Is it prosperity that has robbed us of compassion?

My parents grew up during the Blitz. My father once described to me how, for years, he could not hear the sound of an aeroplane overhead without fear. I was born in the late 1960s—part of the generation that believed the Bomb might fall at any moment: the ones who read When the Wind Blows, read leaked copies of Protect and Survive, and celebrated when the Berlin Wall came down.

In 1986, I stayed with a family in Würzburg. The mother told me how her mother had thrown her into a hay-cart crossing the border in 1961. A few weeks later, the East-West German border was closed. She never saw her mother again.

In the 1990s, the next-door neighbour at our office in Ghent was a man who had survived Auschwictz. He used to come in to use our photocopier. Sometimes, very gently, he would tell me about his experiences.

The community where I grew up, Stechford, was one of the rather less salubrious parts of Birmingham. It was multi-cultural, before the notion was popular. Alongside teenage ribbing, I saw some genuinely nasty examples of racism, much of it copied behaviour from older children. As the ’70s and ’80s progressed, I felt that attitudes were improving. By 1988, my feeling was that most people agreed that racism was wrong, even if they struggled sometimes to put that into practice—hence the well worn, and all too revealing phrase, “I’m not a racist, but…”

By 2001, back when I first stood for parliament, the landscape had changed. I was out of the UK from 1988 to 1996, and in some ways I’ve never quite adjusted to some of the cultural changes that took place while I was away. I look blankly when people talk to me about 1990s TV shows, bands and cultural phenomena. All we could get was Radio 4 Longwave, entirely given over to cricket during Test Match Special—a delight to me, but less useful in following cultural development.

What really struck me in 2001 was that the casual racism of the 1970s had returned in a new form. This time it was directed at asylum seekers, or, as the press always referred to them, ‘bogus asylum seekers’. Technically speaking, of course, you cannot have a bogus asylum seeker. Anyone who is seeking asylum is doing so. If they are in the country illegally and not seeking asylum, then they are illegal immigrants, not bogus asylum seekers.

Even the term ‘asylum seeker’ was new to me. In the 1980s we still called people ‘refugees’. I don’t know when the change in usage happened, but, as I now understand, it was a fairly cynical ploy to change the way people think by changing the words they use. Britain has international obligations to refugees. ‘Asylum seekers’, by contrast, are merely people who are candidates to be ‘refugees’. Etymologically, this is nonsense: a refugee is someone seeking refuge. By logical definition, an asylum seeker is a refugee. By UK legal definition, and in the popular press, they are not.

During the First and Second World Wars, Britain welcomed enormous numbers of refugees. I learned today that a quarter of a million Belgians came to Britain during the First World War—one out of every 40 people in Belgium—and returned to their homes once the war was over. During the 1970s and ’80s, it would have been popularly unthinkable (though I’m sure it still happened) to turn down asylum seekers coming over from the Soviet Union—victims of the Gulags and the purges.

Today, people are telling me that Britain is full, that migrants are a ‘swarm’, that people are coming to this country paradoxically only because they want our jobs, and only because they want to claim benefits. I’ve seen dozens of Facebook memes shared by people who I really thought knew better alleging that migrants are housed in multi-million pound homes with thousands of pounds a month in benefits, while British ex-servicemen are forced onto the streets. My heart goes out to anyone and everyone who is forced onto the streets, but none of them were forced there by asylum seekers.

We did experience a worldwide recession in 2007. It was not caused by immigrants, migrants, refugees or asylum seekers, nor was it caused by East Europeans. It’s easy to blame the bankers, but the truth is that Western economies have been pursuing ever greater prosperity since the 1950s. We have been happy to vote in governments that relaxed rules on financial transactions, and happy to buy into trickle-down economics. We’ve turned a blind eye to the startling increase in wealth inequality, just as long as we ourselves became ever more prosperous.

What was once an aspiration—to be more prosperous than our parents, and to increase our standard of living year by year—is now regarded as a right. Collectively, we reacted with outrage when our prosperity dropped in 2007, and took more than five years to recover to, and then exceed, its 2007 levels.

During the same period, xenophobia—when measured by the success of avowedly xenophobic political parties, distribution of Britain First memes on Facebook, and the rhetoric used by the mainstream press and some mainstream politicians—has also risen. Commentators pointed out that this always happens during recessions. Clearly a corollary, but recession itself is not the cause.

Popular response to the refugee crisis, or migrant crisis if you prefer, has oscillated between compassion and selfishness. ‘Someone should do something’ versus ‘they must not come here’. Britain is 14th in the league table of European countries accepting refugees, notwithstanding the fact that refugees are far more likely to be able speak English than most other European languages. Arguments about people being ‘economic migrants’, ‘illegally trafficked’ and so on do not wash. If Germany and Scandinavia can accept people, there is no reason why we should not.

It is true that there is a housing crisis in Britain—but this is a crisis of suitable accommodation in the south of England and in prosperous cities where the majority of high-paid jobs are to be found. In many parts of Britain, property prices are actually falling and properties go unsold or unlet. The people who climb into desperately unsafe boats to cross the Mediterranean, or who wait for months in a shanty-camp at Calais, are not asking to be housed in chic boho streets or quiet suburbs. They merely want to be somewhere where they can be safe, and where they can start to rebuild their shattered lives.

The ultimate cause of the refugee crisis is war. Politicians may claim that their main concern is to welcome only genuine refugees while excluding economic migrants, but we are seeing people flee their countries in large numbers right now not because they suddenly decided they wanted to become rich, but because war has driven them from their homes.

We did not start this particular war, but we cannot claim to have no responsibility for it. ISIL, the Syrian civil war, the Libyan crisis, the Arab Spring, the second Iraq war, the first Iraq war, the Iranian revolution and the ongoing crisis in Israel were all influenced by a pattern of British intervention in North Africa and the Near- and Middle-East which goes back to before Lawrence of Arabia. There are moments in that history of intervention which, in retrospect, we can probably be proud of. There are passages which, while well-intentioned, produced largely harmful results. Sadly, there were also interventions which it is hard to characterise as anything but purely self-serving.

Even if this were a conflict in which we had no hand, and never had, Britain remains a signatory to the International Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees. This is not an onerous or burdensome protocol. It does no more than solidify the way in which Britain treated refugees during the First and Second World Wars, and extend that to cover refugees of subsequent conflicts and persecutions. It does not create an open door for anyone who happens to feel like it to come to Britain, nor does it offer refugees a better standard of living than the one they had before they came under threat. Furthermore, it has enough signatories that even the numbers of refugees leaving North Africa at this time could be easily distributed around Europe without creating any particular drain on any economy or national life. Of course, the one place least able to accommodate economic shocks—Greece—is working to satisfy its obligations right on the front lines.

Britain must stop posturing and playing politics. The next General Election is five years away. If the government by some extraordinary generosity were to welcome more than Britain’s ‘fair share’, everyone would have realised by 2020 that it didn’t actually seem to make a great deal of difference to our national life. At the moment, we are in no danger whatsoever of accepting our ‘fair share’.

The very fact that we are trying to second-guess whether refugees are ‘genuine’ or not says an enormous amount about us, and nothing about the people claiming our help under international treaties, and under the common bond of humanity.

Even if our desire for prosperity has somehow corroded our compassion to the point that we no longer want to respond as our nation once did, there remains an underlying, unyielding moral and legal obligation.

By international law, we should help the refugees. By the most basic human morality, we must.

Google has changed its logo… or has it?

Google has changed its logo… or has it?

Google’s new logo comes hot on the heels of Tokyo’s logo debacle. It’s a good news story that represents the evolution of a successful brand, done in the opposite way and for the opposite reasons as Tokyo’s. That’s a good thing.

But is this a rebrand, as some websites describe it, a new logo, or merely a new typeface?

Let us explore.

First, the typeface. It’s called Product Sans, and it’s been developed exclusively for Google. Expect to see knock-off versions appearing on free font websites from next week. But is it really a new typeface? Those with the 1988 Letraset book (you know who you are) have probably already gone back to see how much it differs from Avant Garde Gothic Medium, with its character-set alternates that don’t usually make their way into computer fonts.

Avant Garde Gothic in the 1988 Letraset book

Avant Garde Gothic in the 1988 Letraset book

Well, you can see that they aren’t entirely identical, but it’s evident where Google is coming from on this one. I entirely applaud this. Avant Garde enjoyed a spell of popularity in the 1990s with the rise of Postscript printers, but it tended to get used in the wrong places. It is a beautiful font, one of the best of the geometrics, and it is a fine thing that its heritage is now in the Google logo.

But what of the logo itself?

Just quickly Google ‘evolution of Google logo’, will you? Seriously, you owe it to yourself to do this via Google rather than taking my word for it.

What you’ll see is that from 1999 onwards, the logo has been entirely consistent. The early 1998 version had a green initial G. The 1998-99 version had an exclamation mark. From the 1999 version, the colours have stayed the same, only the typeface and treatment have changed.

As Daniel Kahneman pointed out in Thinking Fast and Slow, what we see first is the colour of a logo, then its shape, and finally its content. Distinctive colour is hugely important, which is why Cadbury was not happy when a competitor wanted to use purple to sell its own chocolates.

As a general rule, we discourage multi-coloured logos. Apple’s original logo was multi-coloured, and there were Apple devices which may have cost more to emboss and print that logo on than to construct the functional part of the device. Now the world’s biggest brand, Apple has opted for a purely monochrome device. Very nice.

The reason for avoiding multi-coloured logos, though, is mainly to do with consistent reproduction and efficient reproduction. Every colour on the original Apple logo was a separate print process. A multi-coloured logo means you always have to print in CMYK separations, or print four separate Pantone plates. When printing in CMYK, the colours are never quite right anyway.

The exception, of course, is for a logo which exists only in the online world. Yes, you do occasionally see ‘Google’ printed, but you know that the ‘real’ Google logo is the one on your screen. Not only can it be as many colours as Google likes, but it’s more appropriate if it is, especially for a search engine dedicated to producing the most varied results possible, based on your query.

Logo designers (quite correctly) like to fix the form of the logo absolutely, even down to the white space surrounding it. When an organisation receives its branding instructions, they come with stern warnings not to rotate, squeeze, distort, layer, shadow or do anything else with it that is not explicitly allowed in the Corporate Identity Guide.

Google has never played by those rules. The common points are: always the word Google (it was originally called ‘Backrub, but we’ll forget about that), and always, since 1998, in Blue-Red-Yellow-Blue-Green-Red. For the rest, Google plays with its logo on an almost daily basis. Christmas versions, Halloween versions, commemoration of a famous person versions, and much more.

The core of Google’s logo is the distinctive name, and the colours. That’s it. Unless brand-fascists have taken over, we will probably continue to see the playful transformations to suit the days and seasons.

So, rebrand, new logo, or just a tweak?

For my money, it’s a tweak. The Google logo is the name and the colours. I would be willing to accept that it genuinely is a new logo, though, especially to avoid a fight (someone threatened to defriend my on Facebook this week just because he didn’t like my views on spacing).

A rebrand, though? No, not at all. The essence of the Google brand remains the same: the easiest and most trusted search-engine, coupled with a variety of useful and interesting extensions, not all of which are guaranteed to work. Google-plus? Never really caught on. Google Maps? Indispensable to many. Google Mail? Lifeblood for some, anathema to others. Google Hangouts? To be honest, I’m not even really sure what they are, though I do remember trying them. Googling is an officially accepted word (if you think the Oxford English Dictionary makes things official). The Google name is inextricably linked with ‘to Google’. Not bad for something which began as a spelling mistake.

Your brand is a combination of what you promise, what you deliver, and how you present it. We’ve seen a minor change to Google’s presentation: a different typeface, but less different from the ones it tries out during a typical year. What it promises (successful Googling) and what it delivers (well, the same as that) are unchanged. It is the same brand. And long may it be so.

In the meantime, let us continue to reflect on the fact that almost all great brands simplify their logos as time goes on. Food for thought for anyone contemplating making theirs more complicated.


The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat (and why we misunderstand democracy at our peril)

The US Senate recently held three crucial votes on climate change. And, in other news, Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story in 1913 entitled ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat‘.

It was my father who introduced me to The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, which he described as one of the funniest stories he had ever read. Senses of humour vary, of course, but I have to say I rather agree with him: it is an iconic romp, beginning with the mundane matter of an unjust speeding ticket, and ending with worldwide ridicule for the offending village. Like much of Kipling, there are powerful undercurrents of revenge and matters taken too far.

The plot goes something like this: an English village is merrily making money be entrapping motorists, and hauling them before the local magistrate, who is part of the plot. In revenge, a journalist, an MP and an impresario manage to hold a special meeting of the Geoplanarians there. With the benefit of copious amounts of alcohol, they manage to persuade the villagers to vote that the Earth is flat. They then proceed to publicise this through the mass media, which, in 1913, is still relatively new.

Kipling makes a number of side-swipes at popular gullibility, the power of the press, the power of an oppressive judiciary, and the power of pomposity. However, the underlying point is all too obvious for being understated: no democracy has the power to determine what is, and is not, fact.

A lot of people have been sharing on Facebook their concerns that the US Senate voted by a narrow margin that climate change was not caused by human activity. What is less frequently shared is that the Senate voted overwhelmingly that climate change was genuine, and not a hoax. However, the Senate was just as misguided in doing this as in narrowly determining that climate change was not man-made.

It would be easy to characterise this as ‘Americans versus Science’, which is an attractive cultural stereotype for the British. In the words of Zack, the underperforming ex-boyfriend in Big Bang Theory, “That’s the great thing about science — there are no right or wrong answers”. Actually, Zack is closer to the truth than he knows. As Karl Popper would point out, science is a process of discovery, not a body of proven fact.


Democracy itself is widely misunderstood. It is Aristotle, of course, who laid down our first notions of democratic theory. He was not necessarily a fan (he also claimed that slavery was an essential part of society, a section of his Politics which is frequently glossed over). To Aristotle, the three forms of government were monarchy — government by one — aristocracy — government by the noble — and polity — government by the citizens. Each of these, where the government was for the benefit of all, had a debased form, where the rulers governed for their own benefit. These debased forms were tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy: government by what we would now call the ‘lowest common denominator’.

We should not, in any case, confuse Greek compulsory adult, manhood, citizen collective decision making with modern representative democracy. The crucial difference, though, is not the extent of the suffrage, nor the notion of representation, but the duty of all citizens and all representatives to vote for the benefit of all. This principle of non-selfishness is what qualifies (at their best) modern democracies for Aristotle’s term ‘polity’, rather than little more than mob rule.

It is crucial that we recognise the duty ‘the benefit of all’ rather than ‘the benefit of the majority’ or ‘the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people’. It may not always be possible to achieve the benefit of all, but the moment we relax the duty, we open the door for many of the tyrannies the 20th century explored in such detail. I do not wish, at this point, to bow to Godwin’s law (all internet discussions spiral to an appeal to the tyranny of either Hitler or Stalin), or its corollary, the Jacobin terror. However, if we consider the treatment of collaborationist intellectuals in France during De Gaulle’s interim government (excellently discussed by Baert), where people were sentenced to death after a trial lasting less than a day, for purely intellectual crimes, we have to recognise what happens when a democracy relaxes its duty for the benefit of even one or two of its citizens. 1.

Probably everyone reading this article already agrees with this. Please do forgive me for the excursus.

What we perhaps recognise rather more seldom is that the Aristotelian principle of ‘benefit of all’ also helps to set limits around exactly what a democracy can vote on. I have lost count of the number of panels, boards, committees and assemblies I have observed, or sat on over the last thirty years which have attempted to deliberate on things over which they have no authority, or no control. The Oth rule in any constitution—sometimes appended as the final rule—is that no decisions of the executive, or the council, or the board, or whatever it is, can override the law. When this is appended, it is usually in the form of ‘if any decision is subsequently found to be illegal, this does not affect the other parts of a decision’. In my experience, the problem is not decisions subsequently found to be illegal, but decisions which the body knows it doesn’t have the authority to make without having recourse to the courts.

In most cases, a good chair reins the discussion in. I have very seldom had to experience a minuted decision which was outside the scope of the particular body.

However, the ‘-1st’ rule, which should go even before the Oth rule, should be that ‘this body exists to determine the beneficial actions it will take, and for no other purpose’. This does not mean that we should in any way stifle open debate, since open debate is the means by which a body reaches its conclusions, but the only conclusions a corporate body can legitimately take are about its actions in the future. It cannot overturn its actions in the past. It certainly cannot issue pronouncements about what is true, and what is not.

Actually, the action of democracy is even more divorced from our concept of truth even than that. By its nature, democracy must be both transparent, and inscrutable. It must be transparent in that there must be open access to what decisions were made, who was eligible to make them, and whether they voted or not. In British elections, whether or not someone voted is a recorded fact which is made publicly available afterwards. Not everyone is aware of this. In the UK’s parliamentary democracy, which way the representatives vote is also recorded, and all the speeches made available through Hansard. At the same time, democracy must be inscrutable, and here it differs entirely from judicial process.

In a court of law, the jury is called upon by the judge to make the best judgement available based on the evidence and the arguments presented. A higher court may overturn the decision if it finds that the evidence was unsound, or that the jury or judge acted perversely in their decision.

In a democracy, each person makes up their own mind on how to vote. Even in an open ballot, such as when MPs vote, the representative is not required to state why they voted in that way. They may vote based on the evidence, or their conscience, or their party whip, or by drawing Scrabble letters out of a bag, or on the basis of any other reason or non-reason they like. They may be challenged to explain why they voted that way later, and they may decide that it is electorally or personally in their interests to explain, but they are not required to do so. The only exception to this is that they must declare an interest if they stand to gain by voting in a particular direction.

For this reason, no one can ever authoritatively say “the House voted in this way because…”.

This brings us back to where we began. A democratic body, no matter how august, has no authority to determine matters of fact, be they scientific, historical or artistic (it was this notion of artistic fact which was so much at issue in the post-Vichy trials). Not only does the body lack the authority, but its members cannot be required to ‘vote with the facts’. The members will vote any way they want to vote. They should vote for the benefit of all, but future benefit is not amenable to simple factual inquiry. Analysing the way they voted tells us nothing about what is true, only about what effect they believed they would have by casting their vote.

I regret very much that the US Senate has narrowly determined that climate change is not caused by human action. I am much more worried that the US Senate thinks it can be voting about ‘what is true’ at all, even when they do get the answer right.

Show 1 footnote

  1. We should also recognise that too many checks and balances are removed when the press, government and judiciary are all working to essentially the same agenda

The strange case of the Tokyo logo

Tokyo has abandoned its 2020 Olympic logo, following complaints that it was plagiarised from the Théâtre de Liège.

According to news sources, the Tokyo Olympics team initially brushed off claims from the Belgian designer Olivier Debie on the grounds that it wasn’t a registered trade mark. Whether Debie pursues them in court now is something we will see. However, the result is that the Théâtre de Liège is now world-famous, and the Tokyo Olympics is ever more deeply mired.

The whole thing came to a head when it turned out the Kenjiro Sano, the Japanese designer, had been accused of plagiarism before. At that point the Tokyo Olympic Committee evidently lost its nerve.

Probably a good thing.

If you look at the two logos the first thing that becomes clear is that the Théâtre de Liège design makes a good deal of sense. It incorporates the T and the L in a distinctive way, and you can even find the D if you look at the negative space. Whether it has quite what it takes to become famous without the controversy is another matter. By contrast, the Tokyo logo makes no sense at all: it is the T L of Théâtre de Liège, with an additional circle added to symbolise Japan, and the colours changed. But why? What relevance does the L have to the Tokyo Olympics?

The Tokyo Olympic Committee should have rejected the logo long before there were any doubts about its provenance. It just didn’t make any sense. So, how is it that a multi-billion of whatever currency project didn’t spot that its logo was silly?

This is a problem I face as a brand consultant. Prospective clients quite often show me their existing logo, and ask what I think of it. Generally that means that they recognise there is a problem. (Let me say now that a logo is not a brand, and a brand is not a logo!) How, though, did they approve it in the first place, if it never looked right?

As a general rule, I would suggest that the initial brand of a new business is never quite right. It takes three years or £.25 million in turnover before most businesses really get the idea of why their clients buy from them. When talking to established businesses, I’m generally very interested in their customer feedback: why do the customers love them, why do they keep coming back, what is memorable about the business?

If you’re a 0-3 year old business, please relax. Your brand and logo could probably do with some tweaking, but that isn’t your fault. It’s inevitable.

Rather more worryingly, there are plenty of businesses out there which went for an expensive rebrand, did all their new signage and stationery, and only subsequently realised it wasn’t quite right.

This isn’t necessarily a huge problem. If you look at the Shell logo over the last few decades, you will see that it gradually evolved as it was simplified. Simple is almost always better.

The very worst situation is the one Tokyo finds itself in: after a rebrand, a company discovers that it has the same logo as a competitor.

How can this be?

To paraphrase William Goldman’s comments about Hollywood, very few people commissioning logos have much idea about what they are looking for. The process often goes something like this. A company wants a new logo, and they tender out to a number of design agencies. The brief is something on the lines of ‘to construct a new logo for [name of company], a world leader in our chosen field’. Rather fewer designers than they were hoping for respond to the tender. At the tender interviews, one company asks a lot of questions and explains the process they will go through. Another company shows three logos they’ve designed. In most cases, the business chooses the company offering three logos.

Having sat on both sides of these kinds of tenders, let me say this: never take the company offering three logos. Almost certainly two of them will be reworkings of logos previously rejected by other clients, and the third will be a couple of hours of work. No design company can really afford to spend the weeks required understanding your business and your brand for a purely speculative tender. The result will either be a logo that looks initially attractive but later is discovered to be inappropriate for some reason (for example, because it doesn’t reproduce well on your packaging), or, worse, one which is very similar to something already out there.

No designer is intending to plagiarise (I say that more in hope than confidence), but we are all influenced by what we see. If someone reads about your company and instantly has an idea of what your logo should look like, chances are that they are remembering rather than imagining. Of course, it won’t be quite the same, because your organisation won’t have quite the same name. However, when someone points it out, the similarities are painfully obvious.

There’s a bloke in Birmingham who offers logos for £50, and provides a range of them for you to choose yourself. One of them looks eerily like the World Wildlife Fund’s panda. Probably many of the others look like other things as well. Again, I’ve no doubt that he’s drawing ideas that come into his head, but what comes into our heads most often is what we’ve seen.

You can’t guarantee that the design that you come up with will be dissimilar from all other designs in the world, but you can guarantee that you won’t be plagiarising. To clarify the difference (for those other readers), if your process leads to something which is similar in design to something of which you had no awareness, this is an accidental similarity. You still won’t be allowed to register it as a trademark in the same category as that other brand, but you won’t be plagiarising. On the other hand, if you just get a load of designs and pick the one you like, there’s quite a high risk that you’re half-remembering in the same way that the designer was half-remembering. If it later turns out that your designer’s web history includes that logo, or is on reference material she or he possesses, and you have no history of earlier drafts that led to that design, then you may well be in trouble. This trouble will be worse if it’s then shown that what appears to be an odd ornament, a quirk, in your logo was a actually a key functional element in the original — exactly like the bottom of the L in the Tokyo logo, which has nothing to do with Tokyo, but everything to do with Théâtre de Liège.

I could be a bit self-serving here and say: don’t start by going to a designer, go to a brand consultant first and let them engage the designer. However, that’s for another time.

If you are evaluating a logo, but you have no idea how to other than ‘I like it’ ‘It feels like us’ ‘It feels like what we want to be’ or ‘twenty people picked it in a survey’, then here’s a useful acronym that can help you: MADE. Great logos are MADE, rather than half-remembered. There is a making process, which you can document, and should, just to be safe.

  • Memorable
  • Appropriate
  • Distinctive
  • Efficient

A logo needs to be memorable, and that means memorable in relation to your business. A single red circle may be the greatest colour/shape combination ever invented, but unless your business is selling red circles (in which case it’s not trademarkable, as being illustration), it doesn’t connect with what you do. That’s why most effective logos incorporate the name of the organisation, either as text, or, with something as famous as Apple, by obvious visual association. Even Apple, though, kept Apple Computer, and then the word Apple for years before it was able to go to the symbol only.

The keys to memorability are: something recognisable, one thing which is different, and tip of the tongue pronunciation. Tip of the tongue (t, d, p, b, f, s, not g, k, r, j, n, l) is to do with naming — again, the logo is not actually the right place to start. The recognisable and different, though, is the key to great logos. Gillette is Futura extra bold italic, with the dot over the i change from a circle into a razor shape, and a razor added to the e. SONY is such a distinctive word that it doesn’t need additional distinction. The loop of short term memory is 2-3 seconds. If the eye hasn’t ‘got it’ in that time, your logo is not memorable.

A logo needs to be appropriate. By far the biggest problem I encounter is that organisations don’t know what appropriate is, because they have no clear notion of what their promise is, what the brand’s values are (i.e., what makes it valuable to their customers), how it is distinctive in its market, and what its personality or style is. That’s another reason to not start with the logo. If you have a strong understanding of what your organisation is, it’s relatively easy to just run down a check list and say ‘no, no, yes, yes’ and so on. I was once branding a children’s programme. We went through a personality checklist and agreed what it was. I came back a week later with a logo which I though might do (I was being rather lazy). Having done the personality work, the commissioner was immediately able to point out i) that it wasn’t appropriate ii) why it wasn’t appropriate and iii) what we needed to do to make it appropriate. A day later I was able to come back with the right thing, we agreed it, and, four years later, it is still working hard doing its job. When you know what it is the logo is representing, it’s fairly easy to say exactly how it needs to be improved. Otherwise, you are doing little more than saying to a bewildered designer ‘it’s not quite right—can’t you just make it a bit better?’ The result will usually actually be worse.

Distinctive is, of course, what the Tokyo logo wasn’t. Aside from the fact that Tokyo has a T in it, it didn’t particularly distinguish it from any other monogram. Most importantly, it didn’t distinguish it from a rather smaller, but still important, cultural competitor: Théâtre de Liège. If your logo involves your organisation’s name, and your organisation’s name is not like one of your competitors, then it probably will be distinctive. You can search the trademark register much more easily for names than for designs, and have confidence that your name is distinctive (if not, change it before you change your logo) and that the design is therefore also distinctive. Check what colours your main competitors are using. Pick either the complementary colour, if there’s really only one competitor, or the colour furthest from the other two. I had the privilege a couple of years ago of being the consultant for a brand that subsequently won Brand of the Year in its industry. It had two main competitors, who used respectively red and green as their key colours. The brand’s previous logo was green. One of the more difficult decisions (but absolutely the right one) was rotating the colours so that the new logo was blue, though a blue with a similar quality as the old green. Of course, there were other distinctive, but colour is the first thing we see.

Efficient is something you learn about after you’ve been doing branding for a while. Can your logo, and its corporate colour, and its typeface, be efficiently reproduced on all of your core products, packaging, and promotional materials? You would expect a designer to ask what your materials are, but often they don’t. Twenty-six years ago, when I was starting out, design was a physical process involving pens, prototypes and cutting out. Today, many designers work almost exclusively on computer. There are plenty of things you can show on a website which can’t be done in the physical world. This even goes as far as sending a copy of your draft logo to your packaging printer and asking them if it will be easy to reproduce: if they are printing in Flexo, or using heat-responsive paper, you may discover your marvellous new look comes out as a smudge.

If you—or your designer—can show how you set up your criteria for MADE, in relation to your industry, your organisation’s distinctness, your services or products and your methods of distribution, then you will be fairly immune to any charges of plagiarism.

If it’s just something that popped into your head, or your designer’s head, then there is a real risk that you are simply appropriating someone else’s look.

The lesson of the Tokyo Olympics is this: no one is too big to get away with it.

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