Logos Aren’t Magic

Hal Halliday, one of the owners here at Anchor, recently came across an excellent video featuring legendary designer and author, Michael Bierut, that does a great job of describing how logos really work. When I watched it, I was virtually yelling “amen” after every soundbite. I still do quite a few logo designs, and if you’ve ever been in a meeting with me or taken a class from me you surely know my opinions on the process. To say that Mr. Bierut and I are on the same page would be an understatement. His assessment of the classic Nike “swoosh” is especially important for anyone who is developing a brand identity for their business.

We’ve all heard the story about how a designer was paid $35 for the icon back in 1973. Business people today use this story as an example of the magical power of logos. “If we can just come up with our own swoosh, our products will pretty much sell themselves!” they say as if the icon is one of those scary rings from a Tolkien movie, controlling the minds of everyone who comes in contact with it. Beirut tells us the truth: Nike leadership didn’t even really like the swoosh when it was first put into use. But they had shoes to sell and they needed something, so they went with it.

That’s when the magic happened – not the sad kind of “Chris Angel” magic that quickly fades away as we all catch on to the illusion, but the slow, steady, roll up your sleeves and build something kind of magic that sorcerers like Steve Jobs have woven into the fabric of American life. First, Nike put their logo on great shoes – not good shoes – great shoes. Then they hired an excellent marketing agency that in turn hired the most recognizable athlete in the world to be their spokesman (this was the biggest decision in Nike’s history, by the way – not choosing the logo). Finally, Nike spent a gazillion dollars over the next 30 years on TV commercials, websites, print ads, billboards and product development to define and build their brand.

The swoosh never gave the Nike brand power, the swoosh’s success is a result of the Nike brand’s power. This is what people forget: Logos don’t make companies, logos are what companies make of them.

Does this mean that you don’t need to spend any resources to design your logo correctly? Or that you can just have the CFO’s nephew create the logo for you (because he’s pretty good at drawing, after all)? Just the opposite! You need to develop and choose a logo that does its job. That means it can be used in multiple applications (for example, how does it look when it is teeny tiny or embroidered on a polo shirt?) for a long, long time without people getting sick of it (gimmicky logos wear out faster, for instance). Instead of trying so hard to find a logo that is magic, develop a logo that works. When a logo works, it makes the job of giving it brand equity easier and less expensive.