Saturday, 29 January 2011


"a collage of about 250+ logos that i almost see everyday" (by captcreate, CC-BY-NC)

The logo is everywhere. It can inform, mislead, stand as a symbol for great truths, as branding, as a key principle of advertising, as a badge of belonging; the logo is small, the logo is large; logos are in everything, you find them anywhere, you find them embedded in the consciousness of the everyday; the logo is a reduction, the logo is a distillation, the logo is a simplification, the logo is a purification; the logo clouds the baseless fabric of our vision, the logo cleanses the doors of perception; the logo defies culture, the logo can come to define a culture; in short, the logo goes some way toward explaining how we look at the world and attempt to shape our experiences around it.

This blog is going to attempt to explore the nature of these emblems that make up so much of what we see. The logo: what is it, why have we always used it, and why will we never stop using it? Locked in every logo we come across, every one of the thousands and thousands of logos we encounter every day and mostly without realising, is a history of design, a heritage of ideas. Perhaps a logo stands for a product, or for a service, a campaign, a sports team; perhaps it stands as a symbol of nationhood; perhaps it marks whatever bears it with a sense of quality or belonging or belief; perhaps it is something we cling to in time of need. That which ties all logos together is the simple, fundamental notion of identity. As human beings, we can spend our whole lives searching for, then exploring, our own identity – we define ourselves by the family, the society, the country, the religion, the race, the world we live in, and each one of us carries these powerful little symbols of that personhood, these logos of belonging.

If you think this is all starting to sound a bit like cliché, you’d be absolutely right. Logos are cliché. Logos size cliché up and tackle it head-on. Every logo, old or new, timeless or downright corny, is defined, in some way, by its relationship to cliché. Zadie Smith described cliché as a pandering to a shared understanding: I think this gets it about right, because that’s exactly what logos try to do. The logo is a subjective experience, but not always as subjective as we might think.

A logo can speak a thousand ideas to us. A picture paints a thousand words? Well a logo goes further. It taps into the very nature of our perception of the world. In an often simple but immeasurably potent way, a logo presents us with a realm of ideas. We play in one person many people and it is this richness, this multiplicity in all of us, that a logo draws out.

The logo is, by nature, a visual symbol. We know it by seeing it. Yes, other aspects of branding or association may go alongside it – the sound of a famous jingle, the taste of a product, the neat slogan that sits beside a logo like nettle and dock leaf – but it is in the logo itself that we invest (yes, we project just as much as receive) our hopes and aspirations, our love and our hate.

Someone once claimed to me that the McDonald’s "Golden Arches" logo is recognised across more of the world than the Christian crucifix. It’s impossible to gauge the truth of this statement, but the notion of global communication, of mass media, of advertising and corporate identity reaching almost every person alive on the planet, subliminally, is perhaps as terrifying as it is exciting. We all lead busy and complicated lives; the power of instant recognition, therefore, is not to be laughed at, nor is its hold over us.

A logo can come to mean much, much more than that with which it is literally associated. A logo is superficially a means of recognition, but like shallow waters its meaning can run deep, and that meaning evolves over time. By seeing how a logo fits into the texture not just of everyday life (and I use the term loosely, for really there can be no such thing as ‘everyday’ – not for one of us, not for all of us) but also how it might be picked up and quite literally played with, used, in art and in popular culture, we might be able to glimpse, through the chinks of our cavern, a sense of what lies beyond the image: in other words, what it is that ties us to a symbol, what shared effect it might have – or why responses to a logo might be so varying across time and across space. Interpretation, analysis, opinion, and, of course, a little trivia – these are the methods with which we can approach the building blocks of form, shape, colour. But aesthetics and design are not the only forces working on us when we encounter the logo.

This is not a design blog. It will not teach you how to create logos, except by examining a vast range and variety of logos and not failing to demand of them their sphinx-like secrets – have they stood the test of time; what do they communicate; how are they put together; what can we learn from a logo about ourselves and the type of world we live in? The logo can be political, the logo can be comic, the logo can be dangerous, the logo can be fun: the logo can be anything you want it to be and it’s this sense of playing, of distortion as a necessary facet of our experience, that I don’t want to lose sight of. It’s up to you, the reader, to make sure of it. And what I’ll ask of you is simple: look around you – yes, right now where you are. What do you see? Has the world changed a great deal since you last looked up from the computer screen? What about your perception of it?

Remember one thing: never stop looking.