What makes a good logo?

As a small business owner, you don’t need to be a graphic designer. But you do need to know the purpose of your logo, and what constitutes a good one. This basic knowledge will allow you to have productive and meaningful discussions with your designer regarding your objectives for your logo. It’ll also allow you to discern whether you’re getting quality design for your money.

So let’s hear from someone who undeniably knew what they were talking about. 

Paul Rand was an eminent 20th century graphic designer. He designed iconic logos for some of the major firms at the time, and is remembered as being one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. He also wrote thoughtfully about design and the design process.

Here’s what he had to say about logos: 

“The principal role of a logo is to identify, and simplicity is its means … Its effectiveness depends on distinctiveness, visibility, adaptability, memorability, universality, and timelessness.”

That’s quite a mouthful, so let’s break it down into manageable chunks.

The principal role of a logo is to identify

Your logo is an identification symbol. It sets you apart from your competitors. This means that it shouldn’t look like your competitor’s logo or anyone else’s. A generic off-the-peg logo, which might be used by many other companies, fails its first principal task. 

Simplicity is its means

Paul Rand was a firm advocate of simplicity in design. However, he also wrote,

‘Simplicity is never a goal: It is a byproduct of a good idea and modest expectations.’

By this, he meant that simplicity in design comes about naturally when all the practical considerations, such as visibility, clarity, and memorability are taken into account.

Its effectiveness depends on:

Distinctiveness

Again, we go back to the idea that a logo should be distinct from other logos. It shouldn’t look like other logos. This can be hard to achieve, especially when the principle of simplicity is applied. Simplicity in design can look easy, but to achieve distinctiveness and simplicity requires skill.

Visibility

The practical consideration of visibility will lead to simplicity. For instance, if a logo is to be visible on the side of a van, and also on a mobile phone, anything other than simplicity just won’t work.

There are other ways of solving this problem, for instance by having two or more versions of the logo. A main logo can be supplemented with a simplified version, which is still a recognisable version of the main logo and brand, but which works better at smaller sizes.

Nowadays, we also have the challenge of favicons, not necessarily exactly the same as a logo but usually a version of it. This is the tiny icon visible in the browser’s address bar, where anything other than extremely simple would be visually indecipherable. It’s not essential that your website displays your own brand favicon, but it certainly makes it look more distinctive and professional.

Adaptability

Much of what has already been said about simplicity and visibility applies here. Does the logo work in different settings and at different sizes?

It’s important that at the information-gathering stage of designing your logo, there are discussions as to where your logo is likely to be used. For instance, if your business is entirely web-based, your logo will have different requirements than if it were to be displayed on the side of a building.

Either way, most logos will be used in different settings and at different sizes, so will need to be adaptable to those requirements.

Memorability

If a logo is distinctive and simple, it will also most likely be memorable. If we think of a well-known brand like Apple, almost everyone can remember how the logo looks. It is extremely simple, yet it’s hard to think of one that looks the same. Many people would find it easy to draw from memory. It’s an extremely effective logo.

Photo by Bangyu Wang on Unsplash

Similarly the Nike swoosh is unique yet simple in the extreme. Anyone familiar with it would be able to reproduce an approximation of it without much trouble. It doesn’t look particularly clever yet its simplicity and memorability make it a very effective logo which has withstood the test of time.

It was designed in 1971 and other than some minor changes  it remains in essence the same, and is one of the most recognisable logos in the world.

Photo by wu yi on Unsplash

Universality

A logo should retain its effectiveness in different cultures and settings. For instance, you might find you inadvertently have a logo which signifies something different in another country, or even amongst other cultures within your own community.

It might be difficult to always foresee and avoid this, but it needs to be kept in mind. If there is a chance that your business will be used in other countries and cultures, it’s worth researching how your logo might be perceived.

Timelessness

It’s easy to be tempted by fashionable and attractive logo trends. However, if you want your logo, or at least a version of it to survive for decades, it’s wise not to give in to this temptation. Logo design isn’t about designing something pretty or trendy.

The most effective logos are born from a practical solution to a problem, which is how best to represent a company’s brand, meeting all the requirements discussed above.

Some of the most iconic and effective logos are completely relevant decades later. For instance Paul Rand’s Westinghouse logo, designed in 1959, is still used today and still looks relevant and fresh.

Of course there are other views about what constitutes a good logo, and rules are sometimes broken very successfully. And there are other factors that can be considered too, such as aesthetic beauty and meaning.

But Paul Rand also said

“The only mandate in logo design is that they be distinctive, memorable and clear”.

So this is his bottom line.

Today, Paul Rand’s views on design are sometimes seen as a little unbending. But few designers would disagree that his ideas and opinions about logo design are solid.

The criteria he identifies above are achievable whatever the size of your business. And they’re an excellent benchmark by which to set the goals and standards for your own logo.