Logo Design Workshop - 3

by Joe Gillespie — Dec 1, 2000

Last month, I suggested some of tricks that you can play with type to make it look more distinctive and memorable. I also pointed out that often a logo needs to be adaptable so that it can work across a wide variety of situations and shapes. In this third and final article in the series, I want to say something about the less obvious aspects of logos - what they are communicating under the surface.

A logo is not just the name of the company written in a particular style, it is by far the most important part of a company’s identity, everything else hangs off that and it is vital that it says the right things subliminally.

If the logo looks dated, then the company looks dated. If it is frivolous, then the company that puts it on its notepaper or Web site can’t expect to gain much respect - or business.

Making a logo work at a subliminal level is a lot more difficult than just making it look different. A strong visual identity can inspire confidence in its owner but it depends not only on the power of the communication but on its quality too. Yes, it is possible to communicate ‘old fashioned’, ‘untrustworthy’, or a host of other negative messages in a powerful way - if you're not careful!

As I suggested last time, it is a good idea to write down a list of attributes that are desirable for the company’s image before undertaking the design for its logo. A list of the things that the company is definitely NOT is also very useful when you eventually come to check off the end result with the original intentions.

This process of comparing results with intentions, and making further modifications if necessary, is called ‘feedback’ and helps to fine-tune any design.

The word logo, or logotype to give it its full name, is generally a trade mark device based upon words or text. Many company identities employ more pictorial symbols in addition to, or instead of, a logo.

Sometimes designers go into lengthy diatribes about the hidden meanings within the symbols and logos they design. Did you know, for instance, that the three points on the Mercedes symbol supposedly represents land, sea and air - the three areas where Mercedes Benz products were to be found at the time it was designed? Well yes, you can accept that after you have been told, but a logo shouldn’t really need to be explained. The image should communicate visually without words to back it up. I believe the same is true of interface icons, but that is another story.

Most people recognise this symbol without knowing what it actually means.

Mecedes Benz LogoAs it happens, the Mercedes symbol stands on its own without any explanation. Remember, familiarity is directly proportional to exposure and many symbols are ‘learned’ – it just costs lots of time and money, that’s all. Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare car manufacturers' symbols and note how similar they are, many are based on chromium circles. This produces another factor that you should be aware of, called ‘language of the marketplace’.

The word cliché is often used as a derogatory term but it just means that it is an often-used phrase or image that people understand. Clichés, or popular imagery as I would prefer to call them, can be used in a positive way to establish ‘belonging to a group that we want to be associated with’.

Association with established symbolism is a good springboard to launch your own image but again needs to be handled with care. The line between ‘belonging to a group’ and being ‘a cheap rip-off of’ is very fine one indeed. The trick is to find, and then exploit, some unique aspect of the company – to give the cliché twist.

The best way to explain this is with some recent, and not so recent, examples of my own work. Some are reproduced here in a smaller than ideal size to avoid bandwidth problems.

Pixel Productions

Pixel Productions LogoMost designers would probably agree that one of the most difficult things you can do is to design a logo for yourself. I had several attempts at designing my own company logo prior to this one but the inspiration just came out of thin air one morning – if only all mornings were like that, but they are few and far between.

I could spend loads of time justifying the individual elements that make it up, but I won’t. What you see is what you get!

I’ve been using this logo for twelve years now and I haven’t tired of it yet. Maybe, I just don’t want to go through all that again!

Aylesbury Brewery Company

ABC Enamel PlaqueEnglish breweries and pubs have a visual language of their own – it’s all about traditional values. Aylesbury is a small town in Buckinghamshire in England and is famous for its large, white Aylesbury ducks. Of course, ducks fit in very well with the imagery of English pubs, ‘The Dog and Duck’ etc. These delightful country pubs are adorned with all the accoutrements of traditional English life - oak beams, horse brasses, thatched roofs, traditional country pub food.

This logo had to reflect all these things yet have a unique identity of its own - one that would make little sense if used by another brewery or in any area other than Aylesbury. In this application, the logo is stove-enamelled onto an exterior metal plaque.

Scotch Whiskies

Two quite different approaches for products that are very similar – yet different. Both are single malt Scotch whiskies from distilleries situated on islands off the coast of mainland Scotland. There are many such distilleries and their products identities tend to run together. They mostly use elaborate scripts, images of malting towers and such, which is the language of the marketplace, but in trying to ‘belong’, they can easily fall into the trap of lacking individuality.

Highland Park LogoHighland Park is from Orkney and apart from being the most Northern distillery in Scotland, is also one of the oldest. The distillery was built on the site of an old smuggler’s lair and near to an ancient church.

Here, I used a Celtic illuminated ‘h’ which is appropriate, but for some reason, the Celtic origins of whisky – or ‘usquebaugh’ meaning ‘water of life’ - are all but ignored in popular whisky imagery.


Bunnahabhain LogoBunnahabhain is one of a dozen distilleries on the tiny island of Islay. As the name is particularly difficult to pronounce and remember - especially in Japan, one of the main markets for single malts - it was important to find an appropriate visual image that transcends the brand name.

The helmsman at the wheel of his sailing ship was inspired by a song that I learned at school about the island of Islay - ‘Westering Home’. So, even customers who can’t cope with the brand name, know that it is the one with this salty old mariner on the label.

United Biscuit

UB LogoUnited Biscuits is the corporation behind many top food brands in the UK and elsewhere. After much design work and market research, this symbol ended up as a simple evolution from its predecessor. Logos of corporates with diverse interests can’t afford to be too specific in what they communicate and have a simplicity and aloofness that says, ‘We’re too big and important to have to try too hard’.


Stairway to Webbin'

Stairway to Webbin' LogoThis internet hosting company came up with a fun name, based on a parody of ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Visualising such a surreal concept required an equally surreal solution so I borrowed from the style of Magritte to illustrate a stairway disappearing into the sky.

Normally, logos and symbols are sacrosanct and can only be used in one absolutely consistent way. When you produce something that is strong stylistically, you can then afford to play tricks. Having established this visual style, the four panels can be used individually or in groups in other instances. Even slight variations that obviously belong to the same ‘family’ style are possible - a rainbow, a paper airplane, people - all contribute to a ‘flexible’ identity.

Web sites come and go, so do companies and brands, but not usually as quickly! A company logo is very important and to be ‘slipped-in’ as an afterthought along with something as ephemeral as a Web site can lead to what I can best describe as ‘under-consideration’ or lack of appropriate effort.

It might be that the Web site is the main application of the company image, that is happening more and more these days. In situation like that, the logo has to be designed primarily for the medium of the Web and other applications than become secondary. Instead of working from Pantone colours and trying to find close matches in the Web-safe palette, it should be done the other way round.

Although the use of Web safe colours is generally not as important as it was a few years ago, color consistency is vital for logos and symbols and using Web-safe colors goes a long way to achieving it.

Communication, whether with potential customers or with hydrosilicon blobs from another galaxy, is about establishing common points of reference and building upon them. Visual communication uses evocative images to convey messages, some are immediately obvious, others not so. Nevertheless, every visual statement speaks volumes - which means that you have to be in total control of what you are saying - and how you say it.

All trade marks are acknowledged as belonging to their respective owners.

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