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How to create a winning logo
Logo considerations separate pros from amateurs
By Tim Coco
President and chief executive officer
Company logos are usually among the most misunderstood and poorly
implemented facets of an organization’s marketing efforts. Yet, they
make or break success.
Dominant left-brained executives often become CEOs and managers
because they are logical, analytical and objective. Unfortunately, these
traits either lead them to see no value in icons at all, at one
extreme, or think too much about meaning and rationale at the other.
Right-brained people are said to be more intuitive, thoughtful and
subjective. They value imagery and emotion—ideal for marketing to the
masses, but also read too much into logo design. Late designer Paul
Rand, at left, creator of successful logos for IBM, UPS, Westinghouse, ABC and
others, places the arguments in perspective.
“A logo is a flag, a signature, an escutcheon, a street sign. A logo does not sell (directly), it identifies. A logo is rarely a description of a business. A logo derives meaning from
the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around. A
logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it represents
is more important than what it looks like. The subject matter of a logo
can be almost anything,” Rand said.
Concept: egos, copycats and the big fail
A common mistake in creating a logo is to try to target all audiences
and all messages at the same time. Such efforts result in oversized,
complicated and confusing imagery. Examples of these excesses include a
membership organization that places a star, dot or square for every
location or audience segment. An attempt to include everyone and
everything creates a confusing and fatiguing image that appeals to no
one. It is easily forgotten.
Another fatal error is creation of a logo that addresses a
contemporary or short-term need. After the September 11, 2001 attacks on
the U.S., a flurry of red, white and blue logos—adorned with stars,
stripes, eagles, etc.—overtook the landscape. The public viewed these
with skepticism and contempt, believing those businesses were
opportunists rather than patriots. Similarly, green-colored
environmental imagery has likewise been dismissed by consumers as “green
Don’t be condescending or underestimate consumers’ savvy. As famed
advertising agency head, David Ogilvy wrote, “The consumer is not a
moron, she is your wife.”
Instead, aim for simple images or stylized (but easily readable)
text. Keep logos audience-centered rather than boastful. Your targets
want you to be thinking of them and not bragging about how big or
important you think you are. Ego-driven businesses and managers are the
first to suffer in the marketplace. They invite adversaries to try to
bring them down. Also, try not to copy someone else’s trendy idea. Like
copying quiz answers from your classmate in fourth grade, you may be
copying mistakes. This is a sign of low self-esteem and may even raise
The most important benefit of a logo is its consistent and repetitive
use. It becomes a shortcut for the business or organization in the
public’s mind. The ugliest logos—Coca-Cola and General Electric, as
examples—still work not because of their beauty, but rather because of
their consistent usage.
Design: if it’s fun, you’re doing it wrong
As indicated above, distance yourself from contemporary
considerations or you will be recreating your logo every year and losing
the benefits of repetition. Just look at those dated “avocado green” or
“harvest gold” kitchens if you need proof. Similarly, the
characteristics of some new tool in a design program tend to result in a
proliferation of copycat inventions.
Stay away from such clichés as scales of justice, clocks, columns,
tree branches, etc. Seek originality and classic timelessness otherwise
targets will view you as more of the same or be unable to distinguish
you from your competition.
One of most important considerations in logo design is creating a
piece that works in every iteration from signage, letterheads,
envelopes, business cards, trade show displays, tall and/or wide ads,
billboards, TV ads, websites, fax cover sheets, and even Web favicons
(those little insignias next to your Web address in a browser bar). All
too often a wide logo intended to be used across the top of letterheads
or on a website either must be shrunken to near invisibility when used
in a narrow advertisement or cut up and reassembled, sacrificing
Many managers and designers naturally enjoy the fun part of creating
something and often don’t want to be bothered with science, research
results or technical considerations. As boring and time-consuming as it
may seem, consider all of the ways logos will be displayed. Create or
require a Brand Identity Manual specifying how the logo should appear in
every instance, what fonts are to be used, exact representations of
color (Pantone Matching System, CMYK, spot, black and white, RGB, foil
stamping, etc.), minimum sizes (for readability), whether reverse uses
of the logo (white-only logo on a black background, for example) are
allowed and what options are available when the logo must be reproduced
in only grayscale (program books, for example) or solid black (fax cover
While full color (four-color process) printing is much more
economical than it used to be, consider whether you can afford to
constantly print a color logo or whether you should restrict designs to
one or two colors. Raised (business cards), embossed or foil stamping
(invitations, awards, etc.) are other considerations.
Microsoft and pals have dumbed down desktop publishing, but outputs
are limited. Avoid do-it-yourself designing in Word, PowerPoint,
Publisher, CorelDraw, etc. Logos should be designed in professional
programs that support vector images. Vector images are those that can be
scaled as large as a billboard without becoming distorted. File
extensions such as JPG, GIF, TIF, etc. are not vector formats. Many such
desktop publishing programs support only the red, green and blue (RGB)
model intended for computer monitors. They will not properly display
when given to a printer using the standard cyan, magenta, yellow and
black (CMYK) print separations model.
Finally, advanced software programs are best placed in the hands of
professionals. It’s easy to make certain elements invisible or
transparent on the screen by placing white boxes over elements to be
hidden. However, there is typically no white ink on a printing press and
those little boxes will suddenly become visible. This is also true if
you plan to have your logo appear transparent over a colored background
on a website.
It’s more complicated than it first appears and perhaps not so much fun after all.
Execution: the logo goes to the bottom
Here’s a homework assignment: thumb through a major national magazine
and see where company logos usually appear. You’ll find they are almost
always at the bottom.
Good advertising is designed like an upside down pyramid that
recognizes western human beings tend to read left to right and top to
bottom. Graphics tend to be the first place the eye tends to land. As
such, you’ll find most professional ads, billboards and other print
materials train the eye to read from graphic to headline to body copy
and then, lastly, logo. Consumers need to see or be convinced of an
offer before they are told where to buy. Compared side-by-side, every
scientific study has shown ads with logos on top significantly
underperform to the point of almost being useless. Readers who see logos
first subtly are sent the message,“The End,” and move on. Again,
science trumps art in these instances.
It is the sign of an amateur to place the logo on top. Why then
is it so ubiquitous in local, small town advertising? Advertising
salespeople tend to put logos first, but only because they are catering
to business owners’ or managers’ egos.
Websites pose an exception to the rule. This is because logos on the bottom may not be seen at all if users don’t scroll down.
Despite the length of this column, it addresses only a tiny fraction
of the issues. Many rules also apply to slogans. If you have any
questions, please submit a comment, use the Contact form or call (978)