What makes a truly great logo

This is Michael Bierut.

“I’m Michael Beirut.

I’m a graphic designer” You might be familiar
with is work, but interestingly he thinks

that logos are just kind of overrated.

“I’m actually often very ambivalent about

Let’s back out a second.

What is a logo?

Basically a face of a company.

“Some are beloved.

Some… the swastika is a logo and it’s reviled.

You know?”

They have to work at tiny sizes, and huge.

There are three specific types.

First type is the Wordmark.

“the wordmark is the easiest one.

And it’s the one we’re all the most familiar

I mean John Hancock’s signature is kind of
a word mark.

It can look crisp clean and modern like the
new Google logo looks.

Or it can look somehow that it has roots in
a shared heritage the way the coca cola logo


You know?”

The second is PICTORAL.

“Pictoral logos often function as a kind of

It’s a picture, and it’s identifying the name
of the company.

Sometimes directly like Target.

Sometimes indirectly like LaCoste.”

The third kind is kind of the holy grail.

Abstract inconography.

“The third type is favorite kind of category
because it just seems almost like magic.”

As a designer people will come to me and they’ll
say I want something like the Nike swoosh.

They think the Nike swoosh was the Nike Swoosh
the day it was drawn.

But it was nothing the day it was drawn.”

The company that birthed nike commissioned
a design student named Carolyn to draw some


The Nike founders didn’t really like it.

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“They sort of said awww let’s use that one.”

It wasn’t an overnight success.

And then they started putting it on the sides
of shoes.

The shoes were good and then the genius of
Nike’s marketing apparatus made us further

associate that product not merely with performance
athletic gear but with the very idea of athletic

achievement itself.

And that’s how over a long time a little mark
means something big.

“That’s exactly how religious symbols work
– it’s obviously not just anything inherent

in about these shapes, but what these shapes
have come to represent in the minds of the

people who are looking at them.”

But there’s a fourth type of logo that goes
beyond these three types, and can use elements

of each of them: The Logo System.

A kind of framework, but one that can have
endless permutations.

The first huge, popular example of the logo
system would be MTV.

But google’s daily “doodles” are another
great example the logo system – a familiar

mark that also can point to other ideas and

This approach all has to do with technological

“It used to be if a company was doing a logo
there’d be this military operation by which

it would be inscribed on all their equipment
and on their airplanes and their retail facilities

and gold pins and cufflinks would be made
for the executive suite and put on spitoons

in ashtrays, the top of the skyscraper, and
everyone’s business card.


Nowadays none of that’s important as an
email signature or your twitter avatar or

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the little thing that sits next to your URL.

Those things are much more ubiquitous and
they can be changed at the drop of a hat.”

Bierut used this system approach for his Hillary
Clinton logo. “we wanted to have a mark that

could reflect the electorate, and reflect
the issues.

The simple forms that comprise the H with
the arrow in it are actually designed to hold

not just two colors such as red and blue,
but any colors you want” The use of logo systems

seems to be continually on the upswing – probably
because it allows the the brand using it to

expand the conversation beyond it’s own

“The logo really reminds people that’s what
our priority is today.”

But at the end of the day, regardless of the
shape, style or system, it might not matter

what the logo is.

“It really is about thinking of these symbols
as being empty vessels in a way.

And then you pour the meaning into them.

Some vessels are better at holding one kind
of meaning.”

So what’s this all add up to?

Basically, those fights people get in about
new logos are pretty misguided.

“They think they’re judging a diving competition,
but actually all these organizations are in

swimming competitions.

It’s not what kind of splash you make when
you hit the water.

It’s about how long you can keep your head
above that water.”

Logos need to have a long life, not win points
in a discussion.

12 years after the birth of the nike logo,
Nike came back to that graphic design student

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Carolyn with a gift “A Nike ring with her
own trademark on it, the swoosh.

Thank you very much it’s beautiful.”

And an undisclosed amount of Nike stock.


In 1973 when it was designed, her was $35.


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