A good logo is an icon.
‘Icon’ is one of those words which get overused to the extent that, in common usage, it has been rendered meaningless. In fact, it has several important and useful meanings:
- A religious icon is a painting or statue depicting a holy figure. From this, we understand that an ‘icon’ is a representation of something we value and hold in high regard.
- In linguistics, an ‘icon’ is an image which resembles something we recognise from life. It doesn’t need to be a picture of that thing – it’s often a simplified or partial representation of that thing – but it retains enough of the details for us to read and understand the meaning.
So, for example…
These images carry with them a lot of ‘signification’ – that is hidden meaning which we can ‘decode’ and understand because of the things these icons resemble.
So, to combine these definitions – an icon is an image of something we recognise and consider to have value.
The logo go-to
Instant recognition is what makes a good logo into an icon.
A logo needs to be distinctive, appropriate to the nature of the business, and simple enough for people to ‘get’ it at a glance. The best logos have a hidden meaning that people understand subconsciously.
From a practical perspective – a logo should be able to be scaled up to any size and, ideally, work just as well in colour or black and white.
A great logo has two elements: a great idea behind a great creative execution.
Here endeth the semiotics lesson – now, we’ll look at the five best company logos – and discuss why they work.
Let’s get amongst ’em …
5. Transport for London/British Rail
The best British logos both come from the world of rail transport. We’ve decided there’s a tie between Transport for London and British Rail.
The London Underground logo – or ‘the Transport for London Roundel’, to give it its proper name – first appeared in 1908.
Ten years later, designer Edward Johnson altered the proportions, made the lettering clearer, and added the white inner-circle. He dubbed this new version ‘The Bullseye’.
This configuration – also known as ‘the bar and circle’ – has been rolled-out across London, from bus-stops to the Royal Docks cable-car.
In an attempt to give the logo meaning, people have assumed that the circle symbolises the circular nature of the underground lines, and of the overground bus routes. There’s no evidence to suggest this was Johnson’s intention, but that association may explain why people from all parts of the world arrive in London, see that tell-tale shape, and know they have found public transport.
When the railways were nationalised, after WW2, the new ‘British Rail’ organisation was cluttered with company logos, held over from the various private companies that preceded it. Many of these logos had remained unchanged since the early days of steam.
It was time for a rebrand, and a single, unified logo that would symbolise the single, unified rail network. Inspired by the success of London Underground’s Bullseye, British Rail needed something equally recognisable.
The job was given to 25-year-old Gerry Barney who, in 1965, came up with the ‘double arrow’ idea – evoking the concept of trains travelling at speed, in both directions. What lifted this design, though, was the simple notion of continuing the horizontal lines, to create a railway line.
The logo has proven so resilient that it is still in use. Today, the ‘double arrow’ represents the Association of Train Operator Companies.
What this teaches us: Sometimes it’s possible to evoke an entire industry by focusing on one small detail from it. Turning this detail into a simple, abstract shape can give the logo longevity. In this case, the balance between abstraction and iconography is carefully balanced – so customers just ‘get’ it.
The Audi symbol is the simplest and most instantly-recognisable logo in all of the car-manufacturing industry.
The logo was designed by pre-eminent font-designer and poster artist, Lucian Bernhard, to reflect the fact that, in 1932, this new company was formed from four other companies. He was likely influenced by the minimalism of the then very on-trend Bauhaus movement, so he employed four simple interlocking-rings, in recognition of the four companies that formed the new brand.
The Audi logo is often compared to the equally-effective Olympic logo, which was designed in 1913 by Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic movement, and his intention was for the five rings to symbolise the five continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; while the colours of the rings (along with the white background) were intended to encompass the colours used in every nation’s flag (at least at the time).
Both logos carry the same meaning – the joining together of different but equal organisations in a way that makes the whole stronger than the sum of the parts.
But what elevates this icon to world-beating status is far simpler than the company’s history … The four rings resemble the four wheels of every vehicle they produce – so seeing those circles says ‘car’. Simple as!
What this teaches us: Audi customers likely neither know nor care about the conceptual meaning of a logo, they simply react to logo’s aesthetic qualities. But the canny designer who ticks both aesthetic and conceptual boxes, can produce a logo that wins over customers’ hearts and minds.
Like many of the logos we’re considering today, this one has become so famous it no-longer needs the name of the company alongside it. Famously, this logo was designed by student Carolyn Davidson in 1971, for which she was paid the god-like sum of $35.
The logo works because it not only resembles a tick, suggesting the positive can-do attitude that Nike promotes to this day, but – on a deeper level – Davidson intended for it to evoke the wings of the Greek deity Nike, who was the goddess of victory.
What this teaches us: The simpler the design, the more people can see into it. If you want to see the Nike swoosh as a tick, or wings, or even a smile; it’s all in there. The less detail you put in, the more people’s imaginations will fill-in the blanks. Less, in this case, really is more.
Designer Irina Blok created the ‘little green guy’ when she was working for Google (she’s since migrated to Facebook).
Smartphone software was an alien concept, back in 2003. This was still a year before the launch of the iPhone, when the future of ‘smartphones’ was unsure. Coming up with a friendly character, was one way of making a scary new product less intimidating.
The logo works because it’s self-explanatory. Its curves and antenna make it a friendly little robot. Not scary at all. This was Google back in the ‘don’t be evil’ days, you may recall!
Blok submitted a range of ideas – all variations on the theme of robots and androids. Whether consciously or otherwise, she drew elements from movie robots like R2-D2 and Robbie the Robot, among others.
What this teaches us: Cute sells! Disney built a world-beating empire on creating characters that are cute. It’s also useful to fulfil people’s expectations. If your product is called ‘android’, people will expect – and respond positively to – something that they recognise as an android. So, you don’t need to overthink it.
The very first Apple logo, from 1976, had a retro feel – with a picture of Isaac Newton sitting under a tree. Steve Jobs wasted no time in changing that for the much simpler graphic of the apple with a bite missing.
In 1977, Jobs chose the agency Regis McKenna to come up with the new logo, reputedly because, one year before, they’d designed the logo for a little tech startup called Intel.
Rob Janoff was the designer tasked with the Apple logo. He says he suggested the bite, because it gave the apple a scale, so people would understand that the simplified image wasn’t a cherry. This human scale also stressed that this would be a personal computer – for people to use, not for businesses. The bands of colour were to represent that Apple would be the first computer with a colour monitor.
Of course, since then, people have wondered if the bitten apple might not be an allusion to Alan Turing – the computer scientist who died, in 1954, after biting an apple laced with cyanide. Janoff has categorically denied that this was his intention. But, one wonders if Jobs accepted the design immediately, because it had this extra dimension which, at the time, only a student of computer history would understand.
What this teaches us: Simplest really can be best. Coming up with a logo that is clever and conceptual is impressive, from a design perspective, but does it communicate instantly to a wide audience? Sometimes an apple is just an apple!
What logos leave a mark on you?
So, there you have our thoughts on the greatest logos out there (in our humble opinion, at least). Do you agree? What are your favourites?
And, if you’re feeling conversational, what logos do you consider design disasters?