What makes a great logo

A new book explores why we're drawn to the Apple apple, the CBS eye and the Rolling Stone tongue

Published July 6, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

There was a line -- a line snaking down the block. More than 300 people waited in the rain for half an hour on Wednesday evening for Tishman Auditorium to open so they could get a seat at an AIGA/NY event. About a book.

Tishman AIGA Event

Well, maybe it wasn't about a book. It was about A-list design stars: Pentagram partner Angus Hyland, the coauthor of "Symbol," who'd flown in for the appearance, his U.S. book launch, and the panel of New York symbol designers -- Steff Geissbuhler of C&G Partners, Su Mathews of Lippincott and Stephen Doyle of Doyle Partners. The subject matter was the symbol in general -- "simplicity and pure form" -- the mark as opposed to the logotype, the company signature rendered in typography.


Wearing a straw hat, stylishly rumpled khakis, an even more rumpled blue shirt, loosened knit tie and scuffed leather tennies, Hyland -- who did the book with freelance writer Steven Bateman -- gave the audience a personalized capsule history of corporate identity, including his choices for "the world's most enduring and best symbols": the Apple apple, World Wildlife Federation panda, CBS eye, Rolling Stones' tongue, peace sign and Woolmark. "Why is it so good?" he asked about each, and gave answers ranging from "the pictorial equivalent of the real name with a hell of a lot more value" to "has a strangely quasi-religious quality" to "a bit of pop art that cements them in their time." Among the interesting historical tidbits was that Apple Computer, before it had the apple with a bite (byte?) taken out of it, identified itself with an engraving of Sir Isaac Newton reading a book under a tree while an apple was on the way to hitting him on the head. The engraving looked very cool, actually, superimposed on the lid of a MacBook Pro.

Well-known logos

The original Apple logo

The original Apple logo had a Wordsworth poem around an engraving of young Isaac Newton.

Woolmark-mobius strip

Angus demonstrating how to make a Woolmark-mobius strip using a piece of striped paper.

World Wildlife Federation panda

Save endangered (and cute) species! The model for the World Wildlife Federation panda was brought from China to the London Zoo.


Each of the panelists then presented his or her own choices for best or most enduring marks or spoke about brand identity in general. Steff, wearing a sage green T-shirt with khakis and graphically striped socks, showed the Baltimore National Aquarium symbol, a graceful composition of waves and fishes, designed by his former partner Tom Geismar, and the Swiss cross. Su, wearing rolled-up jeans and the most amazing sequined spike heels with red soles (Louboutins, Manolos?) talked about research showing that emotional reactions to corporate and religious symbols are controlled by the same area of the brain. And Stephen, wearing immaculate black loafers with no socks, gave us a glimpse into his choir-boy youth and described the cross as "a symbol of torture, martyrdom and faith."

Panel 2

Apple, CBS, Target, Chanel and Nike turned up on just about everybody's lists, and interestingly, almost all the symbols cited as most memorable and enduring were simple, iconic, flat and black-and-white. There wasn't a hint of the techno tour-de-force trends reported in recent years by Logo Lounge: transparency, movement, layering, multicolors, etc. Not a blur, vibration, tendril, ghost, spore, pixel, hexahedron or festoon in sight. "It's a good thing we're moving back to simplicity and pure form," the panelists agreed. Their choices, however, left some audience members wondering if all the marks themselves were really that good ("My clients would never buy that apple," declared designer Paula Kelly. "Though the bite makes it. I don't think I could get away with a literal translation of a company name") or whether some rather ordinary symbols have been made memorable and enduring by the billions of dollars spent promoting them, signing off great ad campaigns with them, and affixing them to notable products and to every article of clothing worn by sports celebrities.

Book Signing

The line for book-signing by Angus was almost as long as the line to get in had been. The book is a well-organized (336 pages, 1,300 symbols grouped by visual characteristics) reference volume. And, I noticed, it bears a striking resemblance to a little book I've had since college days: "Trademarks: A Handbook of International Designs," by Peter Wildbur, published in 1966; many of the great ones (and inspirations for many greats that followed) are in there, too. Paula and I continued talking long afterward about what we'd pick as our favorite symbols.  La Caixa. Miró's tapestry

My vote: La Caixa. Miró's tapestry, from which the starfish symbol was taken, still hangs in the main Barcelona branch of the bank, which was the first in Europe to emphasize family savings.

I confessed my longtime fondness for La Caixa, a Catalan savings bank. It's got that parent-children protective thing, it's about savings and money (sand dollars), which with the starfish reflect the region, the Mediterranean coast. It's one of the original abstracted-people logos, and unlike most of that genre that followed (Bad Imitation could be the subject of another post, or book), it's memorable and pretty. It was designed by Landor in 1980, based on a detail of an original Miró tapestry commissioned by the bank. And Tibor Kalman once dumped all over it in the AIGA Journal. I wrote him a note about why I thought it was good. He called me and said, "You're right, but I can't let anybody know that." But I digress. Paula Kelly's choices

Paula Kelly's choices: Westinghouse, New Haven Railroad and Islands of the Bahamas.

Paula described her appreciation for both Paul Rand's plugged-in Westinghouse "W" and Herbert Bayer's "NH" for the New Haven Railroad. "They're both monograms, not symbols," she pointed out, noting her appreciation for metaphors that are conveyed typographically. "And," she sighed, "another side of me loves playful, colorful abstractions like Duffy & Partners' Bahamas identity, which always makes me want to get on a plane ... immediately."

Note: All photos except line of waiting people, panelists' feet and La Caixa banner by Natalie Grancaric.

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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By Ellen Shapiro

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