Creating Effective Logos: Philosophies, Processes, and the Rules

ASAC 1998 Conference
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Ryan W. Townend (student)
Barbara J. Phillips
College of Commerce
University of Saskatchewan

This study uses in-depth interviews with Canadian logo designers to provide insight into the logo design process and to judge the applicability and usefulness of theoretical marketing rules regarding good logo design.  Guidelines to facilitate the logo design process are developed for marketing managers.

Introduction

A logo, defined as a distinctive mark that identifies a product, company, or brand (Wells et al., 1995), is a company’s signature to the world.  Logos distinguish one company from another (Durgee and Stuart, 1987) and assure consumers of a consistent standard of quality (Olins, 1990).  Most importantly, a good logo, such as Nike’s swoosh, builds brand identification and brand equity (Biel, 1992), all within a space no larger than a postage stamp.

Logo designers are charged with distilling the essence of a corporation into a few simple shapes and lines.  Marketing research has attempted to standardize this task by creating lists of “good” logo design elements (e.g., Berger, 1984; Henderson and Cote, 1995).    However, the applicability of these rules to the creation of effective logos by actual logo designers has not been examined.   Can one create an effective logo by consciously combining previously identified design elements?  How do designers really create logos?  This study uses in-depth interviews with Canadian logo designers to answer these questions and suggests ways for managers to facilitate the logo design process.

Conceptual Framework

The creation of a logo starts with a definition of the task and ends with client acceptance.  Rosen (1970) and others (e.g., Pilditch, 1970) have identified the steps of the logo design process.  The most important of these steps is the development of an understanding of a company and the meanings it wishes to convey to its publics.  Creating a logo from these meanings hinges on matching the company with an image such that the image is strongly and positively connected to the company in the minds of consumers (Berger, 1984).  For example, the Royal Bank of Canada wanted to create a new logo that represented its strong past as well as emphasizing its ability to cope with change.  The result is the familiar British lion, crown and globe; this logo has the wood-carved feel of history, but is positively perceived by customers as contemporary (Rosen, 1970).

How do designers make the leap from meaning to logo?  Many authors have identified the elements of good logo design from existing logos, and most agree on the following six elements, taken from Berger (1984) and Henderson and Cote (1995):  (a) colour, (b) size, (c) contrast, (d) simplicity, (e) symmetry, and (f) naturalness.  These elements are briefly defined below.

Colour is used in a logo to evoke consumers’ associations and emotions.  For example, IBM uses the colour blue so exclusively that the company is called Big Blue (Wells et al., 1995).  This colour suggests conservatism and corporate control.  The meanings of colours are generally culture-specific, however, and therefore may not transfer well in cross-cultural settings.  For example, black is the colour of mourning in Western countries, while white serves this function in some Eastern countries.

Size and Contrast help to determine the relationship between and importance of the parts of a logo.  A logo can consist of a name, an image, or both.  Through size and contrast, one of these parts can be emphasized more than the other.  In addition, size and contrast help to attract attention, such as the large red and yellow Dole sun logo found at the top of Dole canned fruit.

The Simplicity of a logo includes three interrelated factors: elaborateness, action, and depth (Henderson and Cote, 1995).  Research has shown that simple designs are recognized and remembered more easily than elaborate designs (Henderson and Cote, 1996).  However, simple logos may seem boring to consumers; active logos (i.e., those that show movement) add interest.  An example of an active logo is CN’s flowing “track” of initials.  In addition, logos with depth (i.e., shading) add realism, and are more positively evaluated than flat designs.  Therefore, an ideal logo would be simple, with action and depth.

Symmetry is the balance of a logo’s elements on each side of the vertical and horizontal axes.  Symmetry results in a more positively evaluated logo and more accurate recognition (Henderson and Cote, 1995).  An example of a symmetrical logo is Scotiabank’s S-globe.

Finally, Natural logos are ones that are representative, organic, and round (Henderson and Cote, 1995).  That is, they represent an object that exits and use organic shapes, such as those found in nature.  Round logos are natural and graceful, and also convey action and symmetry, as stressed above.  An example of a natural logo is the logo for Air Canada, depicting a leaf in a round border.

These six elements have been identified from existing, positively-evaluated logos.  They often are presented as the “rules” of good logo design.  However, it is unclear whether they can help designers and managers create effective logos.  This study is the first to ask Canadian designers how they create logos, and to evaluate logo design rules for applicability and usefulness.

Method

In-depth interviews with nine Canadian logo designers were conducted.  Seven men and two women who design logos as part of their regular work assignments were interviewed individually at their offices.  Each interview lasted approximately one hour.  The designers ranged in age from 25 to 50, and had between 5 and 25 years of design experience.  Seven of the designers had some formal design-school training.

Informants were asked open-ended questions about how they design logos.  Topics included methods of gathering information about a company’s meanings, the design process, and the rules for effective logo design.  Next, informants were presented with the six elements of good logo design identified in previous marketing research and asked if they used or could use these elements to design logos.

Taped interviews were transcribed and coded using the grounded theory method advocated by Strauss and Corbin (1990).  Interviews were analyzed independently by each author for common themes, and differences were resolved through discussion.  The theoretical rules of good logo design were compared to actual practice in order to evaluate the existing list of logo design rules.

Results and Discussion

The informant interviews centred on three areas of logo creation:  design philosophies, the design process, and the rules of good logo design.  The findings and the managerial implications of each area are discussed below.

Design Philosophies

The designers’ implicit philosophies focused on four areas: decision-making, ownership, continuity, and recognition.  Opinions in each of these areas reflected a continuum of differing philosophies with a few designers at each extreme and several in the middle.  The first philosophy, decision-making, concerns how the decisions that are part of  the logo design process are made.  This continuum can best be expressed by the end-points: art versus business.  That is, some designers feel that logos are best designed using artistic skills and talent.  In this case, decisions are made through an individual and intuitive process.  For example, one designer expressed this view by stating:

“It is all art.  Trying to find ways to incorporate meaning… it’s artistic.  I can’t tell you how to paint or draw.  It comes from within.”

Other designers feel logo design is a business activity that can be approached using analytical problem solving.  In this case, the applications and limitations of the logo are of utmost importance, and logo design decisions can be made in meetings between designers or the designer and the client.  This view is expressed by the following informant:

“Design is an intellectual pursuit; it’s an analytical thing.  Being artistic doesn’t make you a designer.  It’s applying creative solutions via the thought process.  What does your client have to do with art?  Nothing.  They have to do with business.”

The implication of this philosophical continuum for managers depends on a company’s comfort level regarding the transparency of the design process.  All informants, regardless of philosophy, stated that they have produced effective logos.  However, a manager who wishes to be informed of the foundation for each logo design decision would do well to find a designer who uses an analytical problem-solving approach.  A manager who wants the designer to present him or her with a finished logo may employ one who favours artistic decision-making.  In either case, a first step when hiring logo designers is to question them regarding their preferred decision-making style to ensure that it is compatible with company needs.

The second philosophy expressed by designers was that of ownership, bounded by the endpoints of client versus designer ownership.  Several designers state that because the client pays for the logo, the client’s wishes regarding logo design have to be respected.  This philosophy leads these designers to acquiesce to a logo design that would not be their personal choice.  These designers feel that to create an effective logo for their client, they must remove their own personal preferences and opinions.  For example, one informant expressed his client-ownership philosophy in this way:

“One of the biggest complements, personally, is when someone says, “You did that?  I never would have guessed.”  In my mind, my customer is in the front line and I’m behind the scenes.”

On the other hand, other designers feel that they own their work.  This philosophy stems from the feeling that a designer’s personal preferences, history, and experiences all help to make a strong and unique logo.  Therefore, these designers will not compromise when a client demands logo changes.  However, most designers’ philosophies were reflected by the middle of this continuum.  These designers feel they are the best judges of design elements, but will work with a client to meet reasonable requests.  As one informant said:

“If the client has some childhood trauma with crayons, they are not going to use crayons in their logo.”

Again, managers must determine a designer’s ownership philosophy at the outset of the logo design process.  If the company has a strong, preconceived notion of specific logo design elements, a designer with a client-ownership philosophy may be required for a successful working relationship.

The third philosophy, continuity, concerns the longevity of the logo design and is bounded by the end-points: timeless versus trendy.  All designers acknowledge that brand equity only can be built by a logo over time as the logo becomes well-known.  However, some designers favour trendy logos that match the style of the times, while others strive for a timeless logo that can be used for many years to come.  Both acknowledge that a trendy logo is more suitable for fashion-conscious or youth-oriented products.  In addition, designers admit that a timeless logo is difficult to achieve, but can stem from good logo design.

Managers must decide how trendy or timeless their logo should be, based on company products, markets, and needs.  This decision should be communicated to the logo designer to ensure that the resulting logo meets company objectives.  In addition, this philosophy highlights the fact that managers should not rush to evaluate the success of a new logo; building brand equity takes time.

The final philosophy expressed by informants deals with customer recognition of the logo, and can be expressed as:  exposure versus design.  Many designers state that an effective logo can be created through audience exposure to the logo.  That is, the logo design is secondary to the level of exposure in determining logo effectiveness.  This philosophy is expressed by the following informant:

“You could have a really ugly logo and yet the company has used it for fifty years and everyone knows it.  That is not a bad logo.”

Other designers oppose this view.  For example:

“Just because people recognize it [the logo], it may not appeal to them.  You are pushing on a rope.  If you took two companies and one was focus-tested as ugly and one was focus-tested as having a lot of appeal, and you spent the same amount of money… the same amount of exposure… and in the end tracked the sales from the product, the one that looked nicer will sell better and attract more people.”

Under this philosophy, well-designed logos are more likely to be perceived as effective.

This philosophy highlights a manager’s responsibility to convey a logo’s exposure strategy and budget to the logo designer at the outset of the project.  Especially for managers with limited budgets, a designer who believes design is more important than the level of exposure may work harder to develop an outstanding logo.

Design Process

All informants stated that they need as much information as possible to understand the company before they can create an effective logo.  The information required includes standard factors such as the company mission statement, annual reports, product descriptions, competitive analysis, the target audience, and existing logos.  However, designers also value insight into the corporate culture and cultural constraints, a diagram of the facility layout, and a description of the CEO and other key staff.  In addition, designers wished to hear the company’s dreams for its future.

Beyond paper descriptions, designers would like to gather information through interviewing key personnel, touring the plants or offices, and trying the products.  All avenues are used to understand the company, as expressed by this informant:

“Seeing the client walk out of the board room you have a feel of what the person is like by the way they carry themselves, by the way they talk, by the way they dress.”

The actual design process begins with a pencil and paper, and an open mind.  Most designers state that they do not use a computer to begin, because they feel that a computer might control the design instead of encouraging it.  If the design does not come easily, informants leave the project to incubate for a day or two, or try to jumpstart the creative process by associating symbols with descriptions of the company.  Designers develop 3 to 50 thumbnail sketches of logo ideas and may share these with colleagues or the client, depending on their design philosophies.

The managerial implications of informants’ descriptions of the design process centre on providing information and time.  To create an effective logo, designers need information from many sources and through many different channels.  In addition, designers need time to digest the information, with some slack time allowed for incubation or consultation with other designers and the client.

The Rules

When presented with the six elements of good logo design identified by previous research, most informants agreed that they are or could be important.  However, designers were divided regarding the usefulness of the elements in creating effective logos.  Each of the six elements is discussed below.

Informants perceive Colour as crucial to good logo design, and affirm that colour can be predetermined before logo development.  Many designers have idiosyncratic codes regarding colour use.  For example, red is used for food logos, while blue is used to convey stability and reassurance.  Gold is used for “money” logos, and green for agricultural logos.  Designers also identify colour as culture-specific; therefore, its use depends on target market perceptions.  In addition, informants note that colours can become outdated just like any other design element.  For example, hot pink was mentioned as an “eighties” colour, while tans are more acceptable in the nineties.  This can lead to problems for designers who are hoping to achieve a timeless logo.

The designers in this study accept Size and Contrast as important design elements as well because they give designers the ability to control where consumers look first.  However, these elements cannot be set in advance, given that they arise from the relationships between the parts of the finished logo.

All designers agree that Simplicity is the hallmark of a good logo.  One designer noted:

“Please tell me one elaborate logo that you can remember.  Fed Ex is a good example; there isn’t a single element that you could take away from the design.”

The informants said they attempt to create simple logos.  However, most felt that the logo elements of activity and depth are company-specific.  That is, designers do not try to incorporate these elements just because the elements are supposed to be more highly-evaluated by consumers; instead, they will use these elements if they help to convey a company’s meanings.

A few of the designers interviewed follow the Swiss school of design, where logo designs are simple, angular, and set on a grid pattern.  These designers favour logos with symmetry.  Most informants, however, disagree.  They feel that symmetry does not translate into effectiveness, and do not seek to create symmetrical logos.  Instead, they allow symmetrical logos as they surface during the design process.

Informants are the most divided over the design element of naturalness.  Most designers think abstract logos can be effective, although representative logos may gain equity more quickly:

“Abstract logos – you build equity over time.   It takes longer to acquire the same value than if you were to use representative logos.  It takes people longer to clue in.  That is in no way a value judgment on its effectiveness as a logo.”

The organic aspect of natural logos is thought to be valuable only to clients with organic aspects to their business.  A designer questioned the superiority of organic logos by stating that his daughter would recognize a computer faster than she would recognize a maple leaf.  In addition, designers agree that shape is the result of a designer’s or client’s preference, or chance.  Designers do not attempt to incorporate circles in their logos.

In general, informants have serious reservations about their ability to create an effective logo based on the six elements of good logo design.  Those with an artistic decision-making philosophy reject outright the idea of following design rules.  Others feel that it could be done, but the resulting logo would be suboptimal:

“It would be like going to Vegas and betting little amounts here and there, winning and losing a little.  You will not win big, though.  What this will limit you from is getting the big score and getting the logo that captures everyone’s attention.”

In addition, informants state that the listed design elements overlook one very important factor of good logo design:  a consideration of usage.  Designers need to know the situations and limitations that the logo will face now and in the future.  Many of the six design elements are affected by usage.  For example, certain colours, such as red and blue together, are difficult to use on television because they vibrate.  Usage affects logo design because of size as well; logos must be pleasing even when they are shown in a large format, such as on a billboard, or in a small space, such as on letterhead.  Contrast is important if logos will be reproduced through a photocopier or fax.  In addition, elaborate designs are expensive if the logo will be sewn onto uniforms.  All of the informants mentioned usage as an important consideration for effective logo design.

Based on informants’ responses to the “rules” of good logo design, guidelines for managers can be created.  First, managers should discuss usage contexts with the logo designer, given that this factor may affect size, contrast, and colour considerations.  Designers generally accept that a logo’s colour can be set by the client in advance, but are less likely to agree to other preset parameters such as activity, depth, symmetry, or naturalness.  Depending on the designer’s philosophy, it may be better to discuss these elements after the logo has been created, or when choosing between logo options.

Conclusion

In-depth interviews with Canadian logo designers have provided insight into the logo design process and suggestions for managing logo creation.  First, managers should communicate with designers beyond the parameters of the project, to understand the designers’ philosophies regarding decision-making, ownership, continuity, and recognition.  This initial communication will help ensure that a designer’s philosophies are compatible with the company’s objectives and processes.  Next, managers can facilitate the logo design process by providing descriptive and experiential information regarding all aspects of the company, and providing a reasonable length of time to designers to complete the logo design tasks.  In addition, managers should describe the logo usage context to highlight logo needs and limitations.  Finally, managers can ensure the effectiveness of the finished logo by using the six elements of good logo design identified by prior research to discuss the designer’s final choice of logo elements.  The logo’s actual effect on brand equity should be evaluated only after it has had time to become recognized by the target audience.

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