What made a logo great

Discussion about the purpose of a logo and what makes one great has shifted from conversations within the design community to an open forum on the social media platform of choice. As more people in general are interested in logo design—and voice their opinions—there have been more and more comments by professionals that minimize the importance of a logo’s role. Creative directors and brand managers, whether agency side or in-house, talk about how the logo is just one facet of a company’s communications and how it plays a very small part in the overall brand experience.

Which is all true.

As long as you consider that downplaying the role of a logo and the impact it makes—certainly at the launch, and definitely over the long term—can lead to bad design, an unsuccessful program, frustration from the employees at the company, and formidable online backlash.

What made logo great

News articles and blogs about a brand refresh will cover why the change was made and what the thinking was behind the new design, highlighting the qualities that make it special: It’s simple and memorable and timeless and versatile and appropriate and iconic and unique and scalable and legible and meaningful and modern—and as long as it’s used consistently and communicates the brand message then it’s a success. Unless it doesn’t do any of those things.

Many of these qualities seem to riff off a short list that Paul Rand described in his 1991 essay, “Logos, flags, and escutcheons.” He writes, “The effectiveness of a good logo depends on (a) distinctiveness, (b) visibility, (c) usability, (d) memorability, (e) universality, (f) durability, and (g) timelessness.”

I like that Rand didn’t need to include simplicity on that list. Simplicity isn’t a mandate, but it can be a byproduct of doing everything else well. If you succeed with A through G, a logo design can handle a degree of complexity and richness, with simplicity and versatility being qualities that are made clear in application (the ability to live at small sizes, how well it works in complex and changing environments, how effective it is in one color, etc.).

It’s the last one—timelessness—that’s the acid test of greatness.

The question then becomes not, “What makes a logo great?” but rather, “What made a logo great?”

ABC logo classic
Paul Rand’s timeless logo design for the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), completed in 1962.

The keys to greatness

The answer lies in whether it can stand the test of time. Looking for that answer requires thinking about how it will live beyond the launch. Why does that delivery truck still look great? Why does that bottle, only slightly evolved over the years, feel like it’s been around, unchanged, forever? Why does that app feel like it was always a part of the brand, even though the sensibility was established in 1994? In other words, what can we learn from a mark that was created five, ten or even twenty years ago?

Creating something that will be timeless requires designers and clients to adopt a perspective that imagines a world beyond launch day and into a future that is five or ten or twenty years away. Brands are not static things. They’re never finished. They are dynamic and in a perpetual state of change and growth. Will this new or evolved logo be able to live in that world?

A logo doesn’t need to constantly change, but it does need to represent an organization that lives with constant change. I discuss this quite a bit with clients, recognizing that brands must be agile, and that managing a brand—and a logo—is less about rigid consistency and more about the ability to adapt, flex, and connect.

This way of thinking requires designers to be both completely confident in their decisions and selfless in what they create. They must be sure of their work and ideas, as well as the way they work with their clients to create something distinctive, memorable, and timeless. Designers are also required to think beyond themselves and ask: How will this system work after it has left my hands? How will the internal designers at the company work with it? How will the range of advertising, digital, environmental, and event agencies work with it? Will it be something that will inspire new ideas in different mediums, or will it be something that is obligingly placed in a corner?

What made logo great

What we want to do with these marks and the systems that support them is define a sensibility that isn’t necessarily perfect, but over time will be right for an organization. The notion of perfection in a work was brought up by artist Donald Judd in an interview with Claudia Jolles in 1990: “I don’t consider the pieces perfect. I just don’t think of them in that way. They should be well made, because if they are badly made, it is obtrusive, that’s all. Being well made is just eliminating troubles and things to be distracted by.”

What made a logo great? It was made well for the moment of introduction—and it was able to grow when it needed to do something more.

 

This piece was first published by Print Magazine (18 November 2016). Republished with permission.