8 Characteristics of Successful Logos

When designing a logo, how can you be sure that the identity that you’re working on will be a success in the real world? To give you the best opportunity to succeed, in this weeks blog and supporting podcast, Ian Paget breaks down the 8 characteristics of a successful logo.

The Logo Geek Podcast is sponsored by FreshBooks.

Before I dive into the features that make a logo design successful, I want to make it clear that a successful logo design (or supporting brand identity) will never automatically make a business a success. As Paul Rand said in his book, Design Form and Chaos, “A logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing is symbolises, not the other way around.”

Before a design is used as a logo or trademark it’s merely an abstract shape or image… it’s an empty vessel from day one, and it’s through association with an organisation, brand, product or person that it gains any meaning.

It’s because of the associations you make with a brand identity, in instances where the business is deemed as unsuccessful, it’s easy for anyone, even designers, to feel that logo be unsuccessful too. It’s near impossible NOT to see those associations.

This is why so many graphic designers love the Nike and Apple logos. The businesses they represent are hugely successful, and everything associated with those brands will be embodied within the logo. You’ll see and feel everything that a brand stands for just by looking at the company logo, sometimes even subconsciously.

You just need to take one look at the Swastika to understand what I mean.

One look and you immediately think of Nazi Germany. For some people it brings up negative feelings, such as fear and sadness. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad logo. It’s a logo that carries all the characteristics of what I would describe as a successful logo design, and it’s those features that I want to focus on today.

What’s the role of a logo?

Another thing, before diving into the 8 characteristics of a successful logo, is that I also want to address is the role of a logo, as I feel this is important to understand.

The primary goal of a logo is to identify. 

Paul Rand

That means that a designer could fail to apply the features I discuss in this blog post, but, if the logo is used consistently by the company, people will immediately be able to identify the brand with one look at the logo. 

That doesn’t mean you should dismiss the characteristics of logo designs that have been successful, it just means they are not set in stone ‘rules’.

Other than a logo being identifiable, there are no rules in logo design. That’s the only thing that matters.

There’s a significant number of logo designs that have been around for decades. Some look dated (because they followed trends), but some of them have a timeless quality.

It’s the logo designs that have remained current that we can learn a lot from. If they looked good 50+ years ago, and still look good today, they are likely to still be just as effective in 50 years time too. It’s that timeless quality.

It’s these designs that are useful to study, to understand what it is that’s allowed them to work well. We’re able to see the characteristics that have made those logos remain successful over time. By understanding what those characteristics are, you can make informed decisions during the design phase if you want to move away from them, or stick to what you know will stand the test of time 

So the characteristics I’m going to speak about today can be used as guidelines, but for the reasons I’ll explain, these are the principles that I personally follow when I work on a logo design in order to provide my clients with a solution that I believe will be successful for them over a long period of time.

So the 8 characteristics of successful logo design that I want to discuss today, are:

  • Simplicity
  • Differentiation
  • Relevancy
  • Memorability
  • Scalability
  • Versatility
  • Legibility
  • Quality of Execution

Let’s dive into each of these in more detail.

Simplicity: Why should a logo be simple?

If you was to look at the logos of the top 100 most successful firms in the world, you will see that they all have logos that are simple. There’s a few exceptions, but most use just one or two colours, as well as simple shapes and forms.

Also, if you look at the before and after comparison of companies that have redesigned their brand logos over the years, you’ll see that in every single scenario, the logos have become more simplified and refined over time.

There’s some great books that show the before and after of brands, as well as unravel the story behind famous logos, such as ‘TM, the untold stories behind 29 classic logos’, and ‘Logo Life’ as photographed above. (Credit to Andrew at Logo Creative for the image). Both fantastic books that I’d highly recommend reading.

Based on these 2 points alone, we can safely say that there is a very strong business argument for a logo to be simple. 

But as designers, let’s try to better understand why this is the case. To help explain, I want to once again quote from Paul Rand. He said:

“A design that is complex, fussy, or obscure harbours a self-destructive mechanism. No amount of literal illustration will do what most people imagine it will do. This will only make identification more difficult and the “message” more obscure. A logo, primarily, says who, not what, and that is its function”

Paul Rand

So to focus on one point mentioned, a busy logo makes identification more difficult.

Since identification is the primary function of a logo, then we need to take this seriously. A logo that’s simple, allows you to quickly remember it, and to identify it when you see it again.

I believe that “simple” means that the logo contain only what’s needed, and I’d argue that to do that, a logo should only contain one idea. 

To help explain what I mean, there was an identity designed for a vet posted in the logo geek community a few months ago that included several ‘ideas’. 

It was for a company called something along the lines of ‘Cat & Dog’. In this example the C was styled to look like a Cat, and the D styled to look like a dog. The designer then took it further by adding paw shapes to each letter. This meant that the logo contained 3 ideas; a cat icon, a dog icon, and paw typography. 

This is too many visual ideas for people to easily process and understand. We should aim to take the strongest of these 3 ideas, then keep the rest of the design relatively simple. By doing that you end with a logo that has one key feature that’s identifiable, and one feature for people to remember.

Any more ideas beyond this is visual clutter. They were all potentially great ideas on their own, but combined, those 3 logo design ideas dilute the identity to something confusing, and less effective. You’ll also find that by simplifying the design like this, the final logo will also look more professional as a result.

I want to point out that simplicity doesn’t mean minimal.

There’s a trend that’s been popular the past few years in the logo design space for ultra minimal logos, and I actually believe it’s the result of designers being taught that a logo should be simple, but they’ve misunderstood the information, and taken it to mean ‘minimal’.

To explain on what I mean, I’d argue that in order to give the right aesthetic, there are some industries that require that extra bit of detail to get the right look and feel. This allows the logo to be appropriate for the brand it’s designed for.

For example, it might need an illustrative feel, or something that gives it a little bit of character. Not too much, not too little – just the right amount that’s needed to get the appropriate aesthetic. But it’s certainly not always minimal.

In the music industry, if you look at the Guns and Roses bullet logo, whilst there’s a lot going on, the logo still contains one simple key idea – guns wrapped in roses. The illustration style used in logo is consistent with the aesthetic of rock music brands. If the logo was simplified down too much more it wouldn’t have the right feel to it.

Yes, it can be simplified down more, but it shows that minimal is not always appropriate, and that the logo itself contains one relatively simple idea.

Differentiation: Identifying one brand from another

I did a google search and found that there’s over 1.5 million significant brands in the world, which is a crazy number.

That means that every single time you go shopping, you have hundreds, or even thousands of different products fighting for your attention. 

Branding is the only thing that helps us separate one from the other. Branding helps you to know which to trust. And it’s the identity that’s designed for those brands that allows us to identify the one we want to buy, and the logo is a key part of that.

In order to separate and identify one company from another, the design needs to be distinct. It needs to be immediately recognisable, and not look like anything else in the landscape it’s seen in.

This means that as designers, we need to understand the competitive landscape that the company will be compared with. That’s why design research is so important. 

The worst thing you can do is unintentionally design an identity that will be confused with another competing brand.

Doing so will just make them look like they’re trying to capitalise on the success of a well established brand… That’s what I think any time I see a red can of cola, that’s not Coca Cola. That’s going to be bad for business… a company must own their brand identity if they want to become a market leader.

To give your clients company or product the greatest chance of success, the logo and identity should be sufficiently different from its competitors in order for people to quickly and easily recognise and remember it. That’s why differentiation is so important.

When we’re talking about differentiation, it’s important to remember that the logo is one small piece of the overall brand identity, so you don’t need to create something entirely original for the logo alone. It just needs to be sufficiently unique when compared with a direct competitor. It’s the surrounding identity – such as the packaging design, the bottle shape, the colour combinations used, the image style, the fonts and so on, that will make the most impact – the logo is simply the tip of the iceberg.

Relevancy: Creating a logo that’s appropriate to the industry

We’ve just discussed differentiation, and whilst it’s important to be different, you don’t want to take things too far to the point that you’re too different. You need to make sure the logo you create sits comfortably in the field or niche it operates in.

We’re all born into a visual world. Over millions of years, human beings have developed complex cultures. Over time we’ve created a wide range of objects to assist with communication. As we grow as children we learn what these things are. We begin to associate specific fonts with specific situations, colours with specific things. The same with shapes too.

We’ve collectively created these visual associations, and that’s information designers can use to our advantage.

To better understand what I mean, a really basic example of this is colour. Most of us see that pink for girls, and blue for boys. In reality colours don’t have any meaning. Any meaning is learned. It’s simply that all of us have been taught from a baby that boy and girl colours are a thing.

History has impacted everything we do. Fonts for example are shapes that we as a species created to help communicate. So why is then that we associate serif typefaces with more serious organisations, or soft squashy fonts with children’s brands?

The answer is the same as the pink and blue example… those associations are taught this from a young age, both consciously and subconsciously. We all collectively agree that that certain shapes, colours and objects are used in conjunction certain industries and business.

If you’re a bank, there’s a certain aesthetic that people will expect to see – something that feels established and trustworthy. Breaking too far away from that expectation will likely cause a loss of trust… and a loss of trust is missed opportunities.

There’s an expected aesthetic that we all expect to see in each industry… designing something too different from that would be confusing. So whilst you want the logo to look different. You don’t want it to look too different.

As a designer you need to understand what these aesthetics are for the industry you’re working in. That’s the type of thing that you can pull from your own personal experiences, but you can also research exiting logos and brand identities too, to establish and better understand what these are. 

Research is particularly key when you’re targeting a country or culture that you are not familiar with. As I mentioned, we are born into a world where we are taught visual associations. That information is often learned on a subconscious level, and it will be different for every one of us around the world. So make sure you don’t assume that what you know is right for everyone, as your assumptions will be based on the culture you grew up in.

As a high level example to explain this further, I have a book called Colour Works. There’s a section in this book that explains the cultural significance of colour around the world.

So for example, it shows that purple in Iran symbolises ‘The future’, but in Latin America the same colour is associated with ‘death’.

This same level of understanding will apply to fonts and shapes too, so be sure to do your research. Or stick to working companies that target the same culture that you’ve been born into and understand, which is what I prefer to do.

Memorability: Design a logo that people remember

The next characteristic I want to discuss is memorability, which means that you need to aim to design a logo that people remember. Some of the points we’ve already discussed will help to ensure you design a memorable logo, but I think it’s worth bringing them up once again.

Firstly, people remember simple shapes faster. So again this is a key reason why a logo should be simple, and contain just one idea as we’ve discussed.

Secondly, if the logo is distinct, it will also assist with memorability. Understanding the competitive landscape will allow you to create a logo that not only stands out from the competition, but will also be remembered too.

When it comes to memorability, colour plays a vital role in the recognition of a brand identity. A few years back a Brazilian graphic designer Paula Rupolo, swapped the colour schemes of competing brands.

Subway and McDonalds logo colour swap.

A few other designers have done similar things since, but what I love about those examples is how you recognise a brands colour scheme, even when it’s applied to the logo of a competing brand.

The colour also really changes the overall feel of each logo too, showing the real power of colour.

Quoting from Paulas blog, “Colours are the first thing you notice in a logo, what gets fastest to our brains,” she says. “Then you read a logo’s shape, icons, or typography.” – this shows the importance of colour choice.

There’s plenty of other ways to make a logo memorable. For example, including something a bit unusual, such as a treatment to the typography, or the way you use negative space.

There’s endless potential solutions, and that’s the fun part of logo design.

Scalability: Creating an icon that’s effective small & large

Another important characteristic of a successful logo is scalability, and I feel this is one of the most important on the list. 

We live in a world where the logo you create will be seen in places such as social media and favicons where the logo will be very small.

That same logo will also be seen on the side of a vehicle, storefronts or buildings. So the logo design that you create will need to work just as effectively at 8 millimetres, as it does at 8 metres.

Logos that scale well are those that are simple, which is a characteristic that we’ve already discussed.

So when you’re designing your logo, make sure to zoom in and out, to ensure your logo is legible at smaller sizes. It’s also good practice to test your logo on mockups, to ensure it works effectively in real life small applications too, and is still legible and recognisable from a distance.

It’s worth noting that logos are no longer static objects. There’s such things as brand identity systems now, whereby companies have a series of identifiable icons, rather that just one single logo.

The most commonly known example of an identity system that comes to mind is from Google. 

Whilst the wordmark version of the Google logo is still legible at small sizes, it’s not the perfect solution for a favicon or social icon. For that reason, rather than simply use the G from the wordmark, they actually have an entirely separate symbol design – a letter G that includes the different colours from the main wordmark, that’s still immediately recognisable as Google, but not the exact same thing as the main logo. 

Another feature of scalability to point out is that some companies have different variants of the logo for different sizes. So for example, a variant that works more effectively at small sizes. So if you have a project where you know the logo will be commonly used in small sizes, it’s worth creating an extra variant for those situations.

Versatility: Allowing for complete flexibility

A successful logo design will work effectively in a wide range of situations. Doing this ensures the logo to be immediately recognisable, and to look its best no matter what size of the area it’s placed in, or the colour or material it’s placed on.

One way to achieve this by having a variety of configurations, which are known as ‘lockups’. So for example, if the logo is a symbol with supporting wordmark you might have a variant with the symbol to the left, and another with the symbol above the wordmark. If the company name is made up of multiple words, you might have variants where one is the full name on a single line of text, and another where it’s stacked.

You will also want to consider background colours too. So for example, you might have the main logo that’s used on a white background, and another that’s inverted to work on a darker background colours.

You might also have a single colour version, which I normally provide in solid black, and a white version too.

Something important to bear in mind with white versions is the design itself might need to be modified in order for the design to still work effectively and look right. The current premier league logo is a great example to explain this.

If you took the lions head, and imagine the colour inverted, it will look like a negative, where the eyes become white. So it just doesn’t look right.

What they’ve needed to do in this case is create an entirely different variant of the logo so the eyes become part of the negative space, allowing them to still be black when used on a black background.

Premier League Logo Black and White variants

Another thing with white variants is that when white on black is used you can get an optical illusion called irradiation phenomenon, whereby the logo appears to be optically fatter than the black version on white. It’s caused by the contrast in colours, so you need to optically adjust the design to accommodate the illusion.

Legibility: Can you read the company name?

If you, or anyone else cannot clearly work out what the company is called by looking at the logo, then you have a serious problem. 

It’s quite common that I see designs where the first letter has been styled to the point where it’s no longer read as part of the wordmark. This is something that must be avoided. The same applied for any word in the wordmark… unless the wordmark remains clearly legible, avoid it.

I’ve also seen letters replaced with shapes that cause the wordmark to be read as something else. For example, I spotted a logo recently in the logo geek facebook group, where the Pi symbol was used as the letter N. Most people read it as two T’s.

This is easy to do when you work in isolation. I’ve done it myself many times.

If you’ve designed something, and you’re unsure if it’s clearly legible, it’s worth asking others if they can read it. If there’s any doubt, revise your design accordingly. It can be a costly mistake for your client if their customers cannot work out the company name!

Quality of Execution: Is the logo artwork perfect?

A successful logo is one that’s been well executed. Perfect lines. Perfect shapes. Perfect colour choice.

I frequently see logos that have a great idea, and so much potential, but the way they’ve been put together is not quite there. Something feels off, causing the design to look and feel unprofessional.

This can include things like the design being too busy, meaning it’s not yet been simplified down to its minimum. Or it could be that the designer had attempted to create their own set of letters, but they are not quite perfect so look unprofessional.

It’s why I tend to advise to start from a well designed font, especially if you’ve not yet studied typography design. You need to learn what makes great fonts great before creating letters from scratch. I can recommend the interview I did with typography designer, Adam Ladd.

Another thing might be poor colour choice, or simply using too many colours in the design. It’s worth studying colour theory if this is an area you struggle with. As a starting point check out the interview I did with Greg Gunn, where we discuss creating a colour palette.

The most common thing I see is imperfect curves and shapes, or inconsistent spacing. That’s where using some kind of grid system can help.

Some designers are known to completely recreate a design from scratch using circles, lines and shapes, within some kind of grid system behind it to create perfect artwork. It’s this that usually takes a decent design to one that’s flawless.

Logo Design Guides

Perfect, flawless execution of an idea makes a huge difference, and is a skill worth mastering.

What would you add?

That’s the characteristics I work towards when designing a logo.

As a reminder there were:

  • Simplicity
  • Differentiation
  • Relevancy
  • Memorability
  • Scalability
  • Versatility
  • Legibility
  • Quality of Execution

Is there anything you would add to this list? Or anything you disagree with?

I’d love to hear from you to discuss further. The best place to do that is in the Logo Geek Community on Facebook, where you can chat with me and over 8000 logo designers from around the world. It’s free to join!

Or, if you’d like to join me and a small group of other designers on video hangouts every 2 weeks you can join logo geek plus. It’s a nice way to meet and get to know other designers face to face from around the world, and to get some much needed motivation and support.

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