In many ways, your logo symbol is the center of your brand. It’s the central emblem of who you are and what you do and is the backbone for all associations people will have when they think of your company. But how should you use a logo symbol? Is it right for your brand? And how do you make sure you pick the right one?
To help you get started, we’ve outlined some of the basic principles behind effective logo symbolism and provided real-world examples of what great logo symbols look like. While it may seem like a daunting process at first, by the end of this guide you should be well on your way to picking the perfect symbol for your brand. Ready? Let’s get to it.
Why use a logo symbol?
Having a symbol in your logo is not a prerequisite for having a great brand identity. Plenty of household names use just text. However, if you’re just starting out, a logo symbol can be a great way to start capturing some kind of brand equity.
Think of it this way: a logo symbol is like a magnet that attracts people’s attention and gathers all their emotional associations with your company. Do you have to have a logo symbol? Not necessarily. But could it help you establish your brand identity when you’re just starting out? For sure!
Different types of logo symbols
There are a ton of different symbols out there, and they usually fall into one of these categories:
- Abstracts & icons
- Crests, trademarks, and emblems
Let’s break them down to help you understand why they’re effective, and how you can use them in your own logo.
Animal logo symbols
Animals tap into deep instinctual structures in the brain, giving them an immediacy that requires almost no conscious abstraction.
As we’ve covered elsewhere, the Red Bull logo has a rich history that uses animal symbolism to convey a powerful brand message and refer to local history. It’s a great example of why animal symbolism works so well. Think about how the explosive image of the bullfight enhances the logo. Would it have the same impact if it were just text? Definitely not.
Mascot logos are another great way to sew the seeds for a unique brand story, particularly if there’s some background or tradition you’re referring to. Plus, mascot logos can create a powerful, personal connection that humanizes your brand and injects it with life. Take the Celtics’ winking Leprechaun, for example, which draws on the city’s rich Irish heritage and has helped represent one of the most storied teams in the game.
Abstracts & icons
Perhaps one of the most common forms of logo symbols is the abstract, or icon. Out of an infinite possible list of shapes and objects you can choose to represent your brand, the best abstract logo symbols typically capture some core aspects of the brand itself.
Take Tinder, for instance. Given what the dating app offers, the simple flame icon effortlessly captures the user experience. It’s obvious enough to be immediate, yet subtle enough to spark interest. Abstract or icon logos are a flexible way to capture specific ideas about your brand—while leaving some room for the viewer’s interpretation.
Generally, you can pair logo symbols with text in one of two ways: static, or dynamic. Static pairings are straightforward, and simply involve positioning the logo symbol next to the text (like the Tinder logo, for example.) More dynamic pairings of symbol and text rely on a direct interaction of the two, like the Amazon logo.
While interactive logo symbols are a little harder to pull off, the end result is often worth it. The Amazon logo symbol acts as both a friendly smile and as a representation of the brand’s promise: to stock everything from A to Z. Smart, huh?
Crests, trademarks, and emblems
After a 2014 redesign process, Bacardi brought out an edgy, vintage logo symbol that perfectly captured their brand. Drawing from over a century of heritage, the Bacardi logo transports the viewer back to the dusty streets of 1862 Santiago de Cuba. Similarly, crests, trademarks, and emblems can suggest a rich depth of character and history and are a great way to add some weight to your brand’s myth.
How to pick your own logo symbol:
You’ve had a quick look at some of the big names. Now, it’s time to design your own logo symbol. Here’s a rough guide to the process.
Step one: start with a core idea
Generally, the simpler the idea, the better – think Microsoft’s Windows symbol, Apple’s apple, or Nike’s Swoosh. The secret of great logo symbols is that they act as a focal point for the whole brand. In other words, no matter what interaction a person has with the brand, the logo symbol is a stamp on that experience, becoming the basis of their future feelings about the brand.
Think carefully about the characteristics you want to get across. Do you want to emphasize your reliability, seriousness, and no-nonsense approach? If customer service is one of your unique selling points, maybe you want to show how warm and friendly you are. Keep asking yourself, ‘who are we?’, then try to come up with a statement that describes this as a core idea, such as: ‘reliable, dependable, and warm’, or ‘rugged and exciting,’ and so on.
The Today Show logo symbol is a great example of a simple yet captivating story. First, the warm orange sunrise is a perfect symbol for the feeling you want at the start of a brand new day. Second, the designers at Ferroconcrete have done a great job capturing the ‘broadcast’ nature of the show—like rays radiating out from the sun.
Step two: think about your industry
Once you know the character you want to portray, make sure it relates to your industry. This can be achieved in two ways. First, by finding a symbol that’s a direct visual metaphor for something related to your industry (a spanner for a construction firm, or a cup for a coffee shop), or, you can focus on the specific characteristic you want to portray.
Again, Nike’s Swoosh is a great example. It doesn’t explicitly refer to sportswear or even sports, but the powerful story it tells makes perfect sense here.
Overall, your symbol should tell a story that lets your customers know what to expect practically, emotionally or both.
Step three: throw some ideas down and explore
You have your core idea and you’ve thought about how it fits your industry. Now it’s time to cut mad shapes. Typically, designers start by playing with symbol ideas using good old pencil and paper or in illustration software. Often, this might involve playing around with letterforms (if you want to come up with a monogram logo) or sketching out ideas for more general symbols and logo shapes.
The benefit of using a logo maker, however, is that the symbols are already there. Start by simply typing in the kind of imagery you want to find, gathering groups of symbols, and exploring recommended variations. Plus, since you already know your core story, comparing different symbols will help you hone in on the right one.
Try designing your logo now!
Step four: consider concept and execution
When considering which symbol to choose, the two most important aspects to keep in mind are concept and execution. For example, let’s say you run a bodybuilding gym called Dog Pound, or, a boutique dog walking agency called Fluffies. While the concept for both of these brands is at a basic level a ‘dog’, what’s important is clearly the type of dog (i.e., the execution of the idea).
Case in point: Imagine someone at this bodybuilding gym busting out 10 reps of 250 pounds on the bench, only to sit up and display this on their stringer vest:
Conversely, picture your customers when you turn up outside their condo to pick up their award-winning chihuahua, and you have this on the side of your car:
It needs to be obvious why you’ve picked a specific execution. Do the characteristics you want to convey come across? Is there a better version of your logo symbol out there? This is why it helps to work with a selection of different versions of your symbol since it allows you to compare the effect of each.
Time to pick your logo symbol
Picking a logo symbol can seem like a daunting task. After all, this is the emblem that will come to stand for your brand as a whole. Sometimes, there’s a tendency to try to get it right the first time but remember: picking a symbol for your logo is an ongoing process, and even the biggest names go through multiple revisions before they update their logos.
Ultimately, though they come in different shapes and sizes, the symbols we’ve covered hold fast to a core set of design principles that you can apply to your own logo:
- Is it simple?
- Is the symbol industry-relevant (either directly or metaphorically)?
- Is it story or concept-driven?
- Is it well-executed?
After that, the rest is down to your own creative flair. Keep trying out different iterations and get some advice from your friends and family if you’re unsure. Honest, objective feedback is a great way to find a symbol that will resonate.
Other than that, good luck, have fun, and happy designing!