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Logo design: 15 golden rules for crafting logos

Logo Design - A drawing of the Apple logo being compared to the Fibonacci sequence.
(Image credit: QWE Art/Arthur Geometry/Future)

Logo design involves a great deal of knowledge, skill and experience. There are a lot of questions to think about, and they can become overwhelming. If you're creating a new logo design from scratch, how do you represent the brand, product or person's character? If you updating a logo for an existing brand, do you need to change the direction to make a statement or should you make minor tweaks to the current logo to avoid alienating customers?

With such big questions, it can be hard to know where to start. To help out, we've devised 15 golden rules for logo design. This handy list of top tips will focus on both the logo design process and how to implement your design as part of a wider brand strategy. 

When the right logo is aligned with an excellent product, it can eventually become a priceless asset. The Nike swoosh, McDonald’s golden arches, the Michelin man, Mercedes’ three-pointed star, the Woolmark symbol – these are just a few of the most high-profile examples. How do you give a logo the best possible chance of reaching a similar status? Well, there are universal traits shared by every successful logo design.

Read on to learn why designer David Airey thinks logo design is so important and his 10 rules for the perfect logo. We'll also hear Nick Carson's top tips for implementing your design. If you want help, take a look at our guide to logo design inspiration, our roundup of the best 3-letter logos ever made and our 11 steps to create better logos.

Why is logo design important?

Logos are important as they're often the first piece of branding that potential customers see, and the one that stays with them – or not. A logo tells the customer a lot of information about a brand, and if consumers connect with it, they're likely to feel more inclined to invest their time or money in the company or product. 

A logo is far from being the only element in successful branding, but it's one that's essential to get right since it's often at the centre of any brand strategy. While most designers can create a decent logo, it takes a good mix of design skills, creative theory and skilful application to execute a logo design that's really memorable, unique and appealing (take a look at our selection of the best logos for examples).

The golden rules of logo design

There are often hundreds or thousands of brands competing for our attention, and this means they need to differentiate themselves visually to avoid being confused. Differentiation is achieved through brand identity design – a range of elements that work together to form a distinctive picture in our minds. This can include uniforms, vehicle graphics, business cards, product packaging, photographic style, coffee mugs, billboard advertising, and a raft of other items, right down to the font choice on the website. 

When you think of a person who’s made an impact on your life, you can almost certainly picture what they look like. The same applies with brands. A logo acts as a face that people can connect with and remember. The aim of logo design should be to create something that people can easily picture when they think about their experiences with a product, company or service.

When we look at something, we don’t read first. Before anything else we see shape, we see colour, and if that’s enough to hold our attention, then we’ll read

David Airey

It’s important to remember that when we look at something, before reading we see shape and colour. Only if that’s enough to hold our attention do we read. The job of designers is to distil the essence of a brand into the shape and colour that’s most likely to endure. Below are designer David Airey's 10 golden rules of logo design.

01. Lay the groundwork

Logo design: lay the groundwork

Logos like those of Mercedes and Woolmark have become priceless assets for their companies

One of the most interesting parts of being a designer is that you get to learn new things with each new project. Every client is different, and even in the same profession, people do their jobs in different ways. 

To make it easier to gain a consensus on your logo design, you need to ask your client the right questions from the outset: Why are you here? What do you do, and how do you do it? What makes you different? Who are you here for? What do you value the most? 

These questions might seem straightforward, but they can be challenging to answer, and they’ll lead to further questions about your clients’ businesses. What you discover in this phase of a logo design project will help to determine the strongest possible design direction.

02. Treasure your sketchpad

Logo design: Treasure your sketchpad

Sketches of Firefox mascots by Martijn Rijven, who was commissioned by Wolff Olins

Using a sketchpad offers a chance for you to rest your eyes from the glare of brightly lit pixels, but more importantly, recording different design ideas can be much quicker when there isn’t a digital device in the way. If you wake up in the night with an idea you don’t want to lose, the pen and paper by your bed is the ideal way to remember. Sketching also makes it easier to put shapes exactly where you want them – there will always be time to digitise your marks later (see these sketching tips for more sketching advice).

When you’re describing design ideas to clients prior to digitising a mark, it can be helpful to share a sketch or two. This can make it easier for them to visualise the outcome without the distraction of typefaces and colours. Don’t share too much; only the best ideas.

03. Work in black and white

Logo design: Work in black and white

The inner detail of the Apple logo has changed over the years, but the silhouette remains

Leaving colour until near the end of the process helps you focus your attention on the basics of the idea rather than an element that’s far easier to change. A poor idea can’t be rescued by an interesting palette, but a good idea will still be good irrespective of colour. Picture any well-known symbol, and chances are it’s the form you remember before the palette. It’s the lines, the shapes, the idea, whether that’s the bite from an apple, three parallel stripes, four linked circles in a horizontal line, or anything else.

04. Keep it appropriate

logo design: V&A

Pentagram founder Alan Fletcher created the V&A logo in 1989 (Image credit: V&A)

A logo design must be relevant for the ideas and activities it represents. An elegant typeface will suit a high-end restaurant more than a children’s nursery. A palette of fluorescent pink and yellow isn’t going to help your message engage with male pensioners.

Crafting a mark that bears some resemblance to a swastika, regardless of industry, isn’t going to work. You know these things. They’re obvious. But it goes a little deeper than this. The more appropriate your rationale behind a particular design, the easier it becomes to sell the idea to a client – and that can be the most challenging part of a project. Designers don’t just design. They sell, too.

05. Aim for easy recall

logo design: Deutsche bank logo

The 1974 Deutsche bank logo by Anton Stankowski (Image credit: Deutsche Bank)

Simplicity aids recognition, especially when there are so many brands are competing for our attention. You want to give onlookers the opportunity to recall a mark after as little as a quick glance, and that’s not possible with an overly detailed design. A trademark has to be focused on concept – it needs to have a single ‘story’. In most cases that means it should have an uncomplicated form because it needs to work at different sizes and in a range of applications, from a website icon in a browser bar to signage on a building.

06. Strive for difference

Logo design: Strive for difference

The 1999 Tate logo by Wolff Olins united the Tate’s four galleries across the UK

If a brand's competitors are all using a particular typographic style, the same kind of palette, or a symbol placed to the left of the brand name, do something different. It's the perfect opportunity to set your clients apart rather than have them blend in. 

So much similarity in the marketplace doesn’t necessarily mean your job has become easier, though. It often takes a brave client to buck the trend they're seeing around them. However, showing imagination in your design portfolio is one good way to attract the kind of client you want.

07. Consider the broader identity

Logo design: Consider the broader identity

Wolff Olins created a new typeface for Macmillan cancer support in 2006; part of a wider repositioning

We don't often see a logo in complete isolation without the context of a website, a poster, or business card an app icon, for example. This means that a client presentation should include relevant touchpoints to show how the logo appears when seen by potential customers. It’s a little like when you’re stuck in a rut – it can help to step back, to look at the bigger picture, to see where you are and what you’re surrounded by. 

In design terms, the bigger picture is every potential item on which a client logo might appear. Always consider how the identity works when the logo isn’t shown as well, because while it's hugely important, a symbol can only take an identity so far. One way to achieve cohesive visuals is to craft a bespoke typeface that’s not only used in the logo but also appears in marketing headlines.

08. Don’t be too literal 

Logo design: Don't be too literal

The logos for Penguin and Shell don't give any clues as to the types of company they represent

A logo doesn’t have to show what the company does; in fact, it’s often better if it doesn’t. That's because the more abstract the mark, the more enduring it can become. Historically you’d show your factory, or maybe a heraldic crest if it was a family-run business, but symbols don’t show what you do. Instead, they make it clear who you are. The meaning in the eyes of the public gets added afterwards, when associations can be formed between what the company does and the shape and colour of its mark.

09. Remember symbols aren’t essential

Logo design: Symbols are not essential

Johnson Banks’ 2004 wordmark for shelter with its pitched roof ‘h’ helped reposition the housing charity (though it has recently had a redesign)

It doesn't always need to be a symbol. Often a bespoke wordmark will do the job, especially when the company name is unique – just think of Google, Mobil, or Pirelli. But a version of the logo that works in small spaces will always help, so variations may be needed. That might be as simple as lifting a letter from the name and using the same colour, or it might incorporate a symbol that can be used as a secondary design element (wordmark first, symbol second) instead of as a logo lockup where both pieces are shown alongside one another.

Don’t be tempted to overdo the amount of design flair just because the focus is on the letters. Legibility is key with any wordmark, and your presentations should demonstrate how your designs work at all sizes, large and small.

10. Make people smile

Logo design: Make people smile

Designed in 2000, turner Duckworth’s wordmark for Amazon adds wit with a hidden smile that goes from A-Z

Injecting some wit into your logo design not only makes your job more fun, but it can help your client to become more successful, too. It's not appropriate for every profession – weapons manufacturers and tobacco firms, for example, but whether you choose to work with those companies is another thing. The somewhat less contentious law and financial sectors are filled with companies identified by stuffy and sterile branding, so putting some humour into such clients' identities can help set them apart. 

There’s a balance to be achieved, though. Take it too far and you risk alienating potential customers. However, regardless of the company, people do business with people, so a human, emotional side to your work will always have a level of relevance.  

Got a logo design? Here's how to use it

Logos don’t exist in isolation: they need to be applied. Once you’ve perfected your logo design, the final stage is to bring it to life as part of a wider branding scheme. In this section, Nick Carson provides five logo design tips to help you get this important final stage right.

11. Always get a second opinion

Logo design: Brazilian Institute of Oriental Studies

Logo for the Brazilian Institute of Oriental Studies. Presented without comment

Don’t underestimate the value of a second (or third) pair of eyes to identify things that you might have missed during the design stage. Once you’ve worked up your logo design concept, always make the time to sense-check it for unforeseen cultural misunderstandings, innuendos, unfortunate shapes and hidden words and meanings (see our logo design fails for more examples).

Many design studios advocate pinning work-in-progress up on the walls to enable constant peer review. If you’re a lone freelancer, try to find some trusted peers to cast an eye over your work – and return the favour, of course.

12. Develop the rest of the brand world 

A logo design is just one small component of a branding scheme and should be developed in tandem with other activation points as part of a wider ‘brand world’. This term is integral to the branding process at London agency SomeOne. And as co-founder Simon Manchipp sets out in the video interview with Computer Arts magazine above, it’s much better to achieve coherence between different elements than simply consistency. 

“Consistency is solitary confinement – the same thing every day,” he laments. “Cohesive is different: a more flexible, smarter way of doing things.”

13. Consider how to bring your logo design alive

In the modern branding marketplace, a static logo that sits quietly in the corner of a finished piece of design work is often no longer enough. Think about how your logo design could come alive in motion for digital applications, and collaborate with animation or motion graphics specialists if necessary to explore its potential.

Here are a couple of examples of logos brought to life through animation: firstly, Function Engineering by Sagmeister & Walsh, which adds a playful, Meccano-like twist to the mark. Note that Sagmeister & Walsh is no more, see our story on Jessica Walsh's studio &Walsh.

And secondly, this logo design for the University of the Arts Helsinki by Bond, bends, twists and distorts to enhance the dynamic, modern feel of the type-led logo.

Logo design: UAH

University of the Arts Helsinki's animated logo twists and jumps

As VR trends continue to evolve, more advanced immersive brand experiences are becoming increasingly accessible, and in recent years branding agencies have also explored the potential in generative design and user participation to introduce a much more dynamic, unpredictable component to logo design. This is not always possible, of course, but keep an open mind and experiment with new techniques when you can. 

14. Help your client roll out your logo design

Brand usage guides should be thorough, covering everything from colour options, to the minimum and maximum sizes at which logo designs should be used, positioning rules, spacing – including exclusion zones from other design elements – and any definite no-nos, such as stretching or distorting. See our favourite style guides to see how it's done.  Some agencies swear by style guides to ensure a smooth, consistent handover to a client’s in-house team, but note that others feel they can be overly restrictive and prescriptive.

15. Deal with public criticism

Logo design: Premier League

Like Airbnb the previous year, DesignStudio’s high-profile rebrand of Premier League attracted more than its fair share of criticism from traditionalist football fans

In these times of social media, every man and his dog has an opinion about design. Criticism of a logo design is therefore no longer an occasional annoyance; it's become something that anyone working on a relatively high-profile rebranding exercise should be ready for.

As we’ve set out above, a great branding scheme is about much more than just a logo design, but on platforms such as Twitter, when a newly released project is often encapsulated by a single image, this is often the first and only thing the public jumps upon. 

London-based DesignStudio has experienced this backlash several times, first with Airbnb and more recently with the Premier League – it explains how it deals with social media criticism in the video clip above.

Logo design: Mozilla

Johnson Banks’ open-source Mozilla rebrand whittled down various creative routes in the public eye, taking feedback on board

Johnson Banks embraced the growing interest in design, and harnessed it during the design process itself in a hugely ambitious, fully open-source rebrand of Mozilla – involving the public at key stages of the process and enabling them to steer the creative routes chosen. Firefox also took a similar route in 2018, and asked the public to help pick its new logo

Be thick-skinned: take valuable feedback on board, and let the rest wash over you.

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