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The History Of Logos And Logo Design

We live in a Brand Era, where branding is in, and for some, aspiring to the Paul Rand style of logo craftsmanship is about as hip and contemporary as writing your invoices with a quill. Yes, logo design is only one facet of the powerful force that we call brand identity. The history of logo design begins with the roots of human expression. [Links checked March/06/2017]

Yes, a branded design environment can communicate sophisticated brand meaning without much (any?) usage of logos. But some ‘brand gurus’ or ‘brand evangelists’ (translation: ‘bastions of corporate pretension’) seem to enjoy making hyperbolic pronouncements just to sound shocking or cutting-edge. Logo design is not dead. The technological advancements and tumultuous industries of our century are causing its role in our culture to evolve.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Perhaps this clamorous debate is cause for a look at where logo design comes from, what state it’s in currently, and where it’s headed in the future. Where does a logo ultimately derive its power from? If we’re so hung up on divining what this Brand Era means for our clients, can we envision a Post-Brand Era?

Symbolism Link

The fundamental power of symbols remains most important element of logo design. A logo has meaning because it draws on centuries of signs and symbols (including the alphabet) in human literary and visual language. A logo designer who uses an image of an apple, for example, is drawing on centuries of potent symbolic usage. For most Western viewers, the image of an apple summons our associations with nature, food, the ‘forbidden fruit’ in the Garden of Eden, Snow White, Apple computers, et cetera. To design a logo with symbolic resonance is to participate in the lineage of social dialogue.

The History Of Logo Design - Fragment of a vase

Fragment of a vase, third millennium B.C. The figures on this vase bear a striking similarity to the cave paintings of Lascaux and even to contemporary imagery like the Puma logo. These similarities reveal the harmony and union of human communication over great distances of time and geographic location.

To communicate effectively with design, it’s important to view the big picture of human communication and mythology. Logo design as we know it today is a strategy that rose to popularity with brands and corporations of the twentieth century. However, people and organizations have been identifying themselves with an enormous variety of marks, signatures, and emblems for centuries. In terms of visual communication, a modern company that represents itself with a logo, color scheme, and slogan is not very different from a 15th century royal court that invoked identity and unity through the use of family crests, uniforms, and religious symbolism.

In semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation), human communication is discussed in terms of signs and signifiers. Signs can take the form of words, images, flavors, or even odors: things that have no intrinsic meaning until we invest it in them. We perceive, understand, and negotiate the world around us by investing meaning in all manner of signs and symbols. In the West, an image of a snake signifies evil. But without our Western cultural and mythological associations (many of which are rooted in the Bible), a serpent is just a serpent.

Greek Signature Seals

Greek signature seals, fifth century B.C. Affluent Greek citizens used these molded stamps to sign or endorse documents. Using an animal image to identify oneself has a long history predating famous animal logos like Lacoste and Penguin.

Symbols are highly subjective and dependent upon cultural reference. The swastika, for example, is a symbol that was used by various cultures across the globe for over 5,000 years to symbolize a variety of positive meanings including good luck, life, sun, power, and strength. In fact5, the word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being.” Sadly, those meanings have all been usurped by the atrocities of the Nazi party. No symbol has inherent meaning of its own, but when maligned by indelible association with war and unspeakable tragedy, a simple symbol like the swastika can be transformed into a potent talisman capable of eliciting an intense reaction from the viewer. Our complex emotional responses to rudimentary images reveals the profound depth of our relationship with the visual world around us.

The meaning of a logo is often an elusive concept, and two top professionals may disagree about whether a particular logo is a masterpiece or an abomination. This subjective nature of meaning in logography is part of the beauty and wonder of the craft.

Historical Identifying Marks Link

A wide variety of stamps, symbols, and signatures have been used to identify people over the centuries. Here are a few.

Printer's Marks

Printer’s marks, late fifteenth century

The printer’s marks above are variations on an ‘orb and cross’ theme, symbolizing the idea that “God shall reign over Earth.”

Aldus Manutius

Aldus Manutius, printer’s trademark, c.1500.

This printer’s trademark symbolizes a beautiful paradox. It was used in conjunction with an epigram reading “Make haste slowly.” Swiftness is visually represented by the speedy sea animal and stillness is represented by the anchor.

rembrandt signatures

Rembrandt ‘branded’ his authorship on his paintings with a variety of signatures during the course of his career, but the distinctive ‘R’ and unique personality of the letterforms provide unity to the marks.

Corporate Identity Link

The industrial revolution profoundly expanded the reach and power of mass production and the marketing used to promote it. Corporations now found that a simple identifying mark was insufficient for distinguishing themselves amongst growing competition in broadening markets. “The national and multinational scope of many corporations made it difficult for them to maintain a cohesive image, but by unifying all communications from a given organization into a consistent design system, such an image could be projected, and the design system enlisted to help accomplish specific corporate goals.” (Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, by Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis).

In other words, the logo was now being used as one element in a broader system of visual elements used to identify the entire output of a corporation — many of which were becoming larger and more powerful than any had every been before.

Here are some notable developments in the evolution of identity design and the history of logos.

Wiener Werkstätte Link

The Wiener Werkstätte was a manufacturing and marketing enterprise founded in Vienna in 1903 — decades before graphic designers were doing work that was officially recognized as corporate identity. This group of craftsmen and designers were true trailblazers.

Werkstätte Marks

Marks of the Werkstätte, left to right: Werkstätte monogram, rose logo, logo for Galerie Miethke designed by Kolo Moser

Werkstätte Letterhead

Wiener Werkstätte letterhead printed in ‘Wiener Werkstätte blue,’ 1914. The group’s obsession with squares and grids is evident here.

A trademark was proposed for the Werkstätte, but designer Josef Hoffman proposed a complete graphic identity. The appearance of the group’s letters and articles was unified by four elements: the Werkstätte’s red rose symbol plus the monogram marks of the Werkstätte, the designer, and the producer. These standard elements, along with the use of the square as a decorative motif, were used to design everything from invoices to wrapping paper.

Werkstätte Cupboard Key

Now that’s dedication to designing an immersive brand environment: the Werkstätte logo forged into the handle of a cupboard key.

Identity Masters Link

Westinghouse Annual Report

Westinghouse logo and annual report designed by Paul Rand

Extraordinarily influential designers like Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, and Alan Fletcher helped shape the graphic identity of consumer culture during the second half of the twentieth century. Rand, for example, designed many ubiquitous logos and his varied identity work for IBM became a benchmark in the industry. These great designers have been covered in depth elsewhere (check out ‘The world’s best logo designers?’ by David Airey), so we won’t spend too much time on them here.

Music Television Link

“The move of information from the printed page to other media has changed the nature of graphic identity. The MTV logo, which emerges from an unexpected metamorphosis, is probably the ultimate in animated identity.” –The New York Times, September 1996

The History Of Logo Design - MTV Logos

The MTV logo was designed by the now-defunct studio Manhattan Design in the early 1980’s. Former Manhattan Design member Frank Olinsky tells the story behind the creation of this logo here6.

This logo was a revolution in corporate identity because it adapted to the language of television and shattered standing notions about the ‘rules’ of logo use. In the early 80’s, television had become a ubiquitous medium. The MTV logo adapted to the nature of this medium by exploiting the speed and motion of the moving image: it was regularly animated, shattered, decorated, erased, and reborn in the course of a brief station identification spot. This showed that logos could be adaptive vessels for graphic identity and demolished the notion that trademarks should always be presented in a consistent, static form. The logo had evolved to fit the culture of the television era.

The Brand Era Link

“In order to be successful multinational corporations, you need to produce brands, not products.” -Naomi Klein

Nike Lebron

Lebron James is deified in a Nike desktop wallpaper ad. The Swoosh is tiny; the brand is huge. For some, Nike epitomizes successful branding. For others, it’s the poster child for deceptive marketing, sweatshop labor, and unethical business practices.

Now that the whole world has been branded, the Twentieth Century approach to branding is old school. I’ll call our present day in age the Brand Era. The logo has evolved from a mark of quality on a product to a visual distillation of a cultural ideal — one that’s capable of accruing or asserting brand equity in a variety of marketing environments and inspiring great allegiance among consumers. “In this corporate formula,” says Naomi Klein, “the brand has little to do with the life of the product. Rather, it is a free-standing idea. The goal of the successful brand has become nothing short of transcendence from the world of things.”

In this twenty-first century brand space, Nike is no longer a shoe company — it is a concept that represents transcendence through sports. Consider the Nike ad above: Lebron James is deified in a Christ-like pose and with religious language (‘witness,’ ‘believe’), both of which imply spiritual transcendence. In the case of Michael Jordan, the star was granted superhuman powers in Nike ads (picture him achieving flight, suspended midair en route to the hoop). In the corner floats the simple, austere Swoosh. In this context, the logo is a sponge, soaking up the ‘brand equity’ created by themes of transcendence and flight as well as the basketball star’s fame/endorsement/deification.

‘Brand evangelists’ now use all kinds of lofty language to describe ‘brand worlds’ and ‘branded landscapes.’ At best, this kind of language describes creative brand strategy that can provide organizations with an innovative approach to defining themselves in today’s corporate culture — a place where tumultuous economies and rapid technological change require constant adaptation. At worst, this kind of behavior is an attempt to pull the pretentious wool over the novice client’s eyes, using ostentatious language to leverage the sale of mediocre design and commonplace brand strategy. None of us entered this field to become snake oil salesmen, so don’t pitch like them.

A Post-Brand Era? Link

Times Square Parade by Alexander Chen

Ask someone standing in Times Square if logo design is dead. Image: ‘Times Square Parade’ by Alexander Chen7

In this era, the brand is bigger and more powerful than ever. Brands have become so big that some people have logo tattoos (physically branded with a brand) while celebrities like Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey have successfully developed themselves into personal mega brands. Brands like Nike have transformed themselves into lifestyle choices that consumers can integrate into their own identity. How much further can we go? What comes next?

Naomi Klein has noted that the many successful brands have already achieved “transcendence from the world of things,” meaning that the dissemination of a brand’s identity has become more valuable than its production of physical commodities. Technology will soon liberate brands from the visible world even further, as companies enter the fields of nanotechnology, synthetic life production8, virtual space, and more. What will ‘brand identity’ mean for a person who has branded cells injected into their body to eradicate cancer? And you thought the favicon was small. Brands will occupy startling new environments (like the bloodstream) in the 21st Century.

The MTV logo famously introduced a logo that could undergo a costume change during every performance. How else can a logo break the rules to adapt? Is there a way to explode the logo, to decentralize it? What about a logo that consisted of separate elements that could be displayed on their own or joined together to create a unified whole? If branded products exist on a molecular level that’s invisible to the naked eye, could they project external holographic brand identity?

The role of brand identity in the future remains to be seen. But it appears as though — barring the apocalypse or some Naomi Klein-inspired activist revolution — brands will continue to expand into new areas. Just as most industries are dealing with abrupt transitional periods due to the disruptive effects of technology, so is ours. In fact, their transitional periods become our transitional periods, because they are our clients.

As brand identity designers, merely designing a logo for a client is not good enough. It is also unacceptable to stand on the cultural sidelines or design with our heads in the sand. We must be students of the changing cultures around us. We must take active roles in the use of design to strengthen and navigate the futures of the industries, people, and causes we believe in.

The Road Ahead Link

For now, brand identity design is thriving. Branded design environments (like a website with an integrated design strategy expressing brand qualities) can coexist with traditional logo design. In the future — as always — it’s creative thinking that will lead the way. One valuable asset will be the willingness to take a risk when it comes time to develop a strategy for a brand’s visual persona. The faster technology propels our culture, the more design risk-takers we’re going to need.

Whatever changes may come, one thing will remain. As graphic artists and designers, we possess the power (just as any two year-old with a crayon does) to ascribe meaning to the world around us. We put an expressive face on raw information. The fundamental desire of humans to understand the world in visual terms is a desire that we can understand and foster. Graphic design’s ability to provide meaning and useful information will prove more valuable than ever during uncertain and challenging times.

Partial Bibliography For The History Of Logos Link

  • Typography and Graphic Design: from Antiquity to Present by Roxane Jubert
  • Meggs’ History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis
  • Graphic Design: A Concise History by Richard Hollis
  • No Logo by Naomi Klein
  • Wiener Werkstätte: Design in Vienna 1903-1932 by Christian Brandstätter

Footnotes Link

  1. 1
  2. 2 /2009/06/25/10-common-mistakes-in-logo-design/
  3. 3 /2009/05/24/do-you-want-fries-with-that-logo/
  4. 4 /2009/04/30/60-beautiful-logo-design-tutorials-and-resources/
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8

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Dan Redding creates websites and print design at his studio, Magnetic State. Follow Dan on Twitter.

  1. 1

    Very nice article indeed…

  2. 3

    Nice post, hello! :)

  3. 4

    MTV does not promote good ethical values and good principles. Today’s society needs a different approach than: do what you like, when you like it and so on.

    • 5

      What’s so wrong about hedonism and enjoying life?

      • 6

        I guess this is not the best place to start a philosophical discussion about the shortcommings of hedonism, and of deeper levels of enjoyment. Regards!

  4. 7

    wow very nice article!

  5. 8

    Great post, this is exactly the kind of article I actually read on smashing, something to get the brain jucies really flowing, Thanks!

  6. 11

    Nice article. Good read just as I sit down to rework a logo. Way to go back to the roots. Dress it up and word it however you like (rebrand it, perhaps?), but deep down we’re all just cave painters. “Brand evangelists” are over thinking it.

  7. 12


    July 6, 2010 5:43 am

    excellent article

  8. 13

    Insightful article – thought the best points were raised in:

    “The MTV logo famously introduced a logo that could undergo a costume change during every performance. How else can a logo break the rules to adapt? Is there a way to explode the logo, to decentralize it? What about a logo that consisted of separate elements that could be displayed on their own or joined together to create a unified whole? If branded products exist on a molecular level that’s invisible to the naked eye, could they project external holographic brand identity?”

    Marketing experts, CEOs (from big brands to start ups), to CMOs should take note of this article – or hire the author.

  9. 15

    Richard Georges

    July 6, 2010 6:27 am

    Brilliant article.

  10. 16

    ‘brand evangelists’ (translation: ‘bastions of corporate pretension’) ha ha ha ha

    Really enjoyed this, thanks!

  11. 17

    Terrific article, Dan. Especially towards the end it leaves one to wonder if we (as consumers) will even have the ability to recognize brands of the future or if they will become something more personal and intimate as if each MTV viewer could possess their own, customized version of the overall brand. Makes me think of a different million mergers of style, color and philosophy spread across the “brandscape” of the public subconscious. Creepy… and yet so cool!

  12. 18

    Taylor Coil

    July 6, 2010 7:10 am


    Interesting thoughts. The ad industry seems to be moving toward highly personalized targeting- it’ll be interesting to see how branding shifts accordingly.

  13. 19

    Dan Redding

    July 6, 2010 8:40 am

    Thanks for so much positive feedback, everyone! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, the future of branding – and the changes technology continues to bring to many industries including our own – make for a stunning, riveting era that we live and work in.

  14. 20

    flipscyde industries

    July 6, 2010 8:42 am

    Great article. It’s refreshing to see articles highlighting the historical side of design, rather then another mindless list post. I think it’s an important aspect of any field to learn about it’s history. Something many tend to overlook. Thanks so much.

  15. 21

    You, as many people, are following the somewhat confused history of the MTV logo. So many worked on it, that the story is never really clear. But, I knew the man who did work on it and if anything, there was a design “team,” so no one person can really claim full credit.

    Two key players on that team did tackle the Nickelodeon logo and brand and I still think that it was the most brilliant piece of simplicity and genius.

    Great article, by the way!

    • 22

      Dan Redding

      July 6, 2010 6:03 pm

      There’s no confusion. As I stated, the logo was designed by a small studio called Manhattan Design. One of that studio’s members, Frank Olinsky, was a professor of mine at Parsons School of Design. I linked to Frank’s story of the logo’s creation in the article. I’m sure the other members have their own versions of the story, too.

      Glad you liked the article, by the way!

  16. 23

    eye opening and very inspiring… I wonder when first iHouse will be built.

  17. 24

    Nice article, but you can’t mention corporate identity and not mention Peter Behrens. Keep up the good work.

  18. 25

    Great article. So glad to look back for a second and then think about what is ahead.

  19. 26

    Interesting look into the evolution of logos and brands… I guess its becos we “cut, copy paste” a design, ppl think logo designing is easy or a simple job…
    But for those who have worked and evolved a brand will know how much of goes into a logo and its presentation.

    Thanks for the article…Keep smashing…!!

    Bharat KV

  20. 27

    very interesting article. It’s cool that you went so far back in history. I love things like this. It’s just cool seeing how things evolve and it makes you wonder where they’re going.

  21. 28

    Chris Beaman

    July 6, 2010 1:18 pm

    Loved this! Especially the Naomi Klein quote. Excellent job, Dan.

  22. 29

    Andrei Gonzales

    July 6, 2010 1:46 pm

    Quite possibly the best article ever on Smashing Magazine. Well done.

    As such, and I believe this was implied but not explicitly stated: Webdesign is an extension of branding. You cannot have a corporate identity and then have a website which does not follow it – exactly why pre-designed templates are a terrible mistake, even for start-ups, as they do not convey any sort of unique identity that would help the company stand out.

    Logo design, web design, print, video, even user-interface and application design are now part of your company’s brand identity. Imagine if Apple’s software UI had a grunge feel? Nope. I didn’t think so either.

  23. 31

    In semantics, there is a relationship between word and context. The two help each other in conveying meaning. The words and their contexts hold together.

    Presumably logos function like words in this regard: the logo brings some meaning to bear in its own right (even if ambiguous or vague) and the business context brings its own “connotative” or other meaning via reputation. Logo and reputation contribute to each other in the public mind over time, eventually blending (hopefully) to one consistent meaning–or at least one with boundaries.

    Since ancient Greece (at least), one rhetorical principle has been to say one thing. It carries more punch than a disjointed list. The logo is merely “rhetorically correct” even if it is conveyed in another medium or other mediums (like music and the visual combined).

    And nothing in recorded history so far seems to have changed basic principles of human communication.

  24. 32

    Facing Sideways

    July 6, 2010 6:08 pm

    Seems as though you’re just as guilty of making ‘hyperbolic pronouncements’ as much as these ‘bastions of corporate pretension’ (read: designers actually out there at the forefront of identity design) you seem to loathe so much. I’m glad you’ve managed to get so much mileage out of my interview with Michael Bierut, but perhaps rather than continuing just to push the obviously controversial ‘Logos are easy to do’ quote, maybe you might like to place it in the context that it was delivered in the original interview, where Michael goes on to explain that in the broader picture, brand identity is anything but. For someone who claims to work in the field, I don’t understand how you don’t get it (and are still blathering on about it) Michael has never claimed to be a ‘brand guru or ‘evangelist’ as you claim, he’s just a designer and incredibly humble considering his body of work. You do a huge diservice placing these titles on him, it’s ok to be jealous of his work and skill, but have have some respect – he’s got more talent and knowledge on brand, identity (and yes, logos) in his little finger than any of his here will have in our lifetime, it’s not like he ran over your kitten or something

    • 33

      Dan Redding

      July 6, 2010 6:47 pm

      I never called Michael Bierut a ‘bastion of corporate pretension’ or an ‘evangelist’ anywhere in this article. I have great respect for his work (as I wrote during my discussion with you on my blog), and I admire his talent and experience (both of which are greater than mine). But that’s besides the point. The impetus of this article was a broad trend that’s been occurring in industry discussion; I used your article and several others as evidence of that. Bierut DID run over my kitten though (I miss you, Mittens!).

      During my discussion with you on my blog, I said all this and complemented you on your interview. Sorry you were so offended by this piece.

  25. 34

    To the last two negative comments on here – you remind me of the quote below – thanks for making it so relevant – years later.

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” – T. Roosevelt

  26. 35

    Raja Sekhar

    July 6, 2010 8:52 pm

    Nice Article Dan..

  27. 36

    Rene Schmidt

    July 6, 2010 10:50 pm

    BTW the temporary quotes problem has been solved.
    “See!” :)

  28. 37

    Raphael Pudlowski

    July 7, 2010 12:27 am

    nice article :)
    you just forgot the new AOL logo case, whicz is interesting in new approach of corporate branding.

  29. 38

    Brilliant post, very impressive indeed.
    There’s a lot of room for brand identities to evolve & become more dynamic in the digital world. They did it for Television, why aren’t big brands realizing the need for it in our new interactive world?

  30. 39

    I love this post! It’s really given me some insight into how logos are developed and how they’ve evolved as a whole over the past century. One of my current favorite logos is the DubLi logo: it’s cheerful and the primary colors really get the ‘fun’ part across.

  31. 40

    Andre Kuzmicheff

    July 7, 2010 5:28 am

    Great summary on the evolution of brands. But, as designers, we must know our history. Preferably, in great detail. Only with this knowledge at hand will we become true problem solvers in the contemporary, ubiquitously visualized world. Every individual who decides to become a designer today must read A History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs. Most of historical references in this article have been cited exactly from this book, since it is perhaps the most complete overview of the human design and visual communication evolution from the first sharpened rock to the age of computers and Internet.

  32. 41

    Good topic, but overly wordy article.

  33. 42

    Meher Ranjan

    July 7, 2010 9:34 am

    Very nicely written. Really liked it.

  34. 43

    I don’t usually comment but this article was fantastic! I personally find logo design to be the hardest part of my job.

  35. 44

    Really interesting :)

  36. 45

    Bojan Stefanovic

    July 8, 2010 11:47 am

    Now that was a nice read! Thanks!

  37. 46

    Just a side note:
    MTV sucks butt. I miss the old MTV of the 80’s. Now it’s just filled with everything you don’t want your kids exposed to.

  38. 47

    Rolf Moczarski

    July 10, 2010 7:14 am

    Great post, got faved !

  39. 48

    Saqib Akhtar

    July 11, 2010 11:04 pm

    Really this is a very important INFORMATION, not only for Graphic Designers but for all peoples which are related to the BRAND/PRODUCT directly or indirectly as well.

  40. 49

    Mark Andresen

    July 14, 2010 4:28 am

    Good article.

    I can just imagine the conversations about logos and branding in the boardroom of British Petroleum right about now: “How much more PMS green can we add to this damn thing to convince the rubes we’re environmentalists too?”

  41. 50

    Lenker Design

    July 14, 2010 1:53 pm

    Great post. Thanks for the info.

  42. 51

    great post…thanks for sharing!

  43. 52

    Thank you for linking the MTV Logo story. It was an interesting read and well written.

  44. 53

    Very nice and informative article, good sharing and keep it up.


  45. 54

    Thank you for the wonderful post

  46. 55

    Thanks for doing your homework! A+

  47. 56



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