Tom Dennis asks LogoLounge's founder and chief curator what makes a perfect logo, and discovers there is no easy answer.
What does the Coca-Cola logo smell like? What noise would Nike's famous tick make if you dropped it? How heavy would Shell's seashell motif be in the palm of your hand?
These may seem to be peculiar questions to ask of corporate identity and branding. But not if you're Bill Gardner, logo obsessive and founder of LogoLounge - not by a long shot. Because Gardner is more than just a logo designer and author, he's a curator, archivist, critic and analyst in one. When he holds forth on matters of branding, you should listen. And thousands of us do.
Through LogoLounge and his accompanying series of books, Gardner has become the high priest of logos. His annual trends lists shine a spotlight on the great and the good in the world of branding design, while his own company, Gardner Designs, completes work for some of America's biggest brands.
But it's not just pure design aesthetics that interest Gardner. Through his incisive analysis he weaves a link between social and cultural shifts and traditional design examination. Which is why - on the telephone from his base in Wichita, Kansas, slap-bang in the heart of the American mid west - Gardner is asking me to imagine what the Coca-Cola logo smells like.
Logos look the way they do because of many more factors than just the design process itself, Gardner tells me. Logos have a genetic map, amassed through a mind-boggling array of different factors - from a brand's heritage to the current political climate, through to nationality, history and even the sound of the brand's name. And this all combines to lend a brand specific characteristics - characteristics that all designers can use as building blocks in order to better understand what the logo should naturally look, feel or even smell like.
"Imagine for just a minute the British Telecom logo," says Gardner. "Look at the way the initials are accompanied by what looks like an exploding sphere of colour fragments. Well, the person who created that branding - Miles Newland at Wolff Olins - didn't really create a new BT logo. What he actually did was redefine that particular brand's DNA, because no matter where the BT logo is used, or whatever elements of it are used, you can identify it as the BT logo through its individual elements."
Gardner goes on to explain this theory in more unvarnished terms. "That BT logo has several elements: the initials; the typeface; that particular shade of blue; plus the shapes that make up the exploding sphere and the colours of those shapes. Now, any of those elements can be used, and in fact are used, in any promotional context for BT - so a website can incorporate the same colours or shapes, or the branding on the side of a van can just show those particular shapes in those particular colours - it's still BT branding. And it's still recognisable as such since it conforms to its brand DNA."
A logo's primary use is no longer just on the printed page, Gardner explains. Modern logos need to work in a multitude of situations, and so need to be as easily adaptable as BT's - in order to work in print, online, on the side of a company van or on a mobile phone handset.
But while Gardner identifies the theory and process of winning designs, he doesn't claim to possess a secret formula for great logos. In fact, he's adamant there are no skill sets or knowledge that make for a great logo designer.
"Let me tell you a story," he says. This is a phrase Gardner uses a lot, but one which serves a purpose. The story in question is more than just anecdotal, it's a metaphor for Gardner's expert appreciation of logo design and branding, and goes something like this...
"When I was a college student in the early 80s I called up the great Saul Bass one day and asked if I could pay him a visit," he continues. "So, he kindly agreed to see me, and I sat there in awe of this man, bombarding him with questions on what the secret of design was, what magic formulae he used to create all of his great work. After a while he stopped me mid-flow and yelled 'Bill, there are no secrets! You just got to learn how to do it'."
Gardner laughs deep and hard at the memory, but in a second reels the conversation back on track. "That's my attitude to logo design," he says. "There are no secrets and no tricks - it's about learning how to do it properly."
For Gardner and his team at Gardner Designs, that means research. And lots of it. "I could tell you more about mid-sized, local grocery stores than any supermarket boss," he teases.
Gardner compares his research methods to the rapid-fire questioning of a speed-dating session, aimed at defining the DNA of the brand in question. "We are trying to learn everything we can as quickly and thoroughly as we can," he says. "What's your background, plans for the future, what you're doing now, tell me about your family, where you live, where you work, what's your favourite music, artist, colour, drink. What do you dislike?"
"All of these things tell you something about an individual," Gardner continues. "Clients tell us this is like going to the shrink. It's not far from it, but it will make them give second consideration to information they assume."
The information this process gleans isn't necessarily important to the design process, but it is integral to establishing the DNA of a brand.
Gardner begins another story when I ask how an individual brand's DNA matures into a multiple-brand trend. This time the story is about Enron, the US energy firm that collapsed in 2001 having been exposed as committing deliberate corporate fraud and false accounting.
After the Enron scandal, the word 'transparency' gained popular marketing appeal. Corporations now wanted to be completely transparent; to be open, clear and therefore trustworthy, and it was the unvarnished connotation of the word 'transparency' that exhibited itself directly in logo design.
Almost immediately, an array of rebrands were launched, which shifted corporate branding from the traditional hard, bold colours to more visibly translucent, overlaid blends. In effect, the connotations of the word 'transparency' had manifested themselves in the visual language of corporate branding - both metaphorically and literally.
This neatly surmises Gardner's passion for branding. It's not the logo designs themselves that he finds so fascinating, but the way they work and what it is they say and do.
Tapping back into his theory of branding DNA, Gardner believes that as a trend, transparency came to stand for a new, faster-paced turnover of corporate graphics. This, he argues, is a direct consequence of the digital age - current branding trends are now so fleeting that, in order to remain current, corporations rebrand more often but in ways that bow to current trends, rather than pushing at them.
"It's easy to then say that trends go out because they're dated," he says. "But one of the costs of the internet is that trends within design are becoming more mercurial and changing more quickly."
"Before the internet, it could have taken a year or so before your brand actually travelled the world, and that's on top of the research and design period," says Gardner. "Now we are seeing companies update themselves with such immediacy that trends transfer far more quickly, so the whole longevity of trends - and therefore a brand - has narrowed significantly."
Like much of contemporary design, mainstream, middle-of-the road identity creation is populated by trend-chasing projects. This, argues Gardner, is a direct result of the fleeting nature of the modern industry. But surely a well-produced logo can become a timeless entity? Take Carolyn Davidson's Nike 'swoosh'. The logo still works today, 39 years after its design. But think about its contextual use for a moment, says Gardner:
"It's true that the Nike swoosh has stood the test of time, but when you consider the number of type solutions that have appeared with it over the years, or the number of textures and bevelling and gradations that have been applied to the logo, you can see that it is not an unmodified identity. Just considering the number of dimensional and material variations of the logo as it is applied to shoes alone is mind-boggling."
So does this hint at the nature of the perfect logo - one that can exist and speak for a brand independently of any other context, yet at the same time be pliable enough to adopt important trends as and when they appear?
According to Gardner, the answer to this question is yes and no. He clearly doesn't believe that the perfect logo actually exists. For him, logos are transient - intended for short-term, purposeful use. This is why the notion of trends interests him so deeply.
When pushed to identify the design qualities that a successful logo must demonstrate - regardless of what trend it embodies - Gardner resists an answer, but he does point out that some logos can be granted their endurance through a constant process of adaptation and revision over the years.
"The right blend of timeless simplicity is probably key to the longevity of any design," he reflects. "As a rule, the more wrapped up a design is in tricks and stylistic trappings, the shorter its expiration date will be."
But does Gardner believe such an eagerness to rebrand is sustainable in the current climate? After all, following the deepest recession in living memory, corporations are hardly flush with marketing budget. What's more, the reality of constantly refreshing a brand surely means it loses its heritage and any sense of lineage or development?
"The truth be known, good designers are those who embrace the equity in a good identity they inherit," Gardner admits. "Too often, people believe they must have been hired because they are the Messiah, and thus able to change history and give a completely new face to the industry. This lack of maturity and understanding has killed far too many great identities before their time."
This type of shortsightedness is something Gardner laments. He admits it's the changing landscape of branding that encourages such a fickle attitude to logo design. Yet for him, logo design is much more than mere aesthetics - especially in a contemporary context.
For Gardner, the continuing draw of logos is in the deconstruction of their design: what is this logo trying to say to its audience; does it communicate its message successfully; and how does it manage it? These are the questions Gardner seeks to ask - but not necessarily answer - on the LogoLounge website, and the ones he persists in asking me during our telephone conversation.
So I attempt to answer his question. For my money, the Coca-Cola logo smells of slowly caramelising sugar, while Shell's famous shell is as heavy as a paperweight and just as robust.
"You see," replies Gardner, satisfied. "You have just identified the DNA of those brands and what they mean to you. That's when a logo works."