5 big-brand logos that pass the silhouette test

Stunning Free files every week at istock.com

When it comes to logo design, simple and memorable graphic shapes are often the most effective when it comes to building brand recognition. A great logo will work at all sizes, and will also translate effortlessly into black-and-white for different applications. Logos that rely on their use of colours to make sense, or depend on fine, intricate details, will face problems in certain applications.

One sure-fire way to ensure your logo is fit for purpose is to give it the silhouette test. Convert it to monochrome, and study its outline: is it still instantly recognisable? Read on to be inspired by five big-brand symbols that are defined by their distinctive silhouettes...

01. Apple

Black and white silhouette of Apple's apple logo

Apple's bite mark helps distinguish it as an apple

The much-lauded Apple logo features in more than its fair share of best logo roundups, but it has particular reason to be included here. 

There are many myths about the bite in the eponymous apple, ranging from Eve's transgressions in the Garden of Eden, to Alan Turing's tragic suicide by biting a fruit laced with cyanide. However, designer Rob Janoff admitted to a much more prosaic reason behind the decision.

An apple with a bite out of it – even shown very small – looks like an apple, and not a cherry. That practical decision demonstrates the importance of having a strong, instantly recognisable silhouette. The accompanying myths just add extra layers of meaning, intentional or not.

Following Steve Jobs' death, Hong Kong-based graphic design student Jonathan Mak took the significance of the bite mark to a whole new level, replacing it with a simple silhouette of Jobs' face.

Design student Jonathan Mak modified the silhouette in a touching tribute to Steve Jobs

Design student Jonathan Mak modified the silhouette in a touching tribute to Steve Jobs

The sombre tribute touched a nerve with Apple's fanbase, and the image went viral globally. Mak was inundated with thousands of messages about his design, and the iconic status of the bite mark was further cemented in public consciousness.

02. Twitter

Twitter's 2012 rebrand pared back the once messy silhouette to a clean geometric icon

Twitter's 2012 rebrand pared back the once messy silhouette to a clean geometric icon

When West was brought on board to help rebrand Twitter back in 2012, much of the focus was placed on how the icon was created. The team even followed the growing trend for using visible construction lines to explain the building blocks of the logo.

Ultimately, the once fairly detailed bird – which in 2006 was depicted sitting on a perch and looking to the left, and later evolved into a more characterful bird in flight, complete with fluffy quiff – was pared right back to a clean, satisfyingly geometric silhouette. In short, it felt like Twitter had grown up.

According to Twitter, the new logo is born from a "love for ornithology, design within creative constraints, and simple geometry". The above video demonstrates how three sets of overlapping circles – representative of how social networks, interests and ideas intersect in your Twitter feed – define the shape of the bird.

03. Playboy

Unchanged since the 1950s, the infamous Playboy Bunny captures the brand's jaunty personality

Unchanged since the 1950s, the infamous Playboy Bunny captures the brand's jaunty personality

Originally designed by Art Paul, Playboy's cheeky, tongue-in-cheek emblem knowingly plays on the humorous sexual connotations of rabbits, without descending into smut or seediness.

Introduced for the second issue of the magazine in 1953, the now infamous Playboy Bunny has stayed a constant through decades of increasingly liberal approaches to sexuality, as well as the proliferation of pornography – testament to the timelessness of its design.

Its crisp silhouette, with the circular eye punched out of the outline of the rabbit's face, and the bow tie defined with minimal linework, works effectively in monochrome – a palette designed to evoke luxury, professionalism and class.

Whatever your take on the Playboy brand and its place in the modern world, no one can deny the effectiveness of the stylised bunny silhouette that's come to define it.

04. Nike

Nike's Swoosh is one of the most instantly recognisable silhouettes in the world of logo design

Nike's Swoosh is one of the most instantly recognisable silhouettes in the world of logo design

Another familiar sight on best-ever logos lists, the Nike Swoosh was famously created by design student Carolyn Davidson for the princely sum of $35.

Its simplicity makes its silhouette even more compelling, and like Apple, it is regularly seen in both black and white versions without an accompanying wordmark. The Swoosh must function at all manner of scales and types of application, from tiny on a sponsorship document, to an embroidered logo on a piece of clothing, to huge on a billboard.

While it is widely assumed to be a 'tick', the original inspiration for the Swoosh was in fact the silhouette of a wing – a reference to Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Regardless of its origins, however, the fact remains that a simple yet ownable shape like this will pass the silhouette test every time.

05. WWF

The legibility of WWF's panda suffers when the colours are reversed

The legibility of WWF's panda suffers when the colours are reversed

Our fifth example, World Wildlife Federation, is rather an anomaly on this list, as it shows the limitations of using black and white to represent the actual colours of the thing being depicted, rather than just a relatively abstract shape.

WWF makes clever use of negative space in its famous panda emblem, the black silhouette neatly defining the shape of the face without the need for a hard outline. But when the colours are reversed, while recognisable, the negative image loses the essence of 'panda'.

Situations like this need to be addressed in brand usage guidelines, to make sure the logo is correctly presented.

Grey London changed the panda to a polar bear to raise awareness of climate change

Grey London changed the panda to a polar bear to raise awareness of climate change

Back in 2016, Grey London took it upon itself to reinterpret the much-loved WWF emblem. As part of a campaign to raise awareness of climate change, the agency replaced the panda with its considerably more-endangered counterpart, the polar bear.

Using the same basic principle of the black areas defining the white, Grey stripped it right back to an eyes, nose and mouth, so the outline of the bear fades into nothingness, to represent its decline towards extinction.

As part of the campaign, Grey offered the reworked logo to WWF to use for free – but the offer was never taken up. Like the original logo, however, the clever concept had its limitations and the idea falls apart when the colours are reversed.

Read more: