The world is full of logos, on clothing, food, technology and services. We use logos to identify the things we prefer, to help us make better, quicker purchasing decisions. We use them to tell others who we are. We signal our own personality and interest by wearing, showing and sharing logos. And when we’re lost in a new city we turn to our phones and look for a logo that will help us find our way home. All across the world we see recognizable logos, from San Francisco to Delhi. But times are changing and how we think of logos needs to change too.
The evolution of logos
Ever since European royalty started patronizing particular tailors the power of the clothing brand has existed. But rather than simply denoting products, brands also symbolize lifestyles. By wearing the same brand as the king, you were saying you were rich like him and connected to him. And now today, instead of just being about running or soft drink preferences, these logos come to represent so much more – coolness, freedom and youth, in the case of some, a political position too.
On the back of this, logos are becoming ever more powerful. Brands are body-positive, politically aware and socially minded, but why did this happen? Weren’t brands doing just fine selling products and lifestyles? Well, yes and no. In her 1999 book, No Logo, Naomi Klein accused many brands of being immoral and of behaving psychotically. She argued that logos were more than just products and identity signaling, that they were overstepping their territory.
Soft drink machines in high schools and athletic companies sponsoring football teams meant logos (and the companies behind them) were seeping into new spheres of influence. Rather than just being about the product, they were creating a climate of anti-choice. By being omnipresent, impressionable young Americans were getting locked into a system where they were pressured to only buy brands. Soon every teenager was obsessed with brands and logos. Being seen without the right logo was social suicide.
What’s more, these mega-brands were trampling over physical land barriers like never before. Western demand for branded sneakers and t-shirts meant factory work was outsourced to the foreign shores of the developing world. And soon the products being made in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were being worn there too. Brands were creating low paid jobs and creating a new market at the same time. This practice, Klein argued, left human misery and environmental ruin behind in its wake.
The Klein effect
Today, this idea is nothing new. Our generation has grown up with knowledge of this. But this begs the question if Klein was right about this, twenty years ago, and we agreed that it was not right, why did nothing change?
At first, there was change. Translated into more than 30 languages and with more than a million copies sold worldwide, the book became a bestseller. There were protests and people started ripping up and burning logoed clothes. Other consumers made a concerted effort to resist logoed and branded products but commercial industry saw another side to the phenomenon – didn’t this form of anti-logoism (my new word) have a kind of logo-appeal of its own? Klein’s publisher seems to think so because they started making plans to copyright the phrase ‘No Logo’ to get out a line of T-shirts. They wanted to make a logo out of the movement behind No Logo. The political anti-logo movement showed brands that logos could be political too.
Logo behavior has changed but needs to go further
This is an old story but I’m rehashing it here for a reason. If we look at how logos work today to how they worked in a pre-No Logo era, we can see in many ways they’ve changed and in other ways, not at all. The big brands took several steps to ingratiate themselves in our lives once more, becoming more socially conscious, environmentally aware and even more meaningful and seductive. But many brands have missed the point and a new threat is facing logos that many designers are failing to see.
In the early 2000s, as brands changed track and approach, The No Logo movement slowly dissipated. If anything, Klein helped logos adapt and become more powerful. She pointed out the problems before they were critical and gave brands the chance to adapt before they lost all their customers in a giant die-off.
The No Logo movement didn’t stop because Klein was wrong. It stopped because she was so right brands started to take action. They did become more philanthropic and more responsible but they doubled down on their presence too. And in a sense, this has created a second wave of logo supremacy. And this is where we are today.
These days, logos are far more visual, multi-channel and omnipresent than they were in the late nineties. From Colonel Sanders DJing at music festivals to Dominos Pizza offering free pies for tattoos of their logo, to Gillette redefining masculine identities, brands have truly pushed back the barriers. But now we have technology to add to the mix and that changes things again. We don’t need to physically purchase a product to come into contact with logos. Every app we download, even before we buy a service or product is branded with logos and imagery. So how we interact with brands has changed too.
Gone are the days when we simply gave a company our hard-earned money for a product. These days we use logoed services for entertainment, for work-related travel, and as middlemen in shopping transactions. We also use logoed brands to earn a living in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. And this new way of living shoulder to shoulder with logos has led to a new phenomenon.
Without ever filling out a customs form, some logos have gone international to a massive proportion. Logos are making their way into new lands without producing physical products, subsuming existing commodities such as apartments, office buildings and private cars beneath their corporate umbrella and superseding culture and language too. And this has created a very different logo creature, one Naomi Klein couldn’t have imagined. But this time, they don’t need to worry about Klein writing up their shortcomings. This time, by their very nature of being a logo in a foreign place, they’re creating their own backlash. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By thinking flexible, and allowing designers to do what we do best, international brands could fix this problem or avoid it altogether.
This is just one of the ideas explored in my new book The Future of Extraordinary Design. How can we design better logos to suit multi-cultural brands and how do logos fit into the holistic design model? Because we are designers- It’s what we do.
Mobile UX London Conference: 21 November 2019
This year’s conference themes include: