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.
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.”)
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).
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.
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.