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Cavemen Made Great Logos!

Logo Creation: The most frustrating and rewarding part of any designer’s job. We’re usually given the task of conveying an idea through a mark of some sort. That mark usually has to carry the weight of a company’s brand. It must be easily recognizable from a distance, but retain it’s interesting form when viewed closely. No pressure, right?

If you talk to other designers about logo creation, they’ll usually have a range of emotions about a logo, depending on the project or client. Some clients want an impossibly-large amount of information crammed into this logo, while others are incredibly happy to see a really bad logo, deeming it “perfect.”

Therein lies our struggle: Giving our client the best bang for their buck, while not drowning the logo in a flood of information, dissolving its impact in the process. As modern as this problem may seem, it’s actually older than we think.

Logos in the Land Before Time:

From the dawn of time, drawing has been the foundation of all means of written communication. The earliest writing has been found on tortoise shells in the Hunan Province in China.

These markings, dated around 7th Millenium BC, show that humanity moved beyond cave paintings to smaller, easily-reproducable marks that convey ideas, moods, sounds or other types of information. It was at this time that our millennia-old problem was born. How do you convey an abstract emotion or idea through a symbol?

All over the planet, Bronze-Age peoples were faced with the dilemma. Should they rely solely on oral history to convey the meaning of ideas and history, or should they have some sort of lasting monument and record of these events? We know oral history can be skewed over the generations, so it seemed a logical step in large-scale communication.

The earliest people, the scribes, were the original logo designers. The earliest languages relied heavily on graphic representations to convey meanings.

I Love Typography! has a great article covering language growth.

Even civilizations such at the Egyptians, Mayans and Aztecs adopted logo-centered languages, in which each logo had a meaning or meanings and was not always intended to stand in for a sound like our alphabet.

So now that we know we’re not alone in our modern problem of logo creation, how does that help us?

Three Things the Ancients Knew

When looking at how ancient cultures approached the same problem we face every day, we can easily find their solutions. These solutions will help us in finding the best mark or set of marks for our client’s needs.

1. They were simple.

Ancient writing had to convey a lot of real-life information as well as religious and philosophical ideas. The conceptual ideas were far harder to communicate with other people, so they used real-life examples as parables for these ideas. Usually, plants, animals and objects would be the go-to source of communicating these ideas. That practice has not changed at all since the 7th Millenium BC. Keeping marks and graphics simple is the best way for humans to pay attention to your work.

2. They were consistent.

Consistency in these newly-formed ways of communication was essential or else things would become very confusing, very quickly. We have the same dilemma as designers. We call the problems branding, but the process of conveying a set of graphics and marks to make someone understand something is the same process they used. Consistency is key in representing your designs.

3. They evolved, they stayed the same.

In every language, the marks may change and develop past simple marks to a more conceptual system. However choosing a set of marks that will stand the test of time (at least 100 years) is the true test of success. For instance, we still teach children how to draw fish as two curves with an eye in the middle. This is the same way the earliest people represented fish because it’s the most simple and consistent way of communicating the idea. Even in Rome during the Christian persecutions, Christians would make small marks to represent their beliefs, which evaded the more complex marks of Roman writing and became a cultural exchange of information during times of civil rights oppression. Even though no one writes “fish” as those two curves with a dot in the middle, it’s now globally recognized as a religious symbol.

Logos that stand the test of time

The best test of any logo is whether or not it’s subject to the culture, or stands as a message to the culture. The GE Logo didn’t change for nearly 100 years, because it didn’t need to. GE began as a lamp manufacturer in 1889, and is now a global multinational conglomerate. However their logo hasn’t changed because it doesn’t need to change, its core message of providing power to people in various ways remains the same, and the logo still effectively communicates that message.

Another example is Apple. Apple is not as old as General Electric, but despite it’s logo evolution over the decades, the core image of the apple with a bite taken out of it still offers us the pleasures of it’s product message: Think different.

So take heart, because when you face that blank screen in front of you or that empty sketch pad, know that in the course of history, millions of designers, scribes and artists have struggled with the same issue of communicating an idea through imagery, and know that you can be as successful as they were in creating the best message with the simplest mark possible.

Now go out there and make history!

Image [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons