The Small Business Guide to Creating a Perfect Logo
Everyone has their take on what makes a company logo perfect.
New trends in logo design appear every year.
When you break it down, what are the most fundamental elements a logo should possess – regardless of fads or trends? And how do you know if your logo has these key elements?
Paul Rand, the trailblazing designer of IBM, UPS, and ABC Broadcasting’s iconic logos, said:
While designing a logo is somewhat analogous to any kind of design problem, it’s special. The problems are different from those in advertising. You have to break everything down into the smallest possible denominator.
And that’s what we’ve done in this guide. We’ve broken down the logo into its most essential traits and functions.
Over the past fifteen years, our team has helped thousands of entrepreneurs, small businesses, and agencies create and improve their logos and overall visual branding. We’ve keynoted numerous conferences and webinars on branding and frequently write and talk about logo design on our blog and at conferences. This guide shares the actionable insights, tips, best practices, and expertise we’ve developed after helping over one hundred thousand of the world’s most successful brands.
At its most basic, a logo is a small, symbolic artwork representing a business. But we’ve dug a bit deeper than that. When you set aside all the design trends and fancy fonts, at its core, a logo must:
1- Embody your brand.
2- Be instantly recognizable.
3- Be versatile.
4- Be timeless.
Everything else is optional.
I’ll go one step further. Every design choice in your logo should exist only to serve and strengthen the four items listed above. And, if you meet these four requirements, many other commonly cited logo must-haves, like simplicity and memorability, naturally follow.
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Now, some business owners worry that the cost of logo design can be prohibitively high.
Many design companies and agencies indeed charge thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for their services. But this isn’t universally true (crowdspring’s custom logo design projects start at just $299, including all fees).
Let’s examine these concepts in more detail – and discuss what you can do to ensure that your logo meets these essential criteria. Please take advantage of our quick and easy questionnaire at the end of the article to determine how your logo stacks up!
A good logo must embody your brand
First and foremost, a logo should embody your business’s brand. This is more important than simplicity, balance, line, or color.
Even an aesthetically perfect logo fails in its purpose if it doesn’t communicate the essence of the brand it represents. Author and branding expert Martha Spelman explains:
The logo plays a pivotal role in any company – it’s the visual representation of a brand and will convey, in one quick peek, all the emotions, thoughts, connections, offerings, benefits and value of that particular brand.
Your logo is a key part of your brand identity – visual shorthand for your business. You want it to convey the essence of your business quickly and effortlessly. This is the one quality that truly gives a logo any chance at being effective.
This is challenging when starting your business because you haven’t yet built a brand. But even early on, hope is not lost.
If your logo doesn’t make consumers think of your brand, you should head straight to the drawing board.
And, if you find yourself in that situation, it’s time to ask the tough question – do you understand your brand?
Before a logo can communicate anything about your brand, you need to understand your brand. What values, practices, benefits, products, or services set your company apart and make it unique?
As we previously wrote:
Your logo has to derive meaning from your brand, not the other way around. The world’s best brands are not well-known because of their logo, they are known because of the people and vision that the logo represents.
For art’s sake, it’s okay to make choices based on aesthetics alone. However, a logo’s primary function (its raison d’etre) is to communicate brand identity. Arbitrary design choices won’t do. All aesthetic considerations – from line weight to color, to form – must serve the brand.
Your logo design to-do list:
- When planning a new logo, start by defining your brand.
- Communicate the most important aspects of your brand identity to your logo design team.
- When viewing prospective logo designs, ask yourself if the aesthetic choices communicate and represent your brand.
A good logo must be instantly recognizable
As your brand’s visual ambassador, a logo must be easily and instantly recognizable. After all, that’s the whole point, right?
You want people to see your logo and instantly think of your brand.
Let’s look at three popular, existing logos (Starbucks, Sony VAIO, and Baskin Robbins) to see how they incorporated their company’s story into the logo design.
The original Starbucks logo started as a brown, more “scandalous” version of its current logo. Initially, the company’s logo included an unclothed siren (double-tailed mermaid) inspired by history. In the logo, the siren was placed in a brown circle with the Starbucks original name, “Starbucks Coffee, Tea, and Spices”.
According to Greek mythology, sirens were seductive and a popular image among churches in Medieval Northern Europe. The idea was that the siren would symbolize the seductive nature of coffee and Seattle’s seaport ties (the original source of Starbucks coffee).
A few years later, Howard Schultz acquired the company and set out to modernize the logo. Several iterations of the logo later, the siren was simplified, the name was removed, and the logo looks much cleaner. But the charm and the story didn’t change, contributing to the logo’s widespread success and fame.
Sony VAIO logo
When Sony sought to make their Sony Vaio logo, they looked at how Sony was transitioning into the future with the help of new technology. Originally a TV company, Sony Vaio allowed Sony to move towards digital products, and the logo reflects that.
The “v” and the “a” in the logo make up an analog wave, which is an older form of transmitting images and sound (think: TV antennas, radios, etc.). But the second half of the word, the “i” and the “o,” looks like a 1 and a 0, the two numbers that make up binary code. The binary code makes up digital waves, which have helped make signals transmit faster, higher quality, and overall more advanced data.
Just like Starbucks didn’t set a goal to create the next great coffee logo, Sony didn’t decide to create the next best tech logo. They created a great logo by following their company’s history.
Baskin Robbins logo
Our third favorite logo origin story is the evolution of the Baskin Robbins logo. Originally an innovative merger of two ice cream parlors, Baskin Robbins changed the ice cream business by offering 31 unique flavors. Customers could identify them by that number and the small pink spoons were given out when taste-testing (another ice cream trend they helped start).
Initially, the Baskin Robbins logo bore the company’s name in blue with the number 31 in the middle.
Several years later, Baskin Robbins decided to take a leap of faith and redesign its logo to create something more unique. While the old logo was to the point, plenty of other ice cream shops had their name as the logo. So instead, Baskin Robbins opted to combine the number 31 into the initials of their company name.
This change made the logo more unique because it took a smarter approach to logo design, putting the main goal of the company front and center without pushing too hard.
Companies focused on creating unique logos have more successfully increased logo recognition, recall, and branding. But how can you create a unique logo that accurately represents your brand?
To achieve that goal, you must keep a few considerations in mind.
First, a logo must be sufficiently unique that it only reminds consumers of your brand.
This is where logo design trends (and stock logo art) become your enemy. Logos that take their cue from design trends or stock rather than the brands they represent begin to look mighty similar – and that’s a problem.
As we’ve previously explained:
It doesn’t matter if a different company is similar to yours, what matters is that your logos are different. As a result, you have an opportunity to make a unique first impression. Often, a logo is one of the first defense barriers against competition. Besides your company’s name, it’s the first difference customers and prospects will notice.
Your logo’s job is to identify your brand visually. To accomplish that goal, a logo must be unique. You want consumers to associate your logo with your company. You want them to build a trusting relationship with that logo; and, consequently, your brand.
If your logo looks like your competitor’s, they’re not building a trusting relationship with you. They’re two-timing you with your twin brother, and they don’t even know it.
At best, you can hope that the consumer will only be confused by a similarity between your logo and your competitor’s. At worst, they may feel tricked or even associate your competitor’s poor behavior with your brand. As we mentioned in our article 5 Ways Stock Art is Killing Your Small Business Brand:
If your competition does something unethical and their reputation takes a hit, your reputation may be impacted as well! Guilt by association, fair or not, is a real threat.
To avoid the trap of an indistinct, generic logo, always take your design cues from your unique brand.
Whatever makes your company unique and stand out from competitors will also make your logo unique. Be sure to let your designer(s) know what makes your company unique – they’re not mind-readers.
For example, if you’re starting a brewery business, look at how beer brewers approach logo design.
Second, a good logo design must be easy to recognize visually.
Logos featuring bold lines and strong, unique forms are easily identifiable visually. Think of the Nike “Swoosh,” the World Wildlife Federation’s negative space panda or Apple’s logo. All have a strong, easily identified, and unique visual form.
Truthfully, to know if a design is visually unique, you have to know what’s already out there.
And we can help you get started. Check out our guide to Overused, Overdone Logo Concepts for examples of generic and overused shapes that will make your logo disappear into the crowd. Then avoid these concepts at all costs.
Your logo design to-do list:
- Use your unique brand as a compass to guide you to a unique logo design concept.
- Research your competition and avoid design choices inviting comparison or confusion between your logos.
- Communicate to your designer that you’re looking for a logo with a bold visual statement, and request that they steer clear of the overused logo design concepts you see here.
A good logo reflects that you understand your audience
If you’re a law firm servicing mostly Fortune 500 companies, a logo using a handwritten font and an emoji-like icon is probably not the best choice.
While you want to strive for unique, out-of-the-box branding, your clients still need your logo to convey professionalism and deep knowledge.
Understanding your audience’s age, location, personality, and even habits can give you (and your designer) important guidelines to use when designing the logo.
One way to learn more about your potential customers is to pay attention to big companies. There are many important lessons big Brands can teach small businesses and startups. We talk about some of these lessons in the video below.
A good logo must be versatile
A logo must be versatile if it is going to function effectively. It will (or should) appear on every piece of branded material your company produces. These can range from a business card to a billboard… and every size in between. Your logo needs to scale effectively to any size.
So what does this mean in terms of design?
It means that excessive complexity is out. Detailed textures, intricate linework, or complex details may be completely lost (rendering the logo unrecognizable) when scaled down to fit on a business card. Simplicity is your best friend.
Designs that rely too heavily on color may also suffer. Color gradients or fades may lose their form entirely when rendered at small sizes. An important detail may be lost when a logo is rendered in black and white if the design relies too much on color for its impact.
Your logo should work equally well when printed large or small, in black and white, or in color – this is why lines and forms are so important to logo design. Your logo needs to be visible on any surface, against any color, at any size.
If your logo can’t go everywhere your brand needs to appear, then what’s the point?
Is your logo going to be printed on paper? Business cards? Billboards? Physical products?
We discuss logo versatility in the video below:
Your logo design to-do list:
- Test your prospective logo in various sizes before committing to the design.
- Verify that your logo design works as well in black and white as it does in color.
- If a design fails either of these tests, send it back to the drawing board.
A good logo must be timeless
Our final must-have trait for a logo is timelessness. A logo is a branding tool. And good branding is consistent branding.
You want consumers to develop loyalty and trust in your brand. But trust and loyalty don’t grow overnight. Brand consistency, over the long term, is the key to building trust and loyalty.
Personal branding guru William Arruda writes in his article Why Consistency is the Key to Successful Branding,
Brands are built through the consistent delivery of the brand promise through all stakeholder touch points. It is the consistent, desired experience that builds trust and trust is the foundation for loyalty and promotion.
Your logo is often the very first “stakeholder touchpoint.” This means that you should aim for a logo that will last a long time – a trust and loyalty-building length of time.
And, once you’ve built trusting and loyal relationships with consumers, starting over with a completely new logo can set you back. You’ll have to rebuild your audience’s relationship with your brand identity from scratch.
When Tropicana changed its beloved logo in 2009, its sales dropped by 20%. It returned to its original logo in less than two months.
But sometimes, you don’t have a choice. Maybe you’re struggling to grow your business and determine that your branding is holding you back. If you find yourself in this situation, rebranding may be the best path forward.
And remember that instant recognizability isn’t purely a result of effective design. It also relies on the associations your marketing team builds between your business and your logo. Your customers need time to absorb that message and learn your logo and brand.
Logo design savant Paul Rand once reflected:
A good solution, in addition to being right, should have the potential for longevity. Yet I don’t think one can design for permanence. One designs for function, for usefulness, rightness, beauty. Permanence is up to God.
While it’s true that a designer can’t predict what designs will become truly timeless (and all designers can’t help but be influenced by the prevalent style of their time), they can avoid choices that will instantly date their designs. This is yet another reason to avoid prioritizing design trends over brand authenticity.
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Drawing too deeply from the logo design trend will leave you with a logo that looks dated faster than a design that draws its visual cues from your brand. Once a gimmicky design trend becomes dated, it also dates your logo.
Your logo design to-do list:
- Plan to keep your logo around for a long time to provide a consistent brand identity for consumers.
- Avoid embracing design trends to be trendy or “contemporary.”
- Ensure your logo concept has enough substance to receive the occasional update without losing familiarity. (Think Starbucks’ ever-evolving mermaid.)
Remember that in logo design, there is no one “right answer.” What is right for one brand is wrong for another.
And without absolutes, it may be tempting to make logo design choices based on what’s popular. But that instinct can only backfire. After all, popularity is determined by a crowd – and you want your logo to stand out from the crowd.
The great Paul Rand once said,
The principal role of a logo is to identify, and simplicity is its means… Its effectiveness depends on distinctiveness, visibility, adaptability, memorability, universality, and timelessness.
So, let your unique brand identity be your logo’s north star. And remember to aim for a design that is instantly recognizable, timeless, and versatile.
Fill out this quick questionnaire to determine if your logo is up to par. How well does your logo perform?
Your Logo Design Questionnaire
Does your logo:
Communicate your brand essence to someone who knows nothing about your business?
Look good in color and black and white?
Remain easy to recognize and identify when rendered on small and large scales?
Look similar to a competitor’s logo?
Rely heavily on contemporary design trends?
Resemble any overused or overdone design concepts?
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