The world of logo design has never been so fast-paced. In the last five years the well-worn conventions have been shattered, initially by pioneering designers striving to smash the rules to create new and exciting logos, and then by companies tapping into these trends to give themselves the kind of kudos that comes with emerging street styles.
But that's not to say contemporary logo design is solely about the new. More and more clients are demanding a blend of tradition and innovation, assimilating their brand heritage with fresh visual styles. Three-dimensional branding, animated logos and interactive media are today's billboards, where a logo needs to be as striking as possible to survive.
The cross-media challenge
The logo design gamut covers everything from corporate designs and fresh street styles, through to heritage brands and sticker bombing. Unlike the creators of classic logos such as Bass beer, Shell and Coca-Cola, today's designers need to strike out and create something utterly unique, and critically, something that can be viewed online as easily as on a billboard, in a supermarket aisle or on a letterhead.
More importantly, logo design also acts as a style barometer. According to Robert Klanten, founder and publisher of Die Gestalten Verlag and author of three volumes of contemporary logo design annuals, designers can use logos to test a specific style or theme before it hits the mainstream public domain.
"Logo design is kind of a hotbed for future visual trends," he contests. "Many of today's successful brands do not have factories and their logos are not a part of a traditional manufacturing process, nor do they symbolise this process. Citron is a good example, where the stacked chevrons of the logo stand for a specific type of cogwheel, or take BMW, where the logo represents an airplane propeller seen from the front. This kind of logo design is not common practice any more."
Instead, Klanten argues, brands like MySpace, Facebook and Google are virtual, and therefore their designs fulfil different needs. Whereas logos used to express what a company was, now they need to express an emotional quality, whereby the logo becomes the face of a brand.
What this emotional connection enables, Klanten argues, is a breakdown in our perception of what a company logo stands for. While violating an established logo was once deemed commercial suicide, the fact that the consumer attachment is now placed on the idea of the brand and not just the visual identity liberates designers to toy with existing logos in new and far more exciting ways.
"An established brand doesn't need any sub-brands like an action brand or a campaign brand," says Klanten. "Brands like adidas or MTV are almost neutral; their identity is almost virtual. But what they do is change their clothes very rapidly. There is a more fragmented approach when addressing specific groups via very special campaigns like adidas did with Missy Elliott for their Classic line, or with their Y-3 Yamamoto line for high fashion. So you can't speak of one brand but of various different brands with different needs and one logo."
A recent example is Adobe's rebranding of its Photoshop line-up. While the icon that sits in your dock hasn't changed, the Photoshop family has undergone a total facelift. This wasn't merely cosmetic, though - it was aimed at bringing the entire line of Photoshop products under one visual umbrella.
Similarly, look at the furore that greeted Wolff Olins' logo for the London 2012 Olympics. While some criticism was aimed at the abstract, pink shaping of the logo alone, much of the indignation voiced by the UK's media was because it broke with the Olympic heritage. Part of the perceived problem was that it refused to look like a traditional Olympic logo - and the overarching legacy of the historic games is more powerful than any individual Olympics.
Once a clear visual identity has been established, the power of a logo and its parent branding moves out of the realm of pure graphic design. A good designer must realise this and think about how the logo will work to establish a uniformity to the brand. That's according to Erin Ferree, author of several books and articles for design journals on the marketing power of logos and branding.
"Bigger brands have the advantages of big budgets, more advertising impact and strong name recognition," she explains. "Look at Nike and Starbucks, who often change the look and feel of their advertising campaigns. They've built up brand recognition and awareness based on their company name - so consistency from campaign to campaign is less important. But for a small business with a limited budget and outreach, consistency is hugely important - and every piece of the marketing should build off each other."
The same stands for effective rebranding. While large, established corporations can reinvent themselves without diluting the central brand, for smaller brands a clear, recognisable logo is the foundation of consistency. What we see, then, are larger brands being more radical in comparison with the smaller brands, which take their existing colours, shapes and patterns and update them without sacrificing the essence of their identity in order to maintain recognition.
This is a view expressed by Toko, the Australia-based Dutch design team responsible for some of the most cutting-edge rebrands of recent years. While their initial street style brought them to the attention of the underground design community, it also meant they were in demand from some of the world's biggest brands, keen to tap into their distinct graphical style.
"Logos and identities are abstract elements - minus any context they are simply meaningless," says Michael Lugmayr, one of Toko's founders who has worked on rebrands for the likes of MTV, Orange, Heineken and EMI Records.
"Attached to the right brand, a spin-off logo can make a massive difference. The core logo isn't that important any more; it's up to the broader identity and attached emotions to create a strong brand. Look at Apple for example, or Nike. Neither has any real need for a logo any more - it's primarily about image and emotions, which is something we strongly believe in and use in our design approach. We recently did a rebrand for the Dutch theatre company Het Zuidelijk and totally dismissed the logo. Type, colour and style became the driving force behind this non-identity."
The internet has had an enormous influence on logo design. Its immediacy and ubiquity in our everyday lives have created a condition where every site - be it a blog or massive online community - requires a visual identity. Furthermore the shift from a CMYK-printed world to an RGB-oriented environment has freed logo designers to experiment with more vivid colour at no extra expense. While the cost of four-colour printing used to confine designers to simple, hard-edged, two-colour symbols, the internet has liberated designers and enabled them to cast aside convention.
The transparent trend
"No trend has had as much influence over the past five years as transparency within identity," says Bill Gardner of Gardner Design and the patron of LogoLounge.com, the internet's largest logo community where up to 60,000 logos can be viewed.
"The MSN butterfly is an example, albeit a very juvenile one," he adds. "It was a logo that worked with transparency that crossed colours. What we then started to see was some simple play around the idea of transparency within a logo.
"Five years ago transparency was a trend in its own right. Now at LogoLounge we've had to break transparency up into sub-categories because we're seeing a maturity of the style. It's a situation where some transparencies are hard-edged, almost as if they've had lighting gels applied to them, whereas some are more translucent with soft, blurred edges."
As the co-author of a series of LogoLounge books for Rockport Press, Gardner also produces a selection of essays that pinpoint yearly logo trends. While 3D, faux-motion, translucent and mirror effects have come to epitomise the 'web 2.0' trend, in recent years he has identified a further shift in logo design, facilitated by the new media that have become available to brands and designers alike.
"Logos are taking on a much more 3D-like quality," he says. "Not only that, but there are instances where you're starting to find some corporations and identities that are primarily being conceived as moving logos, with the application of these identities as a still snapshot becoming secondary.
"There are only certain brands to which this applies - not everyone's rushing out and doing it - but it's the brands to whom these new markets are key that are taking fullest advantage. These brands need to live primarily in an environment where the animated logo can exist; take for example Moving Brands in the UK, which does a lot of animated logo design for companies who primarily exist in a medium where animation and 3D can be exploited."
However, while there is a definite shift to animated branding, Gardner warns that the environment dictates whether such logos will translate successfully to the animated world. TV, online and mobile devices may be fine locales for such branding, but if it must translate to the static world then it can lose its impact and the power of recognition: "Non-motion fields are as much of a challenge to designers as the internet was a decade ago," he warns.
Regardless of trends, the core rules of logo design still apply. Gardner cites these as form, colour and pattern, with simplicity being the key to any successful logo: "Good designers know when they've hit on a solution that works on all of these points - when you design a plane, do you need to build it to know that it's going to fly? Of course not - that's because the designers are experts in their field and know their trade intimately."
More importantly, Gardner says that in this fast-paced sub-sector of design, the core responsibilities of the designer are changing, with the role shifting to incorporate that of the identity specialist. The key is to look at how and where the logo will be used and to create an identity that spans a myriad of applications.
"The environment has become as important as the logo itself," he says. "For contemporary logo design, the medium is absolutely imperative."