Designing the Next Iconic Logo

We all know those logo designs that stand the test of time—older marks that still compete with the best of today. The names Paul Rand, Milton Glaser and Ivan Chermayeff come to mind, along with scores of other iconic designers. The question is what makes those marks so timeless and still resonate with viewers? Is it typography? Use of negative space; form? They say in design, “Form follows function,” and those brilliant designs’ form follows their function elegantly and with a sense of timeless that, frankly, few of us can match.

But don’t despair. Put your mind and your experience into your next logo project. You’re likely better than you think you are. You have the talent and ability to create the next iconic mark.

The trouble is, graphic designers, like artists, are a wee bit insecure when it comes to their work. Have you ever thought, “Will they like it?,” “Is this the one they’ll go nuts over?” and the ever popular, “Will I get paid for this?”

In most cases, simplicity is the key to creating a brand identity that spans the ages. Sure, money helps, too. It takes a bit of cash to plaster a mark everywhere. But, simplicity and ease of recognition are paramount. Getting to simple is no small task. Many designers tend to overcomplicate the process with too many colors, layers of elements, etc. When designing a logo, it’s important to ensure it is readable and maintains impact in both very small and very large applications. You don’t know where the design is going.

For example, a client requests a logo design for his or her small startup. They’re a typical startup with big dreams and little cash. The mark will most likely be used on stationery. Time marches on and your little client grows into a huge multinational. Your design appears on stationery, but also signage, vehicles, print and television ads, uniforms and other applications you never thought about. Will it still work or will some other lucky design firm get a redesign project?


Sergey Kohl /

Consider international coffeehouse chain Starbucks. When Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker got the idea to start a company selling coffee beans and coffee-making equipment from Alfred Peet of Peet’s Coffee, that was all they planned to do. Howard Schultz, Director of Retail Operations, thought selling drinks would be a good idea in addition to beans and equipment. But, he couldn’t persuade the others to buy-in. So, he went his own way and started Il Giornale coffee bars. Baldwin and the others sold the company to Schultz and the Starbucks we know today was born. That’s the backstory short version.


The company’s first mark was a bare-breasted mermaid. A wee bit risqué. The Starbucks logo was designed by Terry Heckler and re-designed by Lippincott and Starbucks Global Creative Team. The mark has gone through changes over time and became more modest with hair covering the breasts. Yet, the mermaid has remained the central theme. It is an easily-recognizable green, and the fact that the chain and coffee products are everywhere certainly helped to build its brand. The company had a great branding idea and stuck with it through the years.

What are some other points to consider when designing a mark? A strong concept is the first consideration. Does the design match the client’s company culture, mission and vision? If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Or, computer these days, as the case may be. Simplify and then simplify some more. Will it work large and small? Does the color (or colors) make sense? There are psychological implications to color. Know them. Don’t choose a color because of your personal choice. Choose it because it reflects and reinforces the concept and goals of the client. Do the research and test your designs. That means more than asking your significant other if they like it. Run it by forums, post them to your blog or website. Get them out there. Others may see things you don’t or make suggestions you hadn’t thought about. A logo needs to have mass appeal, so engage the masses as best you can. Graphic design works best outside of a vacuum.

The key is asking your client questions such as:

  • How do you plan to use the logo?
  • Who is your primary audience?
  • Who is your secondary audience?
  • Describe your company and its culture.
  • Does the company have any branding elements: colors, typography, graphics, etc.
  • Are there particular audience considerations? (Gender, age, other demographics)
  • Ask then why they like or don’t like this or that

Finally, allow your designs time to stew. I post mine to a wall for a few days. I’ll walk by and notice something, make some changes and get new ideas. Also, every idea counts. Put them all down, even the ones you may not like. Ideas are funny things; one leads to another. You may find your most brilliant concept was born from something you weren’t going to jot down. It’s the design process.

The key word there is “process.” Process is defined as “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.” Define your process and use it. Sometimes great design happens in a moment of instant inspiration. Other times it takes a while. Often, it’s the latter. Give it time and you may find yourself creating the next timeless logo.

3 thoughts on “Designing the Next Iconic Logo

  1. Designfacet

    Excellent article Neil. I also like to say that no matter how cleaver or creative a logo design can be, the success and exposure heavily relies on marketing and promoting the product/service. I have seen too many great logo’s gone to waste because the client either went cheap on marketing or hardly did any at all. Also Clients tend to get the logo designed by one designer and the rest of their visual/marketing materials by another designer which is a total mistake again due to their penny pinching. They should in reality hire a graphic design firm that has the portfolio and experience to take on the whole branding from start to finish.

  2. umaramin

    Excellent article Neil.Dissertation Assistance I also like to say that no matter how cleaver or creative a logo design can be, the success and exposure heavily relies on marketing and promoting the product/service. I have seen too many great logo’s gone to waste because the client either went cheap on marketing or hardly did any at all.

  3. hopeschroer

    I loved this read Neil. I do agree with umaramin when they mentioned that marketing and services have a lot to do with the success and iconic nature of the logo/brand itself. Speaking strictly from a design perspective though, a fantastic logo when marketed decently well can make a brand stand out so much more. I know from a creatives perspective, I am partial to products/services with well thought out and consistent branding/logos. In that sense I think the iconic nature and the marketing go hand in hand in the success of the business.