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At the foundation of your brand development effort is one crystalline expression – essentially a picture that captures your brand essence. This is your logo.

To the uninitiated, the care, creativity, and cost that go into a great logo will astound. Major brands routinely invest tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of dollars designing logos that telegraph core values of their brands.

You don’t have to invest that much, but please recognize this as a discipline in which you get what you pay for. There are Internet logo factories that will crank out a design for $99 to $1,000. You get some pretty pictures and some quick typography slapped together but not a tremendous amount of originality. 

Looking at a major brand’s logo, you’d never guess the blood, sweat and treasure that were poured into it. (How difficult could that Target be, anyway?) The Nike swoosh was originally created by Carolyn Davidson, a graphic design student at Portland State University. She met company founder Phil Knight while he was teaching accounting at the college. Working for $2 per hour, she developed concepts for the “stripe” that would adorn the running shoe Knight was creating. Her invoice: $35. But don’t be fooled that Davidson’s is the swoosh you see today; it has been subjected to a number of high-powered iterations and refinements.

Why is the logo so important?

 Symbols are extraordinarily powerful. Consider the cross. The swastika. The Statue of Liberty. Tremendous meaning can be compressed into a single image. What applies to religions and politics applies to brand-building as well.

What makes a great logo?

Most simply, it has to look like you. It must be a true and memorable expression of your brand’s essential nature. It must look great in black-and-white as well as color. It must be scalable so it works huge (on the side of a building) and tiny (on the side of a pen). It must be reproducible in multiple media – from commercial printing to embroidery to vinyl decals. It needs to be as timeless as possible – you’re going to have it printed on a lot of stuff. It must meet some yardsticks of good design such as balance, proportion and clarity. But beyond these criteria, it can be virtually anything that works.

There’s no point in trying to instruct you in how to design a great logo. You are not a graphic designer and neither am I. But here are several things you should do:

  • Find a proven graphic designer with a demonstrated logo portfolio. Look for work that is not trendy, pop-arty or overly influenced by Japanese anime, MTV or other cultural artifacts. Look for work that effectively expresses the brand nature of the businesses or products represented. Seeing a particular “style” infusing all of the work is always a bad sign – it means the designer is expressing his or her personality, not the brand’s personality.
  • While interviewing designers or agencies, look for a process as much as the finished results. Fantastic logos are the result of carefully drawing out the brand positioning, bringing multiple prospective solutions to the table, and then collaboratively refining one or more concepts to a finished design. Expect to be patient, and be ready to engage.
  • Invest enough money that it hurts. You’ll be writing one check now, but remember you’re amortizing this cost over decades.
  • When evaluating the prospective logo (and any future creative expressions of your brand), eliminate the phrases “I like” and “I don’t like” from your vocabulary. You’re not picking paint colors for your living room. This process is not all about you; it’s all about your market. Ask “what will work?” “What will appeal to my target customer?” “What is timeless?”
  • Don’t make the final decision in a vacuum. Expose others to the choices, and particularly bounce them off of representatives of your target market. Without preconditioning the conversation, ask them what the logo says to them about the company, product and service. Use these conversations to inform and direct your decision.

Great logos are a lot of inspiration and even more perspiration. Everything matters. They’re damn hard work, but they’re worth it.

Author Martin Thoma

Began his agency career as a copywriter before co-founding Thoma Thoma more than 30 years ago. Now Martin focuses on helping brands grow by discerning, defining and articulating their unique strengths.

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