Suspicious of Symbols

Most designers will point out that a logo doesn’t have to explicitly say what the company does.  There are very few contexts where you’ll win new business by saying–graphically–what you do.  It’s also just a matter of  what works.  Almost all of the logos you can remember right now have nothing to do with what the company they identify does.  And if you don’t need to say what your company does explicitly with a logo, it would seem to go without saying that you don’t need to say it cryptically either.  But it doesn’t.  There are thousands and thousands of companies that have resisted using a tool of their trade for their logo but just couldn’t resist trying to imbue it with symbols explaining what they do and how awesomely they do it.

Then they do something even weirder.  They ruin whatever effect they were going for with the symbolism by spelling out exactly what they mean on an “about our logo” page.

And that’s where our story starts.

The Technology Firm would like to let you know that those aren’t tiger claw scars you’re looking at there–oh, no–those are contrails representing their consulting services and the height and distance they want you to fly when you enlist their help.  High, metaphorically, not physically.  Though they do think that flight is a symbol of their business because it is an incredible marriage of human knowledge and technological capability.  I guess all that seems clear enough, but why isn’t he wearing a blue-tooth headset?

Dow Wolff has one less excuse for their bad symbolism.  It’s a real company with real financial backing.  Still, they really want to pack that little logo with meaning.  1. The overlapping w element “reflects the strength of this partnership between Dow and Wolff Walsrode” 2. The central green oval “represents the product itself, being the cellulose derivative.”  So they didn’t actually avoid the cliché of putting what they do in the logo.  3.  ”Upon closer examination you will notice a shine. This represents the added value cellulose and our expertise give to the end products Dow Wolff Cellulosics helps to formulate.”  4.  If you take the oval of cellulose and the shrine and the stuff behind them, put them all together “the logo symbolizes an eye. For years both companies have been highly focused (hence the eye-shaped form) on key markets, the development of cellulose derivatives and application formulation.”  I think it’s important to point out that the parenthesis are not mine.  They thought you might think the connection was tenuous if they had only said “eye” and “focus.”

Dow Wolff does not take the cake, though, for attributing lots of meaning to a single graphical element.  Center for Sustainability has a simple circle in their logo that carries an even heavier symbolic load.   ”The burgundy circle symbolizes many different things to us, including the earth, true-recycling, community connections, and the cyclical nature of our world. It represents the principles currently governing our natural world and serve as the foundation to sustainable business theory and practice.”  So keep all that in mind next time you see a red circle.  Like a Do Not Enter sign, the Japanese flag, or a You Are Here dot.

I guess this one is a little unfair, but I want to be sure to show how far this can all go.  And the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute goes all the way.  ”the logo contains four important elements: the Eye of Providence, the North Star, the flag of the United States, and the triangle shape, reminiscent of the pyramid in the Great Seal.”  Let’s go over these important elements in detail below.  I will not quote the entire two-page parable of this logo, but I’ll be paraphrasing important highlights.

Let’s see, what else have we learned.  Well, “Combined, then, [these elements] reflect perspective, wisdom, understanding, and providence, finding a path to new opportunities while retaining our core values, the humbleness that comes from being part of a great and strong nation, the awareness that we exist as citizens of a global society, and our ongoing commitment to put America first.”  Oh yes, humbleness.  That’s what we’ve learned.

So to recap:  Don’t use your logo to symbolize a bunch of stuff, or really much of anything.  It’s okay that it doesn’t do anything but help people recognize your company.  If a designer tries to sell you on all this stuff, it might be in your best interest to find another designer.

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  1. Cara’s avatar

    My favorite example is Unilever. What do you sell Unilever? Oh yeah, EVERYTHING — all this stuff. Just add a ton of little logos inside of a great big ol’ U. Don’t you dare rationalize the bird in logo as a symbol of freedom when one of your brands is DOVE. Ick.