I Call Bullshit on the “Logo Design is Easy” Argument

Logos

During the last few weeks, some logo design pros have made casual remarks about how logo design is “not that hard to do.” It started with comments made by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut in this widely-circulated interview (I wrote about it here). Other designers have commented on it in their own blog posts, often acquiescing to Bierut’s remark that “The truth about logos is that they are not that hard to do.” David Airey agreed in this article, elaborating on the point to discuss the importance of complete brand identity strategies as opposed to mere logo designs (which was great advice from David as usual).

Both Bierut and Airey are excellent designers who make very valuable points about the importance of brand equity and the capital that a logo accrues during years of successful implementation in smart marketing campaigns. Fair enough. But the more I thought about it over a few days, the more I disagreed with Bierut’s dismissive comment that logos are “not that hard” to design.

It’s mediocre logos that are not that hard to design.

Great logos, on the other hand, require a trained hand, expertise in typography and symbolism, and a clever design mind. A great logo is one that not only embodies brand essence but one that creates a memorable impression that stands the test of time.

Here’s the problem. We live in a world that is utterly littered with logos and advertising. Our eyes are worn out from the repetition of the branded visual landscape. Many of us are jaded and cynical about the corporations whose representation is ubiquitous in our lives. And why shouldn’t we be? If you’ve ever seen the film The Corporation, there’s a montage where dozens of logos flash before your eyes. They seem utterly deflated when presented amongst a rapid slew of other similar symbols, all intending to do one thing: sell, sell, sell.

Our standards have been lowered. Logos are a dime a dozen in this digital landscape where the tools of design have shifted from the professional to the consumer. The playing field has been infiltrated by fledgling designers, students, and any kid with access to a Mac and a bootleg copy of CS2. As Bierut says, “So why not have a class of third graders compete to design your logo?” Trust me, the majority of logos that come from any of the aforementioned sources are mediocre at best, and the design quality will remain poor no matter how much marketing money you throw at the logo. Why fight an uphill battle trying to endow meaning in a shitty logo?

Spending a great deal of marketing and advertising money in order to inject brand equity into a poorly-designed logo is like putting very expensive lipstick on a pig.

FedEx Logo

The FedEx Logo

The FedEx logo, which I wrote about recently, is a great logo. It’s been a conversation piece for years and has provided the brand with a unique mark. (For the record – and the misuse of this word bothers me often – the word unique means “the only one of its kind,” or “unlike anything else.” It does not merely mean “somewhat different.”)

Chase Manhattan Bank Logo

Chase Manhattan Bank Logo

The symbol used in the Chase Manhattan Bank logo is a mediocre design (although the sans-serif typeface designed for the combination mark is more appealing). This logo has provided a distinctive identifier for the brand, but beyond that, it has little representational meaning and it’s pretty boring to look at.

For examples of bad logos that look like they were designed by a class of third graders, take a look around you. They’re everywhere.

There’s a difference between a great design and a decent design. Making a shitty movie is not that hard to do (i.e. Robert DeNiro’s recent filmography). But making a masterpiece (i.e. Robert DeNiro’s early filmography) is fucking tough. Movies like that don’t come along every day, and that’s why you’d rather watch 1976’s Taxi Driver than his recent Everybody’s Fine (the title says it all: the movie is gonna be just, um, fine).

Robert DeNiro

DeNiro goes off the deep end in 'Taxi Driver'; phones it in on the set of 'Everybody's Fine'

Personally, when I sit down to watch a movie, I want to see something exhilarating. If a movie is just okay, I’ll turn it off. Life’s too short for shit that is merely acceptable or passable.

The easy response to this article would be to say that Michael Bierut can afford to say that logo design’s no big deal. That’s true, but his statement isn’t.

Logo design and brand identity design are skills that take long years of hard work to become very good at. I have heroes in the field, I’m passionate about the art form, and I enjoy my work.

Nike Logo

Ever see this one before?

Oh, and one last thing about Bierut’s interview. The Nike logo is a great logo. Bierut remarks, “The logo itself is really nothing, it’s just two curves, and it’s not hard to do.” As I stated before, this is like the tourist who stands in front of a Picasso and says, “My kid could paint that.”

Sure, most people could draw that simple shape, but few people can conceive of a logo that symbolically potent. Its simplicity is deceptive and it was designed by a college student for very little money. It’s simple, elemental, and representative of speed and motion on the level of pure visual symbolism. Yes, it gained much of its value through successful implementation in advertising and product association over time. But the logo has proved strong enough to support that. Nike has a reputation for sweatshop labor and I’ve never bought a pair of their sneakers – but I do think it’s a great logo.

Comments

  1. says

    Hey Dan, thanks for your thoughtful analysis of the interview I did with Michael Bierut. I think I should probably clarify a few thinks in the context of the situation. Michael’s remarks about ‘anyone can design a logo were in response to my enquiry on his opinion on crowdsourcing sites. What I think the gist of his argument was in regards to designing logos is that as far a designing an aesthetically pleasing logo design, for someone who calls and works as a professional designer, this is ‘design 101′ it should be expected, and for someone like him, that’s the easiest part of the equation. The reason why (and how) firms like Pentagram, Wolf Ollins, Landor etc make there money andf prove their worth is as he said, by providing strategy to create brand equity. part of the point he was trying to make is that as designers we get so caught up in the aesthetics that maybe we are doing a disservice to the client, sights like Brand New and Logopond become ‘design porn’ in a way, we’re looking at these things out of context, it’s not the way the general public views a (or cares to view) a brand. I agree Fedex if a beautifully executed logo, but part of what we love about it as designers is totally missed by the general public (the arrow). It’s value is not that we think it’s a beautiful design but the equity that has been built around it. I think an ugly logo can be effective as a brand, I think Michael makes a good point for the 2012 Olympics logo, I think the MTV logo is another great example. If that went up on Brand New today simply as the logo it would be mercilessly savaged as ugly and amateurish, but can you thnk of many other brands that have had such equity built around them? (I know a lot has to do with the time and place it was crerated and I promise I will stop using the word equity so much :) As for Michael’s remark about 3rd graders designing your logo, well, I think that’s just his reaction to crowdsourcing sites, if you think you can effectively build brand equity around something created from these sites, good luck to you, you get what you pay for, and also, if your looking for a logo for your amateur hockey team, why not (that’s hardly the concern of a firm like Pentagram). I can understand Michael’s frustration, I’m sure he gets clients coming to him all the time wanting a ‘logo’ when what they need is a strategy to promote their ‘brand’. As designers, being seen as merely ‘logo’ designers be-littles our profession and the real value a designer can provide – that in a nutshell is what I think he was saying. I don’t profess to be a professional journalist, I’m just a guy with a love for design who was in New York and wanted to visit one of his design heroes. I was just trying to think of questions that he may not have been asked a thousand times before, and crowdsourcing seemed to be a hot button topic that I thought would get an interesting response. The interview was transcribed pretty much verbatim, but as I said, I ain’t Steve Heller or anything so any misunderstanding or lack of clarity in the interview should reflect on me rather than Michael. And in the end, it’s all just opinion, I’m sure if you asked Michael Johnson or Massiomo Vignelli or even Paula Scher that would have their own differing opinions. Michael is crazy-smart though and is in the trenches dealing with big clients and big problems everday and has the results to back up his views. I may not agree with everything he said, be I agree with a lot of it and I certainly respect his views

  2. says

    Chris, thank you so much for your comment.

    I have utmost for respect Mr. Bierut’s views and I’m a big fan of Pentagram (I covered the studio’s history quite extensively in this article I wrote for Smashing Magazine). I hope I made my respect clear in my blog post. I did write aggressively here (especially the title) because I decided that I wanted to speak my mind without censoring myself. I tried to do so respectfully.

    Defending the challenges of good logo design was a strange position to find myself in – imagine if you were an aspiring basketball player working on your slam dunk and Michael Jordan came out in the press and said, “A slam dunk is not that hard to do.” You’d probably have a WTF moment, at least briefly.

    I realize that Mr. Bierut was being hyperbolic when he said “So why not have a class of third graders compete to design your logo?” Regardless, for those of us who are skeptical of the merits of crowdsourcing, that kind of remark can be troubling.

    You said, “I think an ugly logo can be effective as a brand.” Sure, I suppose so, but that doesn’t make it something to aspire to. And personally, I don’t think the MTV logo is ugly. It’s got a lot of character and the way it was used as a vessel for a variety of imagery and styles was a revolution in brand identity.

    You also said the Bierut interview “was transcribed pretty much verbatim.” Either it’s verbatim or it’s not! I would suggest that any writer or blogger that conducts a serious interview with a professional should take great care to ensure that the transcription is entirely accurate.

    Anyways, thanks very much for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate your input into the discussion that has arisen from your thoughtful questions with Michael Bierut!

  3. says

    Great to read Chris’ reply to your post, Dan (and interesting to read your take, too).

    I made a similar interpretation to Chris (about Bierut’s words) when Chris stated:

    “What I think the gist of his argument was in regards to designing logos is that as far a designing an aesthetically pleasing logo design, for someone who calls [themselves] and works as a professional designer, this is ‘design 101′ it should be expected.”

    Thanks very much, by the way, for the comments you’ve left on my blog.

  4. says

    I have to admit that I was a bit upset as well when I read Michael’s comment. It all depends how you look at it.

    An image or a symbol is not hard to do. Sure, anyone can draw a rectangle, a square, or any abstract shape. By following this logic, anyone can do a logo then.

    Logo design is more that just merely drawing though. Graphic design is about communicating effectively, and the same goes for logo design. It’s not about just putting a symbol on top of a name. A logo is often considered my many people the “brand identity”. A good logo designer spends only a fraction of the time “drawing”. The rest of the time is spent on research, conceptualizing, gathering ideas and information, discarding information, etc., all in favor of communicating effectively.

    Visual identity, branding, and marketing are all tied up.

    Personally I think the chase logo is a good logo. It’s works for it’s purpose.

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