The Oxford English Dictionary defines a logo as: “A symbol or other small design adopted by an organization to identify its products, uniform, vehicles, etc.” This is understood by most people today, and is a simple way to define a logo - yet there is usually much more to a logo (and to logo design) than we might think. We can consider how the logo came about historically, how the idea of a logo has evolved, and the subtle yet powerful forces at work within logo design and how logos are used. This article looks at the historical origins of logo design and usage, and uncovers some of the factors involved, including some fascinating facts and reasons why logos have come to exist and be used.
What’s in a Symbol?
They say ‘a picture paints a thousand words,’ and this is certainly true when it comes to the shapes, lettering and images included in logo design through the years. There can be little doubt of the power of images to convey a certain idea or feeling, if we consider just a few examples. Think of the swastika, for example, which instantly brings strong feelings of repulsion and negativity to millions of people, through its association with the atrocities of the Nazi party. The symbol itself had many more positive associations before being used by the third Reich, and yet its meaning has been changed forever. Another example is that of the cross of Christ, which resonates with billions of people as a sign of sacrifice (whether Christians or not, people will still recognize the image and have ideas associated with it). Symbols such as these clearly illustrate the power of symbols to evoke a human response. Logo design for an organization or company often involves a broad study of human responses to image, and attempts to convey the essence of the company in as simple a way as possible.
The Historical Origins of the Logo
The word logo which we commonly use today is a shortened version of ‘logogram’, meaning a sign or character that represents a word or phrase. Perhaps ironically, the word originated from the ancient Greek word ‘logos,’ which simply translates to ‘word.’ Hieroglyphs and pictograms are some of the earliest historical examples of logos, and since the world was non-literate at this time, the need for images which convey meaning was perhaps far more crucial than it is today. When we talk about ‘branding’ in business today, consider what farmers did to their sheep and cattle to identify them as their own - they would brand their mark into the skin of the animals. Brands are therefore about identifying something as belonging to an organization. The logo, on the other hand, is about communicating something.
In the medieval period the logo and brand were brought together, as with heraldry. In heraldic there was a unique design that identified which house you belonged to but also said something about the values and characteristics of the house. In business, logos and brands remained quite separate, but this began to change. With the advent of the printing press, people had a way of advertising and communicating their message across the country, or even the world. Distinguishing yourself was suddenly much harder, but the potential benefits were much greater. Logo design was therefore becoming of greater importance to business owners and organizations of all kinds, as competition across countries and borders increased. Of course, with digital and internet technology, this has now reached a whole new level once again.
Logo Design Today
It became clear throughout these developments that consistency was the key to being remembered and a way of becoming successful in the larger market. Having a logo which also identified you was a big advantage, and today nearly all businesses recognize the importance of having an effective logo which is linked to powerful branding. Advertising and marketing budgets have increased on a huge scale, and the advertising and marketing industries have come into existence. Professionals now dedicate their whole careers to refining logo design and understanding what makes logos successful in the modern world. Many clever and often quite deeply profound tricks are employed within logo design, including ones which most people don’t notice consciously. A belief that influencing the subconscious more than the conscious mind of potential customers could be of greater long term benefit means that the process and decisions within logo design is often very subtle.
Take the simple Google logo as an example, which might appear as something a child could have thought of. Yet the simplicity is part of its intention. The fact that it has four primary colors in a row, which is then broken by a secondary color, shows that they don’t play by the rules. Because the name is interesting and memorable in itself, nothing more is needed from their logo. Another modern logo example with something subtle but clever is that of Amazon, which has an arrow appearing as a smiley face, but which is pointing from the A to the Z, suggesting that they deliver everything from A to Z. There are, of course, countless examples of logo design throughout history which use similar ideas to help convey their message. It’s perhaps impossible to gauge exactly how successful a logo is being and will be in the future, but the main question to answer is - do people easily remember it? There is even a logo board game and logo computer games in existence today, where the object is to recognize as many as possible. This is further evidence, if we needed it, of the profound cultural and human significance that logo design continues to have on the world.