The Face of Predictability

alibaba logo

Sometimes, a bad logo goes big time.

On Friday, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba was the subject of a mammoth IPO frenzy. The explosively successful site garners comparisons to cultural monoliths like Amazon and Google – and yet its low budget, predictable logo looks like it was designed by an intern in an hour. The logo embeds the face of a satisfied customer in a lowercase ‘a,’ which feels like it was the designer’s first idea and first sketch. Sure, your first idea can sometimes be your best – but in logo design, it’s often the most predictable and the most dull. It pays to proceed beyond the immediate choices in order to differentiate your brand with a concept that has character or that customers don’t expect. This, however, is the kind of logo design I’d expect to emerge from a crowdfunding site where thousands of designers phone it in with the hopes of making $5.

The brand name is rendered in Univers, which again seems like a default choice in this context. Might as well just fire up Illustrator and leave the Type tool set to Myriad. Visually, the one thing the brand has done right is to choose a memorable color and stick to it.

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma celebrated such an enormous milestone last week. Each time I saw his logo on a NYSE screen behind him, I thought he deserved better. But this is a company that started in a small apartment on a shoestring budget. Maybe now that Jack Ma has taken it to the top, it’s time to hire a pro to design a proper brand identity. Keep the orange and scrap the rest.

The ‘Unknown Known’ in Branding

Here’s something you might not know about your logo or brand identity: the point of designing a logo for your business is not to choose one that you like. The goal is to design a logo that communicates to your audience. Ideally, you can achieve both – but communication is the only goal that really matters.

Sometimes I see a certain type of poorly designed logo, and I think, I bet the business owner really loves that. Take, for example, the independent gym that uses the really cute mascot for their logo. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with cuteness, but it’s probably not going to motivate anyone to jog or whale on their pecs. Using any style just because you’re personally enamored with it might be a costly mistake. Then there’s the jazz musician I encountered who used a baffling nonsensical symbol as his logo. “What does it mean?” I asked. “Oh nothing, I’ve just love it because I’ve been using it forever.” Wrong answer.

The Errol Morris documentary The Unknown Known is about Donald Rumsfeld and the confounding smokescreens he used to justify war. The title refers to Rumsfeld’s definition of the things we think we know but don’t really know. The unknown known of your business may be the impression your brand creates on your audience. If you are confusing how much you like it with how it is perceived, then you are likely unaware of the impression you are creating.

What’s the solution? It can be helpful to ask customers what they think your logo means. Don’t ask them if they like it – they’ll likely flatter you – ask them what it means. You can also do A/B testing or polling.

But most importantly, make sure you work with a branding professional instead of hiring Cousin Steve to design your logo. Doesn’t have to be this branding professional – just someone who will make their first priority the most important one: to design a logo that communicates.

“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Review: Climate Change Logo by Milton Glaser


Legendary designer Milton Glaser created the above logo to accompany a climate change initiative called It’s Not Warming It’s Dying. The logo is also used in several other formats: in an animated version seen on, and on the buttons sold there.

But what is it? The logo is meant to represent a dying Earth, where green is overwhelmed by a creeping black Death. However, when seen on its own without any accompanying text (as it appears on the buttons – the campaign’s primary element), the logo is merely an abstract colored shape. Simply put, the logo fails to communicate on its own. When Brian Lehrer pressed the designer on this issue, Mr. Glaser responded, “The relationship between dark and light is always something people implicitly know.” Kind of a quizzical response that fails to answer the core problem: if you saw a friend wearing this button, you’d have no idea what it was meant to represent. In fact, it looks message-free. You might not notice it at all.

The work on the slogan messaging is more successful. ‘It’s Not Warming It’s Dying’ is a powerful phrase that takes aim at the innocuous language often used around this subject, attempting to replace it with more dire and urgent words. Perhaps this slogan should have been central to the identity.

Milton Glaser designed the ‘I♥NY’ logo – one of the most recognizable and communicative logos on Earth. That logo speaks with such boldness and clarity, it has become truly iconic – an image synonymous with the thing it represents. Based on the knowledge that Mr. Glaser is capable of using design to define a message so thoroughly and permanently, his ‘It’s Not Warming’ logo is extra disappointing.

“There is no more significant issue on earth than its survival,” Glaser told Dezeen Magazine. I couldn’t agree more, and working to advance the conversation about climate change is a noble cause. This subject deserves to be embodied by compelling design that will spur great action – but I don’t think this is it.

An Experiment in Subliminal Branding

One of the most read posts on my blog, from 2010, is about subconscious meaning in logo design. In the past twenty years or so, dynamic brand identity has largely been favored over static logo design. Everything moves now, from fluid responsive website designs to animated brand identity. Subtle meaning or visual presence is no longer limited to the shapes in a static form. How, I wondered, might subliminal or subconscious imagery be used in the era of motion branding?

Here, as an experiment, I inserted the logo of a famous rock star into the wonderful BFI identity by Johnson Banks. Can you spot it? What is the effect of seeing a mark for a fraction of a second – does it make a subtle impression on the mind, even if you don’t consciously acknowledge it? No copyright infringement is intended here; it’s an experiment created out of curiosity.

BFI Subliminal

The idea of subliminal branding is insidious. No one wants Coca Cola brainwashing them. But ever since I learned about William Friedkin’s use of subliminal messages (through the use of very brief images in a moving picture) in The Exorcist and Cruising, I have been fascinated by these techniques. What do you think?

WordPress Magazine Designer

wordpress magazine design nyc

Photo by Ken Hawkins

Do you need to get your magazine online with WordPress? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I have been designing WordPress sites for over a decade; when you learn to write WordPress themes from scratch, you learn them inside and out. Here at Magnetic State design studio, you’ll be working with myself (Dan Redding) on site design and Raju, who handles theme development.

We understand the complexities of magazine website design. The challenges that need to be addressed include image standardization, responsive layout, formatting legacy content, search engine optimization, advertising parameters, and, of course, beautiful, user-friendly design. I have worked with clients from small to large – recent projects include a custom responsive WordPress site for Coldfront poetry magazine and dozens of projects for Men’s Health and Women’s Health magazines (see sites I designed and developed for them here, here, and here). My experience at Men’s Health has provided me with valuable insight to the unique design and development requirements of a large publication. If you’re ready to go responsive, you can read how my responsive redesign of Coldfront magazine cause their traffic to spike through the roof.

Ready to learn more? View our portfolio and contact us today!

Punk’s Not Dead

Update: the shirt went to print! Thanks to all who supported this project.

My new t-shirt design, “Punk’s Not Dead,” is available for a limited time at Cotton Bureau! I need to sell at least 12 shirts in order for them to print it. Please support the shirt by buying one today! It’s a limited chance to wear this awesome design – my first since everyone’s favorite, The Party Werewolf. Thank you!

Punk's Not Dead Shirt

What’s the Value of a Dollar in Branding?

Branding, like fine art, is extremely subjective. A logo or brand identity has value – both symbolic value and financial value. But that value lies in the eye of the beholder. That means that the price of a brand identity is extremely subjective, too.

Here are two (admittedly extreme) examples that illustrate both sides of the proverbial coin. The designer of the Nike swoosh – easily one of the most recognizable logos in the world – was famously paid only $35. On the other side of the spectrum, Pepsi paid $1 million for the 2009 redesign of its logo – a mere revision of their previous logo which became the laughingstock of the design industry for its staggeringly pretentious justification.

pepsi nike scale

These are unique examples, but the point is that there is no ‘right answer’ about how much a logo should cost, or what it’s worth (although obviously $35 is too low a fee for anything you want designed). Branding is a subjective practice. But the results of good design and its impact on your business are measurable.

The Solution

If you’re seeking a brand identity for your business, the only solution is to choose a designer you trust, and then trust that designer. Your only job is to find the right team for the task – and then invest your faith in their work. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen in branding, so it pays to do your research and find the real McCoy. A good studio or firm will be able to prove that they are the right fit for the job, and they should have the work to back it up. Their fees will vary depending on their size and experience. But you are hiring them because you are trusting them to deliver a valuable product and service.

The ultimate example of the aforementioned ‘trust’ maxim is design hero Paul Rand, designer of the logos for UPS, IBM, ABC, and many more. Paul charged his clients a flat rate (around $100,000 in some cases) and presented one final solution that he stood behind as the only right solution. Paul said that he did not present the client with various logo design options “for the same reason that a doctor doesn’t give you a million choices – if you’ve got a headache, he’ll give you an aspirin. He doesn’t give you a choice between that and Ex-Lax!” Paul Rand’s clients trusted him to prescribe the right medicine and they were rewarded with effective, powerful, timeless designs.

If your business needs a logo design or brand identity, contact Magnetic State today. We are the modern design team that you can trust.