Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Logo Misapplication

June 26, 2006

I believe that the logo is the most abused, misapplied, misconceived, wrongfully distracting element of design and business today. I encounter too many people in business who believe that their logo should define them. The reality is that they should define their logo. For some reason it seems that this business fundamental is lost on most business owners.

I find it rather ironic and frustrating that while so many owners, executives and managers have absolutely no idea what design can do for their business, they have entirely unrealistic expectations for what a logo can do for their business. A logo’s purpose, as imagined by far too many, amounts to the very definition of putting the cart before the horse. In such cases it would be far better to send the horse off to the glue factory.

Seriously, the logo is just the simple mnemonic that can be used to mark (brand like a cow) products and marketing materials so that people know who made them or who is trying to say something to them. The logo itself only articulates what the brand already broadcasts. That’s it.

No, this new logo will not fix your crappy company

Regrettably, more than a few clients I’ve worked with want their logo and their website to say things about them that are entirely inaccurate – as if doing so will fix their shortcomings. Small companies want the logo or website to make them seem big. Stodgy, stuck-in-the-mud companies want their logo to say that they’re cutting edge and energetic. Unhealthy companies want their website to say that they’re vibrant and thriving.

If you’re a designer, I’ll bet you’ve been in this meeting:

client: We want the new logo to say something really powerful about us. We want it to show people that we’re a big company. We want it to say that we’re energetic and capable.

you: How big a company are you?

client: Well, there’s me, …and Tom there handles sales. Oh, and my wife works 2 days a week in the office on books and answering phones. But we want the logo to say that we’re different.

you: What sets you apart from your competitors?

client: We’re customer-focused.

you: I see.

It is hard to look across the table at these business owners and explain to them that building an identity that supports an ideal counter to their practice or ability is the wrong move. It is hard to tell them that their best move would be to repair their company and actually create the reality they want portrayed to the public and then make good use of marketing to get the word out – at which point their logo will say all these great things about them. It’s hard to say this because in just about every case they refuse to believe this advice. I’m the designer – what’s the designer know about their business. Well, it’s the designer’s job to know enough about their business to see things they cannot see. And yet…

The reason a business owner jumps into making this mistake is that he believes that his company’s problems will be fixed by visually redefining the company (in other words, putting lipstick on a pig). He believes that this redefinition is easily accomplished by spending fifteen to forty thousand dollars on a new website and new logo. He believes that it’s the logo and website that speaks for the company rather than he and his company who speak for the logo. Sadly, he’s wrong and he’s seldom going to be convinced otherwise.

We designers know that few things in life are as rough and uninspiring as trying to conceive and execute great design for an unhealthy, uninspired, myopic company. Add “deceptive” to that list and that’s when designers start bickering with the sales team and project managers over which clients we can and cannot afford to pass up.

Oh, it’s possible to do good work in these situations and professionalism demands that we be able to do it, but that doesn’t make it any more palatable. It begs the question of a cook’s ethics: when the man you’re cooking for spits in the soup while you’re cooking, do you also salt his tea for good measure? I’m not saying it’s the thing to do, but a designer can fantasize.

So for all you designers reading this who have encountered the same sort of idiocy here’s a little caveat you can copy and print out in a bold and highly legible font, laminate and/or frame and present to your clients before you undertake their identity redesign project:

Dear business owner:

A logo refers to a story (your brand). It says very little in and of itself. It is meant to refer to an already understood idea (your brand). A LOGO DOES NOT TELL A STORY (a logo is not a brand). If there is no story, at best the logo can only serve to create a recognizable reference that might have meaning and context later – months or years from now.

The care and feeding of logos

Think of your logo as your child. A newborn child is helpless at first. You have to nurture and care for it rigorously, as it cannot fend for itself. Others who meet the newborn know of it only what they know of its family. Later, the child learns to use its legs and its ability to communicate – what the family models – improves and its acquaintance broadens. If things go well, in time the child is capable of expressing ideas succinctly on its own. Much later, the child may even be capable of helping to support its parents when they encounter hardship.

That’s how formidable logos are made. They’re raised over time, not created in a design laboratory and unleashed, fully self-sufficient. So when you’re presented with the newly designed logo do not look at it and try to see the story. Instead, look at it and make sure it does not visually offend or suggest something counter to your company’s brand. Trust the designer to utilize what he/she has learned about your company and your ideals to account for the rest.

P.S. Your Logo is not your brand

No, really. Your brand is that whole quality product + promise of value + value perception + public reputation + company culture thing. You know; the stuff that amounts to the hard part of business that you actually have to work hard at (as opposed to merely pay for).

So no, the logo cannot create that brand image. It can only refer to it. You and your employees have to build the reputation, flesh out the story and establish the brand that your logo will represent. That story then has to be told to others through marketing. You write the story, marketing tells the story and the logo refers to it. No successful company in the history of the world has ever had a logo that told a story by itself. And neither will you.


Okay, you can’t really give this to a client, but perhaps a more softly presented bit of advice along these lines at the start of your project might ease things just a bit. At the very least, print this letter out and present it with due gravity to your sales team and project managers. Let them find the appropriate method for conveying these ideas to potential clients. Might just save you some small measure of project-related pain.

Of course the best course of action for most of these clients would be to build a healthy, honest, formidable company. Having done that, their current logo will likely work just fine.