How to Design an Outstanding Logo

January 20, 2017

The best logos grab your attention, elicit a response, have a deeper meaning and are highly memorable.

Logos are the face of your organization. They are often the first thing someone thinks of when they think of it and a company’s defining symbol, such as the golden arches for McDonalds or the Nike swoosh.

What makes a great logo? Well, there’s no shortage of rules and theories out there. But, in his LinkedIn Learning course The Science of Logo Design, William Lidwell said there is indeed a definitive science behind logo design. The evidence shows great logos elicit these four emotions, in order: attention, response, meaning and memory.

How do you elicit those emotions with just a logo? Lidwell took them one-by-one, giving specific examples and tactics you could use to accomplish each one.

1. Attention

“It's a noisy world out there with a lot of things competing for people's attention,” Lidwell said. “If a logo isn't noticed, then everything else is moot.”

Okay, so how do you make your logo attention-grabbing? There’s a lot of ways, but there are three “hacks” that’ll help you grab people’s attention. They are:

  • Make it different: A lot of logos look the same – a letter or two with a solid background. By making yours unique, you’ll go a long way to cutting through that noise. If you already have a conventional logo, you can add novelty by changing it up in different ways (perfect example – Google with their Google Doodles).
  • Baby faces, bright colors and provocative people all draw the eye: There are two types of people that draw our eye instinctively – babies and the particularly attractive. And so do bright, contrasting colors. Hence, many logos feature one of those three. On the baby side, animals in logos are often given baby-like features – large eyes, smiling, innocent faces – to make them more memorable. A perfect example is Borden’s Elsie the Cow. On the provocative side, there’s no shortage of examples, such as the Rolling Stones’ tongue. As far as bright contrasting colors, think FedEx or Shell.

  • Partial obstruction is your friend: Some logos take advantage to the fact that we are drawn to partially obscured patterns. For example, the IBM logo or the World Wildlife Fund panda both play to that. Another way you can accomplish this is to use negative space to create a new element when your brain completes the pattern, such as the peacock in the NBC logo.

2. Response

“Once a stimulus gets our attention, our brains evaluate and form an emotional response to that stimulus within a couple of seconds – well before we have time to consciously think about it,” Lidwell said.

So yes, you want to grab a person’s attention with your logo. After that, you want them to feel something that should relate to the brand. And you can control that by using either aggressive or more friendly stimuli.

What are some examples of aggressive stimuli? Triangles, vertical lines and asymmetry. Examples of logos with aggressive stimuli are Axe, Adidas and Mitsubishi, which reflect their brand.

Mitsubishi

Conversely, friendly stimuli are curvy shapes, horizontal lines and symmetry in the elements. Some examples of logos with friendlier stimuli are Southwest Airlines and the United Way, which again reflect their brands. 

Obviously, the goal here is to create a logo that causes a reaction that matches your brand. Rectangular logos will not much provide much of an emotional response, and therefore the typography within the rectangle will dictate a person’s response instead (think Facebook or Gap).

3. Meaning

“Once a logo grabs a person's attention, and once the right emotional tone is set, a logo then has the opportunity to communicate,” Lidwell said. “That is, to express meaning. To best leverage this opportunity, we want to design logos that express multiple meanings that align with the brand.”

The big difference between this step and the last two is that this is the first step people do consciously. People respond and react to images subconsciously, whereas this is where people consciously think about the meaning expressed in the logo.

The goal here? To pack as much meaning as possible in as little elements as possible, as that’ll make the logo the most powerful. Specifically, a logo should have more deep propositions than surface elements.

A perfect example of this – regardless of politics – is Barack Obama’s 2008 logo. It was a simple design with only a few surface elements: the blue O over red-and-white stripes.

Obama's 2008 logo

But look at how many deep propositions there are. While up for interpretation, the circle obviously stands for Obama, but the image also looks like a new sun rising over America. That signals change or hope, which were his two campaign slogans.

The point is you want to convey a meaningful message the simplest way possible. Not easy, but that’s what makes for a great logo.

4. Memorable

“The good news is that by achieving the first three events in the ARMM model – grabbing attention, setting the right emotional tone and expressing meaning – we've already done much of the work to make a logo memorable,” Lidwell said. “So, this final step is really to tune a logo to take it to the next level to make it as memorable as possible.”

How to do you make your make your logo as memorable as possible? Lidwell said there are three common techniques.

  • The Von Restorff Effect: This is simply that your logo should not look like other logos in your space. For example, if you were launching a soda company, it’s a bad idea to use a red background or white cursive lettering. By being different, you’ll stand out more in people’s minds.
  • Mnemonic Devices: Mnemonic devices are a way of organizing information to aid recall. So, for example using the letters of the company in the logo is a classic mnemonic device. Or, using a symbol that is the brand name – example, Chili’s logo is literally a chili pepper – is another common mnemonic device. 
Chili's logo
  • The Concreteness Effect: It’s been proven that concrete nouns – table, dog, school – are remembered more vividly than abstract nouns like quality or loyalty. Hence, if your company has a concrete noun for a name (a good idea), it makes sense to use that concrete noun in your logo. Perfect example is Red Bull’s logo, which is literally two red bulls. Straightforward, but straightforward is more memorable than abstract.
Red Bull's logo

The takeaway

The best logos are often simple, yet complex. They use very few elements, but those elements are striking; they elicit an emotional response that aligns with the brand; they have a deeper meaning and they are memorable.

Pretty hard to accomplish all of that. But the best designers pull it off.

Click here to watch Lidwell’s full course on the science of logo design. Or, click here to watch our course on the foundations of logo design.

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