Sending a clear message in logo design

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Some of the best logos in existence are captivating because they convey two meanings at once, accomplish the task from a unique angle, or are somehow otherwise “creative”. The best way to tell a creative logo from a less successful one is if you find yourself, as a designer, thinking, “Man, I wish I would have come up with that idea.”

In our zeal to design a unique and highly creative logo, however, many times we create unintended meanings, cause misconceptions, or complicate an idea more than we need to. This generally occurs when we do any combination of the following:
1. Overcomplicate our logo design
2. Create vague, ambiguous logos, or
3. Try to combine two ideas that simply don’t mesh.

Overcomplicating the design

A good logo should be scalable, simple, and quickly recognizable. In other words, there is a huge difference between an effective logo and an impressive illustration. An illustration, while impressive, is full of detail, color, and value shifts which, if used as a logo, makes it incredibly inflexible. Your logos must be flexible. They will be used on web sites, printed material, copied on copy machines and fax machines, they will be sewn into clothing, printed on t-shirts, and more. Your logo much be simple enough to withstand these changes.

Let’s consider an example. Below are two target-inspired logos. You will obviously recognize one of them. So which is more successful as a logo and why? Let’s examine them a little closer.

The image above, while professionally executed, would never stand the flexibility test because it is simply too complicated. The gradients, the gloss, the bevels and 3d effects, these would never transfer well on a copy machine or when being embroidered on a shirt. While it looks nice, it is more of an illustration than a logo.
The popular target logo seen above, however, is a perfect example of simplicity in logo design. This logo works as effectively in black and white, in small-scale or large scale, when embroidered or screen printed, and when copied or faxed. There is never any ambiguity when it comes to the Target logo. It withstands the flexibility test by remaining simple and uncomplicated.

Creating a vague, ambiguous logo

I was recently working with a few new designers on a logo project. They brought some samples to me and asked for my critique and approval. I had no idea what the company did or what was said in the client–designer meetings.

Sadly, even after reviewing the logos, I still had no idea what the company specialized in. The logo had some nice typography and a swoosh–you know what I mean. I had to ask them, “what exactly does this company do?” After they explained it to me, I simply recommended that they try to capture the essence of the company in the design.

Keep this in mind as we examine the following logos:

clearspringThe logo above is very nicely executed. I’m unsure, however, what the logo is trying to sell me. What does “clearspring” actually do? Is it green cell phone service or healthier water? Actually you might be surprised to find out that this logo was designed for an organic food company. Sadly, the logo says little about food itself. It has a great reference to organic, but little to food.
peppetaOn the contrary, take a look at this logo. It is also based on simple typography but the type and color used here clearly denote food. In addition, the red pepper made from the “t” give the viewer a better idea of what this product or company is all about.

See the difference?

Trying to combine two ideas that don’t mesh

Another common fallacy in logo design is trying to combine ideas that really don’t go well together. Usually this results in confusing the viewer and causing them to miss the message the designer was originally trying to send.

Let’s take the fedEx logo for example. Do you think the designers of this logo would have had so much fun with the negative space if the spacing between the letters “E” and “x” would have somehow formed a puppy or an ice cream cone? Of course not. The negative space creates an arrow, which works perfectly with the positioning of Federal Express: overnight shipping. An arrow symbolizes rapidness and directness. The designers didn’t overcomplicate the design by mixing ideas that don’t go well together. They used one consistent idea and ran with it.

What this means for you and me

So what do we take away from all of this? If you want to make your logo effective, keep it simple. Logos that are simple and not complicated, avoid being vague, and only mix ideas that belong together are the ones that efectively send the right message to the audience.

What other tips can you add to help our logos more clearly send their intended message?

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. Good article, but it’s a big topic. I’d like to hear what else you have say.

    The Fedex logo is a classic. Few designers will ever produce anything as good. Is that inspirational, or depressing?

    • Christopher Burd,
      I completely agree with you, it IS a big topic. I like to try to leave these sorts of articles open-ended so the great readers can add whatever insights they want. Who can help Christopher out here? Leave your thoughts as a comment below. ↓

  2. You’re absolutely correct in your points. However, most clients don’t understand this principle – which is unfortunate. I start designing a logo that is simple, scales well, looks good in b/w or colored – but to them it’s “too simple”. They want all the “flash” of an illustration.

    This article will come in handy the next time they want too fancy of a logo.

    • @michael soriano, I absolutely agree. Logos have to be able to be rendered in a multitude of environments, and while “web 2.0″ logos look nice on the web, it’s hard to for them to sometimes transfer easily to other mediums. A lot of times “flashy” and “complicated” are what clients want to see. They forget that it’s the company that makes the mark, no the other way around. I mean, really, is the UPS logo really that nice?

  3. where is the article?? It just says “the_content();”

  4. Good post. I don’t think the issues are as black and white as you’ve put them here. For example, a company that needs to use the “Target” symbol will have to render it in a way that is vastly different to the dominant corporation that currently “owns” it. Rendering technology from clothing to signage is also much more advanced, so there is room to “embellish” a logo in the effort to achieve more individuality. With the millions of companies that exist in any given country, it’s important to be realistic about what the client’s boundaries are with regards to their logo/brand exposure and requirements for duplication. For example, I’m a freelance designer, I’ll NEVER print clothing with my logo on it. I’m a one-man show and thus will only ever have limited reach in contrast to a corporation or multinational. So, I would argue that there is more “room” for expressive illustration in logos for small SME’s than there is for multi-nationals, for obvious contrast. But I agree there are fundamental qualities any good/great logo should achieve. Distinctiveness, recognition/memorability, representative of services/products/group ethos would be the first boxes I would look to tick for logos I create.

  5. Nice concise article. I’d argue, however that the failure of the clearspring logo vs the pepper is tied to a lack of association from product to the name moreso than the design itself. I’d be curious to see a successful alternative to some failures.

  6. Wow, I love the concept to the FedEx logo. I’m usually pretty detail-oriented, but I never picked up on the arrow within the E and X. That’s intuitive and creative, I love that! Great post, very inspiring!

    • Not only does FedEx have an arrow between the E and the x, but in the negative space of the “e” there is a spoon. As a student of graphic design this was brought to my attention by my nephew. I saw it just never put 2 and 2 together. Very nice design.

  7. Seb Green says:

    I did not even notice the arrow in the fedex logo. neither did any of my colleges that i mentioned it to.

  8. Excellent article, the type of article that should be “required reading” for clients that are looking for branding and logo design. A lot of “poor examples of work” are actually client driven.

  9. I have loved the FedEx logo since the first time I noticed that negative space arrow on the side of one of their trucks on the freeway. Brilliant simplicity.

  10. while i agree that a logo that communicates what the company it represents does is a good thing, i don’t think it’s always necessary.

    take your own example, what does target do? sell archery equipment?

    even nike’s logo doesn’t tell you what they do. sure, someone unfamiliar with nike could make some good guesses, but i doubt many would stick with athletic wear/equipment manufacturer.

  11. I have to say that I that don’t agree with having to have something in your logo directly related to your business; for example, the Apple logo has nothing to do with computers and the McDonalds logo has nothing to do with food.

    I completely agree with your first and third points. Thank you for this article!

    • @Rochelle Dancel, Exactly, a logo does not really need to say what a company does, Paul Rand said that it is only through relation with the company that a logo takes real meaning. Another great examples are Nike, Mercedes Benz, Peugeut, IBM, Nestle, etc.

      • Hank Sword says:

        @EnriqueG,
        I agree with the thought behind this comment but, i think if you look closer at the examples given, many of these companies did not start out with the current logos they now use. Most of the companies listed here became big iconic entities before they had the current logos they use. Once they became icons then they started using the current logos they now use. Kinda which came first the chicken or the egg?

  12. Like those above me, I agree with most of your points – apart from having the logo directly relating to your business. Take a look at the biggest and most successful brands in the world. You’ll find the vast majority of them don’t give any hints to what the actual company does.

    I agree, an obvious link can be very clever, making the logo more memorable. But often tired or crude concepts are executed in logos that try and tie them directly to what the company does, making them look over complex and less legible.

    I think its a common myth that needs to be destroyed.

    If you can relate the logo to the service in a clever, simple and easy way – do it. If not – leave it well alone.

  13. re: FedEx.

    “the designers?” Try Lindon Leader.

  14. This has to be very similar to http://www.insidethewebb.com/

    We use a transmitter as a logo, because we broadcast interviews and great apps throughout the web! This is how I created the logo for ITW, but you’ve got an awesome article here

  15. Nice post! Especially your second point, where most people would probably consider both logos effective and “nice”.

    I disagree on your first point though. The illustration on the left might not be the perfect logo, but it’s definetely better than the dot on the right. That’s a “logo” that exists 100 times in each country in the world, it would be impossible to tie it to your own company. You can think of Einstürzende Neubauten, or a government agency, some kind of red cross derivate … But if you run the one on the left through a threshold filter or make it really small, you can see that it is actually quite recognizable. There’s that disc with a little whatever on it, and a writing next to it. That sticks.

    The FedEx logo is aways quoted for its excellency, but I think it’s worth the time to stress one fact: the excellency is that the designers were not forced to outline the arrow. Only a few people notice the arrow by themselves – it’s not the reason why the logo works for the company.

  16. LOVED this article. As someone who works in the promotional products industry and has to deal with decoration techniques like screen printing (t-shirts, bags etc), pad printing (pens, golf balls, calculators) and embroidary, many of the logos we recieve are a nightmare to reproduce effectively. Even with these days of “web 2.0″ and 3d bezel logos etc, the most effective logos from the biggest companies in the world are almost always 1, 2 or 3 colours, no shading or half tones, and easy to reproduce clearly. Why many smaller companies trying to make it don’t realise this simple fact is beyond me!

  17. The good thing about your information is that it is explicit enough for students to grasp. Thanks for your efforts in spreading academic knowledge.

  18. Nice post on ‘sending a clear message in logo design’.
    I particularly liked the way you’ve explained each logo design tip separately with actual logo examples.

  19. Great article!

    My thoughts on linking the logo design to the business? It’s the best way to go for small business. It makes advertising simpler to have one explicit logo with the business name rather than an ambiguous logo and then trying to put advertising icons on top of that.

    Also, the target for Target isn’t in relation to the business function, but it is to the name, so you still think of the red target – and thus, the name – when you think of department stores.

    Cheers ~Laura.

  20. Nice article ..as i am also associated with this business so i am well aware how useful this article really is..

  21. Nice blog, thank you for sharing this. Hope to hear more from you.

  22. A very sound argument for the return, or re-addressing, of simple and memorable logo design. Lovely article! =]

  23. I understand the 2worry,I am very p glad to hear that you got your Supra fixed, I remember reading about some of your problem4x !.

  24. KB Creative says:

    I know this post is a couple years old now, but am I the only one thinking the FedEx arrow was pure luck? I mean, kudos of course for sticking with it, but a capital “E” and a lower-case “x” will always make an arrow in a basic sans serif typeface. Don’t get em wrong here, I absolutely love it. I just don’t think the designers should be perceived as design gods.

    • KB Creative,

      To some extent I agree, but I think it was somewhat revolutionary for the time it was created. Negative space was much less utilized in the graphic design world then, and sometimes (even nowadays) the pieces just fall together perfectly and the designer gets mad reviews for something that was pretty lucky. I suppose kudos to the designer for realizing it.

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