What we think of as logo design—simple, iconic images that represent individual brands—is often considered a modern phenomenon. But humans have been identifying and differentiating themselves using emblems and signature marks for hundreds, even thousands of years. In fact, much of the symbolic design work throughout recorded history is all about communicating identity visually.
Today’s businesses that carefully design logos to represent themselves are following a long tradition that goes back to royal family crests, hieroglyphics and ancient religious symbolism. This quick and dirty guided tour through the history of logo design will highlight these connections, and help anyone hoping to design a logo to create something more powerful and effective.
Ancient foundations of symbolism in graphic arts
Between 70,000 BC and 7000 BC, primitive peoples from all over the world laid the foundations of the graphic arts by painting animals in caves. Around 8000 BC, people in Assyria, Egypt, Carthage, Persia, Media and Sumer created pottery that communicated aesthetic, ethical, cultural, socio-political and religious information.
Even in these distant, primitive stretches of history, people and cultures were representing themselves and their ideas with symbols and illustrations. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Ancient Egypt, starting around the fourth millennium BC. Not only did the Egyptians develop hieroglyphics, a formal writing system, where images represented words or sounds, but they were also prolific artists. Their paintings and sculpture included specific symbolic images and colors that held specific meanings.
Between 2125 and 1991 BC, grids appeared in Egyptian designs. This development is essential to logo design, because it ensures that artists effectively maintain proportions and ratios—and guarantees a uniform reproduction of the same design.
Not to say that the Egyptians had a monopoly on using images symbolically. During the same timeframe, the roots of calligraphy in the form of characters developed in China. Hear each word or idea had its own symbol, and this foundation influenced later languages, even those that were less visual (like English).
Logo’s illiterate legacy
Jumping forward in time, and looking to medieval Europe, we see two distinct visual languages appear: heraldic crests and symbolic signage.
Heraldry is a system of assigning design elements societal meaning and status. A certain set of colors and shapes would represent a certain noble family. This set of imagery was combined to create a unique coat of arms. Sound familiar?
Though the original purpose was a little different—identifying the friendly vs. enemy army while at war—the result was the same. Design elements took on meaning and helped people identify their favorite “brands.”
Outside of the aristocracy, most of the population was illiterate. In the High Middle Ages (900 – 1300 AD), the population started to grow, leading more and more people to move to cities. Society moved away from self-sustaining agrarian ways of life to more specialized and diversified trade. This meant more commodification as people couldn’t make everything they needed. Shops started hanging up signs to identify what goods or services they provided—think striped barber shop poles and crosses representing pharmacies.
In 1389, King Richard II of England passed a law requiring establishments that brewed beer to hang a sign indicating what they did (or risk having their ale confiscated). (This was actually a safety measure since drinking water wasn’t always good at the time.) This led to businesses differentiating themselves by adding heraldic images to their signs. One pub would become The Green Dragon, another the Two Cocks. And these images turned to names, allowing patrons to develop a sense of brand loyalty to their favorite brewer.
While the images themselves weren’t as specific as we see with current logos (as in, a green dragon was a green dragon even if it wasn’t replicated exactly the same each time), you can see how history is progressing…
Paper and textile technologies further fuel development of logos
By 105 AD a paper making industry had begun in China. It extended into Japan by about 610 AD. By contrast, it was not until about 1276 AD that paper was first made in Italy after being imported by Arab traders into Europe. It was eventually made in England in about 1495 AD.
Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, which caused the production of printed materials to become far more common, setting the stage for modern logo design as authors and printers of materials sought to claim ownership of their work.
By the late 15th century, various printers were using logos to identify their works.
With printing comes more printed works. In the mid 1600s we saw the first printed newspaper with regular circulation. These quickly grew in popularity. And you know what funds newspapers? Advertisements. Print gave businesses new reasons to set themselves apart from their competition; they didn’t want to pay to advertise any old cobbler, they wanted to advertise their cobbling shop.
Industrialization + advertising = early branding
When thinking of the industrial revolution, the first thing that comes to mind for most people is steam engines, huge factories and cotton gins. But this wasn’t the only kind of technology that improved in the nineteenth century.
During the 1800s, mass production of printed materials was enabled by changes in the structure of the printing press and its new steam-powered design. Chromolithography—which allowed color printing in mass for the first time ever—came to the US in 1840, and colorful printed labels, advertisements and posters became a common sight.
Also with the Industrial Revolution came the middle class. For the first time people who weren’t in the upper echelons of society had disposable income. This lead to an increase in retail and urban centers. Naturally, as businesses established themselves and grew, branding evolved.
Frank Mason Robinson designed the Coca-Cola logo in 1885, starting the modern era of logo design. Just as thirsty commuters today look for a Starbucks logo, around the turn of the century, people coming to and from work or just out on the town could look for a Coca-Cola logo and stop for a drink. Coca-Cola’s logo remains among the most recognized brands in the world.
Between 1910 and 1913, commercial logos became a common sight in the US and in Europe. In 1914, logos stretched past the commercial market when Pierre de Coubertin designed the Olympic flag. This return to the roots of the logo—which predate most forms of commerce, but went back to tribal identification and cultural communication—highlighted the fact that logos are not mere commercial marks, but have deeper cultural significance. For a new generation of consumers, this may have been one of the first times they found themselves thinking about logos in this communal way.
An era of creative, thoughtful logo design begins
In 1956, Paul Rand designed the iconic, pictographic IBM logo featuring a human eye and a bee. Most logo historians see this as a turning point in the history of logo design.
Whether it was one iconic image or a larger trend, the 1950s marked a paradigm shift in thought surrounding logos. As companies realized how impactful symbols could be, people began to move away from simply creating utilitarian logos for identification purposes, and began to put a great deal of thought into intentionally branding their businesses.
In the early 1960s, various thought leaders on the London graphic design and art director scene, riding this wave of thoughtful logo design, decided to collaborate to improve the entire field of design more generally. In 1962, they founded D&AD, Design and Art Direction. The organization stated as its intent the promotion of excellence in advertising and design. Between 1962 and 1964, Charles Csuri and A. Michael Noll created some of the first computer art, signaling the coming changes in logo design.
1977 was a banner year for logo design as Milton Glaser designed the classic I heart NY pictogram for a marketing campaign for the New York State Department of Commerce.
Also during this year, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) designed and trademarked the Star of Life logo, the six-pointed blue star with the Rod of Asclepius imposed over it. (Otherwise known as the logo you see on every ambulance or other EMS vehicle.)
In the later half of the 20th century a logo became a must for businesses. If you wanted customers to remember you, you had to have one, and it had to be unique, simple and clean.
The digital era brings stylization and adaptability
In the 1970s, computer-generated imagery (CGI) and computer-aided drawing (CAD) technologies were developed. In the 1990s we saw the popularization of the personal computer. And in the early 2000s, Adobe developed InDesign and Photoshop, bringing sophisticated digital graphic design tools to the masses.
Society began to change with the digital era; people began to consume more and more of their media on screens. Designers and brands began to get creative with their logos. For example, in the 1980s, MTV came along and took a basic logo and made it constantly change. This dynamism that defined the brand. As the logo was animated, blew up, crumbled, and otherwise kept changing, it reinforced the alternative, edgy MTV brand message. Before digital screens, this manipulation wouldn’t have been possible.
In the early days of the internet, designers tried to help people adapt to the new technology by making things on screen look like things off screen. This style is known as skeuomorphism. It manifested itself in gradients, drop shadows, and faux wood and metallic textures meant to bring depth.
The early 2000s saw a slight change with the rise of Web 2.0. While this term broadly refers to a shift in how websites were developed and the technologies they used, it also became a visual movement. The Web 2.0 logo became ubiquitous: rounded letters, bright colors and multiple gradients (usually with a clearly delineated line through the middle of the wordmark).
As the world became more comfortable with digital technologies, it was no longer necessary to mimic a 3D space in a 2D world. Enter: flat design.
Minimalism and flat design, at first blush, might appear to be a backward step in design. The elements of these styles dropped stylistic characters like shadows, textures and gradients that seem to make text and other graphics “lift” away from a computer screen or printed page. But what minimalism and flat design really achieve is a crisper, cleaner, more modern feel, and a minimal distraction to the substance of what’s being communicated.
And now, flat design is on its way out.
What the 2010s have taught us is that brands need to embrace adaptability in their logos. Gone are the days of one version of a logo living for 20-30+ years. Even major brands have embraced the fact that to stay current, they need to regularly update their logos.
Note this doesn’t mean performing a complete overhaul, but rather making subtle stylistic changes to your logo to keep it current.
A brief history of logos concluded
Looking at the vast, winding history of logo design is fascinating and useful because it allows us to see what is informing our design ideas now; however organic they may feel to us, they are steeped in the meaning of our culture and past.
One of the most exciting things about the history of logo design is that, despite its deep roots and extensive chronology, so much remains open to interpretation—and it continues to unfold before our eyes. Our ability to represent ourselves and things that matter to us symbolically will generate countless additional innovative iterations of our fascinating shared culture and history as we create new symbols and signs.
Ready to add your own piece to the logo design history?
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This article was co-written by Kelly Morr.