of style and personality. If the company in question is a progressive technology company, it stands to reason that the typographic style and overall design theme should be accordingly “progressive.” No sense wasting time looking at Old World calligraphic fonts, or dark and recessive colors.

The Sweet Spot

The sweet spot in logo design is found when the logo grows out of a company’s vision for itself and its customers — the very thing that customers respond to at a deep and actionable level. The best possible scenario occurs when the logo is created in tandem with a unique and powerful brand theme-line (think “Just Do It”).  This logo/brand theme-line combination or “lockup” as it is sometimes called, can then be used as the foundation for a comprehensive brand identity and visual thematic that crosses every media type. It’s then that the logo becomes a great logo and creates a formidable tool in changing perceptions and gaining market share.

(See some examples of Stealing Share’s logo design here)