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Corporate Logos: If The Shoe Fits, Don’t Wear It.

By Michael Dula

Pushing the limits of corporate logo design

Corporate logos that exude individuality and prompt a different way to think and see, rise to the highest level in my book. Logo designers know all too well of the standard mantra that good logos are defined by: distinctiveness, flexibility in application, memorability, longevity, universality, and timelessness. 

That said, there is an edge — a line so to speak — that I believe in terms of designing corporate logos the designer should cross. And that line is the tride and true, the expected, the “me too” design, the mundane sterility that pervades so much of corporate logo design as it is practiced today. A much overlooked fact is that no matter how good the logo designer is, great design and great thinking will never see the light of day without a client who believes in the power of great design to deliver a difference with distinction and relevance; who believes that great design is more than superficial beautification.

Cases in Point

Unique, timeless, thoroughly distinctive — you might be surprised by some of the facts about some of the most visually memorable corporate logos the world has ever seen. Consider these examples:

The original AEG symbol designed in 1907
AEG logo
Utterly modern in appearance, 105 years later, the original monogram crest of the AEG logo identity is recognized as the first complete corporate identity system. The original logo consists of a triangulated monogram arrangement that even today looks like a breath of fresh air.

The Berlin-based AEG, (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft) was also known by its almost rigidly geometric trademark. Designer Peter Behrens (1868-1940) worked as artistic adviser to AEG. He used the symbol as the anchor for an entire design scheme applied to the print work, products and architecture.

The original GE symbol designed in the 1890s
GE logo
The iconic logo for General Electric created well over a century ago, remains a beautiful and enduring beacon that represents a brand that identifies thousands of consumer products and other services. GE’s logo is an emblematic monogram that stands on it’s own without being attached to the formal, legal name. The symbol is an unforgettable image of the General Electric brand. It is not read, but simply etched in the mind in the blink of an eye.

GE’s logo was created at the height of the Art Nouveau period and reflects Art Nouvea style with its natural, curvilinear lines. It was an identity that dominated the period. It has been said about the logo that “(its) circular shape has a timeless quality, while the inner activity near the perimeter of the circle allows a sense of motion and fluidity fortified by the sophisticated handling of the interconnected initials.” According to Business Week, the company has the fourth most recognized brand in the world, with a total worth of US$48 billion. The company is currently listed as the 3rd largest in the world among the Forbes Global 2000.

Here I’ll pause to ponder how many incredible designs have ended up on the cutting room floor due to reactive, low-minded fault-finding.
Consider these comments, that potentially could have — but didn’t — kill the final logo designs for IBM and Westinghouse:

Initial comments on the original design for the IBM logo (1972):
IBM logo
“It reminds me of the Georgia chain gang,” quipped an IBM executive when he first eyed the striped logo.

Initial comments on the original design for the Westinghouse logo (1960):
Westinghouse logo
When the Westinghouse insignia was first seen, it was greeted similarly with such gibes as “this looks like a pawnbroker’s sign.”

Imagine if these sentiments had won the day.

At the end of ‘the day,’ logos tell stories. Meaning is established over time. It is this dimension of ‘narrative’ potential, the capacity to become the simple fulcrum (or visual ‘gimmick’ if you like) for telling a compelling business story — and not some incidental resemblance to out-of-category and out-of-genre design precedents, as our neigh-sayers would have it, that defines a ‘great’ logo. Time heals all wounds. It also naturalizes what is initially experienced as odd, weird, or exotic. Patience then is an essential — if unobvious — tool of design. It takes the trust of a disciplined client to give great design the time and space it needs to breathe and become great.