Take a moment. Look around. We’re awash in logos. They’re on vehicles, ads, buildings, appliances, chicken sandwich wrappers and t-shirts. They’re all over the web and they’re even on cornfields.

There’s nothing new about logos. Logos is a classical Greek word that means name. They’ve been around since people first started needing a way to show other people “I made this.” In what was possibly the first example of a marketer using a brand to add value to a product, about 2,050 years ago, Roman brick makers who wanted to bid on Imperial construction projects were required to stamp identifying marks onto their bricks so that, if the bricks were found to be faulty in any way, Imperial construction managers would know exactly where to place the blame.

What is new, though, is the sheer volume of them we encounter every day.

This alone makes developing a new logo that’s distinctive really hard. And, since a logo is the first, most fundamental element of self identification that any company, brand or product will ever pay somebody to create, we thought it would be helpful to set down The Crafton Group’s points of view on the topic (with a minimum of marketing buzzwords and designer jargon) for anybody who’s interested.

Dekalb Genetics Corporation bioengineers and markets agricultural seeds. This logo is identifying a farmer’s field that’s planted with a particular Dekalb
seed variety.

Logos are everywhere, and so are logo experts.

At the risk of destroying some non-replaceable brain cells, watch this two-minute video:


This is Will.i.am, a musician with The Blackeyed Peas opining about logo design in a video produced by The Wall Street Journal.

The first question we have to ask is why can’t Will.i.am make eye contact with the camera? Is there a plate of steaming waffles just offscreen? Maybe a basketful of playful kittens? We’ll never know.

But, the second and more important question is, just what the heck does Will.i.am know about logo design? Based on the video, not much. The Blackeyed Peas is great fun to listen to. Just not on the topic of logo design.

And yet, here’s a singer and songwriter, in a video produced by an authoritative business publication, being put forth as somebody worthy of being listened to. And here’s the dangerous fact this demonstrates: 

Everybody is an expert on logo design.

If you’re someone in the position of commissioning someone else to create a logo, you need to decide real early whose opinions you’re going to listen to and whose you’re going to ignore.

“Logos are the most subjective assignment a designer can undertake. Even with the best of briefs and upfront buy-in, there are potholes in the road. You can’t argue when someone just doesn’t like yellow.”

– Crafton Langley
Creative Director, The Crafton Group

Online logo vending machines.

If you type “logo design” into a search field, you’ll get about 5.5 million results. Seriously. You’ll see vendors who will design your logo for $99. Or $5. Squarespace recently launched an online tool that will let anybody generate dozens of logo designs in minutes – and it’s absolutely free. Now, let’s state the obvious. The Crafton Group is in the business of, among other things, designing logos. We charge our clients more than $99 to do that. So it’s important for folks who are hiring people to design logos to know what they’re paying for.

What a logo can and can’t do.

One thing you’re paying for is perspective. You’re experts in your business. Whether that’s providing a product or a service or running a nonprofit organization. We’re experts at listening to you and the people you market to, then creating a visual representation of your story that will connect the two.

We’re also experts at understanding exactly what a logo can and can’t do, and keeping our clients reminded of that reality.

“A logo does not sell (directly), it identifies. It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning. It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes.”

– Paul Rand
(1914 – 1996), American graphic designer, known for logo designs for IBM, UPS, Westinghouse, ABC

“The logo itself is just a mark. It’s what you do with the logo that creates an identity. Look at Target’s logo. I wonder how many versions it took to arrive at that simple design. Yet it’s one of the most recognizable logos because of how they use it in endless, fun, creative ways.”

– Cris Townsend
Art Director, The Crafton Group

You can boil both of these quotes by smart designers down to one truth: a logo is irrelevant until you put it on something.

Think about Coca-Cola’s corporate logo.

When just about anybody on the planet sees that logo, the first feeling that arises will almost certainly be some form of “refreshment.” But there’s absolutely nothing about the logo that intrinsically represents coolness, wetness, fizziness, sweetness or any tangible quality of the products the company sells. It’s just two words in a specific typeface in a particular shade of red. But, give hundreds of smart people billions of dollars and a century or so to link that image with the notion of refreshment and it can’t fail to evoke the desired response.

Of course, we’re well aware that almost no organization today has billions of dollars and hundreds of years to spend getting a logo associated with a desired impression. It has to be right, right now. And that’s one more reason that the creation and implementation of a new logo needs to be a rigorous, deliberate, proven process.

A logo is the last thing you need.

When you engage someone to design a logo, you’re also paying for the hours and hours of work that has to be done before a designer ever picks up a marker or a mouse. And you’re paying for the specific knowledge and unique talent that’s required to make that background work relevant.

At the beginning of every design project, we sit with our clients – as many of them as care to be involved in the process – and, together, we answer these five questions:

    1. In fewer than 25 words, what do you do?
    2. Whom do you target and why?
    3. When those people “buy” from you, what are they really buying, beyond the tangible qualities of your offering? For example, security? Comfort? Knowledge? Status? Self-actualization? Safety?
    4. Again, in 25 words or fewer,

                    a. What is the rational benefit to those you target?

                    b. What is the emotional benefit to those you target?

  • 5. Why should people believe you?

It takes time and effort to answer these questions. And experience and skill to know what to do with the answers. In many cases, we’ll undertake professionally-facilitated internal sessions and market research among target audiences to answer them properly. But until the questions are answered, and all stakeholders agree on the answers, you’re not ready to set designers loose to create a logo.

Then again, the logo is just the beginning.

Another crucial part of every logo design project is specifying how the logo will be used and by whom. Organizations often have numerous divisions and dozens of vendors who will be using the new logo in different ways. Given that your logo is the most fundamental visual representation of your organization, you can’t have somebody arbitrarily deciding that it would look better in purple, or that it would be cool to replace your carefully-developed brand icon with a picture of a Christmas tree for the company holiday card.

That’s where a Graphics Standards Manual comes in. The Crafton Group always includes development of a meticulous set of Graphics Standards as part of every logo design project. The manual covers matters like approved color palettes, approved background colors on which the logo can be reproduced, what size the logo should be in various applications and just about every other contingency that might arise.

We create the rules and turn them over to our clients. It’s then up to those clients to determine what horrible punishment will befall any who dare violate them.

Often, a logo design project will also include a comprehensive search of an enormous logo database, to keep clients out of potential legal hot water for inadvertently stepping on another brand’s graphical toes.

“Hello, is this PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi? Ms. Nooyi, this is Korean Air’s trademark attorney.”

Types of Logos.

We all see hundreds of logos every day. They all look unique and distinctive (at least the good ones do). But all logos can be grouped into five types. For The Crafton Group, a critical part of every design process is exploring all these types, often with clients present, and discussing the merits and limitations of each.

Symbols or Icons

The best of these logos are simple, stylized and singular in focus. A simple logo is easy to grasp. A stylized (meaning not literal) one is visually arresting because it demands attention. And a logo that boldly expresses a single idea is memorable.

The Royal Dutch Shell logo is a stylized shell. The Apple logo is a sleek rendering of an apple. The Mercedes-Benz logo doesn’t literally represent the organization’s name or product at all (the three-pointed star originally indicated that the company’s products were at work on land, sea and air). But, like Coca-Cola, they’ve had lots of time and money to make that mark convey “German Luxury” at a glance.

Wordmarks

A wordmark spells out a company or brand name in uniquely styled text. Often, custom typefaces, or at least custom letters, are created (at great cost) specifically for a marketer. You won’t find that loopy, Disney font on your Microsoft Word font menu.

The wordmark is by far the most common type of logo. Of the top 100 global brands, 51 of them use a wordmark logo (the Coca-Cola logo is a wordmark). There’s a good reason for this. For brands that don’t have an easily represented name like Shell or Apple, the wordmark displays the company’s or brand’s whole name in a way that’s distinctive and memorable.

Lettermarks

Lettermarks are purely typographic. For organizations that are called by their initials or by acronyms (the YMCA, the USDA, HP, NASA, ESPN, the CDC), lettermarks can be a hard-working solution. Who remembers that HBO was originally called Home Box Office?

Combination Marks

These logos combine a wordmark and a symbol. A well-designed combination mark looks just as good with the elements separate as it does with them together. And, given exposure over enough time (with enough money behind it), each element becomes recognizable without the other.

The Unilever logo is an especially interesting example of a combination logo. The company name is a distinctive wordmark in a custom-designed font, while the “U” symbol is made up of 25 sub-icons representing the company’s numerous lines of business, from beauty (lips) to nutrition (spoon) to cleaning (sparkly things).

Emblems

Emblems are another version of a combination mark, but, in this case, the brand name or initial is surrounded by a shape or symbol.

Standing out in a saturated world.

The world is constantly getting more saturated with imagery. Most of it is designed to make us look, make us aware of the organization paying for that imagery and, in turn, generate money for that organization. This is true whether the organization is an altruistic nonprofit or a corporate entity.

At the core of all that imagery is the logo, the fundamental distillation of how organizations want to be perceived by the audience from whom they want to get money. So, with that being the case, organizations need to derive as much value as possible from the imagery they’re sponsoring. And the longer a logo endures, the greater its value becomes.

There are certain characteristics in the logos that have endured the longest. Among them are simplicity, distinctiveness, relevance, legibility, memorability and what we sum up as getability, the quality of being easy to grasp and understand. The more of these qualities a logo possesses, the more value an organization will derive from it. Imbuing a logo with these qualities isn’t easy (in other words, simple is hard). It requires time, commitment on the part of the client and the designer, talent and, in almost every case, more than $99.

In Why Your Logo Should Cost More Than $99, Part II, we’ll discuss the importance of color choices and design trends to avoid if you want a logo that isn’t passé in a few years. Remember when every technology company’s logo had some kind of arc in it?

COMMENTS

Great article – my recent logo design got stuck in the color phase. The client kept saying she didn’t like the colors but couldn’t really articulate why.

Then finally she LOVES one palette from Round 2. “They look so much better on my computer. I’ve been looking at them on my phone.”

I learned that I need to advise client to view on the computer.

– Dotsy Evans

The smarter the groundwork – before creation and then further, before recommending – the more successful the logo. I have found that the before creation part is all about not just asking the right questions but getting all the stakeholders to agree that you have derived the right answer. And the before recommending part is a step all too few take the time to explore: you need to try the logo on. Many is the logo that is illegible, too wide, too illustrative or too or not enough of something else to work in common application.

BTW, best book out there on the process I have found: “Logo Design Love” by David Airey. It covers not just the creative process but the whole intake and presentation process shabang. He also has a blog that is terrific for logo design geeks (like me) at logodesignlove.com.

Interested to hear Mr. Branding (Bill) follow up linking logo development to branding. The brand isn’t the logo but the logo should be all about the brand. Yes?

– Eileen Corey

I’ve been doing more logos in the last few years. With many clients, you have to educate them. That gets old, but your article gives me some new ammunition.

The Will.i.am interview made some good points, but I don’t understand why they chose him to talk about logos. It’s like fine art, everyone thinks they’re an expert.

Looking forward to Part II.

– Peggy Redfern

Well done. Too often, I’ve seen clients make the same mistake when evaluating logo designs as they do when evaluating an ad campaign. They choose work that appeals to them personally instead of choosing the work their prospective customers will relate and react to.

– Tony Messano

Educating the client is THE KEY. And not so much about why, from the designer’s end, the logo “design” works, but from the client’s end, how the identity merges with the client’s goals and outcomes. So much more than design goes into this project.

– Dr. Marilyn Smith

A quick note about word-marks: This doesn’t mean setting your company’s name in papyrus. It’s about the beauty of typography. (Thank goodness for teachers like Nancy Rorabuagh that instill in students an understanding and love for letterforms.)

I’d like to reference, Matthew Carter, the famous type designer now living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When asked what sustains his interest in typography, he offers this: “A font is always a struggle between the alphabetic nature of the letterform, the ‘A-ness’ of the A, and your desire to put some of yourself into the letterform. It’s a struggle between representing something (you cannot take endless liberties with a letterform) and trying to find some iota of yourself in it.”

You can’t get this passion for $99. To quote another campaign, “It’s priceless”.

– Crafton Langley

“I included this in my syllabus and repeated countless times in class”.

Unfortunately design today is not respected as it should be by the majority of clients. The apps, programs and technology advances make for a common assumption that anyone can design a logo, all you need is the hard ware and software and presto you have a logo.

It’s easy so why should it cost much?

Combine that with a client mentality that they know more about design than some one that has been trained to understand branding and all it entails to find the perfect solution, make it a very difficult sell.

The only chance you have is to have a rationale for every part of your design from font choice to color. You have to be able to sell your concept based on solid marketing strategies. Bear in mind that even this won’t guarantee that a client will understand, much less pay for what is absolutely perfect for their image and cutting through the sea of logo mediocrity.

The good news you can always put it your portfolio to show what a strong designer you are and get your next big design job. Don’t prostitute yourself design wise unless the rent depends on it. We have all done that at one time or another.

– Nancy Rorabaugh Retired Graphic Design instructor

Heck, yea- there’s a lot of blue light special, $99 logos out there. Talk about a saturated market! Then again, did you know you can buy meat and vegetables at the local dollar store these days? That questionable-at-best and nasty-at-worst food will keep you from starving….But will it fuel your body and feed your brain to be sharp, competitive and healthy? I think not. No more than a $99 logo mark is likely to take a brand to a leading position in the marketplace. And Will i am: you’ve got a few coherent points in there. For those who grew up with Southern cookin’- We’ll never look at a black-eyed pea the same way again.

– Lisa Regan

Interesting and insightful. As an art director, I have designed enough logos to know that I SHOULD NOT BE DESIGNING LOGOS. It’s a very specific skill/art. A good logo is critical and crucial. And crackly. Not really, but good alliteration. Seriously, I agree; you can’t overestimate the importance of a logo.

– Vynnie Meli

This is a gloss on Eileen Corey’s excellent comment from “Mr. Brand” (and that’s certainly not the worst sobriquet I’ve ever been saddled with, so I’ll wear it proudly). Yes. The brand isn’t the logo but the logo should be all about the brand.

Icon is one of the most abused words in the English language. An icon is a visual representation of a larger idea (it isn’t just a good version of something like a car or somebody who’s good at doing something like singing, so everybody quit misusing the term immediately). In some cultures, religious icons are venerated because they’re believed to possess the qualities of the god or saint they depict.

A good logo works exactly that way. When we encounter it, we experience all the feelings that imbue the brand behind it. Of course, this only works when the brand behind the logo is well established in the hearts and minds of the public. Just to pick on somebody in my own neighborhood (caution: personal opinion ahead) the Boston Red Sox logo is clunky, dated and the type is badly spaced. But seeing it evokes all kinds of passion in the team’s fans (and in Yankees fans). But even the most exquisitely designed logo is powerless if the brand it represents isn’t known and understood by the audience.

Religious icons work because most religions have had a few thousand years to establish their brands. Worshipers understand instantly and fundamentally what an icon of St. John The Baptist means. Most of us contemporary marketing and design folks don’t have the luxury of that much time to make ourselves loved and understood.

Oh, and I’m a fan and frequent reader of David Airey, too, Eileen. Let’s proclaim our geekhood together.

– Bill Mount

Fantastic article! I will certainly share this with some of my clients. Please let me know when Part II is available. Some of the same arguments can be applied to why not to use Vista print for your business cards and collateral!

– Sandy Schoonover

Over the past two decades or so, we have moved from designing “corporate identity” systems and trademarks to brand strategy, brand identity and branding, much loftier terms and more involving professional practices than the basic art of creating logos. College classes, like corporate identity, have evolved into business-based courses like Brand Identity, Brand Strategy and Creative Concepts & Execution, relegating the creation of a logo to a starting point in a project and not an end in itself.

Marxian philosophy taught us that true power lies in the hands of those who own the means of production, and for years we who could create logos in our studios were paid very well to do so. Then came the computer, and everyone could own the means of production and put it on their kitchen table. Hourly rates fell like a rock and logos were assembled en masse so the client could pick one and write check for a couple hundred dollars. Bada bing.

This I DO DECLARE article and the comments above are a wonderful treatise on the state of logo design, but also lead us to the reason we now see the bigger picture that is Branding. The Adobe Cloud gives everyone the ability to assemble lines, circles, arcs and squares, apply a really nice palette and a little type (I did not say “typography”) and collect $99 for a logo. Now, power is in concepts. The people who can think creatively + critically = conceptually hold the power and can subcontract to the people with computers, the easy and inexpensive means of production.

– Larry Stultz

You hit the nail on the head. If someone is paying $50 for a logo they are skipping the most important part of logo design – the strategic discovery process. The logo isn’t just a snazzy picture it’s a reflection of your business goals, objectives and culture.

From a client perspective, it’s important for a designer to know the nature of our products and services and to understand our target market. In the case of our dental practice, that meant understanding our patient values and the things that are most important to us and our patients. The circumstances that bring in a prospective patient are different in different practices. Likewise, so are the services, goals and culture.

We wanted a logo that was unique, professional and reflected a family practice. For $50 you can get a picture or cartoon of a smiling tooth or tube of toothpaste. Working with a strategic designer awarded us with a design that reflects our goals, values and services and also laid the foundation for building our brand.

I’ve used strategic design services for building small businesses and in corporate settings. The strategic work not only enables the designer to come up with an effective logo design but often results in collaborative brainstorming that can actually help to generate great ideas for building your business.

Looking forward to Part II.

– Patricia Fox

Thank you for the great comment, Larry. You’ve exposed yet another flaw in Marxian thinking. If all you want are cheap, commoditized goods – and this is true for a pair of workboots, a pocket knife, a box of cookies or a company logo, then possessing the means of production is enough to guarantee a relative degree of success.

But what Marx failed to consider is that, for most folks, cheap, commoditized goods are not good enough. Marx thought those goods should be good enough, but he ignored a fundamental human truth. Once everybody can have boots, some people are going to want sturdier, more stylish or more comfortable boots. A lot of people are going to want boots that set them apart from everybody else. And, suddenly, just owning boot-making equipment isn’t going to cut it unless the cobbler in question also has the talent, skill and vision to make those better boots that people want, and the courage, capital and temerity to bring them to market.

Said another way, and picking up on your excellent point, you only need a computer to make a logo. But you need brains, insights, talent and guts to make a brand. And all those things cost extra.

– Bill Mount

Great article! I enjoyed learning about the different types of logos and the nuances in designing a good logo. While it is important to understand the rational and emotional benefits of the client’s product or a service, it is equally important to understand what makes them unique in order to design a logo that differentiates itself from the rest.

– Durgalaxmi Ramachandhiramani

I enjoyed the article and am forwarding it on to a couple of my friends I know who work in design. They will love it because the most important part in the process and the most consistent complaint I hear about working with their clients comes down to educating the client on what a logo really accomplishes for the company.

– Melissa Brownlee