The logo has come a long way. Once used as a simple, yet distinctive mark to show customers the products a vendor made, it’s since evolved into much more. Today’s logo is a functional signpost used to not only identify a company, but in some cases, to convey its mission and values through design. So how did this evolution take place? To understand, let’s take a quick look at the history of the logo. 

From ancient origins to the Middle Ages 

We typically think of logos as a modern phenomenon. However, visually communicating through design is something we’ve been doing since primitive times, with origins dating back to Egyptian hieroglyphics, and later, to the paleolithic cave paintings discovered in Lascaux, France. While several thousand years and several hundred miles separate the two sets of drawings, it shows the human need to use visual representation to differentiate and identify themselves has deep roots. 

The first business logos were used on signage in the Middle Ages. Back then, the purpose of the logo was simply to convey the goods and services shops sold to what was vastly an illiterate public. It would be 300 some years later, during the industrial revolution, that it’s purpose would evolve as a visual way of setting businesses apart, grabbing market share, and attracting attention.

The Industrial Revolution

With the industrial revolution came improvements in printing techniques, which not only made it possible to combine typography with imagery, they could be printed in color. What’s more, these advances allowed for mass printing, and created new ways for businesses to reach customers, via bulletins and flyers that could be printed in mass and posted anywhere.

To remain competitive meant businesses had to get on board with creating brand identities with logos quickly. The charge was led by British brewer, Bass, in the mid-1870s with a simple red triangle as its logo to signify a mark of quality and to separate itself from the competition. 

American companies followed suit with their own logos, but with a different aesthetic, drawing on the folk styles and illustrated initials of the Arts and Crafts movement and hand drawn faces used in Art Nouveau for inspiration. A prime example is Levi Strauss’ first logo, which showed two horses pulling on a pair of jeans to convey the strength of the product. 

The 20th century and the transition to minimalist design 

As advertising and mass media evolved, the use of color and typography adapted to reflect the aesthetics of the time, from the bold colors and geometric shapes that defined the art deco period, to the heroic realism of using figures and symbols to convey strength, optimism, and patriotism during World War II. 

It was in the 1950s that logo design took a different turn, shifting from very literal imagery to more abstract concepts. The shift was led by New York designer Paul Rand, who saw logo design as an opportunity to create visuals that were clear, memorable, and distinct, and not necessarily tied to the goods or services offered by the business.

He also viewed the logo as a way of marking and not of meaning, and therefore never assigned a responsibility to a logo. “It’s is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning,” he said. “If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job immediately, before an audience has been properly conditioned.”

His work for IBM, Westinghouse, ABC, UPS, and Steve Job’s computer company, NeXT plays off of this design ethos, and it’s not far-fetched to argue that his influence and design principles can be seen in the designs of today’s most iconic and memorable logos, from the apple used by Apple and the golden arches used in McDonald’s logo, to Nike’s swoosh. 

The no logo movement of the late nineties

All of this suggests that the logo is ubiquitous and reached this position without any dissent. However, with the publication of Naomi Klein’s book, ‘No Logo’ in December 1999 meant what was previously seen as an uncontested part of daily existence was suddenly made a bit more difficult.

Klein argued that the ubiquity of brands was blinding everyone to the harsh truths of their existence, from an anti-competitive drive to be the only one in the market to a reliance on sweatshop labor to keep costs low. “In order to be successful multinational corporations,” Klein said, “you need to produce brands, not things,” and has said that the brand marks a ‘transcendence from the world of things.’

A ‘no logo’ movement started to coalesce at the same time. Klein’s book wasn’t the catalyst, but it did help explain and draw some basic outlines. The Economist magazine responded with a piece called ‘Why brands are good for you‘ (subscription required) and argued that brands act as a guarantee of quality – remember Bass beer? – and beyond that create a sense of belonging and shared identity.

People have sided more with The Economist’s argument than with Klein’s. Even the new protest movement, Extinction Rebellion, has its own logo, neatly validating The Economist’s point about belonging.

Demonstrating that the universe does have a sense of humor, the cover of Klein’s book with its ‘no logo’ design has become a minor-league icon. When the words ‘no logo’ become a logo, it starts to look as though, like the cave painters of the Lascaux maybe knew 20,000 years ago, the urge to create stylized renditions of things is eternal.

Enter the 21st century and what the logo means today 

Just as the color printing press gave way to new mediums to reach customers during the days of the industrial revolution, the digital age has done the same, with more platforms than ever to get in front of consumers. 

As a result, today’s consumers tend to be more jaded and less trusting of brands than in the past, which has led many of the most recognizable brands to rethink their approaches to logo design to feel less corporate and more personal. Some have even opted for wordless logos, such as those used by McDonald’s, Shell, Mastercard, Nike, and Starbucks to name a few.

Pepsi brand Doritos took an even bolder approach, experimenting with a no-logo ad late last year as a way to appeal to younger generations that grown up in a world of ad-free digital content. They took the approach a step further by temporarily renaming their website, doritos.com to Logogoeshere.com, and removed all of their branding from site.

While we’re unclear about the success of the campaign, what’s clear is branding is consumer attitudes are changing. As Scott McKenzie of Nielsen wrote in a piece appropriately titled ‘Customer Disloyalty is the New Normal,’ just 8% of consumers see themselves as loyalists and 46% are more likely to try new brands than they were five years ago. This would suggest that the total of $210 million that BP paid for their logo, only to suffer huge brand damage in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, may have been a bit excessive.

For anyone who doesn’t have several millions to spend on a logo, there’s good news. Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer Special Report suggested that 63% of consumers trust influencers more than brand advertising and when it comes to buying decisions, over 80% stress that quality, convenience, and value are important.
Even more interesting is that as many as 56% think that brands use social issues as a marketing ploy, but that 81% must be able to trust the brand to do what is right. This means that, for all a logo should be arresting and considered, traditional brand values still dominate and that when companies hymn their virtues they will need to stand by them. So place an emphasis on the company and what it stands for – not the logo.

There’s also some comfort to be had from one, final thought. When Rand redrew the Ford logo in 1966, Henry Ford II replied that if the old one was good enough for his grandfather, it was good enough for him. With around 1,500 people a day visiting the Lascaux caves, you wonder if he had a point.

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