Logo design and symbolism past and present – A guest blog by Finn Eamon

By 26th August 2019 September 9th, 2019 No Comments

The trend in logo design towards simple vector art is largely due to the rise of devices we use over printed media. Those logos scale easily to thumbnails, compete for attention with the mobile apps people are familiar with and are identifiable on any size/density of screen, unlike the more individual designs you’d see 10-20 years ago!

Homogenisation isn’t always a bad thing, but I hope this simplification doesn’t become rigid because of tech. I don’t want a world where design and marketing overthrows innovative and artistic experiences, which some brands are awesome at doing.

If you want a look at an awesome homogenised design language from the future imagined in the 1990’s by The Designer’s Republic, you should play the WipEout series and find PDFs of their manuals.

The devs specifically wanted to imagine what the world of advertising and branding would look like in the 2060’s for their floating F1 racers and hired TDR from Japan to pay very close attention to this in the entire design of the game’s visuals/text. The manuals (my favourite part of the first games for this) are written as if you are holding a press release from the F4000 league, complete with vague buzzword heavy branding for imaginary conglomerates sponsoring the teams.

The backbone of design languages (not just for branding) is the immediate ability for a symbol to be understandable, associated with a concept, and recalled by as many people as possible.

This traces back to the military, who had to homogenise different hazard signs used by the navy, army and air force. For example, before the famous radiation symbol (the ‘trefoil’) took over in 1948, the navy used a pink triangle to denote nuclear hazards, while the army used a different symbol and most commercial radioactive symbols had consisted of a small red dot with four or five red lightening bolts radiating outwards (very mistakable for electricity, so unfit for use).

When you read about the history of hazard symbols, road signage and the far older attempts to create visual languages from our past using pictograms, you start to understand why brands imitate and adapt these memes hoping to become as ubiquitous and unconsciously powerful as a “STOP” sign. Imagine a society with hieroglyphics so easily reproducible and ubiquitous we could literally shape the course of someone’s day by placing them in the right places to trigger reactions. The imagery of Lang’s Metropolis with its hordes of oppressed, robotic citizens moving in time to an invisible but simultaneously totally visually defined rhythm comes to mind. Various aspects of verbal human languages can be used for the same manipulative limiting of expressions and freedoms, like newspeak in 1984. Just leave it to authoritarians to fawn over the unrivaled command of the humble WALK/DO NOT WALK crossing. Supermarkets come to mind, with their very visible colour programming designed to make you spend more than you really need to.

A logo used to be just a tool for distinguishing from other brands, but in the 21st century they are a fully formed language much in the way words, characters, signs and even emoji’s are. From the power of bright colours evoking primal symbols of hunger (red blood), to lust (pink blush), to comfort (blue skies), we have all but lost the use of greens (from overexposure as wild humans looking for colourful food), grays, drabs and pastels. Even yellow is less common, though only because it’s a uniquely incompatible colour with reading black and white text, perhaps from millennia of yellow and black being warning colours on pesky insects. Accessibility also drives the design credo of colours, as colour-blindness friendly websites and brands have known for years.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with the origins of banal, everyday things, because when something is ‘just the way it needs to be’ and isn’t redesigned around changing habits, it’s purpose tells us a story about humanity’s deepest shared experiences and archetypes, the invisible meanings behind our symbols. I used to have hypersensitive reactions of anxiety, fear or comfort around warning symbols, especially conveying rules I could break. When even as a kid these associations around mere pictures are already being socially conditioned to happen, it leaves a huge impact on the way you interact with the world and whether you enact free will or not, to follow the signs or forgo your training. Luckily aside from marketing most common signs do have your best interests in mind, because we don’t currently have a Ministry of Freedoms producing well double thought out command symbols to ensure you stick to your rails yet.

Imagining something on the spot to fit a purpose often doesn’t produce a reflection on the designer’s consciousness. It reflects the wider shared consciousness of the species as a whole.

Another favourite of mine would be the tiny symbols in Alien for telling the nostromo crew the function of a part of the ship, they were meticulously drafted to use colour and repeated elements of the symbols to quickly inform you where you are. They didn’t remind the xenomorph to disable the airlock before nomming Ripley though!

Written by Finn Eamon

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