Can your grandmother draw your logo?

Let’s think of the history of branding for a moment. It began with cattle (well, I’m simplifying here a bit, but it’s a strong image that will stay with you). Curious, isn’t it? Starting with the industrial age, the more goods people produced, the more they needed to identify them as theirs. It was one thing to know that John Smith at the edge of the village had the best cows, it was completely another to go to the city to a butcher and ask for the best cut. How would you know which cow was which, whom did it belong to, how was it raised? Whom could you trust? People started branding cows for ownership, with paint or pine tar or hot iron. Hence the word, "brand." Yes, it is perhaps not a very cheery picture to behold, but would you be able to brand a cow with a finely shaped design of your logo? What are the most memorable logos you can recall? Nike. Target. Audi. NBC. McDonalds. Playboy. What do all of them have in common? They are very simple and they use primary colors.

Your logo has to be simple.

Simple colors, simple shapes. Why? Because it has to be recognizable anywhere, in big print, in small print, on textile, digitally. It has to stay recognizable even when it’s shrunk to the size of your pinky nail and stripped off color. We’re hard-wired to detect patterns in nature to flee from that tiger that’s about to eat us. Do we look for the tiger? No. We look for stripes and for orange color. We distill the shape and the form of the tiger to basic geometrical elements that our brains are able to hold and to compare to other visual information around us, like grass and trees and sun and clouds and other animals and insects and people. We are surrounded by visual noise and are bombarded with pictures every day. How do you break through this and make us notice you?

Be straightforward and bold.

1. Pick colors.

Use bright primary colors on white background with a maximum of one accent color. For example, use blue (confidence) and red (power, strength). Both are safe color choices. Research colors. They have meanings. What would you think of a Funeral Home that had a logo of a pink oval? You’d raise your brows. Pink is not a good choice for a respectable establishment that has to deal with grief. How about purple? A nice bright shade with so many variations. In Western culture it was always a symbol of royalty, but did you know that in Thailand purple signifies mourning? Do your research, consider your audience. What color would speak to them and what would it mean? Don’t worry about using color that everyone else is using. After all, how many blue and red logos are out there? A lot. So what? There are as many tonalities and combinations possible with an infinite number of shapes that are at your disposal.

Duplication? It’s really no trouble if you use a logo similar to the one already existing, as long as you are not in the same business.

Take a look at Pepsi and Korean Air. Both are circles, both have the top part colored red, the bottom part blue. Both have a white swirl in the middle. Or Acumatica and Ally bank. No conflict at all since these are completely different businesses. If anything, it often confirms you have picked a good logo if there are others that use it too. As long as you don't compete for the same audience and use different colors, there are typically no trademark issues either.

2. Make shapes.

Your logo consists of a mark and a logotype. The mark is the icon and the logotype is the name of your company. Together they make up your company’s signature. In a way, it’s your face and your name, this is how we associate with entities around us. Image plus name. For your image pick simple geometrical shapes. Circles, squares, triangles. Or pick outlines of recognizable symbols or objects. You can’t go wrong if you err on the simple side, but you can lose your image in the multitude of other logos if you try to be too complicated. Think of it this way. Just as picking a memorable name for your company, you have to create a memorable logo. Stick to something that has potentially nothing to do with what your company does but everything with its name. The farther away is the image, the stronger will be the association in the customer’s mind.

Certain shapes send out specific messages. Here are some of the psychological effects that have been proven:

  • Ovals, Circles & Ellipses project a mostly positive emotion.  Circles suggest friendship and unity. Rings imply partnership and suggest stability.  Curves are viewed as feminine.
  • Squares other straight edged shapes relay stability but also balance. Straight lines and exact logo shapes go together with professionalism, strength and efficiency.  But wild colder colors they can become uninviting.

The implications of shape also extend to the typefaces, usage of the logo and product design.

3. Judge a logo.

Let’s say you’ve settled on a shape and the colors and the fonts. Great. Take a week off. Don’t rush into immediately calling every single one of your relatives and boasting about you new company logo and how awesome it is (and sending them emails so they can see for themselves). Your first impression is not important. The logo you are creating has to last, and you have to cool off from your excitement. Most likely what you'll love at first, after a week will look too complicated and noisy and boring. Great logos often don’t get early praise, but when they grow on you, they become really powerful. Give it time, then test it on different people. Pick people who might give you the most unexpected feedback, like your uncle, or your colorblind friend from college, or your neighbor who breeds green ants and likes only the color green, or the gang of teenagers standing at the bus stop and giving you weird looks. Listen to people. Ask them what they see in your image. Don’t make the faux pas AirBnb recently suffered with their rebranding where a team of smart creative people has missed what so many started shouting about as soon as the new logo was released. It reminded people, plain and simple, of a certain female organ, of all things. How did they miss it? Don’t make this mistake. Listen to people of all walks. If 8 out of 10 people tell you the same thing, you probably need to make a change. And remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

4. Build a style guide.

Don’t squirm at this idea. Yes, it’s important to invest your time in building your product, but it’s as important to invest it in your company’s image from the start, from the point on when you hire your first employee, to build a lasting brand. You have to be consistent from the very beginning. Your image is everything. When you start out, you’re small, you’re a green ant. Nobody knows anything about you. How do you help people notice you? Appear bigger than you actually are. Be consistent and professional. Consistency is critical to making your identity easy to re-use, scale and reproduce.  

 Your to-do list:

  • Pick one main and one secondary (highlight) color. Look up their meanings.  Use tools like this fantastic Color Wheel from Adobe to help find great combinations applying specific color rules and guidelines. Here are some good instructions to use your new color palette to create a powerpoint template.
  • Pick a simple shape that goes with the colors. Research it to eliminate accidental references. This article provides more feedback on the science behind great logo design.
  • Draw a logo and let is sit for a week before you judge it.  I like to give young people's opinion more weight then old tainted guys like myself. But that depends on your target audience.
  • Build a style guide for everyone to use.
    • Introduction: your company’s mission, brand promise, brand values, guide importance.
    • Identity: your company’s logo, logo space, logo colors, logo misuses, color palettes and gradient use.
    • Typography: primary typeface, secondary typeface.
    • Graphic elements: graphics, iconography, mark, photography, marketing communications.
    • Verbal identity: your company’s brand voice, using your voice, key messages.
    • Here are examples from MightyCall and Acumatica.