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5 Essential Traits of Iconic Logos

A logo is often the first thing people see when buying products or services. Logos serve as proof that what they’re buying is genuine and legitimate — in other words, they help make a bang-on first impression.

After you make that first impression, you want your logo to remain in the minds of customers and last for months and years to come.

To create an iconic logo, here are five traits to strive for in your design.Iconic logos: Nike, Toys R Us, Coca-Cola, McDonalds

1. Simple

The number one trait in iconic logos is simplicity. When you achieve simplicity in your design, it’s much easier to accomplish the other four traits covered below.

It’s important to note that simple doesn’t mean boring — it means easy to understand and uncomplicated.

Most of the time, a simple design is exactly what you need. Adding too many elements to a logo can make it feel cluttered, and the human mind deals with clutter the best way it can: by blocking most of it out.

Uninteresting or non-distinctive elements compete with one another for the viewer’s attention, making it easier for them to skip over (especially because people’s attention spans are smaller than ever).

Simple logos are easier to understand and absorb, but more importantly, they’re easier to recall when people see them again. A simple logo will make it easier to catch the attention of someone driving on the highway or make your product identifiable on the crowded shelves at a store.

Case in point: The world’s largest shoe manufacturer, Nike, uses a very simple graphic swoosh to represent their brand and stand out.

An acronym to keep in mind is the cliche-but-useful K.I.S.S. (“keep it simple stupid”). Don’t add elements just because you think your logo is boring. When you’re about to add another color, font, shape, or other graphic elements, always ask yourself why.

If it’s not going to strengthen the overall design or your brand message, don’t add it.Nike logo in black and white

2. Appropriate

The second trait is appropriate. A logo must be simple, but not every simple logo is iconic. The logo must work for its intended use and target audience.

Logos don’t need to say what a company does; instead, they must be appropriate in the feeling they convey. Think about famous logos. The Apple logo is not a computer, the BMW logo is not a car, and the American Airlines logo is not an airplane.

On the other hand, a logo can be literal. Take Target or Shell — these logos are a visual representation of the company name, and that’s appropriate as well.

But think about those two logos: Target doesn’t use a bullseye as their symbol because they’re trying to tell you what the company does; they do it to be identifiable. And let’s be clear: the primary purpose of a logo is to identify a company.

Iconic logos are also targeted to an intended audience. Think of a bank logo compared to a children’s toy store logo. It would be appropriate to use a childish, wacky, or fun font and color scheme for the toy store. But this wouldn’t be appropriate for a bank because people wouldn’t take them seriously or trust their business.

The Toys“R”Us logo is a prime example of an appropriate logo. With the hand-drawn font, backward R, star symbol, and wacky color scheme, it looks like a kid drew it. This attracts children to the store because they can relate to the logo.

It’s not about fancy visual tricks or complicated design elements. It’s about creating a logo that’s appropriate in the feeling it conveys.

Logos are for identification, not communication — they shouldn’t try to say a whole lot, because that can be done through marketing and communications. Instead, the logo style should relate to the target audience and communicate the personality of your company.ToysRUs logo in black and white

3. Distinctive

The third trait of an iconic logo is that it’s distinctive. Why do we say distinctive over memorable? Because at the root of something being memorable is it being unique enough for someone to remember, even in a crowded marketplace.

If your logo design is distinctive enough to commit to memory, then people who’ve been impressed by your brand or company can easily describe it to others who might be interested as well. Keeping the elements to a minimum and using only one visual trick or technique will help with this.

As mentioned, many companies overcompensate in a design by using complicated logo elements to stand out. But if a logo is busy, it’s a lot harder to digest and recall.

Instead, the goal should be to have a logo that’s distinctive enough for someone to remember what it looks like after only seeing it once.

A good test for this is to see if someone can redraw a logo on a piece of paper after one glance. (It’s also important to note that iconic logos are recognizable even when they appear without the business name.)

Aside from the benefit of being memorable, when people are more familiar with a logo, they’re more likely to assign positives to the brand. Distinctive logos are also more likely to get consumers’ attention and make them more likely to want to learn more about the brand.

Remember: If people can’t recall what it looks like when it’s not in front of them, then the logo isn’t doing its job. If you want to design a distinctive logo, it has to stand out and be easily digestible. It should be different from your competitors and stand out amongst everything else.

The McDonalds logo is an excellent example of a distinctive design. It’s simple enough to redraw after seeing it only once (and can be seen from far away on a highway billboard), and the two golden arches that create an “M” are identifiable around the world.McDonalds logo in black and white

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4. Versatile

Iconic logos are also versatile. Versatile means that the logo looks equally great at all sizes and across all applications. It’s effective in any color and functional enough to work in both horizontal and vertical formats.

To create a versatile logo, you have to ensure that it works for every place you want to use it. Think websites, business cards, signage, labels, vehicles, and beyond. No matter the size — from a giant billboard to a postage stamp — the logo should be both impactful and legible.

When you add too many details to a logo, legibility always suffers. Too many colors and elements will get lost when you try to reproduce the logo in smaller sizes.

It’s also important to remember that you won’t be able to use a full-color logo all the time. The logo should be able to work in black or white; it shouldn’t rely on visual effects to stand out.

Another option is to have a flexible logo, also known as a responsive logo. These types of logos can change in size, complexity, or even color to accommodate and adapt for different sizes and screens.

Today, there are more places to use a logo than ever before, and they all vary in size. To create an iconic logo, you have to ensure your design is recognizable and adaptable — even when it’s at the top of your browser in a tiny 16 x 16-pixel favicon.

The Apple logo is a famous example of a versatile logo. It looks good in both black and white and small and large sizes and can be used as a favicon without altering the logo.Apple's iconic logo in black and white

5. Timeless

The final trait — and the hardest one to achieve — is timelessness. It’s the last trait on the list because without the other four traits, it’s almost impossible to achieve.

With design trends coming and going all the time, and the world constantly changing, you can’t be sure that a logo will pass the test of time. But you can ensure a logo has the traits to become timeless.

A timeless logo is simple enough to not die with any trends, appropriate in the feeling, distinctive enough to commit it to memory, and versatile enough to work for any size or application.

Only once all of these four traits are achieved can you know that the logo is in the best possible place to pass the test of time.

An iconic logo is still in use after 10, 20, or even 50 years. It should stand strong through every trend and state of the company. If the logo doesn’t stay effective over time, then you’ll have to design a new logo every time it gets out of date; doing this can cost lots of money, and it’s avoidable.

We interact with many timeless logos every day: Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple, and more. All of these logos have more than one similarity that ensures the timelessness of the logo and its recognition with the public:

  • Simple in shape and form
  • Distinctive
  • No complicated graphical elements
  • Appropriate in the feeling
  • Limited number of colors
  • Identifiable when scaled up or down 

The best rule to remember is not to follow design trends. Logos that rely on trends (glossy shading or complex gradients) often fail to be timeless, as they’re not versatile. If you follow trends, then the logo can die with that trend.

Font and color choice are the two main reasons logos become out of date. A common mistake people make is thinking simple, classic fonts are boring and not unique. Not true! Sticking with classic, well-crafted fonts will help make your logo timeless.

Another best practice is to stick to a small color palette: one main color, possibly a minor secondary color, and then one neutral color (like black or white).

The more colors in a design, the more likely it will become dated. A recent example of this is Slack — the company redesigned its logo and pared back the original shaded color scheme to four primary colors (plus black).

While it may sound obvious, the Coca-Cola logo is a prime example of a timeless logo. It has stayed almost the same since the early 1900s and is one of the most timeless logos in history.The iconic Coca-Cola logo in black and white

Getting to an iconic logo

An iconic logo is simple enough to digest at a glance, appropriate in communicating a feeling, distinctive enough to commit to memory, versatile enough to work for any size or application, and designed well enough to pass the test of time.

If you want to make a great first impression and have a logo that’ll last for years, then follow these five traits.

All the logo examples in this article are displayed in black and white. This was done intentionally to show that iconic logos don’t need the brand color to be identified; it’s much more important to have a simple and distinctive design.

One final note for when you’re designing your logo: think more about subtracting elements than adding them. This doesn’t mean you should remove everything from the logo. Instead, think about why each element is needed and how it communicates your brand to the world.

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