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What’s a Picture Worth? Images, Type, and Logos

By Charles Purdy

We asked experts in the fields of logo design and branding to share some design thinking about the differences between graphical logos and logos that incorporate letters and words. When is going “full Apple” (that is, letting your company be represented only by an image) the right choice?

Before we got started writing this article, we imagined that it would feature design experts giving us some insights into how they choose whether to include words in a logo or to make it purely image-based. And they did. But the branding world we live in doesn’t allow for this to be a simple decision—and these days, many large brands have complex identity systems that may include both image-only logos and combination logos that include a letter mark or word mark.

Initially, we were thinking of companies like Mastercard, which overhauled its logo (with the help of Pentagram) in 2016. The company name, which once had been so central to the logo, was moved to an auxiliary position, allowing the very recognizable image—two overlapping circles, one red and one yellow—to speak for itself.

This trend—logos that are more graphical—seems to be hastening, in part because our world of small screens requires it.  

Mastercard’s overlapping red and yellow circles represent an extremely recognizable brand. The company’s 2016 move to focus on imagery—the first logo redesign in twenty years—seems to nod to our increasingly digital world.

A POST-LOGO WORLD

Just look at your phone. The little squares have to function as brand shorthand—a few may include letters or words, but you’re probably seeing more pictures than letters inside the shapes on your mobile device’s screen. Avatars on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram are similar. Some companies choose initials or a monogram, and many choose images that stand alone—even if the company’s full logo (which will appear unabbreviated on company signs, business cards, and packaging, for instance) retains its word mark.

Dunkin Donuts has a monogram avatar on Twitter, while Dropbox displays an image-only avatar.

Armin Vit, graphic designer and co-founder of Under Consideration LLC, says that designers have to respond to a client’s needs in this regard: “We are starting to see a return to graphic pictorial icons and monograms, because everybody wants something to appear on social media. They want their avatar on Instagram and Twitter to be able to fit in that circle or square—this of course impacts the designer’s thought process and what the designer can do.”

And those little social media avatars have to work in the same system as the full logo, so decisions about the small screen will affect the big picture. Vit says, “I think that what makes a logo so effective—and I am thinking of logos like Target’s, Nike’s, and Apple’s—is that they’re easily memorable, and you can put them in a small square or hexagon or whatever, and they’ll still be recognizable.”

In 2006, Target de-coupled the company name from the bulls-eye logo in ads and flyers (right). The logo has been through several iterations since its debut in 1962 (left).

HOW (AND WHETHER) TO BE ICONIC

As far as images go—whether the image is simply for use on Twitter or will be used to represent the brand in other contexts, there are a few options available to designers. There are images that represent a company’s name (think Target’s bulls-eye logo or Apple’s bitten apple), icons that represent what the company does (think Dropbox’s empty-box logo), images that are more purely graphic (think Mastercard’s overlapping-circle logo), and images that, over time, blur the line between letter mark and image (think McDonald’s “Golden Arches” letter M).

See how our panel of experts answered questions about working with letters in logos. Read “Using Type in Logo Designs.”

Debbie Millman, artist, author, brand consultant, and radio show host, stresses that design decisions like these depend heavily on the client’s desires and needs, but she thinks logos with a strong symbolic element can often tell a better story. She says, “They speak to consumers’ and audiences’ imaginations in a way that word marks don’t”—pointing to the powerful appeal of brand mascots like Betty Crocker. She continues, “I think words often suffer from misinterpretation.... They tend to be too literal. Or if you have an illiterate audience, they're not going to be successful…. However, they can be better at explaining a specific message.”

Kit Hinrichs, principal and creative director of Studio Hinrichs, cautions designers not to be too literal when creating a logo that depicts what a company does: “I find those to be extremely shortsighted—you’re defining the company by a particular activity at a particular time…. The best logos are the ones in that allow what the company does to evolve and change—without having to change the logo every five minutes. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind when doing any kind of branding.”

Rob Janoff’s original bitten-apple Apple logo (which replaced a more illustrative logo), designed in 1976, has metamorphosed over the years, but the original shape still transmits the company’s name. Janoff has said that the “bite” in the apple was originally implemented so people would know that the shape represented an apple—not a tomato.

IT’S NOT THE MARK; IT’S THE MARKETING

When you think of instantly recognizable graphical logos like the Nike logo, you’re seeing great design, of course—but you’re also seeing very effective marketing. If Nike no longer needs to spell out its name, that’s in part because the company’s products have become so universally recognizable and desired.

Millman says, “If you look at the Nike logo and the logo for Newport cigarettes, you’ll see that the Newport logo, upside-down, is essentially the same logo as Nike logo. So in many cases, it's not the mark; it’s the marketing.”

Over time, if a product is successful and well liked, its brand attributes can come to be associated with a very simple image. The Nike swoosh, created in 1971 by graphic design student Carolyn Davidson, can now appear without the brand name, but most of us still “read” that name and all it entails. 

Debbie Millman points out that the Nike and Newport logos are very similar shapes—but both are imbued with very different meanings. She says, “In many cases, it's not the mark; it’s the marketing.”

Armin Vit adds: “Coca Cola could have come up with an icon 100 years ago and it would have been great, because it’s Coca Cola, and it would have worked for them. The fact is that at that time, the script is what separated them from everything else, so that's what made sense—and now it’s been making sense for more than 100 years.”