You Don't Need a Logo?



When someone visits the doctor with an ailment and asks for a prescription you’d hope the doctor would do an examination first, make a diagnosis, then give the appropriate treatment. Writing a prescription before making a diagnosis is malpractice, a doctor could lose his licence, unfortunately you don’t need a licence to practice design in Canada. When someone comes to me and says “I need a logo”, I ask “why?”.  It usually takes about 5 whys before we get to the root of their problem. Designers see themselves as problem solvers, but solving problems is easy, defining the problem is the real challenge.  When that’s done the solution to the problem usually becomes self evident. Here are a few things I do to help new clients define their “logo” problem.

First, there’s a misconception that every company needs a logo. I know that sounds strange coming from me, because designing logos is the bulk of what I do.  But unless you’re in a retail setting and your product appears with competing products, then in most cases a simple word mark will suffice.  In fact, a logo may actually obscure your brand’s message because a logo is essentially a “promise” that your brand is making.  If the the viewer doesn’t know what that promise is then a logo may seem more like hieroglyphics that effective communication. Logos should act more as a teaching tool than a badge of distinction, that’s why in most cases a typographical logo  or “word mark” will serve you better.

There are three fundamental logos types, a logo can be one or any combination of these.

Figurative: those that look like something 
Metaphorical: those that don’t look like anything 
Typographical: those made up of letters 

If the decision favors using a figurative logo, then the image should contain more than one interpretation. A good logo is often a balance between two representative symbols, like the optical illusion that switches between a vase and two faces.  An example of this is the logo for farm machinery manufacturer International Harvester, which contains two images:  The company's initials,  “IH”, and also a tractor viewed from the front.  When the viewer perceives both it is at this “I get it!” moment that crystallizes the brand in the viewers mind.

A metaphorical logo is the least desirable because its’ meaning can be the most difficult to discern.  But this approach is the one most offered by designers because it is usually the easiest to create, and because it is one of the most easily accepted by selection committees. An example of this is the Toyota logo.  Most people think of the word mark “Toyota” as the logo rather than the three ellipses logo they use today. Adidas has the same problem

A typographical logo is often the most effective because in most cases the logo should never appear without the product or brand name beside it.  People often refer to the Nike “swoosh” as a logo that works on its’ own, but few realize that the reason the swoosh first appeared without the name was not marketing savvy, but a happy accident: the rules of a tennis tournament didn’t allow lettering in the venue, so it was the swoosh by itself or nothing.  But most companies can’t afford to “educate” their target market to that extent, so they can only hope to arrive at the point where only their logo holds meaning for the viewer.

A few years ago there was a conflict between the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada and the copyright holder of that show’s iconic theme music. The copyright holder wanted to renegotiate the deal that would allow the CBC the continued use the theme.  What I found astounding was that the song’s copyright holder didn’t realize that the bulk of the value in the song was not in its’ musical merit but in the song’s association with the show.  Perhaps after 40 years it’s the CBC who should be receiving compensation for the value they added to the song. Unfortunately, copyright doesn’t work that way.

A logo is fundamentally a monochrome design, because eventually all logos are reduced to solid black and white; if colour, gradation, or some other special effect is required for the logo to be legible its’ effectiveness is diminished.  A successful brand will need their logo to be represented as one colour so it can be used in a sign or as some other physical manifestation.  An example of this is how Google’s logo fails, and how they came to realize that their logo is actually a lowercase “g”, and not the rainbow word mark itself.  

One truism of logo design says that when the client begins to get bored with their logo it’s probably beginning to work. Which leads to my final rule of logos:  If you don’t do it properly one one will be provided for you. Twitter’s first logo was a lower a case “t”.  It was a third party developer who created the tiny bird icon, which has since been adopted by Twitter proper as their logo. Incidentally it was this same developer who also coined the the verb to “Tweet”, realizing that using “twit” was probably a bad idea.  I’ve seen enough Law & Order episodes to know that Its much better to select your own representation rather than to have one provided!

Finally, when putting together a selection committee to work with a designer on a new logo, the committee should be three people max, two would be better, one is best.  The larger the group, the lower your chance of success. A great design gets strong opposition from about 20% of its audience, and designs that are universally accepted are usually immediately forgotten.  When everybody loves it, you know something is wrong.




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©1997- 2012  Peter Eller  |  1157 east 23rd Avenue East  Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V5V 1Y8