Change Conversations blog

4 min read

Logo Design 101: The Symbol

By Brad Pettengill on 3/14/13 11:45 AM

title graphic for The Symbol

In the first in this series of blog posts, Logo, Corporate Identity or Brand—What's the Difference?, I briefly explored these three marketing essentials and their relationship to each other. In this second post, we begin to define the logo and explore logo design, starting with symbols.


What is a Logo?

According to the omniscient Wikipedia, a logo is "a graphic mark or emblem commonly used by commercial enterprises, organizations or even individuals to aid and promote instant public recognition". A logo's job is to quickly and succinctly identify, symbolize, introduce, and tell the story of a company, service, product, individual or idea. There are many synonyms, each with unique definitions and characteristics that can inspire or inform the design direction for a logo: graphic; ideogram; emblem; totem; ensign; hallmark; icon; avatar; symbol; badge; colophon; insignia; monogram; trademark; pictograph; stamp; mark; logogram; crest; and, of course, brand. Brand is used here in its earliest definition—"an identifying mark made by hot iron"—an ancient way to identify property.


The Symbol as Logo

We use symbols every day, and have since the beginning of civilization and communication. Cave paintings tell the story of the hunt; sign language and hand gestures communicate without words; written characters symbolize our ideas; painting, sculpture and photography tell stories and express meaning and emotion too complex for words; each planet has its own symbol; astrological signs symbolize character traits; certain animals are symbolic of desirable human traits, clans or countries; numbers and mathematical symbols enable counting, commerce and advances in physics, engineering, and the sciences; and international signs and icons transcend the differences in language to inform, protect, motivate and direct. So it is only natural that we tell the story of our business, product or service with pictures.

Today's corporate logos are the descendants of the pictures or marks our ancestors used to tell stories, communicate ideas, or identify property, services or products. In ancient times a business or trade was represented by a picture of that trade—a butcher, a bar, a blacksmith, etc. The standalone symbol has its roots in illiteracy but today crosses borders and language barriers with international appeal and recognition. Most standalone symbol logos began with the name as part of the mark, but dropped it as they grew in worldwide recognition as market leaders.

Internationally known standalone symbol logos Internationally known standalone symbol logos

These wordless corporate logos have achieved the same instant international recognition as the signs and symbols we see every day that communicate basic concepts, directions, resources, behaviors, ideas, ideologies, philosophies and religions. Part of these logos' success is due to the clarity with which they express the story of the brand or company using basic shapes, colors, forms and content. Complex human beings with a rich tapestry of experience and archetypal imagery embedded in our psyche are compelled to respond in some way to these iconic marks, since even the most basic symbols can be packed with information, emotion, nuanced meaning, story or history.


Shapes are the Foundation

basic shapes have symbolic meaning

The most basic symbols are shapes. Each has a unique feeling about it, some have acquired deeper meaning or associations. Basic shapes are often used in logo design as a graphic element or compositional guide.


 Basic shapes with minor changes take on more meaning

Basic shapes with minor changes take on more meaning


 Well known logos with basic shapes as symbols or containers for type

Well-known logos using basic shapes either as containers or standalone symbols, have (most of the time) escaped judgment as boring or cliché because of the brand’s reputation and/or the designer’s innovative thinking.


Communicating Ideas with Shapes and Symbols

International symbols created using simple line, shape and form

Many symbols created using simple line, shape and form have become the
worldwide standard for identifying relatively sophisticated concepts.


International symbols of Advocacy, Human rights, Health, and Activism

International symbols of Advocacy, Human rights, Health, and Activism


Symbols of spiritual concepts, ideologies, religions and philosophies, representing our highest aspirations and human ideals

Spiritual concepts, ideologies, religions and philosophies, representing our highest aspirations and human ideals


What Makes a Good Logo Symbol?

Whether a graphic is a standalone symbol of a company or part of a logo using type, it tells a story, has a tone and feel, conveys emotion and can carry a history. Many of the symbols shown here are part of our collective visual vocabulary. They have conscious and subconscious meanings and associations for each of us. With both well-researched and intuitive awareness of the meaning, history, and psychology of these basic building blocks, designers choose the form, content, color and style of a symbol or graphic to precisely "shape" a consumer's experience, creating, contributing to, or informing their perception of the company.

In my next post, we will explore logo design that uses only words, with examples of famous "wordmarks", and the history and specific techniques of typographic logo design. Subscribe now and you won't miss out.


subscribe to our blog


Check out our Guide to Inclusive Language to help you communicate
  • There are no suggestions because the search field is empty.

About Change Conversations

The Change Conversations blog is where changemakers find inspiration and insights on the power of mission-driven communication to create the change you want to see.


Creative Commons

Creative Commons

© 2009- to present, Marketing Partners, Inc. Content on the Change Conversations blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License to share as much as you like. Please attribute to Change Conversations and link to ChangeConversations.

Creative Commons License may not apply to images used within posts and pages on this website. See hover-over or links for attribution associated with each image and licensing information.