While it’s not remotely the whole picture, the brandmark is perhaps the most overt and often-discussed facet of a professional identity. Most people starting a new business know they need a logo, and many with existing businesses admit they’d like a better one. Let’s discuss a few of the research-based psychological principles that inform our logo design process.
As with any project, first we evaluate the goals; what effect should the logo have on the perception of the viewer, and on their relationship to the represented business? For example, when developing a mark for a new organization, a top priority should be to establish legitimacy and credibility; this could be accomplished using bold, clean design that conveys a progressive confidence. In addition, a second goal should be to create in the viewer’s mind an association between the logo and the name of the company; the design of the mark and the typography of the name should be complimentary, and – at least for a while – presented alongside one another. Keep this in mind during the section about complexity, further down.
Humans do not simply view and evaluate logos – or any images, for that matter – by their intrinsic representation or extrinsic cultural and conditioned associations. In the early 20th century, a group of German psychologists outlined basic principles, known as Gestalt theory, for visual perception on a fundamental level:
- Proximity: elements that are closer together will be perceived as belonging to a single group.
- Similarity: elements which share visual characteristics – such as size, color, shape, etc. – will be seen as belonging together.
- Continuity: viewers tend to continue lines and shapes past their ending points.
- Closure: a visual connection can be perceived when non-touching shapes are positioned a certain way.
- Figure/Ground: viewers tend to separate whole figured from backgrounds based on variables such as color, contrast, size, etc.
- Symmetry: a visual order should exist in the design; not mirrored, per se, but rather a balanced arrangement of elements.
Simple vs. Complex
Occasionally, we’ll have tentative clients come to us already set on an elaborate concept for a logo – for instance, a scene of a friendly, approachable horse next to an androgynous child with hand outreached towards the horse, both atop a wooden bridge over a curvy stream surrounded by hills. The tendency is to think that this level of complexity just does not make sense for a brandmark – but why? How can the Starbucks logo be so effective with it’s complex composition of a mermaid/siren with long, flowing hair, and a crown with a star, and waves, and two symmetrical and synchronized dolphins jumping – or is that her tail? First, some science…
Earlier this year, researchers in the Netherlands conducted a series of studies to examine the effects of logo complexity on brand recognition and affinity. They found that initially, simple logos elicited a faster recognition time and a more positive attitude towards that brand, but with repeated exposure over time, the complex logos began to be recognized more quickly, and with a higher affinity. They suggest that these results, while preliminary, show an advantage for the initial use of simple logos, with a long-term advantage for more complex marks. Back to Starbucks…
Until recently – and for the first 4 decades of its existence – the Starbucks logo included the company name in bold, high-contrast type, which greatly simplified the presentation of the mark. This produced a conditioned association between the company name and the encompassed graphic, which was reinforced over a long period of time, until removing the name no longer posed a threat to brand recognition. Unless the tentative client has an unlimited budget for brute-force, rapid exposure for the complex brandmark, use of a simple design is empirically more effective in producing brand recognition and affinity in the short-term.
We’re not meaning to imply that this is all there is to consider when crafting a logo (not even close), that one approach is intrinsically better than another (so many variables), that the Starbucks logo is great (not really), or that we even like their products (definitely not); we just wanted to give an accessible glimpse into our thought process regarding the psychology of logo design.