Features of a good logo
A complete guide with famous logo design
examples from the best brands.
There are reasons, why the famous, iconic Apple logo isn't as elaborate and decorative like in 1976, but preserves to this day (after forsaking the rainbow fill in 1998) the simple appearance, designed just a year later by Rob Janoff.
Apple logo design by Ronald Wayne, 1976
Apple logo design by Rob Janoff, 1977
Similar motives have surely accompanied the changes of i.e. Canon corporate identity. It is easy to figure out the aim of these modifications. Whereas the quite recent subtle revisions to the logos of MTV or Carrefour supermarket chain may be less understandable. So what is the desired ultimate form of a logo? What attributes should it hold?
Canon logo design, in 1934, 1934 (first change), 1935, 1953, 1956
MTV logo design, 1981 and 2010
Carrefour logo design, 1966 and 2009
As evident in the initial examples, legibility is an essential principle in logo design (and all graphic design in my opinion). Accounting for the fact, that a logo repeatedly appears at small sizes, it is crucial that its graphic symbol and wordmark are easy to read and identify at a glance. And the logo designer has to be fully aware of how the logo communicates. Rob Janoff "bit" the apple – had he not done it, it could be mistaken for a cherry.
Form reduction greatly improves legibility. As visible on the case of German insurance company Allianz logo history, some details cease to mean anything at a small size and it is better to reduce the design to just the crucial elements. A graphic mark like this gains visual strength. There is also less possibility for potential damage resulting from low reproduction quality (i.e. poor fax or xerographic copies, heavily compressed graphic files). Whereas from a less technical point of view, unnecessary details are a distraction. A simplified logo is much easier to remember. It is evident, which Allianz logo design would be the easiest to draw from memory.
Allianz logomark design, years 1890, 1923, 1977, 1999 onward
Another argument for a simple logo construction is, somewhat paradoxically, a higher resistance to diluting of the brand uniqueness due to similar brand marks of other firms appearance. While i.e. many logos picturing a lion can be found, the Target logo, comprising of three circles does not contain any details, that could be altered, without resulting in a visibly different design. The simple Apple's apple form is also very protected by the company and nothing even vaguely resembling such a basic shape has no right to exist in the brand logo world. It is a model example, even if Apple has been getting repeatedly ridiculous in the extent of legal steps taken to secure their brand.
Target logo design, 1974
CBS logo design by William Golden or Georg Olden, 1951
Umbro logo design
Another factor of legibility is something I would call "elements solidness", by which I mean i.e. increasing the "M" stroke weight in MTV logo design or the letters weight in the Canon logotype. Thin elements are hard to see, they lose their significance. And as such, they are useless and dispensable. Treatments aimed at improving the solidness and legibility of a logo design (without notable changes to the logo subject or basic form) are among the most common reasons for a logo redesign. They are also associated with simplification, as thin and small elements are in fact details.
recognition and memorability
These are further qualities of a good logo. For the most part, they are being acquired through marketing efforts, ubiquity of the logo, but specific design approaches are equally important. The aforementioned legibility and simplification are some of them.
Numerous of the best, most famous brands identify themselves with typographic logotypes, wordmarks. It gives them the chance to focus the viewers attention on the company name and, to some extent, creates a more serious image – we tend to associate text with substance, more so than graphics.
Nescafé logotype design
Braun logotype design
Nokia logotype design
IKEA logotype design
Devising an unique brand image with a wordmark alone is a difficult task – letters, generally speaking, have a set shape (regardless of the insane amount of varied typefaces available today). As such, the possibility of diversification is more limited than when using images. Despite this, it is possible to achieve very good results with just a logotype. The perfect situation is reached, if we are able to recognise a logo just by looking at a single letter. It is then undeniable, that the typography used is highly characteristic and memorable. A logotype based on handwriting has it easier to achieve that. The modifications, irregularities to the default letter shapes that would be seen as odd with constructed type, are considered natural with handwriting and add the sought for personality. There are many good examples, including such classic logos as Coca-Cola, Disney and Kellogg's. Each looks unique and not forced.
Coca-Cola logotype design
Disney logotype design
Kellogg's logotype design
Despite custom lettering being a quality often characteristic of leading brands, it is not essential for achieving a successful brand. Presented below is a (far from complete) showcase of a number of famous, and for the most part good logos, utilising the same typeface: Helvetica – the go-to font for designers all around the world since Max Miedinger designed it as long ago, as 1957.
selection of well-known logos using the Helvetica typeface
The above examples illustrate that even with a single popular typeface the possibilities are many. Most of the logo designs pictured are instantly recognizable, as the result of a couple factors. First of all there are additional graphic elements in some, secondly the letters composition as well as the shape of individual words creates a distinct image. Another very important component is the brand color.
color is considered by many the most distinct element of brand identity. According to studies 64% of people state that it is more important than the slogan, typeface of even logo shape. Some brands go as far as to copyright certain shades of color (it is possible to copyright a specific Pantone color for a product in a particular country). Namely i.e. Easy Jet orange, Cadbury violet, BP green, McDonald's red and yellow (though the red is being replaced to an extent by dark green in some Europe countries).
BP logo design
McDonalds logo design
Easyjet logo design
Cadbury logo design
When we look at something, the color information is perceived instantly and using a distinctive color (maybe two or three) turns out to be very effective in reminding us of a certain brand. Different business branches have color ranges typical for them. Like you will not typically witness pink or pastel colors in products and services aimed at men. Therefore it is important to claim a color palette that would be both appropriate and distinct, with emphasis on the latter, as we can make the color scheme appropriate by crafting a fitting visual identity.
Continuing from the previous topic: out of 50 most valuable brands (data from 2007, by BusinessWeek), 73% have one color logo designs, while 40% use a logo with blue as the only or dominant color. 74% represent themselves with a wordmark logo. The above statistics can be viewed as a guideline how should a corporate logo for a big company look. Or they can be a reminder of what trends are to be omitted for conceiving a brand that would stand out.
Nike logo design, the so called "Swoosh"
Apart from certain colors (i.e. blue, which is generally like or red, which stands out and like so is ominous in magazine masthead design) or typefaces (like aforementioned Helvetica), we can also notice many overused graphic symbols. The popular notion of businesses being "green" sprouts many similar green leaves in logos. Social or educational initiatives are somehow attracted to circles formed with simplified human figures. And of course a dynamic arc, the so-called "swoosh", made most famous by the Nike company apparently can be used for almost anything. The never ending popularity of this motif (along with its lack of meaning) makes it useless, except for Nike.
Some symbols are also common because of them being iconic and familiar for the particular type of business. A logo designer can often be forced to work with such a preselected motif. If he is a creative professional, one can count on him to process it in a unique and fresh way. You can see examples of this in logo publications like LogoLounge, that group similar themed logo designs in categories.
It is absolutely certain that a good logo has to be distinctive. Otherwise it fails to fulfil its function.
It' hard to have a recognizable image if it is changed a lot. An ideal logo would be able to stand the test of time from the very beginning. And while some brands can be praised for great rebranding efforts and keeping up with the times, you could also just consider it as proof that the previous identity was not good enough. Nevertheless, every change runs a risk of failing and without doubt generates high financial costs. Amongst unarguable reasons forcing a rebranding are: a name change, change of scope of business if the logo referenced the old one in an explicit way, rebranding of a company that got somehow discredited. Without getting deeper into the motives (but I am going to cover the subject of rebranding in another article), I present probably the most evident example of high value of consistency.
logo Pepsi, 1898
logo Pepsi, 1905
logo Pepsi, 1906
logo Pepsi, 1941
logo Pepsi, 1950
logo Pepsi, 1961
logo Pepsi, 1970
logo Pepsi, 1987
logo Pepsi, 1991
logo Pepsi, 1997
logo Pepsi, 2003
logo Pepsi, 2008
After analysing the evolution of Coca-Cola and Pespi logos, it is easy to judge whose logos coped better. The constant changes in the Pepsi logo, from imitating the competition, through more original attempts aimed at differentiating (like adding the pepsi blue color), to the newest, widely criticized bizzare logo, send the message that in the fields of recognition and brand status this company stays behind. The newest try, introduced in 2010 seems to aim at getting out of Coca-Cola's shadow by reaching for a completely contrasting look and attracting media publicity. You could say that every generation remembers a different Pepsi and that link is being broken every couple of years. One may argue that every generation of people is different, but Coca-Cola's example proves that a brand can stay relevant for more than a century without drastic changes to the logo (the 1985 Coke rebrand, protested by the customers, aside). This is reflected in the brand's value.
logo Coca-Cola, 1887
logo Coca-Cola, 1905
logo Coca-Cola, 1941
logo Coca-Cola, 1958
logo Coca-Cola, 1969
logo Coca-Cola, 1985
logo Coca-Cola, 1986
logo Coca-Cola, 1987
logo Coca-Cola, 2002
logo Coca-Cola, 2005
meaning and idea
Of course a vital role in identifying a brand is played by connecting the brand image with various meanings. It creates an associations map, that connects the logo's image with our memory. As such, designers who do not understand the idea of logo design, feel an urge to create designs that are very illustrative. Trying to directly picture the brand's activity, they tend to create pictures that are too complex, literal and packed with obvious elements. Whereas it is better to focus on a symbolic concept, that makes the viewer search for connotations.
It is handy to have a wordmark or logomark that represents the brand's industry, but it is not necessary in most cases, as it limits the number of possible solutions and can lead to clichéd results. Legendary designer Paul Rand, the creator of, among others, logo designs for ABC television and IBM computer company, referenced these designs as proof that a logo gains meaning through way it stands for. For example, prior to introducing the stripes to the IBM logotype in 1972 (the solid version from 1956), they were not a motif representative of IT and computers.
ABC logo design, Paul Rand, 1962
IBM logo design, Paul Rand, 1956
There are, without doubt, numerous good logo designs relating to the business branch. Like the NBC's Peacock, depicting the introduction of color TV – current logo by Chermayeff & Geismar, 1987. The same design company created the Mobil logo. The brilliantly simple concept of highlighting the round "O" letter with red color, communicates the meaning (of dynamism, driving, wheels) without being overly illustrative (this idea was lost in the merged ExxonMobil brand). Similar praise can be given to the famous FedEx logo, where an arrow hidden in negative space between the letters, symbolises delivering a package.
NBC logo design, Chermayeff & Geismar, 1986
Mobil logo design, Chermayeff & Geismar, 1964
FedEx logo design, Lindon Leader (Landor), 1994
A frequent good idea, giving original effects, can be directly referencing the name in the logo design. If the name is interesting, it allows for creating a mark unlike the competition's, more individual and intriguing. Basic example are the likes of Apple, Jaguar or Shell. These figurative logos are simple and easy to remember. The name is equal to the image's subject, so additionally it's possible to represent the brand with the logomark alone. Very convenient in the age of visual culture.
Shell logo design, Raymond Loewy 1971
existing image representation
If the design concerns an established brand, it is favourable to relate to the existing graphic design elements. It gives the advantage of strengthening the brand image and building a unified corporate identity that is relatable for the client from the start. Rebranding is always risky or at least tricky, so this is one sure way to win over the employees and clients. There are many notable examples. The McDonald's logo picturing the yellow arches of one of the first restaurant buildings. The Heinz company logo, employing the highly distinct product etiquettes shape, that has been with the brand from the beginning. The National Geographic magazine logo – yet another brilliant Chermayeff & Geismar logo design – a solution utilising the yellow rectangle frame, iconic of the magazine's cover, seems obvious upon noticing, but really needed an experienced designer to devise it. A flawless concept. Another case worth mentioning is the ribbon introduces to the Coca-Cola branding in the '60s, echoing the shape of the bottle (which was itself inspired by the cocoa seed shape).
Heinz logo design
National Geographic logo design
by Chermayeff & Geismar
Let us analyse one of the most famous logos of today, Google. A rapidly growing company in one of the most important business branches. Why is it represented by something so childish, colorful and until not so long ago with drop shadow and emboss effects, typical of cheap and amateurish logo designs?
Web users came to love the Google Search for good search results as much as the straightforward nature, with no unnecessary elements, a simple and friendly look. These meant a lot in the digital world where big-corporate Microsoft and snobbish Apple were the main players. And despite becoming a huge corporation, Google aims to retain the amicable character. Apart from keeping the kind of silly logo, it introduces the casual Google Doodles (which attract bonus publicity).
The above analysis was written concerning the logo set in the serif Catull font, but it is equally relevant regarding the even simpler and less serious wordmark introduced in September 2015.
Google logotype design, 2015
Google logotype design, 1998
Google logotype design, 1999
Google logotype design, 2010
Google logotype design, 2013
A category very much related to character representation. Pictured below is the Harley-Davidson company logo. It suits the roar of motorcycle engines, the smell of fuel, the look of leather jackets and tattoos. If we tried to replace the name with, let's say, „Johnson & Johnson” (and change „motor company” to „no more tears”) it would not have much sense. Amongst specific logo form types we can mention i.e. emblems (symbolising quality, tradition, safety), monograms (clever ones or elegant like Chanel and Louis Vuitton), mascot logos (like Michelin – creating a friendly, but less serious image). Generally picking the preferred form is usually straightforward and needs no additional explanation.
Furthermore the logo design should be consistent. The logomark should complement the wordmark. The simple example of Carrefour rebranding (from the beginning of the article) shows changing the typeface to one whose letter shapes are more alike the "C" in the logomark.
Harley-Davidson logo design
Johnson & Johnson logotype design
Coco-Chanel monogram design
Louis Vuitton monogram design
Michelin logo design with mascot
I have described already some logo designs with brilliant concepts. There are various methods that help creating concepts able to capture the viewers attention for a little longer to figure out and appreciate the idea. Bigger companies often keep their logos moderate, but other, still looking for attention, might consider to pack something curious in their brand mark.
The portfolios of contemporary logo designers are full of clever and witty designs (though some of them are not real client work). Most of them wouldn't be adequate for serious companies, present on the stock market or with broad international activity, but a bit of wit should be always welcome. As Paul Rand stated, "the notion that the humorous approach to visual communication is undignified or belittling is sheer nonsense".
One of efficient ways to achieve a clever logo is to use negative space. Which is not easy to do in an overcomplicated or clumsy way, but leads to appealing effects, like in the FedEx or Carrefour logo designs. A not widely known good example from Poland is the CPN (Petroleum Products Central) logo from 1967 by Stefan Solik. It is a negative space crafted monogram in the shape of a fuel dispenser. Often logos combine not only letters but images in this fashion.
CPN monogram design using negative space, Stefan Solik, 1967
Another logo design that makes us "fill up the gaps" in a wonderful way is the old Northwest Airlines logo by the Landor agency (you would be amazed at how many huge brands they have worked with). The "N" from the logomark becomes a "W" by adding an arrow pointing in the north-west direction. In this simple looking form, the airline's name is being represented three times.
Northwest Airlines logo design, Landor
A dynamic logo can also engage the viewer's attention. The impression of motion can be achieved by cropping, juxtaposing various states of a movement and other methods and effects.
Some theorise that the popular trend of giving designs an illusion of 3d by adding gradient fills, shadows or reflections aids the viewer in familiarise an image, by making it appear more real. However it is not a popular belief and it does not seem correct. Such attempts most often lead to reducing the mark's impact, stripping it of the pure graphic strength. Luckily this is not the only way a designer can add dimension to a graphic. They can utilise i.e. scale, value, color or shape.
Fiat logo design
Google Chrome 3D logo design
and newer, 2D logo design
A very specific example of a logo is an ambigram. It means an text image that appears the same after being rotated 180 degrees. These intricate designs need a convenient text as a base or extensive efforts to make it work. The most well known ambigram author is John Langdon and his work is really awe-inspiring. Even if this kind of design treatment is certainly not for every brand, it is worth noting.
Starbucks is the largest coffeehouse company in the world. But its original logo, based on a XV century image of a two-tailed mermaid pictured her this uncovered breasts, wide spread tails and a swollen belly. It should come as no surprise, that when the company became more known, customer complains led to a less risky design and subsequently to cropping the image from the waist up. The majority of present clients have no idea what are the elements on the sides of the siren's head. At the same time the close-up and discarding the border with the name aided in increasing the legibility and made for a cleaner brand look.
Starbucks logo design, Terry Heckler (Heckler/Bowker), 1971
Starbucks logo design, Doug Fast (Heckler/Bowker), 1987
Starbucks logo design, Doug Fast (Heckler/Bowker), 1992
Starbucks logo design, Lippincott, 2011
The above example is quite charming, but it is essential to avoid unwanted ambiguity. Otherwise the logo and brand might be mocked of offend someone. I am attaching the logo of Brazilian Oriental Institute with no comment.
A good logo must be functional and able to serve all possible purposes. One way to ensure it is to develop a Brand Book, a document describing the construction, colors, typography versions and uses of the logo in various contexts. But the design itself also has to posses the necessary potential. It takes a seasoned logo designer to create a logo that can be a cornerstone of a complete brand identity rather than just a pretty picture.
It is not uncommon for a company to broaden their scope of activity or acquire another company. And many institutions have multiple divisions. In such cases, a need for a brand and sub-brand system emerges. Having a logo that can adapt to such uses is a plus. To exhibit how big of a challenge it can be, I am showing a set of logos functioning within the Virgin corporation (I do not claim that the Virgin logo is well designed per such use or that these examples are of high quality).
Virgin sub-brands logo family
ease of implementation
The practical value of a logo design proves itself in its ability to work well in all promotional material, in every medium and every size, whether minimal on a pencil or huge like on a building. First of all it is important for the logo to function well without color. Having a so-called achromatic logo version is fundamental. Regardless of much better print and display technology than in the past, there are uses, like embossing, engraving etc. that discard the color values information. Another welcome thing are multiple composition versions, like horizontal/vertical or versions intended for use in various sizes, that help balance out the design. To make a case about achromatic logos and a necessity to work at all sizes I can reference two visible from space logo images – KFC's Colonel Sanders pictures with 65000 tiles in Area 51 and the Firefox web browser logo, made in a crop circles fashion.
potential for developing a graphic identity
A logo should be a foundation for a full CI, preferably developed by its author. So it ought to have a distinct character, a color scheme that translates well into graphic designs, a distinct element that can be used as a graphic motif is also very welcome.
Technological progress has been making people spend more time in front of screens – first television, then computers, now smartphones and tablets. These media allow brands to present themselves in new ways. The designs become animated, interactive, personalised.
animated Swisscom logo design by Moving Brands
In the last few years we could observe a tendency for logo designs that do not have their own substance, but are used as canvas for various images. The number of such cases is not very high, but noticeable, especially considering who has adapted such an appearance. We are talking about such significant brands as NYC by Wolf Ollins, with letters filled with imagery of the city, AT&T rendering their logo using various patterns and effects, or the MTV logo used as a frame for band photos. A somewhat extreme example of this trend in the new Aol. logo, which manifests itself only after putting an image or animation as its background.
NYC logo design by Wolf Ollins
MTV logo design
At&T logo design
Aol. logo design
Such approaches can be justified by their flexibility and dynamic, responding to the modern consumer, constantly looking for something new. Regardless, a consistent at the base is essential and more lasting. Consider that if more companies adapted these changing images, they could become undistinguishable in a mess of random pictures. As we can observe to some extent in the above examples.
A subject that may appear minor, but should also be well designed, are avatar images used by the brand in social media. Brand presence on Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, etc. has become a must. And what represents a brand in the first place is a really small and square image. Therefore a logo design that is simple and legible, as well as has a variant that fits well into a square, is in demand. Think of the extreme case of a favicon, used to identify the website in web browser tabs and bookmarks. It is just 16 pixels wide and high.
a tough matter
ruining a mark
Unfortunately it happens that even established brands with a rich history and remarkable logo designs make bad rebranding decisions. Like the mentioned AT&T, a major telecommunications corporation in the USA, with a tradition reaching as far as Graham Bell inventing the telephone system. Since 1984 AT&T's logo was designed by graphic design legend – Saul Bass. It pictured a globe covered with telecommunication cables. The author increased the width of part of the lines to create an illusion of 3d. As so, the new logo from 2005 by Interbrand, applies the 3d effect to a shape that already was a 3d effect. The result is grotesque and a sad reminder of how a design trend can deform a proper image.
AT&T logo design: "marble" by Saul Bass, 1986
AT&T logo design: "Death Star" by Interbrand, 2005
Another really bad case is the Peugeot logo. Most companies of the automotive industry introduced during the recent years a new look, mimicking a real life shiny metallic car emblem. The newest Peugeot logo follows this notion, but fails in executing it in a right way. First of all the awkward shading makes the lion look like a cross between a cobra and a monkey, striking a clumsy pose. Second, the lion has the wrong paw up, which is important considering the heraldic origin of the mark. The logo is also very illegible at small sizes. There are many poor logos. These last two examples display how a logo design can be destroyed by lack of analysis and in pursuit of meaningless visual effects.
Peugeot logo design, 1998
Peugeot logo design, BETC Design 2010
What becomes evident after studying logo designs, is that there is absolutely a lot of different aspects to be considered while designing a logo. It is even more striking when contrasted with how an ordinary viewer perceives a logo. At a superficial level it appears usually as a small and rather simple picture. After looking closer and getting to know some more about a logo design, one can be truly amazed at the amount of effort, thought and talent put into it.
Logo by Michael Evamy
Logo Lounge 2 by Bill Gardner and Catharine Fishel
Dos Logos by Roland Müller