Semiosis? The Mysterious World of Logo Design
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Consciously or subconsciously, we all have contributed to creating a wealth of semiotic vocabulary, as history has shown us that signs and symbols, like images, flavors, colours, odors, and even words, have been used to represent meaning, and thus communicate language. These signs ordinarily have no intrinsic meaning but the ones we invest in them, borne from our individual and collective experiences. Snakes, for instance, connote an evil and cunning nature, but if we take away the historical Western associations (largely contributed to by the Bible) and other modern influences like the depiction of the Slytherin house in Harry Potter, we are left with the fact that a serpent is just a serpent, nothing more.
This is Semiosis.
You may probably be wondering at this point: By Soyinka's beards! What in the world is Seun talking about, and how does this fancy term that most likely belongs in philosophy books, have anything to do with art and design?
Here's where I am coming from
Semiosis is communication, but not the regular kind of communication, as it doesn't involve speech (mostly), it is rather dependent on sight and the ability for one sign or symbol to pass an entire world of ideas and imagery that a thousand words will fail to communicate. I mean, it has been said that describing a symbol with words is like trying to capture a star in a jar. The Swastika symbol (卐), a symbol that was used by various cultures across the globe for over 5,000 years to symbolize a variety of positive meanings including good luck, life, sun, power, and strength, is now affiliated with a negative connotation, as it instantly floods one's mind with indelible images of Nazism, war and unspeakable tragedy. Even the word 'Adolf Hitler' doesn't communicate as much imagery as the Swastika symbol does, having been besmirched by the unfortunate events of the second world war.
Symbols, as seen from the foregoing, are whole and complete entities processed intuitively and immediately. In comparison, words are made up of fragmentary letter-forms that must be understood first in their particular language, and then be related to a visual. The idea is that symbols are immediate, while words most often have to be paired with images to be understood. Symbols are the original kind of human communication.
In this Universe of language that we have created for ourselves for centuries, comes a Country called Logo, which exists in this little planet called Brand Identity. But, not many designers know this, and here's why...
The Mysterious Unpopular World
Ever noticed that in the study of most trades or professions, the first thing you learn is the history: where they are coming from, where they set out for and how they got where they are.
You know, the boring stuff.
Boring as it might be, history is still never neglected because some wise people have come to realise that human beings are creatures of repetitive habits, and in essence, supposed modern trends are just refinements of old practices. Texting for instance, is basically letter writing without the ink stains and long delivery times (new trends, hold habits... this was probably the origin of leaving people on 'Read'). History thus helps us see ideas and mistakes of the past, in a bid to develop on them. Hence, to think that logo design is a modern trend is to think that writing an invoice with a quill is contemporary.
Logo design is a facet of the powerful force that we call brand identity, one that inevitably determines the path of the whole (brand identity) in the short and long run. To thus communicate effectively with design, it’s important to know its roots: semiosis. Logo design may have risen to popularity with brands and corporations of the twentieth century, however, people, families, and organizations have been identifying themselves with an enormous variety of marks, signatures, and emblems for centuries. Take Game of Thrones (set in a semblance of the medieval era) for instance, it was flushed with so many visual representations of identity as seen through the use of family crests (like the House Targaryen, House Lannister, House Stark, etc), uniforms (like the Unsullied, the Golden Company, etc), and religious symbolism (like the Faith of the Seven, Lord of the Light, etc). In essence, there's hardly any difference, in terms of visual communication, between the use of semiosis by a modern company that represents itself with a logo, colour scheme & slogan, and the practices in the middle ages.
Interestingly, evolving from this background, the present-day clients have grown to increasingly appreciate logos as essential to their brand's identity, consequently giving room for the growth of semiosis in logo design, however, in a manner quite different from originally conceived. The best output to them, in the 21st century, is most commonly a logo that describes the services they render or goods sold, sometimes, to the letter. This is as opposed to a logo with a depth that speaks more about the brand's character than its services. They would rather have a logo that has a burger as a symbol, because that is the primary product sold, and because it features in their name 'Burger King', than have a logo that represents the first building structure and ultimately the spirit and drive of the brand (McDonald's), without necessarily symbolizing the service rendered.
NB. 'Descriptive Logos' in this article is used in a restricted sense, as it means logos that immediately describe the product or service of the brand. Descriptive Logos can also mean logos that describe the name of the brand, this however doesn't constitute a part of the meaning used.
This isn't actually too bad if you think about it, in fact, research has shown that descriptive logos are more highly associated with consumers’ willingness to buy, as the message is subconsciously easily assimilated. The only seeming hitch is that companies that make products associated with socially unpleasant things may not necessarily benefit from descriptive logos (a burial house may not want to use a logo that reminds its audience of death every time it's seen).
Why aren't All Logos Descriptive then?
Descriptive logos may work wonders for unfamiliar or smaller companies because they establish their brands as reliable — even to consumers who have never heard of them, however, logically, if this continues as a trend, there will inevitably become a clog in creativity, and ultimately, logos of companies in the same industry will look virtually the same. This would be terrible, particularly for one of the most important features of the concept of brand identity - memorability.
Just in case you didn't notice, the above are meant to be individually distinct chat app logos.
The truth is that this path, notwithstanding that in some sense, it actually is effective, is a detour from the original background of symbology. Signs and Symbols are meant to strike imagery in one's mind far more than they are meant to describe; they are meant to tell a story, far more than they are meant to describe a good or service.
Not all Logos have to be Descriptive, they can be Symbolic
Semiotics (the study of Semiosis) has taught us that meaning and depth rank far above any other kind of communication, because the former's relevance can be realized universally. Logo design ranks the highest in the creative process of designers, as the process exercises one's intuition and ability to communicate a world of meaning with succinct symbolism. Symbols should help create wit that establishes the relationship between the brand and the logo, and then, the logo and the audience.
So, it is perfectly okay for your logo to have a depth that may not necessarily be related to the services rendered, but rather effectively defining the character of your brand. This is because, a brand is meant to be more than the product sold; it is meant to be a character, an identity that an audience can relate with, and trust. A relationship between a brand and consumers ranks far above one between a product and consumers, and this feeds deep into the concept of Relationship Marketing (gist for another day). Consumers buy products because they need or want the product, and so any variant would do; however they buy brands because there is a perception of quality, consistency, and trust, thus evoking loyalty. If this is so, why describe a product, when you can symbolize a lifestyle?
Good logos are meant to be smart, accessible, and simple but also have enough depth to be interesting. They’re meant to use semiosis effectively to be immediate and intuitive at first glance, but memorable when out of sight. Plus, the beauty of this whole thing is that achieving a logo that is influenced heavily by semiosis can interestingly be done with any of the existing types of logos, whether letter marks, wordmarks, icon marks, abstract marks, monograms or combination marks, what is important is having a story to tell, and wittily finding a way to tell that story with your mark. Minimalism with depth. It is our burden, as the new face of creativity in the 21st century, to create a new social dialogue with our designs, and explore the depths of visual communication, showing its diversity and ability to be more than just 'descriptive'.
Maybe there is a method to the Madness of logo design after all.
Maggie Macnab, 'Logo Design Theory, Part 1: Symbols, Metaphors And The Power Of Intuition.' https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2015/06/effective-logo-design-symbols-metaphors-intuition/
Peter Getman, 'Why You Should Launch a Brand, Not a Product.' https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.entrepreneur.com/amphtml/295306
Dom Carter, 'Apparently We've been doing Logos Wrong all this Time.' https://www.creativebloq.com/amp/news/descriptive-logo-study
Dan Redding, 'The History Of Logos And Logo Design' https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/07/the-evolution-of-the-logo/
Kate Harrison, 'What Message Does Your Logo Convey?' https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateharrison/2018/08/14/what-message-does-your-logo-convey/amp/