Update: 2021
A revised version of this piece can be found here: What makes a good logo?
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Anyone can design a logo, but not everyone can design the right logo. A successful design may meet the goals set in your design brief, but an enviable design with the capacity to become iconic will also be simple, relevant, adaptable, enduring, and distinctive.

Apple logo signageApple logo, photo by Medhat Dawoud

Keep it simple

The simplest solution is often the most effective. Why? Because a simple logo helps meet most of the other requirements of iconic design. Simplicity helps a design be more versatile. Adopting a minimalist approach enables your logo to be used across a wide range of media, such as on business cards, billboards, pin badges, or something as small as a website favicon.

Simplicity also makes your design easier to recognise, so it stands a greater change of achieving a timeless, enduring quality. Think of the logos of large corporations like Mitsubishi, Apple, FedEx, Google, and so on. Their logos are simple, and they’re easier to recognise because of it.

FedEx logo on truckFedEx logo, by Lindon Leader, 1994 (photo credit)

Make it relevant

Any logo you design must be appropriate for the business it identifies. Are you designing for a lawyer? Then ditch the fun approach. Are you designing for a winter-holiday TV program? No beach balls. How about a cancer organisation? A smiley face clearly won’t work. You get the idea.

Your design must be relevant to the industry, your client, and the audience to which you’re catering. Getting up to speed on all these aspects requires a lot of in-depth research, but the investment of time is worth it: without a strong knowledge of your client’s world, you can’t hope to create a design that successfully differentiates your client’s business from its closest competitors.

Keep in mind, though, that a logo doesn’t have to go so far as to literally reveal what a company does. Think about the BMW logo, for instance. It isn’t a car. And the Virgin Atlantic logo isn’t an airplane. Yet both are relevant within their respective markets.

BMW hood logoBMW logo, photo by Markus Spiske

Aim for distinction

A distinctive logo is one that can be easily separated from the competition. It has a unique quality or style that accurately portrays your client’s business perspective. But how do you create a logo that’s unique? The best strategy is to focus initially on a design that’s recognisable — so recognisable, in fact, that just its shape or outline gives it away. Working only in black and white can help you create more distinctive marks, since the contrast emphasises the shape or idea. Colour, although important, really is secondary to the shape and form of your design.

V&A logoV&A logo, by Alan Fletcher, 1989

Commit to memory

A solid iconic design is one that onlookers will remember after just one quick glance. Think, for instance, of passengers travelling on a bus, looking out the window, and noticing a billboard as the bus drives past. Or what about pedestrians, looking up just as a branded truck passes by. Quite often, one quick glance is all the time you get to make an impression.

But how do you focus on this one element of iconic design?

It sometimes helps to think about the logos that you remember most when you sit down at the drawing table. What is it about them that keeps them ingrained in your memory? Is also helps to limit how much time you spend on each sketch idea — try 30 seconds. Otherwise, how can you expect an onlooker to remember it with a quick glance? You want viewers’ experience with your client’s visual identity to be such that the logo is remembered the instant they see it the next time.

London Underground logoLondon Underground logo, by Edward Johnson, 1919 (photo credit)

Think small

As much as you might want to see your work across billboards, don’t forget, your design may also need to accommodate smaller, yet necessary applications, such as zipper pulls and clothing labels. Clients are usually enthusiastic about, and demanding of, an adaptable logo, since it can save them a substantial amount of money on printing costs, brand implementation meetings, potential redesigns, and more.

In creating something versatile, simplicity is key. A solid logo should ideally work at a minimum size of around one inch, without loss of detail. The only way to accomplish this is to keep it simple, which will also increase your chances of hitting on a design that likely to last.

Woolmark logoWoolmark logo, by Franco Grignani (photo credit)

Focus on one thing

Iconic designs that stand apart from the crowd have just one feature to help with differentiation. That’s it. Just one. Not two, three, or four. You want to leave your clients with just one thing to remember about the design because their customers won’t spend a lot of time studying a logo. Usually, one quick glance, and they’re gone.

CND logoCND logo, by Gerald Holtom, 1958 (photo credit)

Remember, a logo doesn’t exist in isolation. In the words of Paul Rand, “A logo derives meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolises, not the other way around.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t give your design every chance of gaining that iconic status.