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Logos: What Makes Them Work (Part 1 of 2)

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Developing a great logo is a strange mix of art, science, psychology and (in most cases) a good amount of luck.

In this, the first of this two-part series, we'll

  • Explain what a logo really is
  • Offer a word of caution and ask a few questions you'll need to answer before you start
  • Suggest how to start the process
  • Advise on shape, style and color selection

Next week, in the second installment, you'll learn

  • The pitfalls of literal translation
  • That size does matter
  • How to choose the right logo
  • How to protect your rights

But first things first. Before you get started, you should know a few things about the whats, whys and hows of great logos.

First, let's make one thing very clear. You logo is not your brand. Your logo only represents your brand. If you're thinking that changing or creating a logo is the same as changing or creating a brand, someone's been feeding you some very bad information. Branding and logos are totally separate discussions.


Your logo is nothing more (and certainly, nothing less) than a visual mark that represents your brand. It allows people with money to find you, remember you and differentiate you from a few billion other businesses.

And while your logo is not your brand, its design and consistent use will effect how your brand will be perceived. A great logo can give you incredible leverage and contribute directly to your bottom line.

On the other hand, a lousy one may very well be the kiss of death.

A Word of Caution

If you're considering a change or replacement of your existing logo, stop right now.

Changing or replacing your existing logo is tantamount to divorce. The ramifications can wreak havoc on your marketing, your brand, your advertising, customer loyalty and, ultimately, short- and long-term sales.

Agencies and creative types are always prepared to give you a million good reasons that you should make the change. From their side of the table, an overhaul of your corporate ID package is very big, very easy money.

Don't get me wrong. I love collecting piles of money designing new logos. But the reality is that unless your current logo is hurting you in a measurable way... you should leave it alone.

A major player in the insurance business recently spent more money than it will admit on a logo change. The company's heritage is steeped in over 100 years of solid, conservative, rock-solid insurance. The logo represented all that its customer base recognized as one of the most trusted brands in the industry.

Like yours, its logo represented the promises that the company makes to customers.

I met with one of the VPs and explained that there are thousands of companies that would give their right arm for his company's heritage and longstanding reputation. Moreover, there are tons of smaller, less-established insurance companies that would buy their logo with all it represents and use it in a heartbeat.

"Would you sell your logo if the buyer promised to change the name?" I asked. The answer was a resounding: "What—are you out of your mind?"

So, the question is simple: "If you won't sell it, why change it?" (A period of silence followed.)

The jury is still out on the success or failure of the new, slick logo that abandoned the company's heritage. One thing is certain: the new logo makes it look like the business just opened last week, not over 100 years ago. (Bad move for an insurance company.)

My guess is that the same money spent on increasing the sales efforts would have been a better investment.

Maybe a Facelift

Before you abandon your existing logo entirely, consider a facelift. Sometimes your old logo just needs the Joan Rivers treatment.

Cleaning, polishing and streamlining your existing logo may very well be all you really need. As we'll discuss later, people recognize shapes first.

If your heart is set on a change, think seriously about updating your logo with a tweak or two while maintaining the overall shape and base design. It's a much safer option than abandoning an icon that is familiar to your existing customer base.

If You Insist

Okay, I've done my best to convince you that you should do your best to keep your existing logo, even if it needs an update. But if you still want to change it or are launching a new company or product (good reasons for a new logo), here are a few points for you to keep in mind.

1. Black and white first

Good logos are designed in black and white first. Color comes later. By the same token, logos should be judged in black and white first, then in color.

By evaluating the black and white version first, you get a much better idea of the shape, design and readability of the logo. Good design stands up well in black and white. Lousy design does not. Lazy designers know that bad design can be camouflaged by color. A logo shouldn't rely on color for its appeal, uniqueness or ability to be recognized.

If you're hiring logo designers, insist that the first presentation come to you in black and white. If they don't get it, fire them before they get started.

2. Shape and style next

Logos are first recognized by shape, then by color. Good logos have unique shapes that are quickly differentiated from the sea of other logos that the public sees every day. The shape must be simple, clean and quick. Sometimes logos are just the name of the organization in a well-selected font. And, yes, words—all by themselves—are shapes.

Complicated logos are more difficult to recognize. People memorize logos in exactly the same way they memorize printed words. When you look at the word "cat," you don't see the individual letters. Instead, you've memorized the "shape" of the word. That "shape" represents a small, furry animal. On the other hand, when you run across the word "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis" you'll probably have to break it down to recognize it. (This could lead us to a whole discussion about product names, but for now, let's stick to logos.)

The same holds true for logos. Incredibly simple, unique designs are the most effective. But they are very difficult to create. The goal of a logo is to be memorized. Like words, the simpler the better.

Exceptions to the rule. There are exceptions to the simplicity factor in logo design. If the logo is complicated, and some very good ones are, the central element of the logo must still be crystal clear. Remember, we recognize logos first by shape, then color. If you're shooting for a complicated logo design, the shape must still be easily recognized in a literal blink of the eye.

If you're going to complex design, the "black and white first" rule is more important than ever. And to this, there is no exception.

3. A word about color

Just like the shape of a logo, color needs to be simple and easy to recognize and memorize. Colors and color combinations used in logos should be unique so that the logo doesn't blend into the multitude of other logos. Complicated color combinations that include lots of different colors distract from the most important element of the logo, that is, its shape.

Again, think about memorization. It's pretty easy to memorize the colors of a tan and blue logo. On the other hand, the same logo design in tan and blue and green and teal and purple and red and black is not so easy to remember.

What color should you use? Yes, colors do mean things. Green means go. Red means stop. Yellow means speed up. There are a few generally accepted principles of color and the emotions they evoke. Color trends change. The trick is to find the color combination that doesn't just work today but will maintain its appeal and meaning over time:

  • Black: seriousness, distinctiveness, boldness, power, sophistication, tradition

  • Blue: authority, dignity, security, faithfulness, heritage, corporate stability, trust

  • Brown/gold: history, utility, earthiness, richness, tradition, conservative

  • Gray/silver: somberness, authority, practicality, corporate mentality, trust

  • Green: tranquility, health, freshness, stability, appetite

  • Orange: fun, cheeriness, warm exuberance, appetite, speed

  • Pink: femininity, innocence, softness, health, youth

  • Purple: sophistication, spirituality, wealth, royalty, youth, mystery

  • Red: aggressiveness, passion, strength, vitality, fear, speed, appetite

  • White/silver: purity, truthfulness, faith, contemporary, refined, wealth

  • Yellow: youth, positive feelings, sunshine, cowardice, refinement, caution, appetite

There is plenty of reference material that you can easily find about color psychology. Rather than get into all of it here, let's just say that certain colors (and combinations) work better than others for different types of businesses and products.

It really doesn't matter what your favorite color is. Blue won't sell food, red doesn't do well for translating stability, and clear is not an option. Bottom line? Color choices are important. Other companies have already paid for the research. Use it.

Will the colors work—everywhere? Besides choosing the right color, you have to be sure you can reproduce the colors in a variety of mediums. Some colors that look great when printed in spot color (or Pantone/PMS color) might fall apart when printed in four-color process. When that's the case, print materials will be compromised and more expensive to produce. Oranges and greens are particularly vulnerable to cross-color-model failure.

When designing (or hiring the design) of a logo, make sure that you're seeing the logo produced in spot (PMS) color as well as four-color process. If the colors don't match, change them until they do. Pantone sells a color formula guide that allows you to see a side-by-side comparison of colors produced in spot color and four-color process. You can purchase this guide at www.pantone.com.

Logo color checklist:

  • Does the logo work in black and white?

  • Can you accurately reproduce the color in spot color and four-color process?

  • Do the colors work well against colored backgrounds?

  • Does the logo look as good on black as it does on white?

  • Can the colors be embroidered on apparel?

  • Do they translate accurately to video or a Web site?

  • Do you have, in writing, the color specifications that will allow you to communicate the precise colors as PMS colors, CMYK (four-color process) and RGB (Web/video)?

If you can answer "yes" to each of these questions, you're on the right track. If the answer to any of these questions is "no," make the adjustments before you roll out your new logo.

* * *

A competent designer will deliver a logo that looks as good on the side of a truck as it does in a brochure, television commercial, business card, shirt, packaging or Web site. You must insist that the designer comply with every one of these rules. If he or she hesitates, you're headed for trouble.


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Jared McCarthy is the proprietor of McCarthy Creative. For more information, visit www.jcm-creative.com.

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