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Design

5 Essential Characteristics of a Good Logo

by Daniel Beadle | Jun 17, 2016 | [[ readEstimate ]] min read

There have been many articles written that cite the qualities of a good logo. And while there's a great deal of consensus about those qualities, I want to add some of my own insights to them, and draw some attention to some of the overlooked nuances behind the art of logo design.

1. Tone

Sophisticated? Playful? A logo is a way to tell a brand story in as few words as possible. You have to know yourself as well as your intended audience. Make sure that your sending the correct message. Also, does it use colors that match the tone of your organization?

The brands behind the major gaming consoles all set a different tone, even though they’re all in the same industry with the same audience. Just by looking at their logos, you can tell how they’re trying to present themselves. PlayStation, especially since they’ve done away with the color bands, comes across as edgy and modern. Xbox is otherworldly. And Nintendo has a more retro/playful vibe. Just look at their websites to see that tonal shift from one to the other.

2. Versatility

A great logo should look good at any size, from a favicon all the way up to a Jumbotron. Another aspect of logo versatility is the arrangement of its elements. Can it have a vertical and horizontal version, depending on space? If it has a mark, can that mark live independently of the type without losing its impact? Also, is it flexible enough to account for sub-brands?

The Grafton Studio logo is an easy example of versatile arrangements. It’s always good to think ahead, and even try out a proposed logo in several different contexts. Sure, vertical logos look great alone, but they often take up too much space on a web page. When I design a logo, I often think of the text as ancillary to the mark (if it’s not a typographic logo). As such, I like to make sure the mark can stand on it’s own, if necessary. But more on that later.

The previous version of the DC Comics logo was versatile in a different way. Given their extensive library of characters, DC opted to have a logo that was able to represent that tonal diversity, as you see here. This really underlines the importance of a logo’s shape, rather than being overly reliant on it’s color scheme. Which brings us to…

3. Simplicity

Is the logo as simple as possible? Can it stand on its own without color effects? And can it be made simpler? Often times, logos need to be abbreviated for use in small, square areas like the aforementioned favicon, or as an icon on your phone. Can the logo survive that trip?

Apple is a perfect example of a mark that’s become simpler with each iteration. And I’m not even including their original Isaac Newton logo. With greater brand recognition, logos that combine type and glyphs often abandon the type, and let the glyph stand on its own. Apple took it a step further, ditching the color bands in favor of a solid fill. There have been various embellishments of that shape over the years, but it endures as a simple apple shape that’s immediately recognizable.

Nike is another example of abandoning type in favor of a simple swoosh. Once the word association was made in the collective consciousness of their audience, the mark spoke for itself as a symbol of forward momentum and speed. So consider not only where your brand is today, but where it could be down the line.

4. Distinctiveness

It’s a bit of challenge, to make a logo mark both simple and distinct. These are the kinds of paradoxes that designers have to get used to. A good mark will avoid being generic, and hopefully avoid what’s been done before. And if it has been done before, make sure yours has good reasoning behind it.

The circle is a common logo shape, and here you see both Target and Beats have inadvertently created nearly identical logo marks. When seen side by side, they look very similar, but they were arrived at by telling their own story. The target is obvious. And with Beats, the lowercase B doubles as a profile view of a headphone. It’s pure coincidence that it’s only one line away from a target, so it’s a forgivable similarity.

5. Timelessness

A logo should avoid any obvious fads. And if a logo is a redesign of an existing brand, consider too if it should pay homage to the past by evolving the current logo, or if it’s time for a complete departure. Always bear in mind why a logo is being redesigned.

Pepsi provides us with such a perfect case of brand evolution. Every version of their logo takes an element of the previous version, and moves it one step forward. The more faddish iterations, most notably in the 1990’s, were the ones that had the most embellishments, such as textures, gradients, and shadows. The key to timelessness is to keep such embellishments discreet, or just avoid them altogether.

DC Comics, as previously mentioned, recently redesigned their logo. This is their third redesign in the past eleven years, after replacing their classic “DC Bullet” at the far left. The Bullet had endured for 30 years before they felt the need to change. That’s how you know a logo is timeless: When it looks just as fitting today as it did when it was first designed. In DC’s case, they tried evolving it, then they tried a departure from it, and in the end, they went with a throwback to a mark that predated the Bullet. Use your judgment. Which one of the logos above do you think will look good in 30 years? Will yours?


I think this rundown points out how difficult logo design can actually be. A lot needs to be communicated by that distinct combination of shapes and words. But it can also be fun, and enlightening. A logo reveals a lot about the organization or person it symbolizes. The key to a great logo, above all else, is to know what it needs to represent on a basic level. Know the tone you want to strike, and let all the other details flow from that.

A logo is a signature. Make it look great, but more importantly, make it authentic.