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How to Avoid the Obvious in Logo Design

How to Avoid the Obvious in Logo Design

Designing a logo is a delicate balance. A designer has to capture the essence of an organization and condense it down to stylized text or an icon. That is no easy feat.

Logos have power. A great logo can tell a story, convey a message, or make a connection with customers. But a bad logo is invisible. Just more noise in the crowd.

A lot of logos tell a literal story of the organization they represent.

A kitchen supply store? Better put a knife and fork in the logo.

An auto shop? Slap a fast car on there.

A realtor? A storybook looking house. Boom. Done.

When brainstorming ideas for a logo, concepts like these are usually what come out in the first few minutes. They capture what an organization does, but they are fairly meaningless connections with no real substance. There’s nothing interesting about a knife and fork, a car, or a house. But if you dig a bit deeper than surface level, obvious ideas, you can find a real meaningful connection to be explored.

Why should I avoid obvious ideas/concepts?

“But how will people know we sell ___ if it’s not in our logo?”

Coca-cola doesn’t have a bottle in there logo.

The Mercedes logo isn’t a car.

The Apple logo isn’t a computer.

Your logo doesn’t need to be two-dimensional either. People are smarter than we often give them credit for, and making simple associations between a symbol and an organization isn’t that much of a stretch. Just look at these logos and see how much power there is in pursuing less obvious ideas when designing a logo.


Each of these examples avoid obvious imagery, and yet I guarantee you recognized each of them. A logo’s power comes from the company it represents and its use over time. Investing in your brand’s identity means letting your customers come to associate what you do with your company.

How to dig deeper and find better ideas

Finding better ideas for a logo design all starts with research and brainstorming. These phases of the project often get overlooked because they are not a sexy as diving into Illustrator and throwing a bunch of vector points together. Without researching the industry you’re designing for and then brainstorming ways to make that organization stand out, you’ll just create more noise instead of cutting through it.

Researching for logo design means finding what all of the organization’s competitors are doing and finding common themes to either avoid or to incorporate because they are expected. Using expected themes doesn’t mean embracing the obvious, it means meeting expectations. For example, when designing a logo for a spa, people expect a logo that’s elegant and relaxing, so avoid grafitti text and lightning bolts.

Brainstorming is a strange process. Ideas always seem so random. Connections get made in your mind that are seemingly pointless. But every weird word you jot down is another step toward finding *the* idea.

Never discount or exclude anything you come up with while brainstorming. Every 3-5 seconds you should be writing down another word. Whatever word pops in to your head. Then when you’ve written down as many words as you can, start reviewing your list and pick out the ideas worth expanding upon. I guarantee you’ll have some interesting words you wouldn’t have thought up otherwise.

Mind mapping is another extremely helpful exercise for finding better meaning as well. Write down the main theme in the middle of a sheet of paper, and start writing related words that branch off of it. Then write words that relate to each of those new words. Pretty soon, you’ll have words three, four, or five levels deep or more that have a bit more substance and are worth exploring.

The results of more meaningful ideas

When I was designing the identity for EVBC, a fictional brewery based in my neighborhood of Buffalo, NY, it would have been super easy to just slap a pint glass or some hops on my logo and call it a day.

The problem with that is, there’s nothing special about obvious iconography. 90% of breweries use some form of obvious beer trope in their logo design, whether its a hop plant, wheat, or a pint glass. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those images, there’s no meaningful connection to be made by doing what 90% of your competitors are doing.

With EVBC, the “something special” I pursued was the neighborhood the brewery is based in. The Elmwood Village is filled with beautiful, charming, Queen Anne style houses. Using the houses as the symbol for the brewery instead of something obvious tells a much better story than some hops ever could.

The logo makes a connection to something deeper, and tells an interesting story.

In the end, the power of a logo comes down to the power of the organization it represents. Apple’s logo wouldn’t be so highly regarded if they made terrible products that people didn’t want. A great organization with a bad logo can still do well in the marketplace, but a great organization with a great logo has limitless potential.

Find your story, and tell it.

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