Logos: the fossil fuel of design?

coal truck license plate

Earlier today I received a comment on one of my blog posts that got me thinking. It was from Douglas Bonneville, and he said:

“I’ve seen quite a few takes on the Families logo. When I see something this simple, I always wonder 1) how no one saw it before and 2) if we are going to run out of obvious icons buried inside of words in the next few years.

“Is good logo design a bit like peak oil? How much more can we continue before we run out and all revert to simply using Courier for everything?”

And I thought, with iconic identities having a memorable, simple, adaptable shape, won’t there come a time when every supposedly “new” idea has been exhausted in some previous incarnation? Or indeed, has this time already come and gone?

It’s just one of the challenges we face in identity design — to move projects in new directions, and to not settle for what’s “cool” in this fledgling profession of ours.

License plate photo courtesy of sixes & sevens

36 responses

  1. I’ve thought the SAME thing for years. I mean, I always thought there are much more designers now then many yrs ago, all coming up with brilliant ideas every day. Eventually, we’re gonna exhaust our creativity. I’m scared.
    They say “there’s nothing new under the sun.” With each passing day, that becomes increasingly true.

    I think the same thing about songwriters. How many times can they write songs about love and make it sound different?

  2. I remember this coming up at college nearly 20 years ago.

    Nearly every idea has been done once before. They get done in different ways. Lots of logo’s look similar. Just look at those Japanese logo books you used to get. Pages of marques all looking the same. When something has been forgotten it will come back. Fashion recycles things all the time.

    Logo’s are like words. In the right hands you can turn them in to concise pieces of communication or works of art. They can emote love, anger and hate. They can infuriate, they can make you smile. There are billions of possible combinations.

  3. Nothing to be scared about, Kervin. I’m with Neil and Lee (thanks for the comments, guys). We’re all creative, and there are billions of combinations with which to form these little marks of identity.

    Just like those Japanese logo books Lee mentions, we’ll get the cheesy pop “bands” regurgitating the same old love songs. But we also get the the likes of Bob Marley, Queen, and Michael Jackson (scratch that) Beethoven, Matthew Herbert, St Germain.

  4. I would factor into all this the exponential growth of media in the last century. There will be no shortage of design ideas, but they will most certainly be harder to distinguish from one another. How many types of inksplats can you make look different? The number would be inexhaustible. But look how complex they are. Now take a sharpie marker on poke one dot on a paper. Much simpler, but from designer to designer there would be little differentiation (assume we are all using the same sharpie and same kind of paper). There is always room at the top or originality, it’s just that the climb up there gets higher and higher. Just look at the blogosphere for a second!

    P.S. Does anyone say blogosphere anymore? Or has that term “peaked” as well? :)

    Excellent discussion David. Always interesting…

  5. By the way, I did an article on great design books for a penny a few weeks back. I got a bunch of Print and Typography volumes for nothing. These were like $50 books, now just a few bucks with shipping. I was amazed at how undated, and fresh, many of the ideas from…1985…were. I’d lose the primary colors used in some of them, tweak a few things, and have some really fresh designs and logo concepts. I’m going to go back and get some of the “more expensive” books for a dollar or so and see what else I can turn up that’s “original”. Lot’s of good stuff, but it’s truly all been done before.

    I never tire of creativity and cleverness, and am always on the lookout for it, but truly it’s something rare. Mediocrity in design is a fiscal reality – not every logo or layout should be or needs to be worthy of the Sistine Chapel. Run-of-the-mill pays the bills because that is what most businesses need and can afford. And if everyone was a genius, then none of us would be and we’d have to start all over again :)

  6. Good question, Lee. I scratched that, and added a bit more personal flavour to the comment. At first I went for popularity, but in design terms it’s not popularity that counts. Curious, who would you swap choose?

    Doug, yep, I’d say that term has peaked. :) And I’ll have to go back and look for your “design books for a penny” post (subscribing while I’m at it). Feel free to link it up here if you like.

  7. I think that technology will have a dramatic impact on how logos are designed. For example, the first “proper” 3D camera has been released commercially in Japan. How much longer will it be before 3D becomes the norm? 3D TV’s are on the horizon, and probably 3D computer displays to follow.

    Where does this leave logo design? Well, it may be that companies will require 3D and more animated logos in the future. If anyone’s seen Minority Report (Tom Cruise), did you notice the newspapers with animated adds running? Well, this OED technology is already here. The normal 2D logo will always be required, but I think that logos that are animated and in 2D or even holographic formats will become commonplace as technologies develop.

    Technology has already shaped logo design in the last 10 years, just look at the emergence of the web 2.0 style for example. So, to conclude this long-winded comment, what I’m trying to say is that logo design concepts won’t run-dry, as emerging technologies will undoubtingly influence the way they are conceptualised.

  8. Here is my original article with a few books for budding designers, but also more experienced if you are looking for some help with legal forms, etc…


    The color combinations books listed have been constant sources of inspiration in the sense that when I pick up a book off the shelf, it gets my mind out of a rut. Or it gives me a fresh idea where the book might be a touch dated. For instance, under “sporty” for one of the color moods, there is a dated “purple green” combo that was the color of every other women’s sporting bad and trainer pants / jacket combo for the entire decade of the 90’s. But, the pairing of purple and green is valid – the hues just need changing. As long as the earth produces eggplants, purple and green in one hue or another will always “work”.

  9. Right, I have also struggled with this idea for a while.

    But design is not an exhaustible resource – if someone made a great design, it doesn’t mean they took away an opportunity for you to make one as well. Even if it is an icon for the same word.

    Also, I believe it’s not just the logo that matters – it’s also the context (and the medium), and that is continually changing in ways we cannot predict.

  10. “2D or even holographic formats will become commonplace…”

    And I propose the new workflow for logo design a la 2019 AD.

    Step 1: Sketch logo concept
    Step 2: Get modeling clay
    Step 3: Place model on 3D Scanner
    Step 4: Clean up lines in Illustrator CS5 3D
    Step 5: Review with client in 3D PDF on my new iMac 96′ 3D (the brushed carbon fiber model of course)
    Step 6: Use 3D print service to print / deliver 3D foam model for final sign-off
    Step 7: Render final art in Illustrator
    Step 8: Bill client for $194,000 plus materials


  11. I think there are as many ideas as there are people. And as people will keep multiplying so will ideas. I think the main concern with most people is originality. I believe that originality is nearly impossible to achieve, and any effort to achieve it is pointless. Everything is always gonna be similar to something. But distinctiveness, on the other hand, is what we should aim for. All human beings are similar, but each one is distinctive. The same logic applies to design I believe.

  12. $194,000? By then the client will probably want all that for the free pitch!

    Then he will get kinkopentagramprint down on the street corner to artwork it and pay the designer nothing.

  13. I think we’ve been copying each other unknowingly for a long, long time.

    The only difference from before and today is that globalization and the advent of the internet makes it easy for us to see each other’s works and realize that yeah, we’re all pathetically unoriginal.

    But that doesn’t mean we can’t be good. :)

  14. Absolute rubbish. In 1899 the head of the US Patent office resigned because he believed everything that could be invented already had been. Fool. The problem is people think of creativity as instantaneous and huge leaps. That is not how it works! Creativity is very much evolution. Slow. The difference in creative trends from last year to this year won’t show much, but the difference in creative trends ten years apart, twenty years apart, fifty, a hundred, etc. Now you see creativity. Sure there will be some ‘freaks of nature’ that do a sudden jump ahead. A mutation. Hopefully people will see those great leaps as inspiration; that anything is possicle. Not, as some here would say, an example of something they didn’t think of, so why even try?

  15. Holograms and the wonders of 3D, you say? I also think 2D design will remain just as important as it is now, and that too many applications call for its use for it not to. Have you seen a 3D camera, Andrew? All it takes is the workings of a sewing machine to captivate me, so best to save the animated GIF for now. ;)

    Purple and green shell suits. I just shivered. Your Amazon link makes a nice change from the book I just bought, Doug: 13 steps to mentalism. My little sister gives Derren Brown far too much respect.

    “Absolute rubbish.” I guess that was aimed at my music selection, Trish?

    Thanks for weighing in Mich, Daniel, Dwight.

  16. The cover of “13 Steps to Mentalism” is priceless at any price. Look at them eyeballs! I gotta get that book and amaze my friends. The illustration is a pen and ink masterpiece of mesmerism.

    Know what? If you keep clicking that animated sewing machine gif a few screens and scroll down, guess what you find?


    When you get those 13 steps down you can start on your next gig.

    “Absolute rubbish”, I think, was aimed at all the copy-cat logos on the market lately because all the good ones are used up, I think.

  17. I’d like to be optimistic and say that new ideas are just out there, waiting to be found.
    But, my artistic glass is half-empty and discolored. I think we have already hit our peak of no idea is new. We are all just re-inventing the wheel. Some with flair, others with the same rubber. And the thought of a symbolic or abstract logo in today’s world? No, apparently all logos need text to accompany them, or are apparently text in and of themselves.
    This may be not really is happening, but it’s just what I see.

  18. Thought provoking article David! Whenever I start researching to design a identity/logo this is something that ALWAYS comes into my mind. With logo’s playing such a huge part in a businesses branding (and often success) you’d think there would be some organisation to regulate logo design – making sure the same thing isn’t being done over and over again.

    There’s nothing worse than seeing VERY similar logo designs, and poor quality logo designs. I believe this is why clients SHOULD hire experienced, professional designers like yourself who can make their branding unique and successful.

    Browsing through your portfolio, any designer should recognize that you deserve the recognition you have gained on the Internet.

  19. sorry David, the absolute rubbish comment was aimed at people who see the ‘artistic glass’ as half empty. that there is nothing new under the sun. (Sorry Sam, had to use it.) of course there is! who would have thought centuries ago that that first metal, horse drawn plow would end up the sophisticated machine it is today? shoot go back further to a pointy stick to break up the earth. yeah, I guess you could say the wheel was ‘reinvented’, but do you really want to go back to the simple horse drawn plow now? especially with what we know now? you really don’t see the creativity and artistry in the plow even though the basic application has remained the same? you can’t see how this example applies to everything ever invented, created or imagined? you can’t hear the difference between music today and music of 100 years ago? for every major technological advancement (hugely creative in and of itself!) there are new things to be learned and invented to go along with them.

    so maybe you won’t be the one who makes the next big inventive leap. so what. contribute your talent to what is and you’ll be part of the evolution of creativity. I know, everyone wants to be the lead, not the supporting player, but unfortunately there are more supporting player positions open. wouldn’t you rather be a supporting player, part of the whole, than nothing at all?

  20. simply, i equate this argument to that which relates to music:

    every note combination has been played before, in the centuries of ‘modern’ music.

    yet are we running out of songs and combinations of chords or notes or lyrics?

    with all the advances of technology for presentation (comparable to tone and timber in music) totally aside, i still don’t think we have anything to worry about.

  21. It is a proven fact that most of the top 40 hits of the last 50 years share common chord structures and melody constructs. Most rock songs use 5 chords or less too. Thousands upon thousands only use 3! There is a software company that has analyzed top 40 songs and discovered there is a structural, but not necessarily sound-textural commonality to all hits. The casual listener might not hear this, but it comes down to math and ratios that are pleasing. While we may well have endless new ideas, the new ideas *that actually work* all have certain shared attributes. When we learn those attributes and work within them, we can be successful. It’s exceedingly rare, if ever really at all, to truly “innovate”. A wheel is a wheel is a wheel no matter if a Model T or a Tesla is rolling down the road on 4 of them.

    For all you musicians out there, it’s interesting to compare the basic chord progression of Chopsticks, Pachabel’s Canon, and U2’s With or Without You, or Bush’s (yea, lame) Glycerine, or U2’s “Original of the Species”, so notice they all have exactly the same 4 chord progression at the heart of their structure.

    I wonder if we could analyze the “top 50 logos” of all time and find structural commonalities that both meet the eye and find some that aren’t so obvious (like overall percentage of negative space, consensus on color, etc).

  22. When Andrew says 3D logos, does he mean a logo created with 3D software or achieving that same effect within 2D? I don’t think technology is neither a good or bad thing for design. Back in the day, all logos were created by hand and most of them were by fairly good artists (I think so at least). Nowadays, you don’t really need to know how to draw in order to create a logo, is that the difference between art and design?

  23. As it says in the Bible:

    Ecclesiastes 1:9
    What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

    I don’t believe there are any absolute new concepts. We may draw inspiration from the strangest places and our train of thoughts are always different from every other individual but the end product is still only limited to the creative’s imagination, and I guess because it’s all human imagination and our brains all work in the same way it’ll always be the same imagination. Get me?

    So no, good logo design is not like fossil fuel which will run out one day. Good logo design is recyclable – like Aluminum I guess, the only 100% recyclable material.


  24. An interesting discussion. My instinctive belief is that there is no end in sight for excellent logo creation although people have been making valid comments about our propensity to copy and imitate. It’s interesting that people are talking a lot about music and maybe it’s because popular music just recently seems only capable of endless regurgitation. I also sometimes think that the noughties have been particularly lacking in creative trends in music in particular and in popular culture in general. Or maybe I’m just getting old.

  25. I’ve thought the same a few times, but incredibly creative, yet simple logos continue to pop up.

    The same issue comes up in regards to new inventions. You see some things come out and you wonder, “How has no one thought of that before?” One answer can be technology, but that isn’t always the case.

    I don’t think the ideas are going to run short anytime soon, even in any of our lifetimes. Different trends will arise and those trends will in turn effect the logos we design.


  26. Impossible. A “new” idea is simply a combination of two (or more) old ideas. So actually the more ideas out there the more possibilities there become, not the other way around. It’s like saying “there are only 26 letters in the alphabet so won’t we eventually run out of words and have nothing left to say.”

  27. This always haunts me when I’m designing a new logo.”Have I seen this design somewhere before?” Followed by a bunch of Google Image searches to put me at ease. As for now, I feel I can still whipping up original ideas, but I could see this being a problem in the future. Maybe someday there will be some sort of logo upload site that scans your designs across all the world’s trademarked designs and proves my designs are a bunch of rip offs. Till then…

  28. Brandon: There was an experimental image comparison engine release to the public a couple years back. I can’t think of the name, but it’s only a matter of time before that technology is refined, and maybe custom-focused on logomarks. I can see it not only functioning in a legal sense, to help us avoid trademark infringement, but also as a source of inspiration. You could put in some kind of basic shape and get all kinds of composition ideas related to that…

  29. The eyeballs are classic, Doug. Here’s hoping it arrives okay—a second national postal strike in two years is on the cards in the UK.

    Thanks a lot for the continued chat, folks. Some points worthy of republishing in a “focus on reader comments” feature.

  30. Graphic designers continue to get more and more creative as time progresses. If this trend continues, there’s certainly nothing to worry about. True, we’ll eventually run out of “classic” designs, but who’s to say that someone isn’t going to come around and create the new classic design tomorrow?

  31. When I “retired” from higher education and teaching several years I decided to develop my academic interest in aging into a web brand. I’ve been thrashing around without a lot of direction related to branding, although I have started up several sites with some decent content. My flagship site is called Going Strong Seniors (http://www.going-strong-seniors.com) and was intended to become an authority site for senior citizen topics.

    I would now like to start tying the sites together with a brand identity. My first question is: What is the best kind of image to put “up front” to represent this theme? I am still using a stock image because I just didn’t know where to go. Should I incorporate a graphic logo, find an exclusive photo, focus on typography, or all of the above? Thanks!

  32. Hi Robert, the answer depends on your websites, and what they focus on. You didn’t say if they’re all based upon senior citizen topics, or just your flagship site. But I guess all the topics are related, otherwise there’d be no need to tie them together. My answer? It depends. On the name of each, on the different topics, on the future direction, and on the need to be related.

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