Attaching Meaning to Logos

December 17, 2014

Logo design can be a rough process.

Deciding and drawing what a toolbar or tab bar icon should be is pretty straightforward. I choose the closest metaphor I can make and draw it as cleanly as possible.

But when I'm drawing a logo or an app icon, I’m not necessarily drawing a metaphor. Of course, most of Apple’s own app icons are metaphors because they do basic tasks (save for Game Center). And perhaps a fair amount of utilities are metaphors too. A calculator or to-do list app are going to have pretty straightforward icons as well.

It’s when I get that app that does something that I can’t find an obvious metaphor for, or perhaps it’s when it has a more intangible purpose, that it becomes tricky.

I’ve drawn my fair share of app icons, and in the past couple years I’ve also done some logo design as well. I’ve also witnessed—at varying distances—other designers going through the process.

It’s never the same. I can approach it the same way every time, but the path I go on is always different. It depends on the client, their desires, the company, its culture. It relies heavily on how they make decisions for other things. How involved are they? How much do they back off?

In my opinion, good logo design comes from the gut. It requires a certain level of confidence from the project owner. They must be able to make a decision and stand by it.

The first conversation with a client often includes at least one of the following famous logos: FedEx, Apple, Starbucks, or Nike. From my experience, clients often want a logo with “meaning,” and so they’re drawn to these.

And by now, I’ve read the stories on each of these logos and how they came to be. In the most basic, simplistic form:


FedEx

Federal Express was often shortened to FedEx by customers, so the company decided to rebrand. The project lasted over a year. They had multiple teams on it. They made over 200 logos. Imagine the expense. One designer used Futura Bold, and started to squeeze the letter spacing until he saw an arrow forming between the E and x. He altered the typeface to more clearly define it. The CEO of FedEx noticed the arrow without prompt, and he was sold.

An accident led to a good design. When I ask clients what they think it means though, they say “moving forward.” Two things I love to point out: every company wants to be seen as moving forward, and that half of all FedEx logos (the ones printed on the left side of the truck) are pointing backwards.


Apple

There isn’t much to know about the Apple logo, but I can say that apart from the bite, it’s a fairly obvious logo to make. And that’s good! From the gut, it's just an apple. The bite, however, is what was necessary. Rob Janoff, the designer, notes that it was made so you could distinguish it from another fruit, like a cherry. The bite creates scale.

Even if you argue that “bite” is a pun on “byte,” this resonates with no one. Alone, the logo means nothing.


Starbucks

Starbucks’ logo was originally brown, and a more crude drawing than the present version. The founders of Starbucks were fascinated with the notion of shipping coffee overseas and found a siren drawing inside a nautical book. They decided to use it, unchanged, in brown. It was only until recently that it was redrawn and became green, and the reason might surprise most people. Some think it’s green for some element of greed or money, but it’s far simpler than that. They all went to the University of San Francisco, and the school color is exactly that green.

The founders shared an interest, had a bond, and created a logo that was more about their history and friendship than about their company.


Nike

And lastly, Nike. Carolyn Davidson was a college student, and was asked to make the logo for Nike. She claims to have spent something like 20 hours on the project, was only paid $35, and was asked not to cash the check immediately. After she showed a lot of her ideas to the executives in 1971, none stood out. They asked her for more ideas, but a few minutes later they approved the Swoosh for immediate use.

As far as I remember, the only creative direction given was to make sure it looked “fast.” Years later they gave her a bunch of stock and a gold ring with a diamond and the Swoosh she designed.


I can’t say that any of these are exemplary of the “normal” process of designing a logo, but they all have something valuable in them.

FedEx shows that an accident could led to something great. The bite from the Apple logo shows that a small change might have a big impact. Starbucks’s founders proved that a logo doesn't need a deep meaning. And when you go with your gut, and really stick with it, people will respect a logo, and a company, like Nike.

But the real reason almost everyone loves these logos? People respect these companies, not their logos. It means that their logo is doing exactly what it should be doing: representing the company. When I see the Apple logo, I see quality. But it’s not the logo telling me that, it’s because the company puts out quality product, and when I see the Apple logo, I remember that.

Now—years later—these logos have meaning.