What Makes a Great Logo?

Three guiding principles to help you create a logo that really stands out

William Probus
Modus

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Photo: NordWood Themes/Unsplash

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

Yuck.

To a designer, this non-specific direction can be frustrating to receive — but there is a glimmer of value hiding in those shadows. Most people can identify an objectively great logo when they see one, even if they can’t tell you exactly why it’s great.

That’s the thing about logos. The quality of a logomark is mostly subjective. Mostly. But great brand identity is designed to stand out. It sets itself apart, both from the drafts left on the cutting room floor and from competitor brands.

Brand identity designers are challenged with catching lightning in a bottle. They must create a symbol that is at once simple, unique, relevant, meaningful, memorable, adaptable, and brand-appropriate. (Whew.)

Distilling that many qualifiers into one purified, vectorized mark can seem like a tall task — but it isn’t an impossible one.

I thought I’d share the rubric I use to evaluate my identity work before a client ever sees it. Bear in mind, this is neither an exhaustive way to gauge the quality of a logo, nor is it a quantitative measure. Logo design is admittedly a squishy science.

My ultimate goal is a happy client running a successful business, and that success must begin with a solid brand identity. As I work through a client’s design brief, here are three qualifiers that keep us headed in the right direction.

Can the logo be effectively recreated by hand from memory?

This is the single most effective test I’ve found to determine if a logo hits the mark. If a logo can be replicated from memory by the average person with a Sharpie and a little imagination, it is both simple enough to stand for a complex idea (like a company) and remarkable enough to plant its flag in the wrinkles of the human brain.

Need an example? Let’s think for a moment about the Nike logo. Unless you were raised by wild hogs away from Wi-Fi and sneakers, you’re almost certainly able to recall the shape of the Nike logomark. If challenged, you could probably hand-draw a fairly accurate “swoosh.”

Simplicity is not absolute and minimalism is not a mandate; there are some great logos that have a lot of moving parts. But the more complex a logo becomes in concept or execution, the more subjectivity the designer introduces, and therefore the more opportunities for imperfections and missteps the designer creates.

Likewise, simple ideas are easier for people to remember; they are “stickier.” Since one of the goals in developing any brand identity should be to register brand recognition, this simple test demonstrates how real live human beings will experience your logo in the wild — and remember it afterward.

(None of this even begins to touch on how a simpler logo is more scalable and replicable across media, print, embroidery, etc., but that’s a conversation for another article.)

Does the logo identify rather than describe?

While the logomark is a fundamental element of brand identity, it is but one weapon in a company’s communications arsenal, and you need the full allotment to conquer the hearts, minds, and wallets of potential customers.

Just as you’re unlikely to use a jackhammer to insert a nail into the wall of your living room, you can’t expect a single tool to solve every business or branding problem.

Your logo is a tool. Its job is to identify your company — not describe it. A truly great logo conveys the idea of your business at a glance.

Just as spoken language has evolved by imbuing sound with meaning, the language of brand identity breathes meaning into simple shapes and type, conjuring the idea of your business using only a symbol. Magical stuff, really.

When you read the word “horse,” visions of the animal enter your mind’s eye. Maybe yours is brown with white spots; maybe it’s jet black and galloping off into the sunset. Next, you might think of tangentially horse-related concepts — horseback riding, saddles, cowboys, the Kentucky Derby.

The word “horse” conjures up a specific thing in a human’s mind; but the word “horse” is not the script of the movie Seabiscuit. There is a distinction in that Seabiscuit is a whole story, while the word “horse” is an idea.

There are plenty of tools to help you tell the story of your brand, so don’t make your logo a Swiss Army knife. Logos are meant to identify, not describe. They should be a single word, not a novel.

Does the logo feel well-constructed and appropriate?

When reviewing potential logos for your company, ask yourself a few questions about how it looks and feels to you.

Is it balanced? Does it feel grounded? Sturdy? If you tried to push it over, would it fall over like a house of cards? Is there some degree of symmetry? If not, is there a good reason for asymmetry?

There are a lot of ways to ask these questions — and a lot more questions you can ask — but the point is this: Your logo is the foundation for your company’s brand identity. Foundations have to be damn near unbreakable. Otherwise the whole thing will collapse on itself. You want your logo to feel unbreakable, strong, and resilient too.

On a different but equally important note, does the logo feel right for your brand? Do the basic shapes and typefaces align with the character of the brand you’re building? Does it set an appropriate tone? Does it answer the brief as you delivered it to your designer? Does it say what you want to say about your company?

A bank shouldn’t have branding that makes it feel like a sporting goods store, and a sports team shouldn’t come off looking like a hospital. Make sure that the font choices, colors, iconography, and overall look and feel of your logomark are appropriate for your industry and the personality of your company.

Again, let’s use Nike as an example (in this case, an exception to the rule). The swoosh is asymmetrical, but that serves a purpose in this case, its shape conveying motion and precision. The shape of the swoosh is a perfect visual metaphor for what Nike stands for as a company. It’s appropriate, well-constructed, and memorable.

So there you have it: three of the qualifiers I use to develop brand identity solutions that work for my clients.

Whether you are evaluating your current logo, trying to get your bearings during a redesign, or starting your own business, I truly hope this rubric helps give you perspective and some new ways to think about your brand.

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William Probus
Modus
Writer for

Writer, Creative Director, & Brand Identity Specialist. Currently: Senior Designer at Augusta National Golf Club | WilliamProbus.com