What makes a good logo & what we can learn from Instagram.

by Tobias van Schneider
first appeared
on my private email list.

After Instagram relaunched their visual brand identity last week the usual Internet outrage happened.

Nothing we are surprised with, especially since this is not the first time a big and beloved brand is changing their visual appearance. You remember when I told you about the color change we did at Spotify about a year ago? Fun times. (article is in my newsletter archive, sorry that it’s not public yet)

I’m not sure who said this originally, but design nowadays turned into a spectator sport. Few players on the field doing the work, but millions judging and screaming on the side lines.

Generally, there is nothing wrong with this. I think it’s good to critique and be critiqued. The only difference is the way we do it.

While I was in Stockholm this week, many people asked me to give my comments on the recent Instagram changes. So I did, and recorded a short video on YouTube. To not repeat my thoughts here, you might want to watch it before continue reading. (in case you haven’t yet)

I’m always surprised by especially the outrage of the design community. We are the ones that should know that we just can’t judge a book by it’s cover. The cover of the book might be important to some degree, but if the book is really good, it won’t make a difference. And of course I’m not saying that the design of a book cover doesn’t matter, but it’s just a tiny piece of the puzzle.

A logo is a visual piece in a bigger brand identity system. A logo embodies & transports the meaning of a brand, the logo is rarely the meaning itself.

A logo mark just on it’s own is almost worthless. It’s almost impossible to judge the emotional value of a neutral logo mark. If you would look at the Apple or Nike logo before these companies existed, you would have had close to zero emotional reaction to these symbols.

The only way you could have judged Apple’s logo would be based on your personal relationship with the object it is representing. So in case of Apple, you would have probably judged the logo based on the fact that you either love or hate the taste of Apples. Or the fact that Apples have little to do with a technology company. (at least to your knowledge)

Of course this works only with pictorial logo marks such as Apple, Starbucks or Twitter. Pictorial logo marks are usually well known symbols that have been simplified to represent something new & different.

A good logo can exist at any time when there is a beloved brand behind it with meaning. Because ultimately, a logo is good the moment it does it’s job, which is serving as a visual mark representing what the brand stands for.

What I mean with that is that you can make any logo good if the brand behind it is strong enough.

But still, there is a difference between a good and a great logo. Generally these differences only exist when it comes to practicality and functionality, and this is where we can judge a logo purely on it’s execution.

The old Instagram icon/logo was a good logo because it worked with a strong brand behind it. Was it a great logo? Not really.

“A brand is a promise. A good brand is a promise kept. ”
― Muhtar Kent

So let’s look at the functional & practical attributes of a great logo:

1. A great logo is simple enough to be able to take on the meaning of the brand without adding too much of it’s own clutter & detail. Unless, the visual details are a big part of the brands heritage. A great example here would be the recent Guinness re-brand, where detail & ornamentation is part of the brands history. To over simplify the Guinness logo would mean taking away it’s heritage, and there is no reason to do that.

Basically you can say that the more visual character and personality a logo has, the harder it is for the logo to take on the brands personality. (unless they both are the same)

2. A logo has to be easily recognizable. Which means, whatever logo mark you design, it has to be a shape that allows for quick recognition. Instagram actually does a pretty good job at this with their new glyph. While it seems somewhat generic at first, it’s easy to recognize from far away.

As an example, if you can take a pen and paper and draw the Nike logo from the top of your mind within less then 10 seconds, it’s a pretty positive attribute for a logo. Not that you ever need that, but it’s a good exercise to test visual brand recognition to some degree. Certainly you wouldn’t be able to draw the Coca Cola logo, but most likely you would be able to draw their iconic bottle shape, which serves as much as an icon than their word mark does.

3. Emotional impact of a logo mark is usually measured through the brand that stands behind it. But on top of of it, a logo should be functional. Most likely your logo will be used in many different scenarios, from digital to print, motion, physical product design and so on.

A logo mark will also be used by many other people than yourself, so you want to make sure that whatever you design will stand the test of time. The more complex your logo mark is, the harder it will be to work with it, and the more chances there are for other people to mess it up.

If you can only give away your logo mark to your partners or employees accompanied with a 150 page brand manual, you might did something wrong. A great logo mark is flexible in it’s application and can ideally stand on it’s own.

4. A great logo should reflect the time it lives in. Ideally it remains fresh & up to date to our time. A logo can grow and evolve the same way a human being evolves over time. The reason we update our logo or visual identity is because the brand & character behind is changing and we like our visual center piece (the logo) to reflect this change.

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Re-brandings and logo changes are difficult and ultimately there isn’t a “right” way to do it properly. When re-branding big companies it all comes down to communication and minimizing risk. It also depends on the company & brand itself.

All we know is that we can’t judge a brand by it’s logo, the same way we can’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The logo of your company is important, but ultimately it’s just a vessel to hold whatever meaning you give to it. Having only a beautiful logo is like putting a suit or dress on a person without any substance or character.

I hope you enjoyed this weeks slighly different article than usual. If you have any questions or comments, please tweet at me, I’m usually faster to reply there than via email. 👊🏼

Have a wonderful week
Tobias

PS: I usually send out these articles via my personal email list right here. You can sign up anytime, I won’t spam, promise.

Thanks for hitting the 💚 if you enjoyed this article. This will tell me to write more of it!

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Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a new portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify & Board of Directors AIGA New York.