We instinctively understand the concept of beauty. We know what looks expensive. But watch a game show from the 50s or pick up an old magazine; the products that once looked expensive may appear cheap today. A woman's once fashionable hair and makeup might look ridiculous walking down a present-day street. Yet there is something that remains consistent through time; some portion of beauty that always looks the same. Good design works exactly the same way. It responds to current trends while remaining true to a deeper, more timeless aesthetic.
The visual cues that tell us what to think are also conveyed by our culture. Take the same designs and move them to another country and the meaning will be missed or — worse — misinterpreted. What can be seen here as serious and intentional could create, in another culture, an off-color joke.
Understanding the audience is a critical part of the logo designer's job. He must weigh the past with the present, and provide a design that lasts over many decades without becoming dated. He must be able to say "expensive" or "fun" or "cutting-edge" through a visual context that resonates across cultures and across time.
Logos must be developed within the context of the history of a market. Even a new company must understand the history of similar offerings and how it fits within the legacies already created by other organizations. Does that sector contain a great deal of history (soda, movies, cars) or, as with some new technologies, is it building a history all its own (smartphones, desktop computers)? Sometimes a new company can differentiate itself by responding to the histories that already exist.
Of course, cultural history is also a factor. Certain typefaces, styles and colors are going to recall particular historical periods no matter how they are used. Any logo that looks like it could be branded into wood is going to recall the old west. Balloon shaped letters remind us of the 60s. Understanding historical context is a critical part of the logo design process.
Large companies occasionally refresh their logos. They try to take something that has existed for a long time and make it look new, hoping to reinvigorate the brand while appealing to another generation of customers. But these attempts are not always successful.
Logo designers must appreciate and incorporate the history of the company into the design, but it must also recognize where the company wants to go. Companies are always changing, taking on new ventures and reaching into new markets. Logos must be flexible enough to accommodate these potential transformations.
Within the discussion of the past, present and future of an organization, one of the most important things to understand is that the promise of a logo is fulfilled over time.
Every word you read is just an assembly of letters — the meaning is supplied by all of the people that share your language. In the same way, a logo is just an icon; the meaning behind that icon will come from the company that uses it and the people that engage it. Every product, every customer, and every relationship will add its own weight to the meaning it conveys. Decades of history can change how we think and feel about a logo. Corporate history is filled with examples of companies whose once stellar reputations were tarnished by events, changing the meaning of the brand forever. While designers may create a visual metaphor, it is the company itself that will create the thoughts and feelings that customers associate with it.
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