Paul Rand on Logos

It seems like every six months or so, some company does a logo redesign and then it seemingly becomes the talk of the entire online community. Headlines start rolling in which look something like:

Although I try to avoid reading these articles, the headlines seep into just about every corner of the internet, especially when a big company changes their logo in a drastic or controversial manner.

When these articles inevitably spring up, the talk-of-the-town/internet turns to the visual aesthetics of X corporation’s new logo. Exhaustive blog posts are written, some rivaling PhD dissertations in intensity and breadth. And in those moments, I retreat to the soul-sooting balm of Paul Rand’s bullshit-piercing “Logos, Flags, and Escutcheons”

Should a logo be self-explanatory? It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning. It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes. If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job right off, before an audience has been properly conditioned. Only after it becomes familiar does a logo function as intended; and only when the product or service has been judged effective or ineffective, suitable or unsuitable, does it become truly representative.

Did you catch that? He didn’t say if a logo’s design is second rate, the company will be perceived as second rate. No, he stated the opposite: if a company is second rate, its logo will be perceived as second rate. The vitality of a logo doesn’t come from its visual design, but from an effective dissemination by its bearers. He states elsewhere in the article:

A logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.

A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it means is more important than what it looks like.

Again catch what he’s saying here? When it comes to a company, a corporation, a church, a whatever, the logo is not a sign of quality, but a sign of THE quality. A logo is created by a designer but made by a company. Rand makes this point so clear in the next part of his essay (emphasis added):

Most of us believe that the subject matter of a logo depends on the kind of business or service involved. Who is the audience? How is it marketed? What is the media? These are some of the considerations. An animal might suit one category, at the same time that it would be an anathema in another. Numerals are possible candidates: 747, 7-Up, 7-11, and so are letters, which are not only possible but most common. However, the subject matter of a logo is of relatively little importance; nor, it seems, does appropriateness always play a significant role. This does not imply that appropriateness is undesirable. It merely indicates that a one-to-one relationship, between a symbol and what is symbolized, is very often impossible to achieve and, under certain conditions, may even be objectionable. Ultimately, the only thing mandatory, it seems, is that a logo be attractive, reproducible in one color and in exceedingly small sizes.

And now he proceeds to give some wonderful, real-world examples of the point he’s trying to prove:

The Mercedes symbol, for example, has nothing to do with automobiles; yet it is a great symbol, not because its design is great, but because it stands for a great product. The same can be said about apples and computers. Few people realize that a bat is the symbol of authenticity for Bacardi Rum; yet Bacardi is still being imbibed. Lacoste sportswear, for example, has nothing to do with alligators (or crocodiles), and yet the little green reptile is a memorable and profitable symbol. What makes the Rolls Royce emblem so distinguished is not its design (which is commonplace), but the quality of the automobile for which it stands. Similarly, the signature of George Washington is distinguished not only for its calligraphy, but because George Washington was Washington. Who cares how badly the signature is scribbled on a check, if the check doesn’t bounce? Likes or dislikes should play no part in the problem of identification; nor should they have anything to do with approval or disapproval. Utopia!

I love the examples he uses here, not just of brands but of people. The signature of George Washington carries prestige, not for it’s visual aesthetic but because George Washington was George Washington. Surely there could have been a John Washington nobody remembers whose signature was visually and aesthetically similar to George’s, but his signature cannot carry the same distinguished weight. Why? Because with logos and symbols, it’s not primarily the quality of the aesthetic that matters but the thing for which it stands.

As a footnote to visual logo designs:

Simple ideas, as well as simple designs are, ironically, the products of circuitous mental purposes.

In case you don’t know the word “circuitous”, understanding its definition here is important. [Google: define circuitous] – “(of a route or journey) longer than the most direct way”.