In Depth Guide to Business Logos
The best logos in the world look like they were really easy to design: they are relevant for the brand they are used by, they are instantly recognizable, and above all they are simple.
In reality, though, achieving simplicity is actually quite complicated, because there are many factors to consider when designing a logo. At the most basic level there are many different types of logos, ranging from (apparently) simple symbols to more complicated logos that include text, images, and carefully chosen colors.
When creating a new business logo, you must also think in detail about the future. Your logo will define your brand identity for years to come, after all, and you need to spend the time at the design stage to get it right. Your logo will be used in many different places, like in setting up your online store or creating business cards or retail marketing, so you need to produce a logo that is flexible enough to appear across all of your systems and materials.
In this guide, we’ll take a deep dive into the principles of how to create a business logo. We’ll start with a few golden rules of logo design that will guide you through the rest of the process. We’ll then look at how to research logos, and the strategy you should take when designing one, so when you get to using a logo maker you have the right mindset to craft a killer logo.
Then we’ll go even further, and take you through the details of using typography, shapes, and symbolism, as well as a note about color theory. Finally, we’ll show you how to use your new logo to the best effect.
Let’s get started:
The golden rules of logo design
Though the best logos in the world are all unique – and in fact this is part of what makes them great – they all share certain characteristics. Logo designers who have been in the business for years will automatically apply a number of working processes and design principles, and these become so familiar to them that they can seem completely “natural”.
For those of you just getting started with logo design, however, it’s useful to have a crash course in these golden rules. So here they are:
1. Find something unique about your brand
It goes without saying that your logo should reflect your brand, but in order to design in this way you need to figure out what makes you unique. The Mercedes logo, for instance, is a three-pointed star to represent the unique fact that Mercedes makes vehicles for three different environments: land, sea, and air.
That’s a simple instruction, but an important one. It might feel old fashioned to be using a paper and pencil in 2020, but in reality this is still by far the most efficient way to get your ideas down. Resist the temptation to immediately begin the design process with an online logo maker or logo generator– creating your ideal brand logo with a paper and pencil will help guide the direction you want to go in once you use a logo maker tool.
3. Work in black and white
We’ll discuss color theory in more depth below, but at this stage you should recognize that the shape of your logo is its most important feature. So work in black and white first, get the basics in place this way, and worry about color combinations later.
4. Keep it simple
If you can’t draw your logo, or explain it in a sentence, it’s too complicated. Period. Go back to the drawing board. You should design your logo to pique interest in your target audience rather than overwhelm them.
5. Don’t be too literal
There are some great logos that are literal. Penguin Books and Shell are two examples of this. These logos also have another huge advantage: they don’t say much about the business activities of their brands. This allows these companies to grow and diversify, without changing their logos.
6. Symbols are (necessarily) necessary
Remember, also, that some of the best logos out there are “just” words: think of Google. If you’ve already spent a good deal of research time and other resources on coming up with a great company name, and especially if this name is not a common word (again, think of Google), you can use a wordmark. More on that later.
7. Have fun!
Above all, don’t stress, and have fun. Making a logo with a little humor in it can really set you apart from the competition. Of course, this doesn’t apply everywhere, as some companies should strive for trust rather than humor, but in many other sectors raising a smile on the faces of your customers can work wonders. Amazon, for instance, took this advice literally.
And that’s basically it. Keep these golden rules in mind as we work through the stages of logo design in the following sections, and you won’t go too far wrong.
Research and strategy
Next up, researching and strategizing. These might seem like strange steps to take in designing a simple little picture for your brand, but think again. Just like every other business decision, the design of your logo should be built on a detailed understanding of your competitors, and align with your future business plans.
If you’re going to build a website for your business (which you absolutely should), you’re going to need to research your logo ahead of time before your site goes live. When choosing the domain name for your website, for instance, you need to be thinking about what your logo is going to look like so it matches well.
In fact, investing in branding research and strategy is one of the highest ROIs that marketing departments can achieve in 2020. Choosing the right logo can completely re-invigorate your brand, and instantly set you apart from the competition.
When it comes to research, there are a few key steps.
Here they are:
1. Know thy enemies
Well, not quite your enemies, but at least your competition. Look at the logos that your competitors are using, and you’ll probably see some correlations between them – in terms of color combinations, or fonts, or pictorial elements. “Borrowing” from these logos can allow you to take advantage of established visual codes, but you should also be wary of copying them too directly, because ultimately you want your logo to be unique.
2. Know your heritage
Equally as important as knowing what your competitors are up to is knowing the history of your own brand. Some of the most successful re-branding campaigns of the past few years have taken a look backwards, and sought to highlight the heritage of brands. If you have a glorious history, this is a major asset that you should use when designing your logo.
3. Know where you are going
Your logo should be based on detailed research, but it should also be based on the future. If you have plans to diversify your business, don’t design a logo that ties you to what you are doing now. This is the reason why so many tech companies – whose product lineups typically expand into different sectors as the years pass – use their company’s name as their logo, or at least a symbol that is abstract enough to be applied to many different products.
The key takeaway here is that research and strategizing need to be as integral a part of logo design as any other business decision. You need, ultimately, to know how your logo stands in relation to those of your competitors, and also how it will stand in relation to your own company in five or ten year’s time.
Now that the basic principles of logo design, and your research and strategizing phase is complete, we can really get into the details of logo design. This is the fun part, but just make sure that you don’t forget the general principles we’ve thought through above.
A critical part of the logo design process is to choose the typeface you are going to use. Though huge brands can get away without using text in their logos – Starbucks removed their name from their logo in 2011, for example – almost all smaller companies will need to rely on text to communicate their brand name.
Just as with the processes we’ve already talked about, there are a few key steps to working with type:
1. Choose a typeface
The biggest decision you’ll have to make when choosing a typeface is whether it is sans serif or serif. Sans serif fonts are in vogue at the moment, and are the best choice for any brand that works in any area that is vaguely techy.
Google dropped the serifs from their logo in 2015, and plenty of others have followed suit across the tech world. On the other hand, if you are a heritage brand, or a high-end retailer, a serifed font style can give your logo a touch of class.
2. Look for unusual features in your brand’s name
Some logos – like that of FedEx and Yves Saint Laurent – contain pictorial elements through the simple expedient of getting creative with their brand names. If, when playing around with fonts and your brand name, you spot a creative way of embedding a pictorial logo inside the text, congratulations: you’ve accidentally stumbled upon a powerful way to design your logo.
3. Get a custom typeface
If you have the budget for it, a custom typeface can be a very effective way of branding your company. You can use this typeface for your logo, but also across all of your branded communications. This is a relatively simple way of ensuring that your branding is consistent, without spending many hours playing with more complex design elements.
It’s also important for your logo and its typography to be mobile optimized as well. The human being and the smartphone have become completely inseparable, with 92% of US adults carrying smartphones with them at all times. Beyond these relatively simple ideas, a world of complexity awaits. The font you use to communicate with your customers sets the tone with which you speak to them, so taking the time to get it just right is an important investment.
The final factor we will cover when looking at the design of your logo is color theory. This is a huge topic about which many books have been written, and a full grasp of how colors work together can require a lifetime’s work. Just as with typefaces and symbols, though, there are a few shortcuts to using color effectively. Here they are:
1. The color wheel
The color wheel is probably familiar from elementary school, but it is still a powerful design tool. Understanding the color wheel is a great shortcut to working out how colors work together, and how to combine them in your logo.
2. Avoid complementary colors
One of the key tips when working with the color wheel is to avoid complementary colors: those that sit opposite each other. Some brands, like IKEA, have had huge success with complementary color schemes, but they are the exception that proves the rule. In 2020, using such high-contrast schemes runs the risk of making your brand look a little cheap.
3. Color and mood
Colors also have a huge effect on our mood, and should be chosen carefully to communicate the right mood to your customers. The simplest way of understanding this is to recognize that warm colors – reds, yellows, and some greens – can make your logo seem homely and welcoming.
On the other hand, cool colors such as blue and black give a logo a mood of seriousness and responsibility. Consider the modern logo of Time Warner, designed to convey a sense of looking and listening, reading and hearing, receiving and sending – the essence of communication. It makes use of a soft, trustworthy blue. Which you choose for your logo should, therefore, depend on the way that you want customers to feel about your brand.
4. Claim a color
The most extreme application of color theory when it comes to branding is the decision to take control of a whole color. Strangely, this practice is most prevalent in the confectionery industry, with both Manner and Cadbury having consistently used the same (unusual) color in their branding for decades. We could also point out that McDonald’s have put in a pretty strong claim to the color red, and if it wasn’t for another huge company – Coca-Cola – having tried the same thing, would likely have claimed it as their own.
Using a specific color scheme in logo design is one of those areas when it really pays to listen to your gut. Most of us know instinctively which colors should go with types of businesses, which is why you’ll find green in just about every money-related app from YNAB to Freshbooks. But you would be hard pushed to explain this in terms of the color wheel. The best advice is therefore to take some key insights from color theory, but don’t be a slave to them: as we said above, having fun with the design of your logo is an equally important factor as knowing the theory behind graphic design.
Shape and symbolism
Next up is shapes and symbols. The goal, when applying these to logo design, is to create an image that is instantly recognizable, and can eventually stand in for the name of your company. Achieving that, however, can be a little difficult.
Just like most aspects of logo design, however, there are some golden rules that can help you to design a symbol that will stand the test of time:
1. Simplicity is key
This is the most important factor when designing shapes and symbols for your logo. If you can’t draw your symbol with a few strokes of your pen, it’s too complicated, and you need to simplify it. A good way of doing that is to continually remove elements until you are left with the most basic shape that still communicates an idea.
2. Avoid cliche
At the same time as trying to make your logo as simple as possible, you should avoid using images or other pictorial elements that are simply too common to be surprising – think a lightbulb that symbolizes ideas, or a globe that represents the “international” nature of your brand.
3. Use animals
This might sound like a strangely specific recommendation, but it is one that is drawn directly from the most successful logos of the past few years. Twitter with the blue bird, Puma with the panther, and VyprVPN with the viper are examples of companies taking this approach. Why this should be the case is anyone’s guess, but we’ll hazard that the instant recognition of a particular creature, coupled with the cuteness that many brands strive for, is part of the reason.
4. Use negative space
Yep, that’s right: you should pay as much attention to the gaps between your design elements as the elements themselves. Everyone from FedEx – already mentioned – to NBC – with their cut-out peacock – have made use of negative space, and doing so adds a real flair to your designs.
As with the other elements of your logo design, the key when adding symbols and shapes is to ensure that your logo is instantly recognizable, even from a distance or even seen in passing. This means that by far the most important point in the list above is the first one: keep your symbol design as simple as possible, and you’ll be well on your way to a killer logo.
Using your logo
If you’ve gone through all the steps above, you’ve now got a great logo, right?
Well, maybe. The truth is that you won’t know how “good” your logo is until you start using it.
Even the best-designed logo can suddenly look strange when put on your other branded materials. For this reason – and several others – it’s important to undertake a process of review before you start using your new logo, and then to take it slow when you roll it out across your brand.
Here are the steps for doing that:
1. Get a second opinion
We can’t stress this enough. If you’ve been designing a logo for hours on end, you can lose sight of the woods for the trees. Your logo may simply look weird, but because you’ve spent so long looking at it, this is not apparent to you. You can even try your new logo with your customers, by putting it online and asking for feedback, which can also help to defuse and cultural misunderstandings before you go for a global launch.
2. Make it stand out
If you’ve spent a lot of time and resources on your logo design so it helps your business stand out, you are taking the right approach. However, the way in which your logo is presented is key to how effective it is. Don’t hide all your hard work in the corner of your website; put your new logo front and center on all of your materials, and let it speak for itself.
One of the newest innovations in logo design is to make logos dynamic by animating them. This can be an effective tool in helping them to stand out, but you should be careful when sending out animated logos – even as GIFs – with direct customer communication. Many virus scanners count animations like this as email attachments to avoid, and will send your carefully crafted, moving logo straight to the spam folder.
4. Engage With Your Customers
Finally, keep in mind that not everyone will like your logo. Handling public criticism is, unfortunately, now part of the job of a logo designer, so be prepared to defend your design choices. See your customer’s complaints as an indication of loyalty to your brand, and respond with this in mind, and you won’t go too far wrong.
This process of review is as important as the research you put into your logo at an earlier stage. It can help to limit the controversy that is generated by a re-brand, and ensure that you don’t make any costly mistakes. So we repeat: get a second opinion of your design before you use it anywhere, and take criticism constructively.
A final word
If you’ve come this far, well done. You’ve now got a great grounding in the principles of logo design, and you probably understand the importance of logo designs for branding. But it doesn’t stop there: the task of designing a logo is often the first lesson in graphic design schools, because once you understand the basic principles of working with logos, you understand the basic principles of design.
Now that you know how to design a business logo, take that design knowledge and apply it everywhere else – in your email marketing, to promote your facebook page, and in your direct customer communication – and you’ll see that great logo design is just the beginning of your brand journey.