How did you first become interested in logo design? In graduate school in the late nineties, I was interested in studying the sociology of culture and the sociology of organizations, and I realized that logos sat squarely at the intersection of those two fields. How, I wondered, does a large, bureaucratic organization come up with a symbolic identity for itself? The swooshy dot-com company logos of the time particularly inspired my interest. Why were there so many of them, and why did they look so similar to one another if the point of logo design was to help your organization stand out? When I discovered that the government assigned numeric codes to the graphical content of logos in order to facilitate trademark searching, I was able to co-opt and analyze Uncle Sam’s data in order to answer these questions in my PhD dissertation. I continue to write about trends in logo design at my website, Emblemetric.
How has your training and experience as a sociologist impacted how you approach design? As a sociologist, I think I view the world of design slightly differently than many designers might. To understand the reality of trends in logo design, you can’t just look at the pretty online portfolio sites, where accomplished designers have uploaded their best work. You also have to consider the terrible car repair shop logo, which, although it was drawn by the owner’s nephew in exchange for a few oil changes, is seen by thousands of people driving by each day.
What are some resources that you use to research trends and patterns in logo design? The United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Electronic Search System and the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Brand Database are two websites that offer treasure troves of data on millions of logos, without which my research would be impossible.
What are some growing trends in logo design? What’s behind this growth? A couple of interesting long-term trends in US logos have emerged since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Hearts and skulls have appeared much more frequently in American trademarks, perhaps reflecting the nation’s desires for healing and vengeance, respectively. A more trivial recent trend is the use of “Est.”—for “Established”—in many hipster logos. Slapping “Est. 2015” on a craft brewery logo is perhaps meant to give it an old-timey feel, but the irony is that “Est.” logos are used more commonly today than during their previous high point in the 1910s.
In studying trends and patterns in logo design, what have you learned about branding? The marketing textbooks will tell you that branding, particularly when it comes to logo design, is all about differentiation. But my research shows that, quantitatively, logos within the same industry look more similar to one another than they do to logos from other industries, even if you’re only considering their use of abstract, nonpictorial design elements. I think this means that an important branding function of logos—maybe even more important than differentiation—is to confer a sense of legitimacy on a company or product by conforming to the design norms within its industry or field.
What allows a logo to have cultural staying power? Ultimately, a logo’s fate is tethered to the company or product it represents. If it can survive its infancy without being ripped to shreds by a social media mob, a logo can go along for the ride with the fortunes of the company, gaining or changing meaning over the years. Coca-Cola’s script logo was rather commonplace for its time, but the popularity of the product allowed the design to outlive its contemporaries, making it seem unique today.
Few logos, though, age well without an occasional facelift, and even the Coke logo has seen a couple of nips and tucks. Sometimes, a bigger change is needed in order to keep the logo afloat. Apple’s original logo, an elaborate illustration featuring Isaac Newton, was just too weird and inappropriate for the computer industry. Its replacement, the rainbow-striped apple symbol, was less odd but still quite quirky. As Apple matured, so did its logo, adopting a sober monochrome. Changes like this produce some initial discomfort, but the world tends to quickly forget the previous mark, and life goes on. Many youngsters today are no more cognizant of Apple’s rainbow past than they are of Drake’s time on Degrassi.
The staying power of logos in general remains strong, I believe. Branding gurus have been pronouncing the imminent death of the static logo for at least a couple of decades, but I still see the darned things everywhere I look. The logo may be frequently pooh-poohed as merely the tip of the branding iceberg, but, as the British designer Sir John Sorrell noted, “Iceberg tips are actually rather important because they’re the things you can see.”
What word do you try to avoid when discussing the results of your research? Iconic. This fine word has sadly had its meaning diluted through overuse. These days, any logo that’s merely familiar, recognizable or just plain old gets labeled as iconic. It reminds me of how, here in Arizona, you can get a special “Historic Vehicle” license plate if your car is at least twenty-five years old. But really, that 1991 Toyota Camry is no more “historic” than some toilet paper logo from 2003 is “iconic.”
What gave rise to personal brands? We’ve always had personal brands, in the form of reputations, and our faces have served as our logos, I suppose. Today, our careers are becoming increasingly fluid. We can no longer depend on lifelong employment in a single organization, and it seems like everyone has a side hustle, so personal brands are more important than ever. Your social media avatar is your logo, so pick a good one.
What advice do you have for a designer who’s rebranding a company? A logo and its associated branding should try to strike a balance between familiarity and novelty. As unsexy as it sounds, the design has to conform to some extent to the visual expectations people hold in their minds for logos in its particular industry. The trick, I think, is to bend the rules just enough to make the logo interesting and memorable. It’s like naming a child: If you call your daughter Discothèque, it’s probably not going to go well, but you don’t want her to be one of five Olivias in her kindergarten class, either. I don’t know, how about Holly? That’s a nice name, I think.