The ultimate logo manifesto (part 5)

Part 5: Iconography & Elements

But when you think of a logo, it’s usually an image that pops into mind; a graphic element that is associated with a company. Here’s a little exercise to illustrate my point. Below are six images, sans any descriptive wording. Can you correctly identify which companies below to which symbol?

Company Logos - Symbols only

Okay, so I didn’t say it was a hard exercise, but it does serve to emphasize my point that one of the most powerful components of a logo isn’t the name beneath the image, but rather the symbol itself. People are very visual creatures and the association of an image to a product is a very valuable tool in building and maintaining a strong brand identity.

(For reference, the correct answers of the above logos, from top left to bottom right, are: McDonald’s, Mercedes-Benz, Pepsi, Microsoft Windows, Nike and Cadillac)

As discussed before, the iconography or elements of a logo when first introduced are nothing more than a picture; a visual graphic. The image gains value when used consistently and is supported by both a quality product or service and a dedicated marketing/branding effort. The above images have been used for many years and supported through consistent advertising. The element have largely gone unchanged for years — even decades — and it is that consistency that encourages familiarity and builds a strong association to the company. Any revamp or alterations to a logo or brand must be done deliberately and for good reason as any changes means discarding all the value and brand recognition that has been accrued up to that point; it means requiring your customers to ‘forget’ what was and ask them to learn something new — an action that is very difficult and requires a great deal of faith on both the part of the company and the audience to undertake.

But what is involved with choosing or developing that image in the first place?

When you create a logo, you have an almost limitless array of options available. The important thing to keep in mind is that a logo is a unique symbol of a company, and as such it must look unique.

As discussed in Part 1 of the Great Logo Manifesto, the selection or development of any image comes as part of the research phase of logo creation. By the time you sit down to actually create the logo, you should have a pretty good idea of what image or images could be used to help complement and describe the nature of the business, service or product. You should have a good feel for the tone, the ideology and presence a company wants to convey.

Avoid clichés and repetitive elements

Repetitive elements are images like swooshes, stars and digital fades; nondescript and generic images that do little for setting the tone of a company or distinguishing a logo from any number of unrelated company. It seems that when anybody wants to make something look exciting, futuristic or technical they add one of the aforementioned elements. Be original people. Really dig deep and stretch the limits of your imagination. A logo doesn’t necessarily have to be a logical or literal interpretation of what a company does, produces or promotes. This all goes back to doing your research and letting your new-found knowledge of the company fuel your creative juices.

The generic ‘swoosh’ …

Example of a generic swoosh.

The ‘digital fade’ …

Digital fade

The generic ‘fade’ …

A generic fade element

Random ‘stars’ …

Random use of stars

Another thing to consider is using a repetitive regional element. For example, in Colorado Springs, the dominant regional element is Pikes Peak. Many companies and individuals want to tie the mountains into their logo. A good 80% of local business logos you see in Colorado Springs, and to a greater extent along Colorado’s Front Range have a mountain of some sort intertwined within the image.

Do you know how many ways there are to do mountains in a logo? Three. Yes, just three.

There’s the traditional snow capped triangle(s)…

Snowcapped peaks

A detailed and photo realistic image…

Realistic photo of Pikes Peak

An abstract illustration that looks like a caterpillar with a calcium deficiency…

Abstract representation of a mountain range.

This particular element is so overused and so prevalent in local logo design that any logo that uses a mountain ends up looking like a hundred or thousand other logos. It is increasingly hard to distinguish a logo for a tax attorney from that of a plumber.

I sure people in other parts of the world will easily identify with what I’m saying. People in New York are probably sick of seeing logos with the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge or Empire State Building in them, just as people in Paris probably see their share of logos with the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triumph.

The point being made here is that a company’s location is not nearly as significant as the service it performs. Keep your focus on what matters. Make an effort to be distinctive and develop a symbol that represents your business, not it’s location. If you have any ambitions to expand or grow a company beyond your current location, tying your logo in to a local landmark will ultimately create a situation where the reasons for choosing the image in the first place, actually works against your branding efforts as you expand outward. If you expand to New Mexico or Kansas, will the image of Pikes Peak help ingratiate yourself to customers in the new areas? Will it foster the sense of understanding, familiarity and homespun quality? No.

The only exception is if your business has something directly related to the landmark in question. For example, I wouldn’t fault a local visitor’s bureau from associating itself with a landmark, an organization dedicated to preserving a park, or a ski resort marketing itself to potential customers both in- and out-of-state. But if you sell widgets, you have to ask yourself what is more likely to draw in a customer? Is it an image of the widget or a picture of a mountain?

Be unique and be relevant to your business and avoid the pitfall of associating your company with an unrelated symbol that is likely to be used by a thousand less-talented, less imaginative business owners and graphic designers.

Avoid photography or detailed illustrations

As was discussed in Part 2 it is strongly recommended that any images used in a logo are vector-based and not raster-based. This means do not choose a photograph or complex illustration/drawing for your image. An example would be the photo-realistic image of a mountain shown earlier in this post. Logos incorporating a detailed photo or illustration are not as versatile as vector images that are more simplistic and use selective color.

An example is a true story from a radio station. They had a very attractive full color logo which looks great on print advertising and on their website. But the day came where they wanted to imprint their logo on candy jars to hand out to their customers for the holidays. What you see below is an example of how that beautiful illustrated logo translated when converted to the vector-based, one-color graphic.

Full color meets vector black and white

The importance of maintaining consistency across all reproductions is critical in building an effective logo brand image. As was discussed in Part 3, it is important to design logos in a pure line art form (solid values of black and white) first and then develop the color versions to ensure that the logo will maintain its integrity on all reproduction. What happened here is that the designer of this logo did not consider all possible applications of the logo when developing the concept. The result was that the client saw and bought the beautiful full color logo, but when it came time to apply it for a particular application (the candy jar), the logo did not maintain its integrity.

As a designer, you must anticipate the reproduction needs when constructing a logo, you cannot expect that the client will understand all the ramifications of their choice. The logo for the radio station, despite its pretty appearance in full color must ultimately be considered a ‘lemon’ as it hurt the client’s brand because it was unable to translate across all mediums. Ultimately the station had to re-brand itself at additional cost and the company producing the candy jars had to eat the cost on the order, even though they had nothing to do with the initial logo design nor it’s conversion to the black and white vector format.

Using fonts as the logo icon

A logo does not require an image to make the logo effective; it can be a text-only logo. In this case the treatment of the text become the icon. As discussed in Part 4 the choice and application of a particular font or typeface can have a profound impact on the effectiveness of a logo.

A perfect example of a text-only logo used as an icon is Federal Express.

FedEx logo as an icon

While the FedEx logo is very simple, it does contain a hidden icon. The tight kerning of the individual characters has created a ‘hidden’ arrow between the E and the X. Given the nature of the service that FedEx provides (the transport and delivery of packages), the arrow implies a sense of motion and progress without being a dominant element of the logo.

Just as a means of comparison, assume that the designer of the FedEx logo had chosen a serif font, instead of the sans serif typeface used. The image below explores that idea, and even though the font size is the same, the colors are the same, and the bold nature of the font is the same, the impact of the font itself is significantly different than the original logo.

The use of text as a means of creating an identifiable and iconic logo proves that an image is not necessarily required to build an effective and memorable brand. What is required is some forethought and planning to ensure that the font creates an indelible and impactful image that supports the intent and messaging of the brand.

There are many factors involved in choosing the right image to represent a company. There is the messaging component that helps provide — without words — the intent, application or purpose of the company or product. There is the avoidance of cliché ideas or overused design concepts to create a unique a powerful symbol that does not become too similar to the icon used by another company. You have to choose the right type of image to ensure the versatility and reproduction of the logo across any possible application. Font selection can make a big impact in the development of a solid corporate image.

Finally, it is worth stating that any logo, no matter how beautifully designed is only as good as the support it receives through effective branding and marketing efforts, including the consistent application of the logo in all its forms.

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