Even to a weathered designer, the next logo project may feel as challenging as the last.

Especially for larger companies and organizations, the consequences of a botched logo design might not be insignificant. (Imagine the costs incurred to repaint an entire airline livery!) 

In this article I’d like to cover the following 5 mistakes to avoid in order to make a better logo design.

  1. Creating a logo that illustrates instead of identifies
  2. Making a logo that is too promotional
  3. Designing a logo that is too complicated
  4. Creating a logo that isn’t distinguished
  5. Designing a logo that isn’t appropriate in character

While I've been guilty of all of these mistakes, I'm going to (gently) pick on the previous logos of some big brands as illustrations of these key principles.

Because they are some of the more recognizable brands, they offer easily understandable examples to learn from their logo design history.

Let's dive in.

Mistake #1: Creating a logo that illustrates instead of identifies

This is a trap that is easy to fall into, and where many logos go wrong. The designer has forgotten the primary purpose of a logo: to identify, not to tell a story or illustrate a particular aspect of a business. While a good logo can still utilize an illustrative style, if it strays into explaining or promoting something, it loses the power of an identifying mark.

This can be seen by comparing the original Apple logo, with the one many people know. Apple’s 1976 logo told the story of Sir Isaac Newton discovering the concept of gravity while observing an apple fall from a tree. The illustration hindered the ability to easily identify Apple products, and was replaced in 1977 with the shape that now forms one of the most widely recognized logos in the world.

comparision of the original Apple logo (more of an illustration), with the one now most recognizeable
Talk about transformation!

Mistake #2: Making a logo too promotional

Making a mark that is too promotional or literal in its representation often detracts from its ability to identity, and limits its future use. In contrast to other types of imagery or graphics, a logo is more like a symbol than it is a picture. Through consistent use, a logo that symbolizes becomes like a container for all of the feelings and associations people have with a brand. 

This is the magic of a symbol: it doesn’t need to represent anything in a literal way. For example, Apple’s logo doesn’t have a literal drawing of cool or innovative technology for you to associate those things with Apple. Furthermore, a literal depiction of a computer would have likely limited any equity in the logo, resulting in the need to rework the identity once Apple moved into different product types, services, and physical stores.

On the other hand, in 2002 Dunkin' Donuts redesigned their logo to incorporate a literal depiction of one of their products (coffee in a styrofoam cup, no less). This resulted in the need to retool the identity later on as the brand moved beyond donuts and coffee, competing with the many food and beverage offerings of Starbucks (whose logo does not reference their offerings in any way).

Comparison of the old and new Dunkin' logo
Sorry Dunkin'. I do like the new logo better though.

Mistake #3: Designing a logo that is too complicated

A simple, static logo usually works better than a complicated one. In order for a logo to do its job as a symbol that identifies, it needs to have the ability to look the same in nearly every situation.

The more your logo can stay consistent, the more easily it will be recognized. Therefore the logo needs to be reduced to a form that is free from unnecessary detail or decoration. This simplicity helps the symbol work at any size or in any medium (such as printed materials, digital ads, physical products). 

One can observe the gradual improvements to the Starbucks logo throughout their history. Beginning with a complicated symbol with precious details, over time the company simplified their logo to one that is bolder, easily visible, and much more suited to consistent use on a global scale.

the evolution of the Starbucks logo
I spend way too much money at this place.

Mistake #4: Creating a logo that isn’t distinguished

In order to effectively identify, a logo should be unique enough to be distinguished from other marks, and own-able to the brand it represents. It needs to be something that catches the eye and stays with the mind.

Therefore, a great logo is not generic, trite, dependent on a fad, or overly reliant on stereotypical symbols or cliches. When a logo relies on commonplace imagery without adding anything memorable or distinguishable, it fails to become identifiable. Great logos incorporate a shape, style or other element that help it stand out and be memorable in some way.

The original US Open logo featured elements all too common for its genre and time (1997). The most prominent feature, a red arc, is widely used by many other organizations. The result was a logo that wasn't very identifiable for the US Open.

The firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv redesigned the identity in 2018, creating a much more unique, distinguished mark that lives up to the renowned event.

Diagram showing the original US Open logo compared with other similar logos, with the redesigned logo underneath

Mistake #5: Designing a logo that doesn’t fit the character of a brand

A logo should be fitting in idea, form, and style to the brand it represents. A designer might approach the project from what they want to design, not necessarily what is going to be the best for the client. Similarly, the client might push for their own personal tastes without considering what will best fit the business. 

However, it’s best to approach the design from an objective point of view. What are the underlying character traits of the brand, and how can we characterize that essence in the logo? This is a key question that should be considered to ensure the final design is appropriate for the brand.

An example of capturing the character of a brand can be seen in the infamous redesign of the Gap logo in 2010. Seeking a more modern identity, the company launched a fairly radical redesign of their logo considering the size and recognition of their current brand.

The new logo created such a firestorm of opinion that after just one week Gap reverted back to their original logo. One could argue that while the new design may have been in line with where the company wanted to go in the future, it's character (style) didn't fit the true essence of the brand that customers were used to, and so drew strong reactions.

Diagram showing the original Gap logo, and the one created in 2010.
Gap: Redesign? What redesign?


Whether you’re creating your own logo, evaluating a brand identity, or designing one for a client, I hope you’ve found these learnings helpful. 

Avoiding these common pitfalls will help ensure you’re on your way to a better logo design that fulfills its purpose–ultimately making your brand more effective.