I think the logo is much maligned. Creating a succinct signature for a company or product requires a great deal of ingenuity and skill. It’s a matter not only of graphic economy, but of distilling a whole ethos or attitude into a few memorable strokes. Far from being the shallow manifestation of a brand, a logo positively drips with symbolism, association and meaning. It’s the tip of the spearhead, and all the rest follows behind.
As with names, companies and products have a habit of growing into their logos. When you look at the Shell logo, for example, you don’t just see a rather rudimentary yellow shell on a red background that reminds you of long, lazy days at the seaside. No, your mind conjures up petrol forecourts, greasy mechanics, news stories, sea exploration, oil refineries and a host of random images that comprise your impression of the company. That’s a powerful piece of visual shorthand. A simple pictogram that punches above its weight.
The best logos have wit and relevance as well as connotation. Like Alan Fletcher’s Reuters logo, punched out to resemble old-style newswire ticker tape. Or Paul Rand’s eight-line IBM logo, suggesting speed, computer code and stacks of paper. Or CDT Design’s ENO logo, its ‘O’ representing an opera singer hitting a top note.
You may take issue with what a logo stands for, but that’s a different matter. The swastika probably has more inherent power than Gerald Holtom’s anti-nuclear peace symbol, but only by a smidgen, and I know which one I’d be proud to wear. McDonald’s arches may have more global visibility than Innocent’s be-haloed drawn face, but I know whose product I’d rather be swallowing. So it’s not so much logos themselves we’re dubious about, as what they have come to symbolise.
As I see it, the backlash against logos can be laid firmly at the feet of the fashion industry. Here, they’ve come to represent nothing but spending power. In this context, they are divisive – flashy, trashy and crass, they reek of one-upmanship and social insecurity. The infamous Gucci press ad with the woman sporting a pubic topiary in the shape of the ‘G’ logo said it all – we’re about sex, power and wealth but, most of all, plain vulgarity. Like their more corporate counterparts, fashion logos can all too easily lose their original meaning – damned by association, a once proud, upstanding couture house is quickly reduced to a spivvy parody of itself.
On the other hand, the equity of Nike’s swoosh or HMV’s Nipper the Dog just can’t be measured. They prove that a well-considered logo can be a potent piece of graphic compression, which can boost recognition and business. The flip side is that you need to make sure that your logo isn’t tarnished by what lies behind it. In the end, you get the logo you deserve.