The Logo

For five wonderful years, I made my living doing branding. I don’t do that any more as my main job, but I’m still fascinated by good, bad and indifferent branding.

In my progress as a Public Relations officer, marketer, designer and general communicator, I always saw branding as the pinnacle of the communications art. Get the brand right, and everything falls into place. Get it wrong, and you will be paying for the mistake for a long time.

Every organisation and product has a brand. Whether it is done by design or not, the brand exists. There are those who talk about personal brands as well. I’m not so sure about this. If you’re Prince, or Michael Jackson (which you aren’t) you have a brand, but the sum-total of who you are is much more than a brand. So, in this article, I’m going to be talking about organisational and product brands—and, more exactly, the logos which are used to represent them.

At the very simplest, your brand is the name of your organisation or product, what it promises to do, and what it actually does. The UK’s trademarks authority defines a brand as ‘a promise of an experience’. That’s not always entirely the case (a development charity brand, for example, may not be promising an experience at all), but it’s a good starting place.

Although we can say that a brand is a promise, that promise has to be linked with something to remember it by—such as the name—and it comes with a reputation which grows from how well you fulfil that promise. Brands that promise more than they deliver quickly tarnish, but the brand does not benefit from over-delivering.

Fairly early in the life of a product or an organisation, the name develops a standard way of being written. Go one step beyond this, and you get a standard typeface and characteristic set of colours. These are not ‘the brand’, but they reinforce the memorableness of the brand.

The idea of a logotype, or, these days, just ‘logo’, is ancient. In the Verulamium Museum, St Albans, UK, you can see Roman pots on which the maker stamped his mark. They are typically initials or a name in a box. That’s arguably the simplest form of logo.

If you want to read this interactively, just take a piece of paper and write the name of your product or organisation, or, if you don’t have one, your own name, and draw a box around it. There, you now have a logo. What’s more, you now have a logo which is better than most of the business logos I’ve looked at.

Remember—the logo is not the brand, it’s just a way to help people identify your promise, and, hopefully, their previous good experience.

Why is your name in a box better than just your name? Well, the eye (which is to say, the biological eye and the optic nerve and visual cortex behind it) tends to notice things in this order: Movement—Colour—Shape—Content. It’s hard to have a literally moving logo (but we’ll come back to that), and we haven’t dealt with colour yet, but the box gives it a recognisable shape which is more obvious than the letters themselves, in most cases.

So if it’s movement—colour—shape—content, maybe we can add colour. The eye responds to simple, flat colours much more readily than gradations. Gradations are most usually in our visual experience tricks of the light falling, and the brain processes them out, so that you recognise the ‘true’ colour of something. If you took a colourimeter, and measured the colour of, say, the cover of a book which was half in shadow and half in sunlight, the colourimeter would tell you that you had two different colours. But your eye tells you that it’s just one colour. Adding fancy gradients makes your logo less distinctive, not more so.

The easiest way to add colour to your logo is to fill the box in with the colour, and have the text in white. You now have a simple one colour logo, with a distinct, well-known, shape, and a distinct colour.

What about movement? Actually, a word already implies movement, because, for Western readers at least, there is the implied movement of going from left to right. Shaping your logo into a rectangle which is horizontally longer than it is tall enhances this sense of movement.

Now, I said that the logo you’ve just made is already better than most business logos. How can this be, since business logos often cost tens of thousands of pounds or dollars, and you just made one at no cost?

The answer is that businesses, especially start-ups, are perennially paranoid. They complicate logos, and, when given a choice of three by a designer, they always pick the most complex one, which is usually the worst one. The reason for this is simple: logos are usually seen at about 2cm or so width, but when they are presented by the designer, they are usually printed large on A3 paper and mounted on boards. It makes them look far simpler than they really are, and clients panic and pick the most complex one.

Understanding your brand is far more than understanding your logo, but this article is about the logo only, so we will stick with it for now.

If you want to know what makes a good logo, just remember that they are MADE and not BORN.

MADE is Memorable — Appropriate — Distinctive — Efficient.
BORN is Blatant — Ornate — Repetitive — Neutral.

Let’s look at MADE first.

Memorable

The short-term memory loop is about two seconds, and the eye has to respond to the logo in that time for it to be effective. There’s no time for complex interactions, including the complexity of a long name. Keep the name to seven letters if you possibly can, or split it into two shorter words if you can’t.

A fascinating piece of massive online research suggests that there are exactly three things which make phrases and logos memorable: generalness, uniqueness, and tip-of-the-tongue sounds. Tip-of-the-tongue sounds are ‘th‘, ‘t’, ‘s’, and so on, rather than ‘g’, ‘l’, ‘k’, ‘uh’. You probably can’t change that now, but if you’re thinking of a new name ‘Stamp Tide’ is a better choice than ‘Growl Call’.

Generalness is about something which is obvious, recognisable, and looks like something we already know. Uniqueness is about giving it just one twist. If you look at famous logos such as Apple or Gillette, you’ll see a single alteration of the word or symbol. For Apple it’s the bite mark. For Gillette, which is already a more unique name, there’s a razor hidden in the ‘l’.

Appropriate

The reason we generally work on the brand before the logo is that until you know what your promise is, you can’t know what your logo should look like. A logo isn’t an illustration (and the UK won’t let you trademark it if it is), but it has to be appropriate. I spent some time with a start-up business which wanted to sensitively advise businesses. But one of the partners insisted that ‘Rhino’ would be the best name. We didn’t get very far. If you sell military hardware, you won’t expect to see a lot of pink in the logo. If you’re selling machine tools, then anything too flowery is going to be inappropriate.

Distinctive

Figure out who your main competitors are, and have a logo that looks different from theirs. For one stationery brand I worked on, we moved the colour from a green which looked close to their main competitor, through to a blue which contrasted with that and the red of another competitor. We won ‘brand of the year’ for it in the stationery industry, and the colour was a key part of that. It doesn’t matter if your logo is somewhat reminiscent of another company, organisation or product in a different market category—as long as it’s not so similar you aren’t allowed to trademark it. But it must have maximum difference from the people who might be confused with you.

Efficient

Every extra curve, angle, colour or effect slows down the eye’s processing, as does every additional letter. If you are a three-letter company, such as IBM or the BBC, you can afford to have more intricacy in the logo, but for most names, you want to keep it as simple as possible. This is visual efficiency. But you also need a logo which can be reproduced in different ways. A two-colour logo might be more exciting than a one-colour logo, but every time you want it applied to mugs, pens, umbrellas, or uniforms, you dramatically increase the cost. If printing on boxes or thermal labels, you will probably have to work in black and white, and any fine lines will be lost.

Not BORN

If your logo is a blatant illustration of what you do, it probably won’t be registerable as a trademark, and it will never look effective as a logo. An ornate logo might possibly work if you sell fancy gates, but even then you would be better not to. Ornate is rarely appropriate, and never efficient.

Many poor logos are repetitive—the eye-catching twist turn up more than once, even though the impact is dramatically less the second time.

One obvious thing people do with logos is colour the dot of the ‘i’ for words containing that letter. A nice red dot is at least distinctive. But what you often see, when someone has done that, is that they repeat the trick. If your company is called ‘Nice Solutions’, colouring in the top of both ‘i’s just looks messy.

Many logos are far too neutral. The owner doesn’t want to put anyone off, and so tries to appeal to the widest possible range of people. This is a mistake. You want to identify as accurately as possible who your ideal customer is, and build everything around them. If you are trying to sell to French-speaking European visual artists, then you don’t need to be looking over your shoulder at what USA farmers might be thinking when they see the logo.

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