The Logo Speech

Over the years I have seen and made a few logos. Some were successful, and some not so much. The “not-so-much” examples usually resulted from certain design elements being included based on a misunderstanding of what a logo is, and is not. I try to intervene, when I can, when I see a client heading toward some common (and understandable) pitfalls. What follows is my take on a guide to a successful logo: a compilation of what I hope are helpful tips, for quick and easy reference.

What A Logo Isn’t:

A Picture

This is understandably confusing because a logo can contain any number of pictorial elements. But it also may not. Representational Pictorial elements are not necessary for a successful logo. I will say more later on why this is, but suffice it to say for now that some of the world’s most successful logos consist of no more than abstract shapes or typographic elements. But more than being a simple problem of definition, this error can lead to technical issues that will plague the client later, when the time comes to apply their logo to products and communication materials. Because it is often assumed that if a simple pictorial logo is good, than a gorgeously detailed illustration is better. But while a detailed illustration may function beautifully when spread over a magazine page or t-shirt front, those details will likely be lost or dissolve into visual mush when you attempt to apply them to the smaller spaces logos need to tuck into, such as on a business card or the corner of a web page or video. Also, if the image chosen is too colorful, it will likely not translate well if you use it for a one or two color application, such as a screen print. Even well known brands sometimes fail to dodge this bullet, as you can see from the first Apple logo. Luckily they only kept it for a year.

A Coat of Arms

A common misconception is that, whether by text or imagery, a logo should explicitly represent every detail and fact about an organization, including mission statements, goals, contact info, slogans, locations, the CEO’s blood type, etc.  All of this information can and should be communicated separately, because it will only interfere with the logo’s primary function. More about this function later. But for now, just don’t do it.

A Mascot

I tread lightly here, because I create a lot of mascots, and as an illustrator I actually enjoy creating mascots a lot. So I am certainly not telling you that mascots are to be avoided. They can add a wonderful vitality to a brand. But they are usually a separate component from the logo itself. Take for example Buzz the Honey Bee, long-time mascot of Honey Nut Cheerios. The brand can easily be identified only by the words “Honey Nut Cheerios” printed in Yellow, in that particular font that they use. That is the logo, and it is identifiable without the bee. Buzz helps the brand recognition, and he helps sell it, but he is not the brand’s “central atom”. Your logo should be able to succeed separately from the mascot, as logos may need to go where mascots can not follow. This is because very often a mascot can not be shown without a detailed illustration, a pitfall we just discussed.

A Reflection of personal taste

There have been times when clients have asked that a logo be revised based on the idea that they “just don’t like it”. Of course, a client should be happy with the result of a finished design. But from whence should satisfaction come? Making a design choice based soley on personal taste indicates misunderstanding of a logo’s purpose. A logo doesn’t need to match the drapes. It is less a piece of decorative art, and more like a home appliance. It has a job to do. It’s job is to bring you business and recognition. Instead of, “do I like this logo?” ask yourself, “will this logo work?” And how should a logo work? Here at last, we come to the “later” portion of our discussion.

What A Logo Is:

A Symbol

Not in the sense that Abraham Lincoln is a symbol of freedom, but more in the sense that a stop sign is a symbol of “STOP!” , or how little figures on a door are symbols of “Bathroom”. These symbols visually transmit a vital piece of information very, very, very quickly. When you see a stop sign, you don’t likely look at it for very long (less than a fraction of a second). Any longer, and you could be in an accident. Out of necessity, a stop sign is very clear, distinctive, and understandable, very quickly, and at a distance (or at a smaller size). Other symbols that read quickly are the ones you are looking at right now. Type characters are seen and understood so quickly that we have a different word for it: reading. A properly functioning logo will “read” easily, and is is a close relative of symbols like these. It is not safe to assume that a viewer has (or will take) a lot of time to peruse, puzzle over, or longingly gaze at your logo. If you don’t transmit recognition of your brand very quickly, you may lose their attention to someone else who did. Thus, an overly complex image or a cluttered pile of imagery do not effective logos make. Look how simple the logos of the most successful companies are:

An Empty Container

Many clients get very hung up on whether the visual content of a logo appropriately represents them. Sometimes this results in the previously mentioned “Coat of Arms” everything-but-the-kitchen-sink solution. But the shocking truth is that the visual content of a logo barely matters at all in terms of it’s eventual success. Yes, you heard me correctly. Want proof? Ask yourself, exactly what do apples,  produce grown on trees, have to do with computers? Before 1976, not much. And yet today the apple logo is almost synonymous with electronic devices. This is why abstract shapes and typographic treatments can be effective solutions for logos. Because at the moment of their creation, a logo is an empty container, ready to be filled with whatever associations you want to create for it. You create these associations by applying the logo to marketing materials, goods, and services, and getting a lot of exposure for them. If you put a black square on enough widgets, eventually black squares will equal widgets in the public mind. It’s downright Pavlovian. So if you find yourself in the board room of a flower company, into the third day of deliberation of whether your logo should look like a a pansy or a daffodil, your time would be better spent elsewhere. Flip a coin, and rest easy that the decision will not derail your organization. Or better yet, be adventurous. Consider imagery that may not directly relate to the business that you are in. It may just set you apart from the crowd.

Somewhat Permanent

Once you do decide on a logo design, do your best to stick with it. This may irk those of us who are whimsical and free spirited, but once a logo is “out in the wild”, it should not be altered, at least not too quickly. Once a logo is applied to a large number of products and communications and is in the public eye, then an attempt to drastically change the logo may put strain on the public’s recognition of your company or organization, or worse, they may think you are in a different business altogether. If changes are made, they should be gradual, so as not to shake public perception of your company. The exception to this situation may be the case where you actually are rebuilding your company from scratch. If this is true, then perhaps a brand-new logo would be in order.


You may admire the success or values of another organization, but this is not a good reason to tell a designer, “make our logo like theirs!” Provided the designer agrees, the results will not be positive. The best you can hope for is to piggyback on the recognition of the better known organization. But this could condemn you to “second fiddle” status for the life of your brand. Worse, it can also confuse those you hope to reach, sending them elsewhere (to the brand you copied). At very worst, you could get into legal trouble for infringement. In the end, it’s best to be the unique snowflake you are, and ask the designer for something that uniquely represents you.

In summation, when considering logo designs, it helps to keep a few rules in mind:

  1. Keep it readable and reproducible.
  2. Keep it Simple.
  3. Keep its function in mind.
  4. Keep it unique.

I Hope these guidelines will help create a better experience for you in this first step toward a successful brand identity. Good luck, and God speed!


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