The Making of an Icon: How Minimal Design Creates a Logo that Sticks

May 18, 2021


What makes a black “swoosh” on a white background so recognizable? And how did an apple with a missing bite come to represent one of the largest tech companies in the world? The answer: those marks are simple and iconic, and were unlike anything else in the market at the time.

We interact with thousands of visuals daily, but can instantly recall those iconic designs that tend to stick more than others. Any designer or brand strategist will tell you: this result doesn’t happen overnight. It’s incredibly important, then, to examine logos like these in the larger context of how they were created – which surprisingly often has little to do with the logo itself.

“A logo derives meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.”  – Paul Rand

One of the industry’s most prolific and well-known designers, Paul Rand, majorly shaped how we approach logo design today with his ideas and expertise in the field – known for some logo designs like IBM, UPS, and ABC, he seemed to grasp the inner workings of building a lasting logo identity.

He adopted one approach that may surprise you: he never assigned much responsibility to the logo (or the design) itself. According to Rand, “it is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning.” In other words, a logo should not be expected to do the heavy lifting of familiarizing and conditioning your audience to your brand – the job of a logo is simply to symbolize an association with your reputation, mission, and meaning, whether newly-budding or pre-existing. Logos, essentially, exist to identify, not communicate.

Design = How It Works

Steve Jobs once said, “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.” This applies to all facets of design — especially logos. To circle back to Paul Rand’s philosophy, a logo that “works” is one that can be associated with your company or organization, and over time, help strengthen and recall your brand’s identity. In other words: logos that “work” are those that stick around, gain credibility and become recognizable.

Iconic logos connect people to the company’s story, building loyalty, greater brand awareness, and excitement around who you are and what you provide. It’s not the visual itself that makes people camp out overnight in front of Apple stores before the launch of the newest iPhone, it’s the meaning behind the symbol — the loyalty that begins to form between the consumer and the company.

It’s important to mention that a company’s logo is simply a visual symbol that distinguishes its brand from competitors, not the actual embodiment of the brand itself. Bringing the role of the logo into perspective, situating it within the hierarchy of the larger system of the brand helps enforce its main purpose: a symbol to identify with, not a main form of communication.

Setting A Logo Up for Success

While all of this might make sense in theory, implementing this philosophy is where things get tricky. How exactly are these “sticky” logos created — detached from the sole responsibility of communication, but still reflect the true essence of the brand at a gut level?

To set up logos for success, designers often focus on making them appropriate (relating to the context and market it exists in), distinctive (different enough and memorable), and simple (uncomplicated and restrained in visual form). This last piece is incredibly crucial in ensuring all three are achieved – which is why, as obvious as it seems, many of our favorite companies and brands actually have the simplest logos.

That said, clarity and simplicity rarely begin with the design itself. Reducing the number of points in Illustrator or following the golden ratio should be the last step in the simplification process. The heavy lifting should be done beforehand as you define the core of your organization and whittle your brand down to its bare bones to determine what most needs to be communicated.

In the same way that writing a 1,000-word essay often comes easier than crafting a pithy, memorable tagline, this not easy work. There are likely numerous traits you could use to describe what your organization could be, but defining what it actually is or the vision of where you see it going is much more challenging. Once this process is complete, and you’ve defined a strong and compelling mission statement, a clear purpose, and a sense of your organization’s identity, the visual part of a brand overhaul will fall into place, feeling like a natural extension of your brand rather than a separate entity.

Therefore, while it might be tempting to want everything considered “essential” to your visual identity communicated in a single logo, trimming it down to a single storytelling element is crucial when the goal is to closely link your logo and your mission. The work you do upfront is an important investment in creating a strong visual identity that feels and functions how it was meant to.

You may feel that editing down and revising your brand identity might prevent you from fully informing your audience, but in reality, you are actually accomplishing much more. It’s a principle that we see actively playing a role in our everyday lives as well, not just when it comes to our brand. Focusing on doing less — on going deeper rather than wider with more intent and focus — often results in a higher quality outcome.

Putting Simplicity in Action

Understanding the mechanics behind arriving at a strong identity and logo design is only one aspect; but when it comes time to actually putting pen to paper (or mouse to artboard), there are certain visual traits and techniques designers turn to that help ensure an effective logo execution.

Cut Through the Noise

Nothing cuts through the noise faster than simplicity. Our increasingly digitized lifestyle and instant access to an overwhelming amount of information has resulted in a decline of attention spans over the years. Simply put, we just don’t have the time or attention for information overload.

Now, more than ever, it’s important to focus on maximizing creativity with the most minimal elements possible. Not only does this help increase recognition, it ensures a faster-clicking message. Previous connections with your brand will be reinforced, and new ones will be forged.

Focus on the Future

A clean, minimal logo is not only visually and aesthetically pleasing, but is also practical; versatility and staying power are both vital to the success and longevity of an icon. By embracing the “less is more” mentality in a logo, it becomes easier to avoid designs that look overworked or outdated. It would be a shame to see your most valuable mark go out the door with a short-lived trend.

Additionally, a great logo should accommodate changes within the organization. When you’ve put in the work to redefine your brand and position your messaging for years of potential growth, the last thing you want is a logo that can’t grow with you. As the world shifts, brands adapt and evolve their mission over time. Adopting a logo that aligns with your core brand essence and values, rather than each individual aspect of your current brand, will ensure its resilience over time.

Case Study: Conservation International

A great example of a brand overcoming one such challenge is Conservation International. You may be familiar with their simple line and ring motif, often found on Starbucks cups. Their mission, however, has not always been as extensive as it is today. So when Conservation International began workshopping their logo in 2010, they knew they needed to adopt an icon that would embody not only their work with wildlife conservation but also their commitment to positively impacting humanity as a whole.

Going from a small, clip-art-esque rendering of a rainforest to a minimal blue ring with a green underline upgraded their visual identity to align more holistically with their larger vision. Obviously, a circle and a line cannot accurately depict everything they do, but it stands as a powerful visual symbol of a company with a broader mission. There’s no need to be literal; connection matters more.

This approach has proven to be incredibly effective. Conservation International has totally embraced the power and simplicity of their icon, even dropping their logotype from their website and allowing the icon to stand alone and form increased recognition. This is a great example of the power of simplicity!

Consider Practicality

There is also a practical aspect to designing a clean, minimalist logo. Simple logos make practical applications much easier after the fact. When the designer hands off the final files, it’s up to you, the keeper of the brand, to steward and apply the logo well. Scalability is often an overlooked criteria in the early stages of the design process, but it is one of the most important considerations, functionality-wise, for logo applications.

At any size, the logo should be recognizable; at smaller sizes, logos that are made up of complex shapes and fine lines can look muddied and confusing. Whether someone interacts with your logo on a billboard, on a tiny app icon, or a piece of merchandise, it should be easily and quickly identifiable.

Utilize Symbolism

Finally, simplicity in logo design often relies heavily on symbolism and pre-existing associations that are majorly subconscious. Nothing can ever be totally “new” when it comes to design; we are constantly taking advantage of meaning already assigned to design elements and adapting them to fit our needs.

Shapes, colors, lines, forms, and textures are all infused with layers of history, meaning, and emotion. Relationships and connections can be formed more rapidly when we relate to what we already know. So, rather than redefine these tools, we use them to our advantage. Something powerful enough to identify your brand may already exist within the confines of symbolism. Just think about how quickly a series of three red rings denote a target.

Keep in mind that certain symbols don’t always have one-to-one interpretations. Symbols, like a nation’s flag or those little laundry icons that live on your clothing tags, are really only meant to represent something else, not communicate implicitly. Symbols were originally created for rapid recognition, utility and function, not aesthetic.

The Target logo, while iconic and memorable, has nothing to do with purchasing goods, but it has everything to do with generating lasting trust and immediate recognition. At the end of the day, a symbol is merely a vessel that holds all the associations, meanings, emotions, and values you see in your brand. This doesn’t render the form completely meaningless, but places into perspective the importance of the visual elements themselves and the associations they form.

“A one-to-one relationship between a symbol and what is symbolized is very often impossible to achieve and, under certain conditions, objectionable. Ultimately, the only mandate in the design of logos, it seems, is that they be distinctive, memorable, and clear.” – Paul Rand

In a way, your logo is like your signature, quickly memorized and easily recreated in a matter of seconds. That signature is part of your identity — your visual identity. And like the signature of many great artists, people may start to memorize it, too. Your work will be associated with your signature and vice versa.

Simply put, simple logos stick around. And while a good logo will slowly grow in power and gain meaning over time, it’s the key ingredients of focus and simplicity that matter most.

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