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How To Use A Nature Logo Pattern – Effective Logo Design Part 2

There are only a handful of fundamental patterns that create all of the natural diversity around us. Nature’s patterns perform three basic tasks that get the work of the universe done by moving, storing and connecting energy.

logo pattern

Nature communicates within an interconnected and intricate system of checks and balances to weave patterns and processes together for perfect and purposeful outcomes. Nature is the ultimate economist when it comes to creating so much from so little. Everything gets used in this supremely elegant system. Nothing is wasted. And all of it happens in the moment. We covered Symbols, Metaphors And The Power Of Intuition1 in the first post of the series last week; this week let’s take a closer look into nature’s patterns.

“Man invented things by imposing a shape on nature. Man discovered things by revealing the pattern of nature.”

– Alan Fletcher

The essential property of a pattern is repetition. Because they are continuous, they read like a story. Human beings learned the language of nature to survive. The periodic migration of herds, the transit of constellations across the sky and the distinct features of different terrains are all examples of patterns that create expectations upon which we depend.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Designers use patterns based on nature because they are reliable. Biomimicry is relevant not just to product and industrial designers. Bio-inspired graphics yield more communicative power to a logo by relating it to a pattern that all human beings inherently know.


Handprints. (Image credit: elnavegante7) (View large version8)

This three-part series explores fundamental creative strategies for designing effective logos. The first part9 showed how to use symbols, metaphors and the power of intuition. The second part shows how to use nature’s patterns in logo design.

The Relationship Between Natural Patterns And Design Link

Natural patterns establish relationships between dynamically opposed, seemingly unrelated or invisible forces — everything that compels good communication. A designer’s understanding of this can be carried into the planning of a logo’s “genetic material” to integrate universal relationships, giving the logo a wider reach. Intuitive sensing is free of cultural associations and the encumbrances of language because it uses imprints far older than civilization. It is a direct route to establishing a connection with your audience.

Awareness of how patterns work in nature helps a designer choose the most appropriate visual elements to describe a client’s unique qualities while simultaneously using easily understood, universal concepts. When the audience’s initial glance is bridged with relevant visual information, a profound opportunity to get into the details of the communication is established.

Essential natural patterns combine in ways that are stable and efficient enough to be practical within the limits of three-dimensional space. These basic patterns underlie processes that are pervasive from micro- to macro-scales throughout the universe. As movement is the fundamental principle of life, we’ll begin there.

Patterns Of Movement: Branching And Meanders Link

Patterns of movement transfer energy from one place to another and occur in a variety of circumstances. The linear patterns of tree branches and roots, rushing rivers, blood veins and neural circuitry, streams meandering through pastures, and brain and intestinal convolutions are all examples of energetic transference.

The branching pattern transfers energy from leaf to plant in the same focused manner it moves impulses through our nervous system, while the lackadaisical meander distributes energy over a broad area in an easy roll-and-turn motion, much like brain or intestinal convolutions.

Branching pattern, the nervous system, and the lackadaisical meander10

Branching pattern, the nervous system, and the lackadaisical meander. (Image credit: AlterYourReality11, www.visuallanguage.com12, Xavier Marchant13) (View large version14)

The purpose of the branching and meandering patterns are implied by their forms: A point of origin is connected to its destination point in a line. Our bodily fluids carry air, water and nutrients through an intricate system of tubes from the outside in and the inside out; sunlight is converted into energy in a plant’s leaves and transported throughout its branches, stems, trunks and roots; waterways meander and branch into the contours of the earth to provide nutrients and water to plants and animals; and lightning transforms carbon and nitrogen into compounds that plants can assimilate from soil.

The two basic patterns of movement have specific differences but are equally efficient for the tasks they perform. Branching patterns are direct, angular and no-nonsense, while meanders roll and relax into their destination. There’s a reason for that — nature always has a good reason — branching is concerned with the task of getting energy urgently from one place to another, while meanders distribute energy in curves that slowly and evenly wind their way to an eventual destination with greater coverage (a clue as to when to use angles and when to use curves as dominant shapes for different clients).

The logo for ISTEC (Ibero-American Science and Technology Education Consortium…sometimes acronyms are essential for certain clients!) has multiple cultural and technological references that provide information instantly about the organization. ISTEC is a non-profit that procures technology software, hardware and training from large tech companies in the United States and delivers them to universities in Central and South America, as well as Spain and Portugal. The corporations that provide the tech services have access to the best students graduating from these programs, providing a back-and-forth exchange.

The underlying template of the branching pattern intuitively suggests movement to describe the process of exchange, an appropriate metaphor for a tech-transfer business that moves the energy of current (or urgent) technology from one place to another. The overall square shape of the logo further substantiates the client as stable and reliable, an important consideration when representing new technologies and establishing cross-cultural relationships. (More on shapes in “Effective Logo Design, Part 3: How Geometry Influences Logo Design.”)

The process of the ISTEC logo15

The process of the ISTEC logo. (Design: Maggie Macnab) (View large version16)

The conceptual process for this logo shows specific references to the client in both cultural and technological terms, and the design is further supported by integrating the branching pattern to address its purpose of tech transfer.

The meander transfers energy just as a branching pattern does, but with a significant difference: it displays no real urgency and has a certain amount of fluidity and freedom. Duffy+Partners created an identity to brand the Islands of the Bahamas with distinctly atypical and vibrant characteristics of form and color. A meander isn’t a typical pattern to use in logo design because it is so loosely organized, but in this case — as a descriptor of travel, fun and spontaneous island-hopping — it works perfectly.

The Bahamas’ identity design by Duffy+Partners

The Bahamas’ identity design by Duffy+Partners.

The designer’s process shows the conceptual development of blending the island chain with the bright flora typical of a Caribbean destination as appropriate visual cues for this logo.

Process of the The Bahamas’ identity design17

Process of the The Bahamas’ identity design. (Image credit: Duffy+Partners18) (View large version19)

At first glance, the logo doesn’t look like a meander, but think a little deeper, as in below the surface. Island chains are connected below the ocean’s surface (maps were also referenced by the designer in the conceptual roughs). The bright colors, random shapes and underlying meander pattern all fit and support the idea of a relaxing, fun-filled tropical vacation.

Stacking And Packing Patterns: The Hexagon And Other Tessellating Shapes Link

The stacking and packing pattern accomplishes two primary objectives in nature: it stores and stabilizes energy for later use. Drying mud, bubbles and cracking cement all tend to break at approximately 120° angles. There’s a reason for that. Nature is primarily composed of spherical atoms, molecules, germs, viruses and cells, which achieve the tightest fit when packed with their own kind — a hexagon made up of approximate 120° angles.

Spherical objects make up the bulk of physical space and have the tightest fit in a six-around-one configuration.

Spherical objects make up the bulk of physical space and have the tightest fit in a six-around-one configuration.

Spherical objects make up the bulk of physical space and have the tightest fit in a six-around-one configuration. The hexagonal pattern results when the objects are compressed by heat, gravity and pressure in physical space. This perfect-fit pattern, called a tessellation, has neither empty space nor redundant overlaps, just like pieces of a puzzle. Because of its perfect fit, it is the most efficient and stable mode of energy storage. Only two other shapes can achieve a periodic, or regular, tessellation: four-sided and triangular figures.

Classic examples of the stacking and packing pattern: Breaks in a cement sidewalk and the beehive20

Classic examples of the stacking and packing pattern: Breaks in a cement sidewalk and the beehive. (Image credit: Amy Walters21, Dainis Derics22) (View large version23)

Classic examples of the stacking and packing pattern: Breaks in a cement sidewalk at approximately 120° angles from the molecular scale up display a self-similar pattern. The beehive is perfectly formed for extraordinary strength and economy of space — a shape also adopted by architect Buckminster Fuller for the ultra-energy-efficient geodesic dome.

Stacking and packing patterns are a perfect fit for businesses that want to communicate security or storage. Angled shapes in general are included in this group (the triangle, rectangle and square are discussed further in part 3 of this series). An angled shape sits squarely on its bottom, and the corners provide exact points of measurement. This suggests reliability and precision, which, in turn, imply transparency and honesty. When something can be accurately measured it is said to be “true” or “trued up.”

Angled shapes are favored by banks and other organizations in the financial industry for this reason, as well as contractors and others who want to imply those qualities in physical space. (Keep in mind that today’s technology allows decimal points to be manipulated at will: Reinforcing the idea of security is very important — most particularly with digital currency.)

The logos of HSBC and the NYSE24

The logos of HSBC and the NYSE. (View large version25)

The logos of HSBC, Chase Manhattan, the NYSE and many other financial players use angular templates in their design to reinforce their message of security and stability.

Connection And Regeneration Patterns: The Helix And Spiral Link

The helix and spiral have similar shapes but different purposes, much like the meander and branching patterns. A helix’s diameter never expands or contracts but remains a constant distance from its center, enabling it to penetrate substantial structures or stand up to formidable forces. The spiral, on the other hand, follows an ever-expanding path in a geometric progression of self-similar curves. As you may have guessed, each has specific — but related — purposes.

The Helix Pattern Link

The helix is a concentrated form of energy designed for a serious and intentional purpose. In nature, the singular helix is the underlying pattern of the concentrated power of funnel clouds and waterspouts. We apply this principle to tool design to create the drill, which penetrates strong structures so they can be bound together for longevity, or a corkscrew that grips and extracts a plug from an ultra-tight fit. When paired, the back and forth twisting motion of two helices weave a complementary relationship that bring together and balance opposites. The double helix pattern points to the immense power necessary to funnel the genetic blueprints of DNA into a new generation.

Natural helices of the waterspout, an example of human design mimicking nature’s pattern, and an artist’s interpretation of DNA’s double helix26

Natural helices of the waterspout, an example of human design mimicking nature’s pattern, and an artist’s interpretation of DNA’s double helix. (Image credit: NOAA27, Matthew Gough28, Sebastian Kaulitzki29)

The helix communicates information about cooperation between opposites, intense strength at minute sizes and longevity that spans generations. It was the template pattern I chose to describe an acupuncture clinic. When you understand how patterns work you can validate your initial intuitive choice as the right one. Intuition is the genius of our senses and helps us to make choices that are inherently correct. (See the first part of this series, “Symbols, Metaphors and the Power of Intuition.”) Understanding this information also helps sell your idea to the client because the logo has been “trued up” to the story it needs to tell — and it’s easy to explain.

The Oriental Medicine Clinic logo was almost fully formed upon conception

The Oriental Medicine Clinic logo was almost fully formed upon conception. (Design: Maggie Macnab)

Several years ago I created this logo for an alternative healthcare clinic with a concentration in Chinese medicine. The founders were already traditional Western medicine caregivers and expanded their services as licensed acupuncturists. I used a caduceus to incorporate both traditional Western medicine and the “qi” (chi) — or the balancing of energy in Eastern medicine. This was one of those logos that didn’t need a lot of conceptual thought. The solution presented itself in my first sketch (a reminder to collaborate with your intuition to get “inside” access to workable ideas). The hybrid caduceus-chi logo addresses the two healthcare modalities, and the underlying pattern of the helix alludes to the (literally) penetrating nature of acupuncture to achieve effective results by stimulating the energetic meridians of the body.

The Spiral Pattern Link

The spiral is a pattern of creativity and regeneration with the purpose of connecting energies together. This is geometrically described in the construction of the logarithmic spiral, or a spiral that grows geometrically at a progressive rate. The connecting circles that create a phi spiral demonstrate this fact in form.

A phi spiral is constructed when a series of ever larger and geometrically progressive circles are connected at their points of intersection. This particular construction is based on the Fibonacci sequence.

A phi spiral. (Animation: Aldo Vidrio and Arnold Mateos)

The progressing spiral is a pattern of growth in nature, and it is the only pattern that is also a shape (see more about the spiral in “Effective Logo Design, Part 3: How Geometry Influences Logo Design”). This pattern expresses new life as it unfurls into the world. It is common in developing embryos and sprouting seeds.

From unfurling ferns to a mouse embryo, life displays its process of becoming in the spiral of creative regeneration.

From unfurling ferns to a mouse embryo, life displays its process of becoming in the spiral of creative regeneration. (Image credit: Alkalyne30, Seth Ruffins)

A helix and spiral were both included in the logo design for Valle Encantado, a small farming group that grows food for their communities. The helical tendril curling up the handle of the spade defines the handle and represents the intense work of digging and growing, while the logarithmically progressing spiral points to the creativity of producing food to support the community. Other graphical elements are used in the design to more specifically address the client (see part 1, “Symbols, Metaphors and the Power of Intuition,”31 for more about them).

Valle Encantado logo

Valle Encantado logo. (Design: Maggie Macnab)

Exercises Link

Patterns exercise #1: Walk the nature talk Link

Get your sketchbook and pencils and go on a walk.

  1. Focus only on natural forms (not buildings, sidewalks or anything else manmade)
    Try to identify each of the five basic patterns discussed in the article: branching, meander, stacking and packing shapes, and the spiral and weaving (helix) patterns. As you find them, sketch them and identify what pattern you think is dominant in the forms you are observing, as nature typically weaves several pattern processes together.
  2. Look a little deeper
    What does their form tell you about the kind of work they do (moving, storing, connecting)? Can you identify what the pattern is doing in the context of how it is used?
  3. Patterns work together
    Can you find more than one pattern working together? How do they interact or support one another?
Artist and Design by Nature student Robert Barberena, with one of his pattern sketches at Casa de los Tres Mundos, Granada, Nicaragua, 2013.

Artist and Design by Nature student Robert Barberena, with one of his pattern sketches at Casa de los Tres Mundos, Granada, Nicaragua, 2013. (Image: Alejandro Vasquez)

Patterns exercise #2: Expressing pattern as design Link

To be an effective logo designer, you must learn to identify and extract valuable information. This pattern exercise is designed to give you a true working context of observation, interaction, refinement, extraction, elimination and reordering, while using critical thinking skills in all stages of the process. Choose any form from nature that intrigues you (animal, plant, mineral, any of the elements), and use this exercise as an opportunity to learn more about it in an immersive experience.

Design by Nature pattern exercise, Santa Fe University of Art and Design.32

Design by Nature pattern exercise, Santa Fe University of Art and Design. (Student: Jimena Valdez) (View large version33)
  1. Create a realistic drawing
    Draw your subject as accurately as you can with your choice of media (pencil, colored pencils, pen, etc.). If the subject is too detailed and you find it overwhelming to draw the entire object, pick a part of it and focus on that.
  2. Explore your subject in three dimensions
    Take an aspect of your subject (or the whole subject, if you care to), and create a three-dimensional representation of it. You can do this with paper folding, craft materials or natural materials. Observe the primary movements or shapes of patterns to help define a three-dimensional representation that accurately conveys the pattern. Origami is not difficult to do, and you can find all sorts of instructional videos on the Internet of how to create different folded forms.
  3. Create a detail
    Find an aspect of the object to detail. This could be an edge, a shape or the overall pattern refined as a simplified detail. (Note: You might want to research micrographs of your subject as well. Seeing it at different scales or dimensions will give important clues to help identify the dominant pattern.)
  4. Stylize the form
    From the previous parts of the exercises, identify the dominant pattern you are working with and stylize it as black-and-white vector illustration, created in Illustrator as a repeating form.
Example of a simplified and stylized natural pattern created in Illustrator.34

Example of a simplified and stylized natural pattern created in Illustrator. (Image credit: JuRitt35) (View large version36)

Conclusion Link

The process of distilling general information into specific communication provides value for your audience. When you develop your awareness of the universal meanings of the basic patterns of nature, you can effectively integrate them as simple strategies for good logo design.

Integrating patterns appropriately reinforces the message at every level — beginning with the first glance, which queues the audience’s intuition and interest. Combined with effective symbolism and metaphors, pattern templates bring more communicative depth to your logo. Another sound design strategy is the use of basic geometric configurations in logo design, coming up next in “Effective Logo Design, Part 3: How Geometry Influences Logo Design.”

Coming up next: “Effective Logo Design, Part 3: How Geometry Influences Logo Design37.” Galileo knew it. Every ancient culture that left traces of knowledge in their art knew it. Basic shapes compose the fundamental geometry of the universe. We can take credit for a lot of things, but human beings did not invent geometric shapes. We discovered them through the observation of nature.

(il, ml, al)

Footnotes Link

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Maggie Macnab has been recognized as an innovative design communicator and logo designer for over three decades. She has written two books on design theory, Design by Nature (New Riders, 2011) and Decoding Design (F+W, 2008), and most recently hosted Designing Effective Logos, a logo-design training video series. Maggie is a design educator at various universities and colleges, and gives workshops on designing with nature in mind. She is committed to beautiful, functional design and creative problem solving based in nature's richly practical process.

  1. 1

    Headline Hawk

    June 12, 2015 7:19 pm

    Strange. The patterns, shapes, and elegant order we find in nature seems to denote that it didn’t happen by accident . . .

    • 2

      I don’t know that our brains will ever fully understand the wonder that exists all around us, but we can certainly appreciate nature’s beauty and functionality and emulate it for better design. Our everyday experience is really quite extraordinary when we take the time to observe it. I find that both pleasing and comforting.

      • 3

        Headline Hawk

        June 13, 2015 4:26 am

        I totally agree the patterns we see in nature and our everyday experience is quite extraordinary. When you consider the complexities of things so easy to take for granted, for example, the fern example you used, it is truly remarkable. Such as how it follows a swirling, mathematical spiral and has programmed within its structure the ability to grow, aid, and produce new life.

        It much follows the structure of a website. A beautifully, well-crafted exterior, pleasing to the eye, all with a complex biological and cellular core keeping everything running and serving a greater purpose or goal. The only difference is that the fern is infinitely more complex (and more beautiful in my opinion) than even the finest web design.

        Taking all that into account, what I find stunning is that one would be considered a fool to think a finely-crafted website happened by chance. While, on the other hand, it’s commonplace to think the fern, infinitely more sophisticated and beautiful in its design, did.

        • 4

          Nature is genius.

          • 5

            Headline Hawk

            June 14, 2015 8:27 pm

            I would agree with you if you said “Nature is beautiful”—that much is true. However, it can’t take credit for the complexity and beautiful design of a fern. Nature itself is only a larger embodiment of design and a mechanism through which things that have been created continue their cycles of life and death.

            Going back to our web design analogy—it would be like crediting all the genius of web design trends, usability, and techniques over to “the internet.” Most would consider this absurd. The internet is a medium and “a container”—the genius stemmed from an individual. A living, breathing, reasoning person that employed these abilities to create something unique and memorable using the internet as a means to do so. The internet might be admired for what it allows us to achieve, the same goes for a finely-crafted site, however, both came from the planning and design of a reasoning mind.

            We can’t say the same for nature. Nature merely carries out its orders. It doesn’t create new things, it only maintains the structure through which we see a tree decay, a new plant spring to life, and the whole thing begin again.

            In similar fashion, the internet doesn’t “create” websites, it only awaits a command. You type a website in the address bar, it carries out the orders and points you to where you need to go. It’s structure and a method, not an innovator.

            If then, nature can’t claim responsibility for the design of the fern, but was only the manner through which the fern was created, we have to look to that which was before nature. The living, breathing, reasoning creator who set nature into motion and through nature, brought the fern into existence. “There’s always a bigger fish,” the old saying goes.

            Except in the case of nature, we have to keep traveling up the chain of command until we reach the one who takes responsibility for the design—the one through whom and for whom, all things were made.

          • 6

            While an interesting discussion, theology is not one I choose to argue as it is off topic for logo design and is based in the inherent limitations of human perspective (which I fully acknowledge in myself :). But I do appreciate that you have enough interest to think about nature at this depth. Many don’t, which is why I teach how awareness of natural process directly correlates to better design. I leave everyone’s conclusion of meaning to themselves as we are each capable of choosing what feels right for who we are.

    • 7

      Except that you are thinking that way because you are human and relating human patterns to patterns in nature, rather than the other way around. Also, nature isn’t so much elegant order as it is structured chaos. That’s why man can not and will not ever be able to fully predict nature.

    • 12

      Actually, they happen in nature because the patterns are the most efficient way to achieve a specific goal – be that energy saving, strength, reproduction, dietary etc. :)

  2. 13

    David Werimo

    June 13, 2015 9:44 am

    nature is the mother of all great design and it provides unlimited to speak this article has been really helpful.

  3. 15

    Why did you delete my comment yesterday? I found that articles a funny mixture of namedropping, new age, esoteric speech, Harry Potter and some cooking recipes.

  4. 17

    Muhammad Faizan Atiq

    June 14, 2015 12:50 pm

    Great article! i always wanted to learn design from the nature and this article has just showed me a way. i will surely try these exercises.

  5. 19

    To those interested in continuing discussions on nature, logos and design please join the Facebook groups Designing Effective Logos and/or Design by Nature. We’d love to have you!

    To instructors interested in using Design by Nature in the classroom (the exercises from Part 1 and 2 of this article series are from the book), please request a free exam copy from Pearson Education:

  6. 20

    Another really nice read Maggie.

    As I told you in your last article the logo I just finished designing came to my mind after I stopped thinking for a moment and let the idea come to me while my brain processed all the concepts you wrote about on his own. If you remember I did the rebrand of a company doing various services(servers, printers, computer assistance etc.) so these nature patterns probably wouldn’t fit but now I can’t wait to do the exercises and have some client asking me to make a nature related product/service logo design or, even better, use some of these patterns for a business that would make use of it even without being nature related.

    I really love the inspirational part coming from nature here, as you said it laid us all the shapes and structures we could ever need ages go and even though I’m still new to logo design(being more a web designer doing layouts only when I need as I’m coding most of the time) I’m really loving the fact that designing a logo feels a lot like what a detective does: get a task, gather all the possible information, have your brain work a lot and then just shut it down and have all the clues come together to reach your goal when you’re not even expecting it or you’re doing something else.

    It may be an overstatement but for what I’ve experienced doing the last logo, which is the thing I loved and that made me experiment more looking forward to the next commission, it truly feels like a detective job: you have access to all the informations everyone else does, which are all there for everyone already, but you’re the one who has to “see” it when no one does…and when you do, it feels awesome.

    • 21

      Exactly so, Andrea! I talk about how being a good designer is akin to being a detective in Design by Nature (which SM will be doing an ebook giveaway for soon!). It really is the same process. I think it is one of the most fun aspects of design as you never know what will evolve from the designer’s interaction with the “evidence.” I’m so glad the articles have supported your process!

  7. 22

    Andrew Mick

    June 15, 2015 4:28 pm

    Nature is one of the most inspired things for every artist, music, film, paint, web etc, and we don’t bother too much looking more than what is obvious. We have to be more careful of our environment and take more from it. in the creative aspect.
    Thanks for this great article

  8. 23

    Would be awesome if the View large version links would actually show a large version of images! :)

    Not your fault, I guess, Maggie, but Smashingmagazine’s…?

    Can’t comment on the article itself yet. I’m only halfway through.

  9. 24

    Kristina Hughes

    June 19, 2015 5:53 am

    Very interesting article indeed! Nature have everything for every one to use it effectively.. Nature is full of colors that inspire us to do something new and creative.. Every graphic designer use natural things and give different shapes to inspire people by using their creative skills. It is possible through using these useful and advance featured tools mention the link on below;

  10. 25

    Dennis Rutherford

    June 19, 2015 5:31 pm

    Great articles, I’ve really enjoyed parts 1 & 2.

  11. 26

    What about Part 3?

  12. 28

    Design Master India

    August 20, 2015 10:27 am

    I love nature all design is awesome.


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