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What Makes a Logo Great?

November 14, 2014

There are lots of places you can go that will tell you how you can create a compelling logo. Since how-to has been adequately covered, let’s talk about what exactly makes an amazing logo and why it stands out in your mind. What is it about that logo that resonated with you so effectively?

Here are a few key indicators that a logo has great design:

The Logo Represents The Company.

Or more precisely, it represents the ideal or philosophy the company stands for or believes in. It’s rarely a literal representation of the products or services.

Consider FedEx’s logo. On a quick glance it looks like typical typeface logo. Look closer and you’ll notice that the negative space between the E and the X creates an arrow, which represents forward movement. Also take notice what the logo doesn’t include: packages, delivery trucks, etc.—nothing you would associate with their products or service. Instead they’ve encapsulated an ideal that is bigger than all of that with their simple logo design.

Often when clients will talk about effective logos, they talk about Nike as the kind of branding mark they aspire to have. But equally often, when these same clients are presented with abstract concepts that might represent their brand (similar to the Nike swoosh), they reply that they want something more laterally representative of their product. What these clients really want isn’t an abstract logo like Nike’s. They want one that’s as recognizable as Nike’s (who doesn’t?). In those particular cases they’d be happier with a logo that represented a concept associated with their company – the Nike’s swoosh represents a wing and speed, not shoes.

One of the great logo designers, Paul Rand, was once quoted as saying: “Surprising to many, the subject matter of a logo is of relatively little importance… Ultimately, the only mandate in the design of logos, it seems, is that they be distinctive, memorable, and clear.

The Logo is Appropriate for Its Customers.

Look at the Toys-R-Us logo. Toys-R-Us makes toys so it is a company with products that appeal primarily to children. The logo is made up of a fun font with bright colors. The backwards “R” is indicative of the way a child might mistakenly write the letter when first learning to spell. Now take those same design cues and apply them to a logo for an investment firm or insurance agency. It doesn’t work. Because “fun” is not something we want from our investments or insurance agents. We want “safe” or “growth” or something equally serious. On the same note, children wouldn’t connect to a toy store with a law-firm style logo.

The Logo is Distinctive and Original.

There’s no dearth of company logos that are almost exactly the same as their competitor’s. If you want a great logo you need to find a more unique combination of icon and typography. Unlike just about every other coffee company, the Starbucks logo

doesn’t have a coffee bean anywhere in its logo. Instead, they have a mermaid.

The Logo is Adaptable.

Meaning, a really great logo works in a variety of situations. It works in black and white. It looks good in full color. It works when it’s shrunk down to fit on a mobile app icon and it works when it’s on a large billboard. A really effective logo is clear and discernible across many applications. Which generally means that a really great logo doesn’t need a bunch of Photoshop effects like shadows, glares, and 3D extrusions. It’s why the current trend of flat color is so popular. Keeping the logo simple keeps it versatile.

The Logo is Timeless.

Think about the logos for Coke, McDonalds or Tide. These logos have been around for decades. They haven’t really changed all that much during that time except for some small tweaks that have kept them current with design trends but still true to their original design. These logos have become icons because the companies they represent have fervently protected them against misuse, and made also sure they are used consistently, year after year. This is what makes them memorable and timeless.


A Bad Company Will Not Have a Great Logo for Long.

At the end of the day, no matter how effective or awesome your logo is, if your product or service isn’t equally awesome, the logo will not be remembered as great.

Consider Enron. Their logo was designed by Paul Rand, who I quoted earlier. It does everything correctly from a design standpoint—it’s original, works at all sizes, works in black and white, and is appropriate for the company’s services. And yet no one I’ve mentioned it to thinks of Enron’s logo as great. Why? Because no one thinks of Enron as great. When people think of Enron they think of dishonesty and corruption and greed.

Finally, from Paul Rand again: “A logo derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes. If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job immediately, before an audience has been properly conditioned.”

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