Published: July 7, 2015

In art school we were assigned to produce a ton of different logos. This made sense because logo design has long been the designer's bread and butter; almost any serious business venture starts with a visual identity.

One project was particularly tough: we were asked to design a logo for a fictional dentist. My fellow students and I knocked out about a hundred variations on molars, toothbrushes, gleaming smiles, gum-lines, and the like... almost all of which were clunky, dull, and wholly predictable. One effort sticks with me to this day, though. It was brilliant, and, in looking back, eerily prescient as well. It looked something like this: 

Student-produced logo for dentist, which looks uncannily like the Apple logo

Figure 1: From memory, admittedly, but very striking given the year - 1985.

The logo, which showed the consequence of having healthy teeth and a perfect bite, was designed by a student named Joe. In critique, Joe told the class that he was after an image that conveyed a story. And he wanted a symbol of health and simplicity (unlike our efforts, which generally ran the gamut from the gruesome to the grotesque). Like I said, it was brilliant, and I think about it every time I see the Apple logo. I suppose you could call it a case of convergent evolution. 

Why is this so hard?

I help students with logo problems on a very regular basis. Either they're developing collateral materials (business cards, websites, letterhead, etc.), helping to promote a student club, or pitching a business idea to prospective stakeholders. These students are not designers, either by assignment or by way of natural selection, and the process of putting together a logo is as foreign to them as orthopedic surgery. I'm not certain that it helps when I assure them that logo design is hard for everyone, even design superstars, but I do know that misery never minds a little well-seasoned company.

Here's what I tell students:

A picture, a design, or plain old text?  

It's useful when starting on an identity project to consider the three broadest approaches to envisioning a logo; narrative, abstract, or typographic. You know them by heart.

Pictorial logo for World Wildlife Federation showing a stylized Panda

Figure 2a: A narrative logo: the stunning World Wildlife Federation logo, depicting a 'real' object.

The Lucent Technologies logo, which features an abstract shape

Figure 2b: An abstract logo - the Lucent Technologies Big Red Circle.

The Coca Cola logo, which is a simple text solution

Figure 2c: A typographic logo. When type becomes hyper-iconic.

Any one of these solutions (or a mix) can be a powerful way to brand an organization or business. Some customers insist on a literal depiction of their products or services. Others are content with a graphic that captures the feel of their project; think the Nike swoosh. The danger in the former is awkwardness and, in the latter, bland ambiguity. These distinctions and their attendant challenges should be foundational in considering a logo strategy.

There's nothing wrong with a purely typographic treatment of a logo. Consider Target, Jeep, Ford, and Google. A logo that's exclusively type-based can be iconic and gorgeous. And much more work than you might imagine.

Storytelling, code, consequence, movement

Given that a good logo is as much a marketing victory as a design success, initial steps toward logo development should involve serious list-making and brainstorming. Admittedly, with luck, one might sit down to a sketch pad and knock out something clever and unique. It happens all the time. But that process gives short shrift to what a logo should really do: summarize in a single glance everything that's singular and remarkable about your project. And I know from experience that the quick, easy solution to any design challenge is too often like a sugary soft drink. You'll ultimately wish you'd done things differently.

Before sketching or playing with pictographs and colors, spend some time thinking about ideas and stories. Make a list, translate a service into a result, show the consequence of using your particular product or service, consider puns metaphors and corollaries. Look at the competition. "Unlearn" everything you think you know about your project and hit "restart."  

Shape, color, and balance

Assuming you've spent some quality time on concept, let's talk for a bit now about the physical nature of your logo.

Form matters. Is the thing we're trying to show aggressive or pacific? Should tension be a part of our message?

The Rockband logo, with sharp angles reflecting the feel of rock music

Figure 3a: The Rockband logo. Sharp angles help support the feel of the product.

A logo for a therapist, which uses curved lines to connote calm
Figure 3b: Curved = calm, and calm is the desired thing to expect from a counselor.

Clearly, if we're after elegance and a sense of comfort, curved lines and rounded edges are the best bet for assembling a logo. But if we want things to feel edgy and aggressive, sharp angles are ideal. Think about your particular message and how your logo's form will work to contribute or detract from your overall identity. There's a lot of power here; be aware of how it works.

We all know that color, like form, has emotional connotation. Let's revisit that dentists' logo.

A dentist's logo, rendered in red and yellow

Figure 4a: Just try to relax... not easy with these colors, is it?

A dentist's logo, rendered in blue
Figure 4b: Let's call this color 'Novocaine Blue,' shall we?

Everyone knows about the power of color, either in how it affects our perception, or even in how it affects us physiologically. Did you know that it's been clinically proven that yellow and red stimulate our appetites? So, the color combination that would be an utter disaster for a dentist, as shown in Figure 4a, would likely be the only logical choice for a fast-food chain. 

Logos of popular fast food chains, with dominant reds and yellows

Figure 5: Believe it or not, you're just a little hungrier now.

Color can even take us places politically. In a stroke of genius, British Petroleum, the oil people, went with this logo some years ago. Was it deceptive or simply deflective? Whatever the case, the design strategy was nothing short of brilliant.

The British Petroleum logo, which features a green flower-like symbol

Figure 6: Your car doesn't pollute, it pollinates!

Many designers - and I count myself among them - feel that a good logo should work well in black and white, and that color choice is secondary to form. But knowing how color works, and proceeding purposefully with color choice is essential. Learn about the psychology of color before digging into your millions of possible choices.

One sure sign of a poorly-designed logo is the lack of balance, or as some graphic artists say, the lack of a good relationship between positive and negative space. Good logos are neither too heavy and dense nor too light and dilute. This is a very tough thing to teach because understanding balance lies almost entirely in the realm of "eyeballing." There's no hard and fast rule, just a sense that things feel right.

A comparative look at the density of logo elements

Figure 7a: The seemingly trivial yet powerful effects of balance.

A comparative look at the "punch" of finished logos

Figure 7b: How balance looks in a finished logo. Hard to articulate, but easy to see.

There are a couple of artist's tricks that help creators see just how well balance is playing out in a given design. One, by inverting the piece digitally and creating a negative image of the design, or, two and literally, by simply turning it upside-down. Both techniques allow one to see the design in a fresh light and to get a feel for how well the negative and the positive spaces are defining one another.

A look at the positive and negative space in the World Wildife Fund logo

Figure 8: Inverting an image helps illustrate the relationship between positive and nefative space.


Whether you're using type as a primary or a secondary element in your logo, the choices you make will have sweeping implications. Look back at that Rock Band logo (Figure 3a). It works as a purely typographic solution - no guitars, no musical notes or sound waves - because it feels like rock music.

From the samples in Figure 9, , which typeface is working for the message? Which typeface would be more appropriate to the message "High Fashion?" How about for "Career Services?"

The word "industrial" set in Times italic, Helvetica Ultralight, and Menlo typefaces

Figure 9: We "read" type in more ways than one.

Type has personality; remember that the font you chosse can either either amplify or diminish your message. Even in something as simple as resume design, typography makes a lasting impression.

Busy isn't businesslike

Most great logos are the result of endless distillation; "cooking" ideas down from the complex to the simple is what good design is all about. If this sounds like the same process that drives good writing, there's a reason; effective communication is most often visceral and immediate.

A literal, busy logo versus an impressionistic, simple one. 

Figure 10: Distill, then distill some more. A good design solution almost certainly lies in wait.

Take a good look at your initial design ideas and ask yourself how might you make things simpler, both in concept and in physical form. Let the idea rest for a day or two, then go after it again. In the end, if all works well, you'll have something unique, iconic, and beautiful.