Using Type in Logo Designs

By Charles Purdy


Employing words or letters in some way makes good sense for many logos, and most do use them—in fact, the word logo comes from a classical Greek word logos, which means “word” and “speech” (among other concepts). You see letterforms not only in word marks and letter marks, but also in combination marks, like the Adidas logo, and emblems, like the NFL logo. We asked some logo and typography experts to share how they think about using type in logos.

We spoke with Ellen Lupton, the author of the book Thinking with Type; Armin Vit, a graphic designer and a co-founder of Under Consideration LLC; independent design director Graham Clifford; graphic designer David Airey; Kit Hinrichs, principal and creative director of Studio Hinrichs; Jessica Hische, lettering artist and the author of the book In Progress; and Jessica Helfand, designer, theorist, and the author of the book The Invention of Desire.  

In a nutshell, we learned that these deep design thinkers are, in many ways, living in a “post-logo world,” where logos have to be considered as part of identity systems with many moving parts. Decisions about how to use type—and whether to use type—are made in that context. Read on to learn more.   

Graham Clifford worked on this logo for Amplify, an educational product. The logo features a custom typeface, and was intentionally designed to be adaptable to many uses. Clifford says, “The word Amplify exists on its own as a logo, but it becomes more of a living breathing system that can help encompass different categories and objectives.” (Learn more about this project.)

Why choose a word mark or letter mark, as opposed to something more icon- or image-based?

David Airey: A word mark without a symbol means the visual focus is solely on the brand name. When the name is distinctive, this can make it easier to remember than if the word mark is shown alongside an extra visual element.

Generally, the more distinctive the name, the less there’s a need for a symbol. That said, a symbol can often work better in smaller confines than a word mark—for social media avatars or favicons, for example—and can also act as a decorative element that unites sub-brands. So while a distinctive name can be identified by a word mark in isolation, having a separate symbol or monogram can still be a useful part of the visual identity.

Kit Hinrichs: I think that word marks are very effective, especially if you have little money to build or promote what you’re doing. So whenever you see that word mark, you understand it, because you understand the words…. You don’t need a multimillion-dollar budget to repeat it again and again.

But almost everything that we do now, even if it is primarily a word mark, has some kind of a symbol with it as well, because there are so many needs for a quick shorthand signature to be used on screens or in contexts when type would interfere with other elements.

Ellen Lupton says, “One of my favorite logos is the Dunkin Donuts logo. It expresses its content beautifully, it’s very clean, and it has a wonderful geometry to it, the way the two lines fit together. It’s very memorable, it always makes me hungry, and I just love it.”

How should designers start to think about working with a typeface in a logo?

Armin Vit: For most designers, I think the process starts with looking at what typefaces are out there. I think the process of just dumping, say, 20 different fonts into a new file and analyzing the shapes of the different typefaces—whether it’s a single story a or a double-story a, or whether the center of the M touches the baseline: all those sorts of things play a role. Then there’s how the company’s name is interpreted—whether it comes across as friendly, aggressive, industrial, sporty, feminine, masculine, or whatever it is—through those fonts.

See how three designers approach logo design, in “Three Techniques for Unfogettable Logos.”

Once you do that initial work, it may be very feasible to just choose a font and go with it. But most companies want to be different somehow, so the first step is choosing a font, and then the second is deciding, say, that this or that letter is going to be customized a bit…. It’s good when it works. Sometimes, designers trim typefaces pretty badly—so altering something just to be different is not a good enough reason.

How do you decide whether to customize a typeface or create something totally new?

Jessica Hische: Lettering as an industry encompasses a lot of things…. Part of the lettering world is working with pre-existing letterforms and modifying them to better suit the client’s or project’s needs. There are occasions that call for doing something totally custom, but I think that if someone has a really clear picture in mind and they’ve already been working with a typeface, the work can be about taking what they have and making it feel a little more bespoke or a little more considered. I don’t think you need to reimagine the wheel every time you approach a graphic design project. 

Is it ever OK to use a typeface without tweaking it?

Ellen Lupton: It’s interesting to see how many companies have used Helvetica in their logos, and yet have done so in a recognizable way. Sometimes the typeface is tweaked or special characters are added, but often it’s just Helvetica, with the spacing modified and the letters arranged in a certain way. The book Helvetica, by Lars Müller, includes a wonderful spread that shows numerous 20-century corporate logos that use Helvetica, and each one is different.

Ellen Lupton points to the Staples logo as one of the many that use Helvetica as their basis. Others include varied brands like Lufthansa and Tupperware.

David Airey: If an existing typeface is used as the basis for a word mark, including bespoke customizations will give clients a design that’s unique to them. This is more important if the typeface is in widespread use. Clients deserve to feel a sense of ownership over their logos, and adding relevant customizations can make all the difference.

Kit Hinrichs: For people who don’t really understand how typography works…the simple use of an existing typeface is fine, and I’d rather see them do that than do a bastardized version of something just because they feel they have to do it.

We often find that when we start with an existing typeface, the choice of that typeface is relatively complex…. There are so many things that determine that choice. At the same time, there may be other things in the same market space that you’re talking to, so you want to be distinguished in the way in which the word mark or typography works. Sometimes that can be quite subtle.

Armin Vit: You might have to consider the cost of licensing a typeface. Let’s say you choose Gotham, and it looks great in your logo, and it’s going to go in all of your collateral and all of your business cards for the 10,000 people that work in your company. And then you go to buy a license, and that license turns out to be $100,000, because it’s going to be used on so many computers…. Sometimes, it’s cheaper to just hire a type designer to build a typeface from scratch.

Armin Vit lists the IBM, Airbnb, and Target logos as some of the logos he thinks are notably successful and well done. He adds, “Lastly, I like the Metallica logo. It’s just badass. It’s spicy, and it goes with the music. Not every logo has to be a fantastic work of graphic design and proportions and the golden ratio—whatever. It can just be something that truly captures the spirit of something. The Metallica logo does that.” 

Are there any guidelines to consider when a designer is customizing a typeface’s letters for a logo?

Armin Vit: One option is to say, “I kind of like the vibe that’s going on here with these two or three different typefaces; I can combine them in a way by drawing something unique for this logo.” If someone is a lettering artist or typographer, then they can choose to draw something from scratch. That’s more rare, but it can yield the most-distinct logos. For example, the Hallmark logo—that’s just a beautiful piece of calligraphy that I couldn’t do. If I’d been hired to do the Hallmark logo years ago, I might have said, ‘Here is Helvetica with a different H, because that's what I like to do…. A lot of it comes down to the talents and skills of the designer.

Jessica Helfand: If you’re in some saturated industry where you’re fighting with every bank in the world or every dog food company in the world, it may be that the nature of the slightly modified mark benefits you because it is that much more memorable in a marketplace saturated with similar kinds of products.

That is a reality to which I think all aspiring logo design people are going to want to give some thought to. But I’m a big believer in “the simpler, the better.” I think the things that are simpler last longer…. If you really believe that your company has to have this special extra feather on the top of its logo, then by all means, go and make that feather. But I think that sometimes that kind of thing is decorative and indulgent, and it becomes harder to reproduce. You want to think in a very broad way about what the needs are going to be and what the competition is.

See how our panel of experts answered questions about working with color. Read “How to Choose the Right Logo Color.

What are the benefits to using a pre-existing typeface, as opposed to creating your own letterforms?

Ellen Lupton: A well-designed typeface already represents thousands of hours of quality control and careful, expert creation. For a beginning designer, starting with typography is a good approach, unless you’re looking for a handmade quality, a hand-lettered feel—which is a trend in type-based logos. Another reason to work with existing typefaces is that if you’re creating a brand language, then that typeface can become the basis for a much broader brand beyond the logo. A type family is already a system.

Jessica Hische: I think there are times when using an out-of-the-box typeface is acceptable—the issue is that you can’t use a typeface that is widely used without it looking like a placeholder or without it feeling very generic. You can’t choose a typeface as popular as Helvetica, or even Gotham, and type your company name. But if you were using a really unexpected typeface, I think you could absolutely have a logo that is just typeset.  

It depends on how you use the logo, too. There are companies where the logo only appears in a few places—the website, maybe their business cards, etc. Other times it's used in a million different ways—from billboards to tiny social avatars. A typeset logo with no customization will likely not hold up in every format. It really depends on what the requirements are.

We asked Jessica Hische about her own lettering work that she thinks was successful. She pointed to her revamped logo for Southern Living. She says, “It really pulled from what they had already and how the company had evolved, but it did solve a lot of the problems they were dealing with. It made the logo type look the way it looked in the past but also how they wanted it to look in the future.” (Learn more about this project.)

What trends are you seeing in how logos employ type?

Ellen Lupton: I’m seeing many historically based identities, especially for food packaging and restaurants, where the style is a bit more traditional or folksy, and not super clean-lined and modern. To do that well requires a knowledge of typography. These identities are complex and detailed. Often they use multiple typefaces, different sizes and weights, reaching for a Victorian feeling but in a contemporary way.

Graham Clifford: Rather than just coming up with the static logo and that’s the end of the story, pretty much the same way logos and trademarks have been for the last few hundred years, what I find more interesting at the moment is systems and the way a logo will work within a system, and how you can make an expandable system.

Graham Clifford says, “I tend to skew toward the classic—being able to design a classic logo, something that is beyond trend and that becomes a part of the culture, is a very difficult thing to do…. When I talk about my favorite logos, I’m talking about FedEx or IBM or Pirelli—they have a timelessness about them.... To design a logo and make it as effective as possible, I bring it down to several elements: Is it distinctive, appropriate, practical, graphic, simple in form, and conveying the intended message? And if you can get, say, any three of those at least, you’ll probably be on the right side of history.

Do certain categories of type work better for certain industries?

David Airey: If, during competitor research, any trends are found, it’s wise to go the other way to help set clients apart. What’s perhaps most important is that you keep the typography relevant—for example, don’t use a fun, playful type design for a bank or law firm, or don’t use serifs for brands that work specifically with children.

Kit Hinrichs: We always show a logo in the center of the logos of the competition—usually in a three-by-three grid, and the center one is the one we’re showing, just to compare what’s going on and see how it stands out…. A lot of people are really most comfortable not being more distinctive. We are trying to do our best to really make them successful in what they do. And that doesn’t mean, well, if they like green, you make it green…. You’re trying to help them in their process of getting support to go ahead, so they can go to their board of directors and explain their choices.

And in many cases, we’ll say, “Then let’s not make the logo so strong because you have a lot of other ways of communicating. Let’s make the communications program more effective and focus on that.” There are a lot of ways of skinning this cat.

What are some things you don’t like to see, when it comes to type in logos?

Ellen Lupton: I think logos should be readable. I think in the 1960s and ’70s there were all these Space Age logos, wormy kinds of things, and I don’t think that’s very effective. I think having letterforms that maintain their integrity is usually more effective—you can play with them, but generally I think that readability is a plus…. I also hate it when people put a large capital letter next to a smaller one and the weights don’t match. That’s a terrible amateur thing but you do see it a lot.

Armin Vit: One thing I see a lot is when logos try to look handwritten or hand-drawn or hand-brushed or something, but then the word has two of the same letter, and that letter is the same both times. It just means someone was lazy and didn’t want to do another O, because you know if someone is handwriting it, no one is going to do the O exactly alike. … Also, when something is poorly kerned or not kerned—you have to wonder whether the designer didn’t know, which is scary, or didn’t care, which is just sad.


We know you have strong opinions. Tell us: What’s your favorite logo? Share the answer on Twitter or Instagram and include the hashtag #logomonth, or simply leave a comment below. We’ll compile the top ten into a poll and put it up for a vote later this month.

August 11, 2017