What’s in a logo?


Paul Rand looking at his UPS logo designs.

Airbnb came in for criticism last month as it unveiled its new logo. But while people had plenty to say about the appearance of the new mark, dubbed “Bélo”, few argued the reasons behind the change. That’s because the company and its creative agency had done their research and fully validated the rebrand. However, that’s not as common an occurrence as you might think.

There is a misconception that rebranding means you have to change your logo.

It pains me that so many companies feel the need to change their logo just for the sake of it – sometimes destroying years of history. We’re in a throwaway society, where everything has built-in obsolescence. This is now having an effect on the design industry.

Responsibilities

As designers, we have a responsibility to advise companies, do our homework and build tailored brands that last – not just make things look pretty and take the cheque. If a client says they need a new logo, the first question you should ask is: why? What’s wrong with the old one? And then conduct research around the whole brand to find out what people really think of it – inside and outside the business.

You could well discover that customers love the logo, and it’s the rest of the brand that seems tired. A brand refresh can be achieved by evolving or changing any number of elements of a company’s identity, from tone of voice and photography, to colour palettes and typography. Of course a logo is important, but people’s perception of that logo is based on the value of the brand behind it. As iconic US designer Paul Rand said:

“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.”

Modernisation

There are a number of examples throughout recent years of what are – in my opinion – logo changes that take something away from the brand.

In 2003, United Parcel Service (UPS) dropped its iconic Paul Rand logo, which had stood since 1961, in favour of a more modern design. In doing so, it swapped a logo that illustrated the company’s purpose and values for one that says little about it.

Rand’s design represented UPS perfectly. The company name was emblazoned on a shield, denoting protection, and a beautifully-wrapped parcel sat atop the logo, signifying the care and attention that the company places on delivering packages. As Rand said: “the meaning was derived from the quality of that which it symbolized”.

UPS argues it changed the logo because the bow-tied package restricted its ability to convey the company’s move into “a broader array of supply-chain services”, adding (hopefully tongue-in-cheek) that “strings are no longer appropriate because they can get caught in UPS's modern automated sorting systems”.

Logos - ups

Rather than change the logo, UPS could have refreshed the implementation of the original. The classic version was so simple and clean; it could easily have been reversed out or applied using bright colours and placed in the corner of an ad depicting some of the company’s new supply-chain services. The old logo, if used correctly, would reinforce – not detract from – the new services and messages that UPS wants to convey.

Communication

It’s a similar story with BT. The telecoms company had the “piper” logo from 1991 until 2003, before changing it to reflect that it was diversifying into areas like internet services. But its current logo appears to say even less about the company.

It’s as if BT didn’t realise that the piper represented communication – which encompasses all of its services. There were a number of options the company could have pursued while retaining the “piper” logo and making it more flexible. But they swapped it out all together.

Logos - bt

Respecting history

Some brands are just engrained in your life. I remember having a Black & Decker Workmate in my house growing up (it’s still there now) and I’d bet a large percentage of homes still do. The brand’s iconic hexagonal logo, employed since 1926, was etched in my mind from an early age. But in January the company rebranded.

With the change, Black & Decker lost that sense of heritage. Its old logo, characterised by the “nut” motif, had evolved over nearly 90 years and had come to symbolise DIY. The company could have run its old logo completely in orange, or updated the font and retained the nut motif. “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater” comes to mind.

Logo - B&D

Getting it right

Not every brand gets it wrong, of course. If you can design a new logo that says more about the company than the original, then it works. Stanley went through some big changes when it was bought, ironically, by Black & Decker. The logo change was subtle, but built on its initial effort. The slice through the “n” in the company name denotes a cut from the classic Stanley knife. The overall look and feel of the brand is still there – Stanley has just cleaned it up.

Logos - stanley

In my mind, there are two global brands that lead the way in terms of refreshing the implementation of their identity – rather than rebranding for the sake of it. And it’s paid dividends for IBM and Apple.

About a decade ago, you could only use the IBM logo in the company’s designated blue or black, or reversed out in a black box. It was pretty static. Around the same time, IBM wanted to refresh its “Big Blue” image...

Instead of looking at a new logo, IBM went back to Rand’s original principles, which allowed the logo to be manipulated and altered in a number of ways across corporate collateral – like placing it at an angle or filling it with different colours. By doing so, IBM re-energised its brand while retaining the foundations of its identity.

Apple is similar. Having established its current logo, designed by Rob Janoff in 1976, the tech giant has run it in a variety of ways – from the famous “rainbow” scheme to a chrome version at the turn of the millennium. Now, Apple runs it in black, grey or white, reflecting its minimalist, well-designed products. Everything else about Apple may have changed, but the fundamental design of the logo hasn’t.

A good logo says almost all there is to say about a brand. But too many companies are quick to change theirs without uncovering exactly what it means to the company – and its customers. Changing a logo should never be a decision taken lightly, because, although we’re told we shouldn’t, we all judge a book by its cover.

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  • Branding
  • Strategy
  • Design
  • Logo