“Logos are a graphic extension of the internal realities of a company.”
So said graphic designer and branding visionary Saul Bass, who created logos for companies like AT&T, Kleenex, and United Airlines. Bass means that the impact of a logo extends far beyond its 150x150 frame or storefront signage. Effective logo design has the power to catch the eye, communicate the vision and mission of a brand, and remain top of mind.
The challenge is getting all of that across with an icon.
That’s where this article comes in. To help you generate inspiration for your logo design, we’ll check out some of the biggest brands of the world (and their logos) and pinpoint why they’re so successful. Let’s take a look.
The Coca-Cola logo has taken many forms since the product launched in 1886. But through it all, the soda brand’s red and white color palette and iconic cursive font—known as Spencerian type—has remained.
Why it’s successful: Color psychology tells us that a bold, bright red color in marketing is known to trigger impulse purchases. Studies have even shown that poker players with red chips bet more than those with blue chips. Meanwhile the white, cursive text suggests a certain sweeping romance and return to a more classic day and age—which is valid, since the brand and logo have truly stood the test of time. The palette also opportunely matches the suit of Santa Claus, who has become somewhat of a Coca-Cola mascot, and helps connect the brand with feelings of Christmas.
Rob Janoff was hired to design the Apple logo in 1977. He said Steve Jobs’ sole direction was “Don’t make it cute.” Janoff presented only one design: The rainbow-striped, bitten-apple logo. It was quickly approved and still represents Apple today, though it shed its rainbow stripes for monochrome version and a flat, black design.
Why it’s successful: The minimalist logo is simple, scalable, and instantly recognizable. The bitten apple design also holds a couple of meanings: The Biblical one of biting into an apple from the tree of knowledge and the computer-lingo one of taking a “byte” of data. Janoff refers to these references as a “wink” in the logo, which he sees as crucial in logo design.
“You remember a joke or something that made you laugh,” he said. “Any time you can add any kind of humor it becomes more likable and memorable. If you're so afraid to give a wink, then you're going to be pretty much beige like everything else. Especially in the age of the Internet.”
Paul Rand, the father of modern corporate logos, designed IBM’s eight-bar logo in 1972—shepherding in a new age of modernism in business advertising.
Why it’s successful: IBM definitely classifies as one of the biggest brands of the world. And we can predict that one reason for this notoriety is because the logo borrows from historically significant schools of design thought such as Bauhaus and Cubism. The stripes suggest movement, speed, and rhythm, while the boldfaced, capitalized letters represent authority and power, earning IBM the nickname “Big Blue.”
As Rand wrote of his work in IBM’s logo-usage manual, “In the competitive world of look-alike products, a distinctive company logotype is one if not the principal means of distinguishing one product from that of another. The value of the logotype, which is the company’s signature cannot be overestimated.”
The Marvel logo and brand name have changed many times since the company was founded in 1939 as Timely Comics. The logo evolved to include variations like Atlas, Marvel Comics, Marvel Entertainment, and Marvel Studios. Today, the logo simply says “Marvel,” in white, block letters with a red background.
Why it’s successful: The Marvel logo makes use of the text box, which is one of the 10 biggest logo design trends of 2019.
“Text boxes allow for lots of usage over images,” said Cat van der Werff, an in-house designer at Canva. “This also means that the box colors can be changed, bold and a little bit retro.”
This approach makes perfect sense for Marvel, since its logo is slapped like a stamp on a range of image-heavy media like comic books, movies, and posters.
Oh, look! Another red and white logo. While Pinterest dropped its script font for a cleaner, blockier, sans-serif type in 2017, the logo retains the cursive “P.”
“It’s like a 1960s corporate identity got dropped like a hammer next to this friendly ‘P’ mark and the two look like a hippie and a business executive in line at the grocery store, brought together by circumstance more than mutual agreement,” says Brand New.
Why it’s successful: Pinterest tried to kill two birds with one stone in this logo design:
- Convey the artsy and quirky feel of the site with the cursive letter, and
- Join tech giants like Google and Facebook in presenting as a serious social channel for advertisers and networkers.
“I see this as a natural step for brands to take as they grow from scrappy startups into established brands,” said Andy Harvey, creative director at Moving Brands. “Your goals have shifted from making noise and standing out to being a trusted, dependable part of people’s everyday lives. That heartfelt personality and idiosyncrasy that defined you as you started out, and won over your early adopters, can be a limitation as you aim for broad appeal (and bigger revenue).”
Federal Express was founded in 1971 with an all-caps logo of red, purple, and white. The company rebranded in 1994, adopting the popular nickname “FedEx,” and launching a sharper logo with a hidden message.
Why it’s successful: The FedEx logo we know today has one of those “winks” that Janoff was talking about: a hidden arrow in the white space between the “E” and “x,” symbolizing movement, speed, and precision and—all important attributes for a delivery company.
"I cannot tell you how many times I fight with a client who says, 'I'm paying an enormous amount of money to pay for an ad in a magazine and you're telling me you want 60 percent of it to be empty space?’” said Lindon Leader of Landor Associates, the agency that designed the FedEx logo. “On the one hand, I can understand where they're coming from. But … [white space] can be a strategic marketing tool."
This logo used to be available in different colors for each business division of the company, but in 2016 FedEx turned all of its logos purple and orange to convey a more uniform brand image.
As the story goes, freelance designer and college student Carolyn Davidson was paid just $35 for designing the logo of an up-and-coming sneaker brand in 1971. (Don’t worry; she later received shares of the company.) Reportedly, co-founder Phil Knight told Carolyn of her design: “I don't love it, but it will grow on me.”
Why it’s successful: Talk about white space! Nike’s logo cuts through that space like a knife—or a “Swoosh,” as the logo is nicknamed—so that you can almost feel and hear its movement. This simple design signifies speed and agility, and it also looks great across the body of a shoe, which was one of Davidson’s biggest challenges. Davidson also took inspiration from the Greek goddess of victory, modeling the icon after her wing. That Greek goddess’ name? Nike.
There are two common interpretations of the BMW logo, which was designed in 1917:
- It represents airplane propellers, calling back to the company’s beginnings as an airplane engine manufacturer.
- It’s an homage to the blue and white flag of Bavaria, where the company had its roots.
Why it’s successful: Regardless of the inspiration for the logo design, the BMW roundel has sat like an emblem on cars across the world for over a century. Its blue and white checkers with a silver lining are effectively sporty, heraldic, and sleek. It even includes a custom version of the Helvetica Neue Bold font for the “BMW” text, sealing the brand’s fate as an indomitable leader in auto design and manufacturing.
Uber’s branding has gone through many iterations in its 10-year lifespan. The latest, unveiled in 2018, traded in the all-caps, severe, masculine font and icon for a softer, more inviting serif font.
Why it’s successful: Uber needed a redesign to counteract its growing negative press and help the brand evolve from a “San Francisco startup to a global company,” as Uber’s executive of brand, Peter Markatos, puts it. Uber even commissioned a custom typeface called Uber Move, following in the footsteps of tech giants like Apple and Google. The result is a logo with a friendlier, more approachable look.
No matter where you are in the world, you can usually find these golden arches and know exactly what they represent—and maybe even feel your mouth start to water. They were first introduced in 1968, but their creation has deeper roots in the company’s history.
Why it’s successful: The golden arches logo was based on one of the original restaurant designs; it included separate golden arches over the establishment, which looked like an “M” when viewed from a certain angle. Now, there’s no mistaking what that logo spells out.
The colors yellow and red (often used in the background) were chosen because they’re known to stimulate appetite, get your heart rate going, and make you feel happy. There’s also no denying that the bright, golden color can easily be spotted from the road, inviting all passersby to stop over for a burger and fries.
Adidas purchased the three-stripe trademark from a Finnish brand in the 1950s. This simple design became so strongly associated with the sportswear brand that founder Adolf "Adi" Dassler even called is business “the three-stripe company.”
Why it’s successful: Adidas rocked the clean, serif-style logo before any of the big tech companies did. The brand helped pioneered minimalist, corporate logo design, a trend that has stood the test of time and taken over today.
Those iconic three stripes form into the shape of a mountain, meant to inspire and challenge Adidas customers to push themselves and reach their full potential.
Since 1998, Google has been defined by its playful, multicolored logo that sits above its Search bar. Over time, that logo evolved to become simpler and flatter, losing some texture and even an exclamation mark. The Google logo design reached its latest iteration in 2015.
Why it’s successful: This Google logo features a custom, geometric sans-serif typeface called Product Sans. With this, Google’s founders and designers aimed to combine “the mathematical purity of geometric forms with the childlike simplicity of schoolbook letter printing,” according to the Google design blog. And, of course, the logo contains that historically rotated “e” at the end -- “a reminder that we’ll always be a bit unconventional.”
It’s also easily customizable. Google invites people to create their own Google logos and Google Doodles, the latter of which are illustrated, interactive logo designs launched for special occasions, celebrations, anniversaries, and holidays.
When Airbnb launched in 2008, the company was using a clunky, makeshift logo that was “created in a matter of hours … for temporary use,” according to the founders. It wasn’t until 2014 that the brand launched a full redesign to put itself on the map as a globally recognized hospitality brand.
Why it’s successful: Airbnb trended on Twitter for eight hours after the new logo was revealed. Granted, it wasn’t all positive feedback at first. But when studied closer, it’s evident that the logo combines a few symbols in just one icon: a heart, a geo-location pin, and an “A” for Airbnb. The founders and design team called it Bélo -- a universal symbol of belonging.
“Belonging has always been a fundamental driver of humankind,” the Airbnb website states. “So to represent that feeling, we’ve created a symbol for us as a community. It’s an iconic mark for our windows, our doors, and our shared values. It’s a symbol that, like us, can belong wherever it happens to be.”