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Three Steps to Designing Effective Logos

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Maggie Macnab, a professional designer and educator, shows how an effective logo maximizes a client’s budget by using meaningful visual descriptors that are at once universal and concise. For the audience, this relationship translates into interesting, commonsense and sometimes surprising a-ha! connections, prompting longer viewing times and more likelihood of recall.
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Creating a logo that captures and holds the audience’s attention is an essential design skill, particularly in our era of information overload. The ability to engage your audience enhances recall, the critical first step to action. Recall has traditionally been achieved by saturating the market with brand advertising ad nauseam, but this tactic is limited to big-budget clients, not the real-world clients most of us work with. After more than three decades of recognition for creating small- to medium-sized client identities and 20 years of teaching this process to students, I’ve learned logos that engage the viewer at first glance are superior to many of the logos that have a lot of money thrown at them. A practical approach to getting and retaining the audience’s attention is to create a meaningful and authentic relationship between the client and their logo. A good logo design doesn’t necessarily follow a big budget, but logos that integrate universal principles in appropriate ways—along with a customized twist—are almost always compelling and memorable.

An effective logo maximizes a client’s limited budget by describing the business or organization with a meaningful visual relationship that is at once universal and concise. For the audience, this relationship translates as an interesting, commonsense, and at times a surprising a-ha! connection, prompting longer viewing times with more likelihood of recall. For the designer, as both skilled problem-solver and visual storyteller, effective logos are more satisfying to create. It is particularly gratifying for designers to substantiate their client’s “story” with authenticity by truly and deeply linking the logo to its purpose, and substantiating the client substantiates your portfolio. Everyone wins in this scenario.

To accomplish an effective logo, the designer needs to create a compelling relationship between the client and their visual representation. It must be broad enough for universal understanding while also portraying specific qualities about the client. Integrating these two seemingly opposed approaches create a meaningful whole at a glance. The very best speakers do this from the stage, talking to each and all of us simultaneously. When your logo communicates at both personal and universal levels, it has the broadest reach. And perhaps best yet, learning the principles of good logo design deliver more than finely tuned skills that can be applied to logos, they are applicable to any sort of design—and they also apply to each of us personally by teaching an important life skill about communication.

What are the steps to creating a logo that succinctly conveys your client while capturing their audience at the same time? The steps are simple, beautiful, fun to work with—and you already know most of them by heart. Design is work, but it can also be play. This process makes it a joyful experience and it’s why I love my job.

1. Trust Your Intuition

Intuition is your inner link to the outer world. You can’t possibly process all that your senses capture in the daily experience of living, but when you relearn to be more aware of it, intuition can be a shortcut to a more integrated and whole view of the problem at hand. Intuition is engaged and active during both waking and dreaming hours, and provides a composite assessment that factor in multiple takes on a problem. Why make the brain do all the work when you have other resources at hand that might offer different and valuable perspectives?

It’s the natural inclination of a creative thinker to use intuition as a skill set; most good designers embed information into their work because it simply “feels right.” Modern culture as a whole, however, doesn’t encourage us to rely on or even pay attention to that inner voice urging a solution or action. It’s your responsibility to develop it. I’ve taught myself to be more aware of my intuition because I have learned that thinking is only a part of good design problem-solving. It also takes feeling. Feeling bridges the connection between logo, client, and audience. Oftentimes, a spontaneous idea is right on target. It will probably need development, but your intuition is quite capable of throwing out usable—even inspired—ideas towards that end. Give space for your mind to wander. Doodle without expectation (this is about conceptualizing skills—not drawing skills—so don’t let that stop you!). Ask your inner self to help solve the problem, and remember your dreams. If something captures your attention, pay attention. Intuition is incapable of lying, and honesty is nothing to be discounted. Plus, it may reveal a truthful gem about the client that is just below the surface.

Don’t discount your inspiration and intellect being fueled by intuition. Intuition almost always has universal appeal and meaning. It comes from our most symbolic selves, where commonalities far outnumber differences. When these fledgling ideas appear out of nowhere, make note and return to them. You may find exactly what you need, or they may meander your thoughts towards a perfect solution.

Intuitive Messaging: SwanSongs

When I began working on the SwanSongs logo (see Figure 1), a nonprofit collective of musicians who play requests for the dying, I instantly knew the treble clef embodied a swan. It was only a matter of drawing it out. The client had chosen a perfect name for their organization, and I integrated qualities of a swan with a musical symbol to memorialize their purpose of providing last musical requests to individuals with a terminal illness. 

Figure 1 SwanSongs: Concept, final and intuitive messaging. Design: Maggie Macnab

Beyond the appropriate integration of the logo’s most distinct visual qualities, the overall shape of the design relates to the symbol for infinity: a metaphor for the endless loop of existence that squeezes in and out of life. This was an intuitive epiphany realized. No one knows where we come from at our outset or where we go when we reach the end, but we do know that energy is a continuum and doesn’t begin or end. It simply transforms into something else. The Phi ratio, a universal principle of aesthetic, was also arrived at intuitively by simply making visual adjustments to the design that “felt right.” The logo’s message is consoling and positive to its audience—and it complements the nonprofit’s purpose.

2. Integrate Universal Forms

Human beings, regardless of culture or language, have a universal language. We all speak the language of nature. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that certain shapes are consistent in the functions they perform at multiple scales in nature, or to recognize principles such as symmetry or aesthetic without thinking about them. Human design is no different. When universal forms and principles are aligned appropriately in a logo to be consistent with the client’s purpose, they communicate fundamental information about that client without conscious processing.

Circles: Wholeness

We inherently know that circles imply wholeness and completion. This the first shape that young children typically draw when they can master a crayon, having just come from the singularity of an egg developed within the wholeness of the womb—and after spending the important first formative months looking at their mother’s face while suckling at the breast. Complete, whole, and independent organisms such as molecules, cells, eggs, and planets embody this form. Many non-profits and worldwide organizations incorporate the circle as part of their logo template to imply inclusiveness, wholeness, nurturing or plentitude.

In the Dallas Opera logo (see Figure 2), the circle represents the O of “opera” but also connects the design to the client on many levels, considering its simple execution. Beyond referencing the typographic characters of the name, the calligraphic lettering style acts as a metaphor to reinforce and gracefully harmonize the musicians playing together as one interrelated whole.

Figure 2 Dallas Opera. Design: Woody Pirtle

Angled Shapes: Precision

The vertices of angled shapes define corners precisely, unlike the ambiguous curve of the circle, and provide points of reference. Angled shapes, particularly those that tessellate such as squares, triangles and hexagons, also imply secure storage because they stack and pack snugly without gaps or overlaps. This is why bees build their ultra-efficient hives based on the six-sided hexagon and also why many bank or money-related logos are created with angled forms—often comprised of squares, triangles, and hexagons. As money is itself a form of measurement, precision is often implied by a shape that supports having trust in someone else storing and “measuring” your cash. Precisely, we hope!

Financial businesses, building contractors, and other organizations concerned with stability, safety, and precision often align their logo with angled shapes. The Chase Manhattan logo (see Figure 3) is an example of a logo that contains this quality to reinforce their message of keeping your money safe and accounting for it precisely.

Figure 3 Chase Manhattan. Design: Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv

Spirals: Regeneration

Spirals grow in self-similar evolution: They embody the creativity of generation and regeneration. The related helical shape is at the core of DNA; likewise, new life spirals out from the base of the spine at the embryonic stage, as does the spiraling form of an unfurling seed sprout. Spirals are appropriate in logos for creative or learning organizations, or businesses that support and cultivate personal potential.

Valle Encantado is a nonprofit farming organization located in the South Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The organization is concerned with growing healthy food for neighbors, local farmers markets and food coops, public schools, and hospitals. They also provide resources and outlets for traditional New Mexican crafts, reinforcing generational self-sufficiency and sense of self. The spirals within the logo (see Figure 4) convey the creation and regeneration of community through traditional farming and crafts, and the logo also has important complementary principles embedded into the design, such as the completion gestalt within the negative space of the “V” that simultaneously creates a spade, and the helical winding of the stem that defines the handle.

Figure 4 Valle Encantado. Design: Maggie Macnab

3. Use Universal Design Principles Thoughtfully

Principles are the universal rules that integrate seemingly disparate parts as a whole. In nature, they support change and growth by making continual connections and adjustments in the evolving world. In ethics, principles are regarded as universal truths, and are unbiased and balanced so that they might serve all equally. In design, they help to establish flow between elements through balance, harmony, rhythm, proportion, unity, and sequence (just a few of many design principles). You can fit a tremendous amount of information into a concisely and smartly designed logo. It increases the value of the logo exponentially by expanding its usefulness, meaning, and aesthetic.

Symmetry: Structure

Symmetry establishes a structure of relationship between elements. Symmetry helps to orient sequence, importance, and accord within those relationships. We innately recognize the three basic symmetries of translation, reflection, and rotation because they are a part of us.

Translation symmetry is the repeating pattern of equal elements with equal spacing in a line. The kernels of corn on a cob or waves lapping a beach are natural examples. In human terms, genetics passed down in a family lineage demonstrates this symmetry principle. As a redundant pattern, it is not typically used in logos, but is more common in design elements such as background and website tiles, or linear border designs. But in certain cases, it can communicate some fundamental particulars about a business.

The Public Broadcasting Service logo (see Figure 5) is necessarily generic because of the broad audience the network serves. PBS focuses on multigenerational, multicultural educational programs delivered in an objective style, just as the visual principle of translation symmetry suggests in the iconic repeating black and white heads. PBS’ demographics span age, gender, class and race, a tremendous amount of territory to cover in a single logo.

Figure 5 Public Broadcasting Service. Credit: PBS

Translation symmetry displays homogeny and practicality, and is useful in logos that want to communicate equality, redundancy, or consistency within a group. It is based on the singular operation of repeat or clone in both nature and human design. You will find it used most often for organizations that want to convey fairness while serving a large and varied demographic. PBS, Girl Scouts of America, and governmental agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services contain this principle in their logo designs.

Reflection (also called mirror, bilateral or line) symmetry is the next order of symmetrical complexity, and balances two parts as a whole. We know this symmetry intimately as it is part of our every day experience of living. Our bodies, along with the bodies of almost every other living creature on earth, are split down the center with bilateral symmetry. Life’s journey begins with reflection symmetry as an egg divides into two parts at the moment of fertilization. This fundamental trait is carried into the fully formed physical structure of most living creatures (other than some of the most ancient creatures such as the sponge, an example of asymmetry). This is also an example of the universal scaling of a principle that remains consistent, in spite of the monumental physical changes that occur over an organism’s life span.

The Body Wisdom logo (see Figure 6) was designed for a health spa that provides whole body pampering as well as health treatments. I took advantage of the direct reference to “body” in the name and the opportunity for the hands to perform double duty as both the means of treatment and as a visual metaphor for a wise owl. The equal balancing of this logo aligns with the purpose of the business, to bring balance to the body through wisely caring for it.

Figure 6 Body Wisdom. Design: Maggie Macnab

Reflection symmetry, as a description of a figure that can be flipped over a line, is an excellent way to communicate balance in a logo. It also implies having the stability necessary for moving forward in the future, as the structural principle of bilateral symmetry allows organic life to walk, slither, swim, or fly without falling flat.

Rotation symmetry (also called point, fold or origin symmetry)is the most complex of the three symmetries as it is highly flexible and accommodates itself to movement or changing circumstance. Rotation symmetry contains a center point around which a figure rotates without distortion or change. The number of times it rotates around the center determines if it has 2-, 3-, 4-, or higher point symmetry. Nature demonstrates multi-fold rotational symmetry in the branches that extend from plant stems and tree trunks, and from microscopic diatoms all the way up to macrocosm spiral galaxies. The DNA double helix rotates along a center axis with no change in diameter (the difference between a helix and a spiral), and is at the root of our existence. This is one of the most challenging symmetries to use in meaningful logo design but it is also one of the most compelling.

The ambigram design (see Figure 7) created for musician John Mayer contains the engaging principle of two-fold rotation symmetry. When rotated 180 degrees, the design remains unchanged, reading the same from either orientation. The Latin root “ambi” means “both,” and its suffix “gram” means “tracing,” “mark,” “drawing,” “writing,” or “record.”  

Figure 7 John Mayer. Design: John Langdon

Final Thoughts

Logos are the emissaries between client and audience. Good logos create goodwill by respecting and acknowledging both. By capturing the truth of the client through small truths of the universe that anyone can relate to, the audience is informed, engaged, and sometimes even enlightened. The designer benefits by enriching his or her own understanding and awareness of a world hidden in plain sight with universal information that can be applied to any aspect of design…as well as to just about any aspect of life.

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