Or is it?
I was listening to the latest episode of 99% Invisible, Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut, which broke format in that it was simply a pleasant, intriguing discussion between host Roman Mars and Pentagram’s Michael Bierut. The podcast began with a discussion of recent presidential logos including Obama’s O, Hillary’s H, and Trump’s iconic red baseball hat.
With regard to the Hilliary logo, Bierut disclosed a funny anecdote in which he was asked to weigh in with many other designers on how bad Hillary’s logo was. The requester, however, was unaware of the fact that Bierut had designed the logo. Bierut declined.
I’m certainly in no position to criticize Michael Bierut, one of the most esteemed identity designers in the business—deservedly so. But this felt just a tad off to me, and it struck me because I’ve heard a similar sentiment uttered by other identity designers when defending their work from widespread criticism. Essentially, they say, “It’s just a logo. Chill out.”
This argument is a bit disingenuous when one considers that—99designsaside—designers and their agencies are known for, shall we say, touting the promise of a great identity. They claim the logo tells a story. They promise it will create a deep connection with the masses. That it will build a bridge between the ethereal brand and the actual consumer.
And for their work, they charge tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more (again: Bierut did the Hillary logo pro bono). Logo projects span weeks or months. And no, I’m not just talking about the full identity—I mean just coming up with a single mark. They employ lofty terms to describe their work: transformational, iconic, universal.
All of which would lead one to believe that practitioners like Bierut et al hardly think a logo is just so many geometric shapes and colors. And in fact, they’re usually not. A not-insubstantial portion of my career was spent working for established branding and marketing agencies where, among other things, I got to see firsthand the process of creating identities by some of the best in the business. I witnessed the thoughtfulness, rigor, creativity and energy that went into each effort.
I know I’m nitpicking one blurb from an entire conversation, and I know Bierut believes in the transformational power of a great identity. I have the utmost respect for his ethos, insights and talent. And, in fact, I think there’s a great deal of truth in what he’s saying: People, chill out. It’s just a logo!
But it feels wrong to try to have it both ways. I mean, a logo really is just so many shapes and colors, and as someone who designs products and services, not identities, I firmly believe the experience a person has with your product or service is far more important than its logo or identity. (I’d often marvel at companies willing to spend a million dollars on a logo package, then balking at $250K for the digital services underpinning their businesses.) And yet it’s hard to refute that an iconic logo can make its mark on the cultural zeitgeist. Imagine, if you will, Nike killing its swoosh, or Apple losing its…apple.