Using Simplicity for Iconic Design
Earlier this October as the leaves were turning yellow I stepped into The RA’s distinct Matisse exhibition, ‘Matisse in the Studio’. This show was supremely interesting as it focused on Matisse’s influences and what pushed his directions and inspired his own works. You were pretty much walking into the man’s art studio to snoop around.
The Royal Academy of Arts Presents Matisse in the Studio
One thing which stuck with me was his later development on reducing his subjects, not to its most basic, but to its most beautiful.
“The briefest possible indication of the character of a thing. A sign.”
— Henri Matisse
Outside of the gallery, this idea rattled around my head and as looked around at the art which surrounded me, the brands on the side of buses, the logos on the cartons of orange juice, or the photos were chosen to represent various magazine stories, I couldn’t help but feel this influence playing its role in good design.
Truly beautiful design isn’t just simplified to the point of immediacy, it’s simplified down to its essence.
An iconic design needs to tick more boxes than the ones set out by the design brief.
And focusing on simplifying your designs in this way ticks many of the boxes to help your designs stand that test of time…
Once you start focusing on simplifying your logo designs you will invariably start creating versatile, memorable, recognisable, distinct, adaptable, and immediate designs. These are the elements of good logo design.
How ‘simple’ creates versatility
From business cards and letterheads all the way to Twitter cover photos and mobile apps, today, more than ever, logos need to be transferable to a multitude of mediums and still retain a recognisability and immediate communication.
It’s why this original Apple logo didn’t work. It was just too confusing.
“At Apple, it was very rare because the symbol was the name of the company. It was a thing that had the same name as the company – it was an apple” – Steve Jobs talking about the NeXT logo
It’s also why when we look at an iconic old signature-type logo such as Coca-Cola, they’ve developed it in a way to make it flatter and use the detailing as motifs throughout their branding decisions
Coca-Cola by Frank Mason Robinson
Coke Bottle 100 by Neville Brody
Through frequency Coca-Cola pretty much now own the colour red in the world of soft drinks and the use of it while hinting towards the iconic bottle shape is all you need to tell people it’s Coca-Cola.
Limited edition Coca-Cola Cans in the Middle East tackling prejudice during Ramadan "Labels are for cans, not people"
How ‘simple’ creates memorability…
Right now if you imagine some logos in your head, some logos will spring to mind faster than others.
Granted, some will become to mind first because of their immediate relevance (perhaps you’re scoffing a grab bag of Walkers as you’re reading this), some, on the other hand, will be purely down to the impression it’s made on you in the past.
Thinking about these impressive logos we know one thing, they are not full of complicated ideas conflicting with one another.
A logo with many details just won’t contain the power of one cleanly focused idea.
Reducing the details of an idea is necessary for creating the essence of the client’s value. Once you have the essence you can communicate a single idea which can go on to allude to multiple ideas in one thumbnail-sized logo.
For example, this Virgin Atlantic Logo could’ve been an entire plane, it could’ve been an entire globe, it could’ve been Richard Branson’s big red face, though it’s far better and more memorable reducing the logo down to the tail tip of an aeroplane.
Virgin Atlantic by Johnson Banks
This requires the viewer to use their imagination a little, and when you force the viewer to invest more time in your design, the higher they will value it and the longer they will remember it for.
It’s one of the reason the iconic ‘I Love New York’ design has worked so well.
Reducing the sentiment into a single letter ‘I’, a renowned symbol of love, a heart, and an abbreviation for the place, ‘NY’…
I Love New York by Milton Glaser
This requires the viewer to unlock it with a little bit of concentration, and thus the translation of the design doesn’t unfold on the poster, it unfolds in the person’s head; leaving a deeper impression.
How ‘simple’ can create distinction…
Another reason why it’s effective is that distinctive logos are usually the ones where you just need a simple outline to recognise them.
Mcdonalds, FedEx, ABC, Adidas, YouTube
By this virtue, one should always reduce the logo down to a monogram and see if the idea is still clearly communicating.
Yes, colour adds a lot to the style and overall effect of the logo and should never be undervalued as a tool, but as discussed before with adaptable logos, your logo design will need to work at billboard size or as small as a favicon on your web browser
Here’s just a quick shot of my browser’s pinned tabs on this day of writing.
At a mere glance, I can tell what each one of these tabs are… even the rarely visited ‘Blogger’ website (sorry Blogger).
How ‘simple’ can create adaptability…
When you simplify something down to its essence you also create room from it to breathe.
Reduced designs allow it to move through the ages as the clients develop on their own. Styles will change and companies won’t want to appear dated and out of touch, so a simple design achieves this by giving it room to be developed.
Coming back to the evolution of the Apple logo, we can see that the biggest redesign happened early on.
The first Apple logo redesign in 1977 was a home run in terms of adaptability as it hasn’t changed the form since.
Because of its simplicity of essence, it’s been able to cleanly adapt through the ages with new styles keeping it fresh, new, and exciting.
With all this we can’t merely think “simple, simple, simple, its gotta be simple” or we could end up with a single black dot to represent a sports brand.
We must first find what is worth encompassing in the design, and once the initial ideas have been made we can reduce, reduce, and reduce some more until you are left with something immediate, precise, and beautiful; something which can’t be added too, and something which nothing can be taken away. A perfect solution.