A Short History of Logos
I love logos. In fact, I’m a bit obsessed. So much so, that I’ve read dozens of books on the subject, and have got a healthy understanding of where they came from. By Shawn Hazen
Like so many things, the origins of logos can be traced to Ancient Greece 4,000 years ago. The idea first appeared in the form of marks on pottery to identify the maker, so people knew they were getting a quality pot. Mediterranean stonemasons also used marks with a simple motif, like a wheel or crescent moon, to identify their hand. Over the coming centuries, other craftsmen in Egypt, China, and India employed the idea. By medieval times, the use of marks was codified and actually required for certain goods. “Guilds” formed for everyone from metalworkers to brewers and their marks not only helped build customer loyalty, but protected those customers against inferior goods.
One of the first modern incarnations came about in the form of a star “branded” onto the crates of Procter & Gamble’s candles to identify them as they were shipped along the Mississippi River. The symbol let people way down river know they were getting the real deal. Use of the star began around 1851 and evolved into a more finished moon and stars symbol that was used, in some form, until 1985. One of the world’s oldest trademarks is still in use today: Bass Ale’s red triangle. In 1876, it became Britain’s first registered trademark and is actually depicted in Manet’s famous painting Bar at the Folies-Bergère, in which the label is clearly visible on bottles beside the sullen bar maid.
Recognizing the growing importance of trademarks, and more importantly the rampant counterfeiting of established products, Congress enacted the federal trademark law in 1870. Now a company could have exclusive rights to an image by submitting it, along with $25, to the U.S. Patent Office.
Throughout the early 20th century, recognizable “mascots” like the Morton Salt Girl and RCA Victor’s dog and gramophone were the type of trade and product marks that dominated. But many marks emerged in a very illustrative form and were stripped down to their essence in successive redesigns throughout the mid-century. The iconic Bell, Prudential, Shell Oil, and John Deere logos are hardly recognizable in their original forms. This movement solidified under the banner of “Modernism” over the 50s and 60s. What we today think of as a “logo” was born during this time with logos like IBM, AT&T, UPS, Motorola, and Chase Manhattan Bank.
This was also the genesis of the concept of “Corporate Identity”. The idea that a company should have a tightly controlled and consistent appearance to the public was novel but caught on quickly. It became apparent that a company needed to present a unified front in order for consumers to identify them and their products specifically. This was important because in an ever-growing marketplace, sometimes there was no difference between your product and your competitors except the perceived value of your “brand.”
Clarifying Some Terms
A symbol is a visual stand-in for an idea. Like a skull is a symbol of death, or a dove is a symbol of peace.
An icon is a simplified representation of something. Originally “icon” meant a religious image that had become standardized through convention, like the recognizable guises of Buddha. Now it is used to describe the stripped-down visual signifiers such as “man” and “woman” on public restrooms or the little image of a light for your car’s headlights.
A logo is a graphic symbol that represents a business entity. It can incorporate the name of the entity, in which case it may be called a logotype. A logotype may, in fact, be only the name of the entity. Likewise, it could be just the symbol with no text, in which case it might be called a mark or emblem.
Originally, a trademark was used to denote a product offering. A service mark was used for companies offering a service rather than tangible objects. But, nowadays, the words logo, logotype, and trademark are used pretty much interchangeably. However, there is a distinction for a trademark having that little ™ or the little ® next to it. The ™ is used when a company is claiming trademark rights but the logo is not officially registered. It follows that the ® for “registered” is for those logos actually registered with the government.