“Logo” comes from the Greek logos, meaning “word.” It is a shortened form of the slightly old-fashioned “logotype,” which means “word form.” The logo is the name given form—that is, made visual. It is the distinctive mark that works in the context of its environment to evoke the brand insight in the viewer’s mind, playing off the viewer’s own experience and also reinforcing that experience in preparation for the next encounter. However, a logo is not a brand— it is shorthand for one. First comes the brand insight; then the logo. Too many start-up companies get this backward.
Nowadays few logos are truly original in appearance. What is more important is that they evoke the desired associations and emotional response in the viewer. A historical or cultural allusion can be desirable in a logo, especially if it is a new logo for an old brand, or a new brand resulting from a merger or acquisition that wishes to retain some of the equity from the brand(s) it replaces. If a brand is to appear fresh and compelling, it needs to contain visual cues that reflect the styles and techniques of the moment. What it gives up in originality, a logo can gain in relevance—at least, for a time.
Form-wise, what makes a good logo? The designer Paul Rand wrote, “The ideal logo is simple, elegant, economical, flexible, practical, and unforgettable.” The selection of an appropriate form is a subjective process. It is virtually impossible today to fulfill Rand’s criteria with a unique, novel form, and many new logos are bound to remind viewers of others they have seen. Still, a logo should aim to be distinct from others in its category, to avoid cliches, and above all to avoid infringing someone else’s trademark.
A logo can take almost any form. Some logos are simply a word. Others are a wordless symbol. Most involve some combination of the two. Many logos have multiple variants of shape or color. The important thing is that customers recognize them and receive the desired impression.
The best logos, like national flags, exert an emotional pull on the viewer. Certain symbols may also carry deeper meanings that can be appropriated for a brand. For example, the psychologist Carl Jung saw the star as a symbol of the spiritual part of the psyche, that part of the personality which survives death. Hence, a logo that incorporates a star can be a subconscious reminder of our aspirations to immortality.
By itself, a logo is just a mark, but it acquires meaning through a lifetime of stories and experiences. A logo can change over time, but it should always keep its connection to the insights and meanings in customers’ minds.