Logos are symbols, symbols have power



Every brand needs a logo. Branding has become such an essential part of communications that the meaning of the word brand has been extended to include more than just businesses. Non-profits, government agencies, even informal groups like book clubs and softball teams are now treated as brands. Everyone has a logo, and most of them are fall far short of what a logo should be.

Logo design at its best is the most highly refined application of visual language. While flyers, posters, websites, or other marketing collateral incorporate photos, graphics, text, and video, a logo is just a graphic element that standing alone has to communicate a powerful and memorable message.

Unfortunately, like many aspects of design, logo design has degenerated to an arms race to create logos that are eye-catching, trendy, logos that look "cool." Minimalism has been trendy in design since the rise of Apple as a status symbol brand, but much of what is billed as minimalist logo design is unimaginative, bland, uniform, and uninspired. Well-executed minimalist design reduces a graphic element to no more than is necessary to accomplish the intended effect, reusing the same basic shapes over and over again isn't minimalism it's laziness. Most minimalist logo design consists of creating a single, stylized, graphic representation...typically a single object tied to the name of the brand. So for example, a brand might be called "Raspberry Apparel" and their logo would be a stylized minimalist raspberry graphic.

Why does it matter? Why bother investing time, energy, talent, and creativity into a logo design when you can churn "clean" and "minimalist" designs all day? That is what the clients ask for. Why does good logo design matter? First and foremost, it is our duty as designers to educate our clients as to what good design is and why it matters. As designers, is up to us to make sure that clients understand that they may be able to get a logo "designed" for $5, but that a good design takes a time and high degree of skill to execute and that investment is worthwhile to their organization.

So let's start with symbols. A symbol is a single graphic element that has meaning. Symbols allow the communication of meaning from simple to complex in a compact space. This could be a very simple and literal meaning, or a rich, nuanced, and multilayered meaning.


Take this universal skull and crossbones symbol. This symbol was designed as part of an effort to create an international system of universal symbols for labeling hazardous materials. Without much cultural context, this symbol immediately indicates something is dangerous or deadly. The color red is hardwired into humans as an indication of danger, and the skull is almost universally linked to the idea of death or dying. A detailed explanation of what will happen to you if you drink a substance labeled with this symbol isn't necessary; people see the symbol and know to stay away. The symbol has the power to induce fear with the intention of saving lives. This is a symbol with a very simple meaning that has tremendous effects in the real world.


Now take the Christian cross, a symbol with a much longer history and one packed with meaning. On the surface, perhaps it may seem that the cross is just a symbol for Christ or Christianity, but there is much more going on. You have a layer of meaning in the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. You have a layer of meaning in all the attachment and significance people raised as Christians attach to the symbol, and that meaning varies depending on which denomination in which they were raised. Then you have layer upon layer of meaning people from other cultures attach to the symbol, invading Crusaders, conquering European colonial armies, oppression of native religious practices. There's a whole layer of meaning that someone who was raised in a Christian family, but rejected the faith and became an Atheist would attach to the same symbol. Positive, negative, historical, spiritual, personal, war, oppression, redemption, salvation, forgiveness, judgement, this one simple symbol unleashes a cascade of meaning. It is nearly impossible for anyone in the world not to be affected by the power of this symbol when they see it.

So at two ends of the spectrum, the danger symbol and the Christian cross demonstrate how symbols can be packed with meaning, either unambiguous or highly nuanced. They evoke emotions and reactions. They exercise a power over anyone who sees them.

The point is not that a corporate logo for a company that sells boat shoes needs to be as highly charged with meaning as the symbol of a major world religion, but there should be a careful consideration of what meaning is being packed into a logo. Minimalist design is popular, although it's by no means the only design aesthetic. A minimalist design does not have to be devoid of layered meaning. The point is that whatever layers of meaning the designer and their client decide to build into a logo should be carefully considered.

A good logo isn't something that's cool, hip, or on-trend. A good logo is timeless, universal, and has carefully balanced and considered meaning. Utilizing that power to convey meaning is what makes a logo stand out in the audience's mind. From the first time someone sees it, it should resonate with them, and it is an encoded message to the viewer that speaks with the voice of the brand.


The Bluetooth logo is an excellent example of a logo that meets these criteria. Bluetooth was conceived as a communications protocol that united many standards. The logo is based on the rune for the Viking King Harald Bluetooth, who unified Danish tribes into a single nation. So, while still managing to be quite minimalist in its design this logo is packed with meaning.

The rush to the bottom for design work has lowered the bar for expectations as to what design can do. No designer is going to pour the full depth of consideration, meaning, and power into a logo design when design is treated as disposable and frivolous. The only way to solve this problem as designers is to embark on a process of re-educating clients as to the full power of design.

#graphicdesign #design #logodesign #semiotics #symbols #branding

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