The Curse of Literal in Logo Design [AQFG]

One of the hurdles I find with some projects is a clients beliefe that the logo should ‘literally’ convey all and every possible meaning and association that they can find.


One of the hurdles I find with some projects is a clients belief that the logo should ‘literally’ convey all and every possible meaning and association that they can find. If a logo design is packaged with such literal meanings, and visual clues, then how could anyone misinterpret the logo, or be in any doubt what the logo is representing?

The main problem with loading a logo design with literal symbols is that we don’t really end up with a logo design, but more a busy, and oftentimes, cliche icon and/or mess. I’m not just talking about a client wanting a leaf in the logo because they sell plants, or a car salesmen who wants a car in the logo, I’m talking more broadly where a client may not be aware that a logo isn’t really about trying to make their whole business philosophy somehow visually apparent in the logo design.

To them, and I don’t mean to be patronising, this is a relatively common sense assumption, and this is why we often see such overly obvious logo and shop signs in local towns, and yes, even with larger more global prominent brands.

The curse of the literal cliche loaded logo can be found everywhere.

On one hand it sort of makes sense that if you have a logo that it should try it’s best to convey exactly what the business is about, and I can quite understand how a client may want this approach. Often thought that’s actually not the goal of a logo or identity designer, it’s more about finding the deeper meanings, drive and inner workings of a particular company or brand.

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As logo and brand identity designers we are not particularly looking to create an obvious icon or symbol that is loaded with literal visual clues and meanings. Examples of such are more aligned with road sings, icons and symbols for toilets, disabilities, parking and other public facing areas where the icon has to convey, in the cleanest and simplest way possible, a literal meaning of what to expect.

Logo design as a whole doesn’t really fall into this area, although some logo designs do end up actually being quite literal, but this would be all part of the plan from the outset. The difference is that some brands may benefit from this approach, but others not, but if they do then there is generally a good reason for it.

Consider that many companies have logo designs that when viewed complete alone, don’t actually appear to mean an awful lot. Yet when you take time to look into the company, take the rest of the brand identity into consideration, the logo is likely to make far more sense as a complete package.

It’s not always neccessary to design a logo that when viewed alone makes much sense, but it is important to still try and embody some of the companies soul, essence, personality through the choice of design, colours and typography.

I try and explain to clients who are expecting to see a logo design loaded with literal and easy to understand visual clues, “to try and view your logo as a graphical short hand, or unique avatar for the brand name/business, where the logo styling: abstract, monogram, initials, crest, word mark etc, helps set the initial tone, along then with a tag-line, USP (unique selling point), philosophy, descriptions, elevator pitch, and the other parts of the visual identity will all come together to breathe life into the brand.” If a client doesn’t have a USP, doesn’t know really what they are doing or how to sell the idea convincingly to someone in a few minutes, then it’s hardly fair to expect a logo designer to be able to fill the gap—and why would you take on such a project in the first place?

It’s important not to allow a client to get carried away with believing the logo should, on first-glance, tell who ever it looking at it everything there is to know about the company. This might seem obvious, but I get many completed project briefs where the client has indicated that ‘this, that, this and this plus that and some of this’ must all be conveyed in the logo design.

You, as their logo designer, need to set expectations over what the logo needs achieve as soon as possible. We are generally not designing a road sign icon that implicitly conveys what a company does. Again, that’s not to say that in come cases a logo design might not benefit from that approach. If that is an approach that could work then it’s because you have looked at the other options for this client in particular, and because of what they do it may be really important that a logo design is as clear as possible.

What I’m trying to advise is that you don’t allow yourself to get carried away by saying, “yes yes yes”, to whatever the client asks of you because you want to keep them happy. Remember you are the expert, and the client will be relying on you, whether they know it or not, to steer them the right way, even if they are reluctant to listen at first.

The skill is understanding the complete big picture about what is appropriate for each client (not the client per-sai, but the business/product you are designing for), and then forming a design direction that can, in the cleanest way possible infer/hint/suggest at some of the more important aspects of their brand, or personality, whilst creating a logo mark that is appropriate for their needs, and for the intended audience.

If you are going to go literal in your logo then then ensure it’s because you feel it’s the right direction for the client and their brand needs, and not because you don’t have the balls to say NO! :)

Graham Smith

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