Theory Behind Logo Design [15 concepts to understand now]

You must understand logo design theory in order to master the process of logo design.  There’s just no other way to do it. 

But what is the theory behind logo design exactly? 

Basic logo design theory revolves around three central areas: logo psychology, logo design principles, and the components of the logo itself.  In order to master logo design theory, you need to understand these areas and the main 15 concepts associated with them: 

Logo Psychology Logo Design PrinciplesLogo Anatomy
GestaltSimplicityIcon or Mark
Figure / GroundRelevance Shape
Closure Longevity Color
Continuity Distinction Logotype
Unity Memorability Tagline

In this post, I explain in detail logo psychology, logo design principles, and logo components.  In addition, I list 12 crucial concepts you need to understand to grasp basics logo design theory. 

Logo Psychology and Gestalt: Logo Theory Basics

In psychology, the term gestalt (which in German means “shape” or “form”) refers to humans’ capacity for “cumulative perception”. 

Basically, it refers to our tendency to “fill in the gaps” in our perception, so to speak.  

You see, as humans we are unable to analyze every single piece of information that is presented to us.  Instead, we tend to process our surroundings by using preconceptions, biases, and stereotypes that allow us to make decisions quickly and (most of the time) reliably. 

In other words:

This tendency lets us expect but also see “wholeness” in the things we perceive.  This is especially true for how we perceive messages and visual information.  

You might ask:

How does the concept of gestalt apply to logo design? 

In the 1920s, the Bauhaus art school coined the term gestalt to explain visual perception in design. According to them, “a design’s unity is more than the simple addition of its parts.”

In this sense, when we perceive a logo, we “fill in the gaps” not only in terms of what we literally see (for example, the contours of the logo, the icons it uses, the type of font) but also what those elements represent conceptually.  

If a logo has a cursive font, our brains will associate what we see with elegance.  If it features bright red, we will associate it with urgency or boldness.  

In short:

We interact with a logo’s visual representation in order to derive meaning from it.  

By understanding the role of gestalt in human perception, with are able to create logos that effectively interact with people’s expectations, knowledge, and attitudes towards the things they see in everyday life. 

Let’s now look at some of the main concepts associated with gestalt

Closure 

Through the Gestalt principle of closure we are able to “fill in the blanks” of missing information in order to create wholeness.

The concept of closure in logo design theory is closely related to gestalt.  

A logo is not an illustration or a painting. It’s a visual summary of a brand’s identity or essence.  

This means that logos have to communicate iconically; in other words, minimally. In this sense, a logo has to accomplish a lot with very few materials. 

Through closure, a designer is able to communicate effectively only by suggesting ideas or concepts with only a few elements (such as an icon, color, shapes, or a certain typography). 

In sum: 

Closure allows the viewer to complete unfinished forms or ideas and, as Alex White states in his book, “encourages active participation in the creation of the message.” 

Figure/Ground 

What creates the letter “e”, is it the white space or is it its positive enclosure (black space)? Figure/Ground relates to our capacity to switch from background to foreground to create wholeness.

Another way in which a viewer applies wholeness or totality relates to the concept of figure / ground.  

Figure/Ground describes our capacity to perceive the relationship between form (say, an object or shape) from its surrounding space.  

In other words:

Our sense of wholeness or unity relates to how closely aligned we perceive an object in terms of the space in which it is contained. 

By strategically playing with this relationship, a designer can create interest, memorability, or meaning in a logo.  

Continuity 

In this example, the “direction” of the lines in the pencil and its tip allow us to keep looking in that direction, even beyond the boundaries of the design. This is called continuity.

In our desire for wholeness, we’re also able to follow the logical direction of visual forms, even if they’re not on a page or design. This is called continuity.  

Let me give you an example:

If you encounter a sign that says “Exit” with an arrow pointing to the right, your perception logically makes you “follow” (with your eyes but also with your mind) whatever goes beyond that arrow.  

That is: 

Through continuity, we are able to view the “wholeness” of a design even if not all of its elements are depicted right there on the page.  

Unity

Through unity, we are able to group and organize visual elements, even if they are not the same, in order to create a sense of wholeness.

We also search for wholeness by applying the principle of unity.  

In graphic design, unity refers to our capacity to group different things we perceive or find kinship between them, even if they are not the same size, color, or shape. Through unity, we are able to mentally organize elements and establish relationships between those elements in spite of their diversity.  

Logo Design Theory: 5 Fundamental Principles

As I said in the beginning of this post, logo design theory is founded on the following 5 principles: simplicity, relevance, longevity, distinction, memorability, and balance.  

Let’s look at these principles in more detail: 

Simplicity 

Remember my previous analogy of logos resembling a punch in the face? 

A punch is unambiguous, fast, and sudden. It’s only one single thing provoking multiple consequences or meanings. 

This is the idea of simplicity in logo design. 

The only way you can achieve this is by keeping your logo straightforward and uncomplicated. However, this in no way means that a logo should not be well-thought or have depth. 

It means that the fewer elements you can use to communicate the idea, concept, or feel behind a brand, the more effective a logo is.  

As the classic Bauhaus School assertion says, “Less is more”. Use only what you need and the elements that convey the intended meaning in the most powerful way.  

Relevance 

A logo is relevant if it connects with the objectives, mission, principles and nature of the brand it represents. 

You achieve relevance by looking at your brand in depth. You can only do this by researching your brand extensively.  

You have to ask questions about the brand or organization a logo represents. 

For example: 

What are the brand’s customers or stakeholders? What values does it cherish or promote? What’s its competition like? What does it wish to accomplish? 

A relevant logo is able to represent and reflect a brand’s most important values or ideals in the most direct way. A logo is an intimate reflection of a brand’s essence. 

Longevity 

As a general rule, a logo must be able to withstand the passing of time.  It’s design and features must be able to remain relevant while maintaining a “timeless” quality.  

Have you seen the movie The Godfather? Something that always caught my attention about that film is that, even if it came out almost five decades ago, it’s so well-made that it still feels fresh and current. This timelessness is a characteristic you want to accomplish in the conception of a logo.  

Simplicity is a great ally of longevity. The reason is that the simpler a logo is, the best it can accommodate to the passing of time.  

In other words, the more complicated its structure, fonts, or gimmicks (color, gradients, convoluted features), the less likely that logo can accommodate to other contexts. 

Distinction 

In today’s saturated culture, in which everything is branded and we rely on images to make decisions, a logo must be able to effectively distinguish itself from the competition.  

Have you ever been to a deodorant aisle at your local drug store or supermarket? Most of the labels look the same! 

If you were designing a label for a new deodorant, how would you make it distinct? 

Distinction can be achieved in different ways, depending on different factors such as the brand itself, competition, or the market (this is why research is important). 

You can add distinction to a logo through the strategic use of color or by employing a specific style or design trend. 

For instance, in a space in which blue is a very common color (such as web apps, for example), you can use purple or orange to achieve distinction. 

In a space in which crowded or complex designs is the norm (such as deodorants), a minimalist design might make your brand distinct.  

Distinction is all about differentiation in relation to other brands, trends, customer expectations, and strategy. 

Memorability 

What’s the use of a logo if it doesn’t stick in your head? 

A logo that is memorable is effective at promoting and identifying a brand.  

Memorability especially goes hand in hand with some of the other principles, such as simplicity, relevance, and distinction.  

I’ll give you an example: 

If you’re driving at 50 miles per hour on a highway, you only have a few seconds to look at a road-side billboard. Would you be able to remember the brand you just saw?  

A logo that incorporates a good analogy or catch helps it become more memorable.  

The Amazon or FedEx logos are good examples of memorability. The hidden smile hidden in the Amazon logo and the negative space arrow in FedEx help bring a memorable aspect to these logos.  

Once you discover these hidden icons, you’ll never forget them! 

In most cases, the power of an analogy is the best way to achieve memorability. 

Logo Anatomy

The last component of logo theory you need to understand is the anatomy of the logo itself.  By understanding the basic parts of a logo and their purpose you are able to apply logo psychology and logo principles to the actual process of creating a logo.  

Icon or Mark

Remember when I said that logos communicate minimally, with few materials, so to speak? 

A painting, for example, is able to incorporate as much detail as possible in order to communicate its subject. Logos, however, don’t have that luxury. 

Instead, logos must pack a lot of meaning with only a few visual cues. 

This is why logos mostly (but not always) rely on icons or marks for communicating an identity, concept, or idea.  

An icon is a graphic representation that is able to effectively capture the essential features of the thing it wants to depict with the least amount of detail or elements.  

Take, for instance, this icon of a ruler and pencil: 

As you can see, it doesn’t depict all the necessary components that would make a realistic depiction of said ruler and pencil (for example, shadows, texture, lots of colors). 

However, it does incorporate the minimal components that make you perceive in an effective way that, indeed, it represents the thing called “pencil.”

Logos use icons in a strategic way, so as to communicate in interesting yet minimal ways what a product or idea is about (its “essence”).  

Shape

A logo is able to communicate not only in terms of the shapes it includes, but also in terms of the general form it conveys.  

Logos are created with different general shapes: circles, squares, rectangles, triangles or even “organic” or “expressive” shapes (forms that are irregular).  Some even describe a psychology of logo shapes that contribute to what and how logos communicate.  

However, the importance of shapes in logos has a lot to do with practical considerations:

The form of a logo in many ways determines where and how a logo will be displayed or how its content is organized and its elements arranged. 

In other words:

The totality (gestalt) of a logo has an overarching shape that not only serves as a communication device but also determines how and where a logo is displayed. 

Color

Logos use color as a powerful communication device.  You’ve probably heard that there’s actually a psychology of color, with many theories pointing to the different effects of color.  

Dr. Robert Plutchik’s theory of color psychology.

While this may actually be true, color also serves a more practical communicative purpose in logo design:

As humans living inside a given society, we associate certain meanings with certain colors in culturally specific ways.  These associations may vary from culture to culture. 

For example: 

Western cultures associate the color yellow with caution.  This idea is reinforced by traffic lights, which use yellow for communicating “slow down,” or workers hard hats, which tend to be yellow.  Red reinforces the idea of heat, hence the intense red used in fire trucks.  

Some other color associations come from advertising and the media.  While we logically associate the color green with nature, in the past decade the marketing of “green” products and practices has contributed to the association of the color green with the concept of “environmental consciousness.”  

This is exemplified by British Petroleum’s logo remake, in which the strategic use of green serves to produce the effect of “environmentally conscious.”  

BP’s strategic use of green aims to produce the effect of “environmentally friendly,” in spite of the company’s environmental record.

Logotype

Every brand has a name.  Thus, most logos (but not all) incorporate that name within the logo design itself.  

Sometimes, the name itself is the entire logo, such as Coca Cola, Google, or Disney. 

However, these names are not merely displayed in a common font like, say, Times New Roman.  They are displayed in a special way, with specially designed type that helps to convey the essence or an aspect of the brand. These are not names, but logotypes. 

A logotype is a brand name that is displayed in a strategically chosen or crafted lettering that serves as an identity for that brand (such as a logo). 

The logotype may incorporate other logo components, such as color, or accompany other elements, such as an icon or mark.  

Here’s the gist about a logotype:

The way you display a brand name, such as the font you choose or the lettering you design, must somehow “speak” about the essence of the brand and communicate its identity.  

Tagline 

A final, but not indispensable component of a logo is the tagline.  

A tagline serves to reinforce, explain, clarify or expand a brand’s purpose, nature, or utility in a world saturated with brands and organizations.  

Some famous taglines are Subway’s “Eat fresh” for Subway, Nike’s “Just do it” for Nike, or McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it.” 

A tagline may be descriptive, temporal, or symbolic/conceptual. 

For example:

  • A descriptive tagline for a burger joint: “Best burgers and beer in town.”
  • A temporal tagline for an advertising agency: “Creative since 1990.” 
  • A symbolic or conceptual tagline for a gym: “Be the best you.” 

As a rule, taglines are particularly helpful for logos of lesser known brands or brands whose name do not necessarily connect with what they do or offer.  

Apply Logo Theory to Your Designs Right Now

Logo theory and principles are the foundation of a solid logo creation process. 

With a general understanding of how a logo works, time after time, you will be able to achieve effective results that are repeatable and consistent.  

Even more:

Understanding the main principles behind the logo process will guide you in creating logos that are distinctive, memorable, and timeless. 

Study these principles and see how they apply to the logos that we see everyday.  Think about the internal relationship between them. 

How are these principles used in your favorites logos? 

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