Logos are the Vietnam of graphic design
One need look no further than the recent Gap logo redesign debacle to understand my melodramatic Vietnam war analogy.
But I actually meant to share my viewpoint as a graphic designer. Why? Because logo design is a war one can never win. It is the one type of project I consistently avoided like the plague, unless I was both designer and decision-maker. This is because great logos are never designed by committees. But most logos are exactly that–designed by committees.
Here’s the rub. Logo strengths are subjective. Evaluating them requires deep understanding of brand differentiation, implementation requirements, and the general graphic environments in which the logo will attempt to communicate. And then there is that necessary, unquantifiable, unresearchable dose of wit, humor, humanity, oddity, sophistication, nostalgia, art or power that takes a good logo from good to great.
And in most organizations the people around the table evaluating logos understand very little of the above. The evaluation becomes a “What did the research say?” or “How about we take the type from this one, and the image from that one?” or (my favorite) “I can’t exactly say why, but I just don’t like it” kind of conversation. And then you slowly, sadly watch some beautiful stallion turn into a plodding camel, right before your eyes. Everyone is “happy” but no one wins.
I participated in one such logo selection process online recently. A nonprofit leader I really like solicited a lot of logo concepts from 99Designs, a free marketplace where you get designers to speculatively submit logos in the hopes of getting paid for the one you pick. The submissions were pretty awful, but I carefully advocated for the couple of not-too-sucky ones, and then sat back and gnashed my teeth while the rest of the nonprofit’s advisors weighed in. The result: one of the absolutely worst, impractical, too-complicated and downright ugly designs was selected.
Thus, it’s nice to see Starbucks consistently doing a good job with their logo. Here’s the latest advance. Just like their confident choice of a semi-opaque company name, they demonstrate confidence in their type-free logo. Of course they ought to be able to just show a sliver of the mermaid fin and get a two-year-old to recognize Starbucks, given its ubiquity. (I’ll never forget when my own toddler son said “Coke” when he saw the scripty soda logo, as one of his first words–despite never having touched the product, read a magazine, or watched TV. That was some logo, and some brand.)
But still, kudos to Starbucks.
9 Responses to “Logos are the Vietnam of graphic design”
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The first word my daughter read was LOFT (as in Ann Taylor), out the car window in Georgetown. The first words my son read were Taco Bell (also out the car window). Good logos have all the characteristics of learning-to-read books: clear type, helpful imagery, captivating colors.
I love it that you’re posting more frequently!
Nice to hear from you Jenifer. You are so right about that logo thing with kids. In fact, when I was at Stride Rite we knew the power of our stores with our customer…who was equally the child, not just the parent. We designed a graphics-based logo for the pre-reading set, and also did an accompanying type treatment that would amuse kids just learning to read, with an upside down “i”. (It has since been replaced) Kids were fascinated with it and would want to go to the store because they recognized it–even if they could not read–it had a cool drawing of a girl and boy with the graphics interlocking their faces, and the stores had installed some very fun activities for them.
When you see me posting more, it means I have five seconds to think for a change. Sometimes I just have to put my head down when I am travelling. And December was insane!
Good points, Jules, but I think losing the type, ring, and black from the new logo was a mistake. Absolutely true that people will still know what it is, and rumor has it they wanted to drop “coffee” for strategic reasons… but even so, they’re going to need a lockup with the actual company name in some applications of this, and what they use will almost surely be less iconic than what they’ve just given up.
I think your points are strong and your back-story (dropping coffee as the driver) makes sense. What I don’t know is if they might alternate between the new and old, which would work just fine to grab the company name and use the black. This is a rare situation where that combo of old and new would work.
When I needed a logo for the International Lisp Conference 2009, I went back and forth just once with the graphic designer I engaged (Pat Morin) and loved what he produced. I’m sure glad I didn’t have to debate it with a committee.
An architect I knew told me that when corporations build new buildings, they always set up a committee responsible for the design of the building. The committee members generally have one goal: to not get criticized (“CYA”). So they always pick a very famous architect, and just let him do anything at all. After all, who can blame you for anything if you hired I. M, Pei?
You can bet that Paul Rand’s logos were designed by him, personally. I completely agree: that’s the only way to go.
Great observations Dan. I love that you mentioned Paul Rand! And the architecture analogy is a really good one, although I do think architects in the past were let loose with too little thought of their impact on community and environments. We are smarter about that, collectively, now. My son’s dept chair in Landscape Architecture says that many communities insist on a Landscape Architect as the project lead, partly for that reason.
i have lived through four logo projects. I remember vividly the first one.. I was so excited.. until I attended the first meeting/brief. It was evident that there was no way that anything objective could come from this process. Such a disappointment.
Two of the four times I have been involved outside branding firms have been involved. Both firms were great. My learning is that they are only as good as the information that they are given vis-a-vis strategy and direction.
My most recent foray into Logo Hell came this summer. We had a great partner in Cuban Council who has designed some cool logos including Facebook and now Swap.com. We worked well as a team on strategy, business direction, brand essence and more. Cuban Council worked on many concepts and they were all great. We made one decision though and here we are.
The logo process can be absolute hell. I think that it is worth bringing in some talent to advise on the process and creative work. At least with this approach it is easier to blame someone if it goes south. But actually with the right parnter it can be fun and rewarding.
I do think a great consulting firm can be a Godsend. If you can’t afford that, a brilliant marketing person/leader and a talented designer can get you 90% of the way. The bigger firms can do broader environmental research, have deeper implementation experience, and most importantly–they can frame the work in contexts that are convincing to a wide internal audience. Designers often have trouble doing that part all by their lonesome.