What does it take to cre­ate a good logo de­sign fit for the 21st cen­tury? Emily Gosling speaks to the de­sign pro­fes­sion­als putting it in prac­tice

Computer Arts - - Contents - Writ­ten by Emily Gosling Il­lus­tra­tion by Daniel Pearce

“We’re all liv­ing on phones – that’s the first thing you touch in the morn­ing and the last thing you touch while you’re sack­ing out,” laments graphic de­signer Aaron Draplin. “We’re these lit­tle cy­borgs – phones are ap­pendages, our ba­bies are be­ing born now with their hands clamped around these things.”

While Draplin might have some pretty orig­i­nal takes on bi­o­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion, his broad­side un­der­scores a point much more rel­e­vant to his trade: where tiny screens are our pri­mary in­ter­ac­tion with a com­pany, prod­uct or per­son, that ob­vi­ously has big im­pli­ca­tions for the peo­ple brand­ing them. Lo­gos have to work smaller to­day than ever – which means they have to work a lot harder, too. “In the ‘good old days’ a logo was al­ways printed, and might make it onto TV, but that’s not the start­ing point to­day,” says James Sommerville, who re­cently left his role as VP of global de­sign at Coca Cola. “The start­ing point is usu­ally in our pocket, on a screen. The suc­cess­ful lo­gos work across all of those sur­faces. The chal­lenge for many her­itage brands is that they were never de­signed to move – Coca Cola was never de­signed to an­i­mate. For new brands, they have to give a sense of longevity – show con­sumers that they’re not just here to­day, gone to­mor­row, but also grab at­ten­tion.”

The im­por­tance of scal­a­bil­ity in lo­gos is, of course, noth­ing new. Since the dawn of cor­po­rate brand­ing, logo de­sign­ers have had to con­sider that their cre­ations must look as great on a busi­ness card as a bill­board, as recog­nis­able on a candy wrap­per as on the side of a bus. “If it doesn’t scale well, then you’re in big trou­ble,” re­in­forces Draplin. “That’s what I was taught by Saul Bass and Paul Rand when I was a kid – that’s ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

But what’s dif­fer­ent now to in Rand and Bass’ day is the scope of what these lo­gos can, and have to do: on­screen, they can move, per­haps make sound, shape shift. Yet they still have to sing on bor­ing old 2D too. An even big­ger shift isn’t just the ba­sic idea of how and where a logo’s ap­plied, but what it stands for. Alex Johns, cre­ative di­rec­tor at De­signS­tu­dio, points out that how we in­ter­act with a brand is “way more nu­anced” to­day, even com­pared to five years ago. “With the rise of de­vices like iPhones, our re­la­tion­ships with a brand are way more per­sonal and our in­ter­ac­tions with them more fre­quent. A logo used to be a short­hand for a brand: to­day it’s a key part of a holis­tic sys­tem.”

With all these new­found pos­si­bil­i­ties – not to men­tion the soft­ware to cre­ate them – it would make sense to as­sume that to­day’s graphic de­sign­ers are glee­fully rip­ping up the prece­dents set by their fore­bears and run­ning wild. So are 21st cen­tury lo­gos a re­flec­tion of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and ad­ven­ture that de­sign­ers have at their fin­ger­tips? Many would ar­gue very much the op­po­site.


Christophe De Pelse­maker, a Bel­gium-based graphic de­signer who re­cently co-au­thored the (as yet un­pub­lished) book Let­ters As Sym­bols with Paul Ibou, sees tech­nol­ogy as a hin­drance rather than a help when it comes to smart logo de­sign. “A com­puter en­ables you to make more mis­takes,” he says. “That’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, but it isn’t a good thing ei­ther. Now, we just put some­thing on the screen and if we don’t like it, we erase it. Back in the day, a de­signer re­ally had to think about the con­cept be­fore they drew a line on a pa­per. With­out a con­cept, you can­not cre­ate some­thing good. Now, with the help of com­puter, a lot of de­sign­ers skip the con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion, or think­ing phase. That’s why, I think, good logo de­sign isn’t as com­mon to­day.”

Sommerville agrees. “I think some of the craft has gone,” he says. “Now that things are so fast and it’s so easy to it­er­ate, it feels like there’s less longevity in lo­gos. Iden­ti­ties have a short fuse now that ev­ery­thing’s so

dis­pos­able. A great de­sign is one that has the time to live its own life.”

This em­pha­sis on story and mean­ing in logo de­sign is by no means unusual. Ian An­der­son, founder of The De­sign­ers Repub­lic, is fa­mously non-de­sign-school ed­u­cated (he stud­ied a phi­los­o­phy de­gree in­stead), and his work’s con­cep­tual un­der­pin­nings may well have a lot to do with that. “My in­ter­est has al­ways been in peo­ple, and un­der­stand­ing what peo­ple do or don’t do, and why,” says An­der­son. “My work is in­formed by be­lief sys­tems – why do peo­ple be­lieve in god, and not in fries that live at the end of the gar­den? Why do we act on what we be­lieve? That all feeds into logo de­sign. We tend to hop past that now and straight into the fun­fair of brand­ing. My in­ter­est in graphic de­sign is only based on what it can com­mu­ni­cate and how it can pro­voke re­sponses.” He sug­gests that hav­ing not been to de­sign school might have meant he’s less “eas­ily se­duced by form”, or by par­tic­u­lar trends: “When you’re just in­ter­ested in im­press­ing other de­sign­ers, it will al­ways be more about sur­face. I want a de­sign to look good and work well for a rea­son.”

In­deed, some of the classic lo­gos we hold up as em­body­ing wit and great­ness are those we’ve spent time with and with rig­or­ous un­der­pin­nings – think the FedEx hid­den ar­row de­signed in 1994 by Lin­don Leader for Lan­dor As­so­ciates. Not only was this sort of de­sign born of a time with more lim­ited soft­ware pos­si­bil­i­ties than we have to­day, but as Sommerville sug­gests, the likes of Alan Fletcher – per­haps most fa­mous for his Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum (V&A) logo – likely worked with dif­fer­ent agency struc­tures. “A lot of those iconic lo­gos are a dif­fu­sion be­tween great de­sign work and great ad­ver­tis­ing, com­bined in one logo. There’s a sto­ry­telling ap­proach to some­thing like [Fletcher’s] V&A logo: you see that alone on a poster and it’s an ad it­self.”

The other side of the coin is quite the op­po­site. Now that iden­tity sys­tems have to be and do so much, de­sign­ers have to be many-trick ponies. You can’t just draw a logo and be done with it: you have to think about how that an­i­mates, how dif­fer­ent peo­ple first encounter it – might they see a TV ad? An icon in the app store?

An an­i­mated web­site header? A mov­ing bill­board? The de­sign­ers mak­ing the most in­ter­est­ing – and, cru­cially, the most ef­fec­tive – lo­gos are surely the ones con­sid­er­ing the im­pact it has not just as a drawn thing on the page, but also a mov­ing one that sits beau­ti­fully within the var­i­ous lives of con­sumers.


Of all the trends that have dom­i­nated brand­ing in re­cent times, there’s one that trucks along more doggedly than any other: sim­plic­ity. Flat­ness. ‘Par­ing back’. Ear­lier this year on Cre­ative Bloq we sur­mised that “sim­plic­ity has been king for a while.” And it seems that crown isn’t set to slip any time soon. Take last year’s Moon­pig re­design: the (al­beit quite hideous) lit­tle piggy was given the boot (as was, fi­nally, the ‘’) in favour of a flat, sim­ple, yet still rather kids’ par­tyesque new look and feel. Be­fore that, Pen­ta­gram’s re­design of the Master­card logo stripped things right back to their most ba­sic com­po­nents – just two, flat, over­lap­ping cir­cles and a new all lower-case word mark in safe, taste­ful sans serif FF Mark. And it makes to­tal sense that a pri­mary con­sid­er­a­tion was the logo’s op­ti­mi­sa­tion across mul­ti­ple dig­i­tal plat­forms.

“It’s be­come a ho­mo­ge­neous gloop of graphics re­ally,” says An­der­son. “That’s not any one de­sign or de­signer’s fault, but it’s the re­al­ity. If you’re sim­pli­fy­ing ev­ery­thing there’s only so many shapes, forms and colour com­bi­na­tions be­fore you be­gin to get rep­e­ti­tion.” He ac­knowl­edges that where “smart de­sign­ers” can flat­ten a logo de­sign to “com­mu­ni­cate the brand mes­sage, brand values, the prod­uct or what­ever,” such a style is all too easy to ap­prox­i­mate by “half-ar­sed de­sign­ers. So there’s a lot of rep­e­ti­tion of ideas, and a lot of it is quite lazy.”

Sim­plic­ity is not in­her­ently a bad thing: some of the logo de­signs held up as among the best of the past decades are in­cred­i­bly re­strained. Vi­tally, such pieces are in­cred­i­bly smart, too – a prime ex­am­ple be­ing that V&A logo, which el­e­gantly forms its A from the classic yet bul­bous am­per­sand. It’s lit­tle sur­prise that the de­sign has re­mained un­changed since it was cre­ated in 1990, and it still looks as fresh and con­fi­dent as ever. “The brief stip­u­lated the de­sign should only com­prise three char­ac­ters (V&A), should be func­tional, date­less, mem­o­rable and ap­pro­pri­ate,” said Fletcher of the piece. If its en­dur­ing use in the Mu­seum’s present cam­paigns is any­thing to go by, he cer­tainly nailed it.

The per­fec­tion of the logo also means that for de­sign­ers work­ing with the logo to­day, it’s both a dream and some­thing of a del­i­cate bal­ance. Chris Cur­ran, co­founder of The Stu­dio of Wil­liamson Cur­ran, re­cently worked on a cam­paign for the mu­seum’s The Fu­ture Starts Here ex­hi­bi­tion. “The con­sis­tent use of the V&A logo over the cam­paign in both scale, po­si­tion and colour was al­ways cen­tral to our think­ing when de­sign­ing across both print and screens,” says Cur­ran. “The V&A logo and ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tle all picked out in the same colour, and the choice of type­face was a short­hand for the tone of the ex­hi­bi­tion and struck a good bal­ance with the V&A logo.”

Re­cently though, sim­plic­ity could be said to rarely pack such a well-aimed punch. Eye on De­sign manag­ing editor Liz Stin­son re­cently coined the term “mil­len­nial min­i­mal­ism” to sum up the trend over the past few years in com­mer­cial graphics cen­tred around sans ser­ifs, mono­chrome pal­ettes and “flat photography”, born of dig­i­tal-fo­cused strate­gies and, “years of see­ing some vari­a­tion of the same min­i­mal­ist logo again, and again, and again,” as she puts it. The re­sult, many in the in­dus­try sur­mised, is same­ness.

Such ac­ces­sions of ho­mo­gene­ity may be slightly un­fair though – are we judg­ing a brand on the out­dated (slightly short-sighted) cri­te­ria of a sin­gle logo, where we should be look­ing at its mod­ern coun­ter­part – a mov­ing, in­ter­ac­tive, al­to­gether more nu­anced “sys­tem”? Are we – Twit­ter-both­er­ers, con­sumers, and the de­sign in­dus­try at large – be­ing a lit­tle too quick to judge?


If there’s a stu­dio that knows a thing or two about what makes a good logo, it’s Am­s­ter­dam’s Stu­dio Dum­bar. Founded by Gert Dum­bar in 1977, its port­fo­lio takes in many projects held up as gold stan­dards when it comes to cor­po­rate graphics, in­clud­ing work for Dutch Rail­ways, Am­s­ter­dam’s NEMO sci­ence mu­seum, the Dutch gov­ern­ment and its Na­tional Po­lice.

Yet while its his­tory isn’t to be sniffed at, as the stu­dio’s cre­ative di­rec­tor Liza Enebeis points out, it’s un­wise to in­dulge in misty-eyed re­mem­brances of a so­called ‘golden era’ of de­sign that may or may not ex­ist. “When you speak to your par­ents or grand­par­ents, they’ll al­ways say things were so much bet­ter in the past – usu­ally when they were in their teens,” she says. “A lot of de­sign­ers can look back and say how bril­liant or bet­ter cor­po­rate de­sign was in the 1960s, or the Mod­ernist era, but now we have so many more pos­si­bil­i­ties. We can adapt logo and iden­tity de­sign to so many dif­fer­ent plat­forms and me­dia and re­de­fine how we ap­proach brand­ing.

“That’s a huge chal­lenge, ob­vi­ously, but it means you re­ally have to work hard to find a way to make the mark you cre­ate stand out,” she says.

Mo­tion plays a big­ger part in logo de­sign than ever be­fore. This has dual con­se­quences: on the one hand, a logo has to work harder than ever, and on the other, that logo takes a back­seat as it be­comes part of a far wider graph­i­cal out­come. “The sym­bol is no longer ev­ery­thing,” says Enebeis. “When you see a logo on a dig­i­tal plat­form or within an app, be­hav­iour and how it moves de­fines the iden­tity. We never re­ally had to con­sider that a few years ago; now, it plays a huge role.”

Dum­bar’s work for Jeugd­fonds Sport & Cul­tuur (Youth Sport Foun­da­tion and Youth Cul­ture Foun­da­tion) saw the stu­dio be­gin by sketch­ing in mo­tion be­fore dis­till­ing the move­ment into stills when­ever needed. “It was an­other way at look­ing at iden­tity that’s all about move­ment,” says Enebeis. As a re­sult, the de­signs are hugely en­er­getic and ra­di­ate pos­i­tiv­ity: ex­actly what was needed for a brand that looks to pro­mote the po­ten­tial in the young peo­ple it works with, and is in­tended to speak di­rectly and re­spect­fully to a youth au­di­ence.

Such projects cel­e­brate the po­ten­tial of lo­gos not as stand­alone en­ti­ties, but part of far broader, more dy­namic com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems. An­other Dum­bar project proves that this ap­proach need not just be for brands aimed at youth or play­ful­ness, but for more tra­di­tional in­sti­tu­tions. Its work for string orches­tra the Am­s­ter­dam Sin­foni­etta, whose mu­si­cal reper­toire in­cludes ev­ery­thing from baroque to con­tem­po­rary, an­swered a brief to re­fresh pub­lic per­cep­tions. Stu­dio Dum­bar’s so­lu­tion was to take full ad­van­tage of to­day’s tech­ni­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties, cre­at­ing an iden­tity driven by a bold lo­go­type and ty­po­graphic pal­ette but which evolves by re­spond­ing graph­i­cally to each per­for­mance’s mu­si­cal themes through re­act­ing to sound.

Ear­lier in 2018, De­signS­tu­dio cre­ated a new iden­tity for Barcelona-based data start-up Type­form, in­spired by Span­ish artists in­clud­ing Pi­casso and Miró. The iden­tity es­chews a tra­di­tional sys­tem that takes a logo at its heart, in­stead – again – look­ing to mo­tion: the logo it­self is “liv­ing” and mu­ta­ble, tak­ing on dif­fer­ent forms ac­cord­ing to fac­tors in­clud­ing whether it’s rep­re­sent­ing com­plex data, or look­ing to ex­press more ab­stract emo­tions. “Peo­ple are com­plex and chal­leng­ing, and so clients are coming to us with more in­ter­est­ing chal­lenges,” says Johns. “The world of de­sign has changed: even five or 10 years ago, de­sign was a colour pal­ette, logo and type­face – now, it’s more about be­hav­iour and in­ter­ac­tion.”

He adds: “Where a logo was once a seal of ap­proval or short­hand, now they can re­spond to in­ter­ac­tion – to clicks, swipes and taps. That’s a very new thing. A logo has to wear many hats, and it can’t do that alone. Maybe the word logo has be to be re­con­sid­ered as we re­de­fine this new ver­nac­u­lar.”

As such, a de­sign sys­tem will still in­clude a logo, but for many brands that are built to be used dig­i­tally over and above print cam­paigns, pack­ag­ing and so on, sound and mo­tion are as in­te­gral as a mark to be popped on a busi­ness card or even a web­site header. Agility is key.


So what makes an ir­refutably good logo de­sign? As Draplin points out, truly time­less de­signs only be­come so for their re­fusal to kow­tow to the hot new thing: “Try not to be led too hard by the lat­est trends or styles. Things rise and fall but clar­ity is an el­e­ment that never re­ally goes out of style.”

A lot of it sim­ply comes down to do­ing the right thing for the right project. “Some peo­ple are in­ter­ested in ty­po­graphic forms, but what I’m more in­ter­ested in is un­der­stand­ing the sit­u­a­tion,” re­in­forces An­der­son. “Whether that’s mu­sic pack­ag­ing or Coca Cola, you have to un­der­stand the tar­get au­di­ence and the prod­uct, and how you in­tend to con­nect those two. Why have they made that al­bum? Why has Coca Cola launched a new prod­uct, what are they try­ing to achieve? The prob­lem solv­ing as­pect is try­ing to say that in a way the tar­get au­di­ence best re­sponds to.”

In his logo for Warp Records, for in­stance – a la­bel known for its bound­ary push­ing elec­tronic mu­sic ros­ter – the idea was to com­mu­ni­cate some­thing that was fu­tur­is­tic, but wouldn’t date. “Things that look ‘fu­tur­is­tic’ date very quickly, as that ver­sion of the fu­ture will never hap­pen,” says An­der­son. “So I wanted to just have a logo and a colour that peo­ple would recog­nise.” The re­sult­ing mark is a stretched, grid­ded planet-like shape with a zig zag hold­ing de­vice that hits you like a comic book “ZAP!”, of­ten used with a dis­tinc­tive brand pur­ple. “There’s an old sci-fi, pulpy feel to it,” says An­der­son. “A lot of those 50s and 60s sci-fi things have al­ready dated as much as they’re go­ing to: they’re locked into the fu­ture so they’re never go­ing to date. With Warp, I was say­ing that you need to sim­plify it in or­der to com­mu­ni­cate a com­plex mes­sage.”

Sim­plic­ity, as we’ve dis­cussed, doesn’t mean bor­ing: the sweet spot be­tween dull min­i­mal­ism and smart min­i­mal­ism is in that abil­ity to dis­til a brand’s essence in just one mark. “In my opin­ion good logo de­sign is cre­at­ing a sim­ple, strong, recog­nis­able sym­bol that com­mu­ni­cates some­thing about the com­pany or brand or prod­uct,” says De Pelse­maker. “That might be through us­ing an unusual or in­ter­est­ing space, or clever use of con­trast and white space.”

The suc­cess of a logo is, of course, a highly in­di­vid­ual thing: it has to truth­fully, po­tently speak of a brand’s essence, whether that’s in a di­rect or more ab­stract way. Take Peter Sav­ile’s re­cent re­design of the Burberry logo, for in­stance: “it’s ba­si­cally sim­pli­fied, and you could ar­gue that it’s a very sim­ple logo,” says Enebeis, “but what’s bril­liant is that Burberry is more than a logo, and it tran­scends that. You have to think about the core of the com­pany to find the right an­swer.” Chanel’s time­less in­ter­lock­ing ‘C’ mark achieves the same thing: it’s beau­ti­fully crafted, sim­ple ty­pog­ra­phy, but an ut­terly mem­o­rable dis­til­la­tion of the brand’s essence. Away from fash­ion, think of the Saul Bass Bell Sys­tem logo: “even if the brand isn’t around to­day [the com­pany ceased op­er­a­tions in 1984], the logo still works,” says Draplin. “It’s just a bell in a lit­tle cir­cle, but the clar­ity is just so per­fect. Here comes the ‘c’ word, but cor­po­rate en­ti­ties taught me a lot about let­ting re­straint and sim­plic­ity tell a larger story.”

To­day though, clar­ity need not solely re­fer to the sim­plic­ity with which we recog­nise or un­der­stand a static mark. That clar­ity can be born of recog­nis­ing a brand through our in­ter­ac­tions with it – through its wider values and place in the world, and how we en­gage with it on a far more per­sonal level. A de­sign brief’s

out­come is wildly dif­fer­ent to what it was once ex­pected to be – and there’s a lot of ex­cite­ment and free­dom in that. For Johns, a cru­cial part of De­signS­tu­dio’s ethos is in its be­lief that best prac­tice is there to be con­fronted and pushed. “When best prac­tice means stag­na­tion, you have to chal­lenge it to move forward,” he says. “Con­sumers change, and de­sign­ers have to change with them. A brief might come in to cre­ate a logo or a busi­ness card, but we take the time to live and breathe the brand and un­der­stand the propo­si­tion, then make rec­om­men­da­tions on what the out­come should be. Just giv­ing you a logo might not be the right an­swer.”

That’s where the dan­ger in sites like 99De­signs et al come in: a logo is not ev­ery­thing, for a start, and if you’re pay­ing peanuts for a de­sign, you’re go­ing to get, well, a poor de­sign. “If you’re pay­ing $4.99 you’re rolling the dice on some­one who’s go­ing to sell you bull­shit cli­part art,” says Draplin. “Don’t lament to me ‘oh we paid $6 and got a stupid logo.’ What did you think you would get?”

Johns also puts forward an in­ter­est­ing coun­ter­point to the tra­di­tional ar­gu­ment that a logo must stand for some­thing. “Why does a logo have to mean some­thing?” he ar­gues. “Why can’t it just cre­ate a feel­ing, and be ex­cit­ing and in­trigu­ing? There can be space for po­etry and fun in there too. A logo is no longer at the heart of a brand, it’s de­cen­tralised: the first touch­point might not be a print cam­paign or prod­uct, it can be so many other things, and that’s re­ally ex­cit­ing.”

While it’s easy (and for many, fun) to wage key­board­war­fare un­til the cows come home about the same­ness of to­day’s marks – es­pe­cially those for dig­i­tal start-ups – per­haps the most rad­i­cal thing we can do is to sit back and re­ally think about what we’re judg­ing and why. “If it’s ‘too flat’, who gets to be the judge?” says Draplin. “Don’t go look­ing for controversy and get all huffy. What’s the prob­lem if you can nail the spirit in sim­ple, flat shapes? But if it comes off look­ing like ev­ery­thing else, you have to go back to the draw­ing board.”

Per­haps all the logo-bitch­ing and cries that craft is dead are mis­guided for one sim­ple rea­son: logo de­sign isn’t stale or bor­ing, we’re just judg­ing with out­moded cri­te­ria. “A brand is so much more than a logo,” says Johns. Sure, it’s won­der­ful to look at the greats – to pore over the hefty Stan­dards Man­ual reis­sues, to wor­ship at the al­tars of Rand, Fletcher, Cher­may­eff and oth­ers, but it’s vi­tal for us in 2018 to con­sider that these weren’t cre­ated as neat black and white totems of ‘great de­sign’, but as the bound­ary-push­ers of their day. “You don’t have to re­ject the past, but you do have to re­mem­ber that peo­ple like Wim Crouwel, and Hamish Muir’s 8vo were push­ing the en­ve­lope. Don’t just hold onto nostalgia, think about what they ac­tu­ally stood for. Of course, craft and qual­ity have to be re­tained, but they also have to be ap­plied to new prob­lems. The best de­sign­ers are the ones who re­spect the past, but also build for the now and look to the fu­ture.”

Above Spreads and cover for Let­ters as Sym­bols, a book by de­sign­ers Christophe De Pelse­maker and Paul Ibou.

Above Master­card’s 2016 re­design was com­pleted by Pen­ta­gram’s New York of­fice.

Above FedEx logo, de­signed by Lin­don Leader, then se­nior de­sign di­rec­tor at Lan­dor As­so­ciates, in 1994.

Above Liza Enebeis, Stu­dio Dum­bar’s cre­ative di­rec­tor and part­ner.

Top and leftStu­dio Dum­bar’s work for the Am­s­ter­dam Sin­foni­etta aimed to re­fresh the mu­si­cal group’s im­age.

Above De­signS­tu­dio’s brand­ing for GetYourGuide, an on­line mar­ket­place for tours, tick­ets and at­trac­tions.

Be­low The Nike swoosh logo, de­signed in 1971 by graphic de­signer Car­olyn David­son for just $35; the Ap­ple logo as we know it was de­signed by Lan­dor As­so­ciates in 1984 as a rain­bow, be­com­ing stark black in 1998; the Play­boy logo, de­signed by Art Paul for the se­cond is­sue of Play­boy magazine in 1953.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.