We’ve learned how to fly through the air and walk on water; our ingenuity continues to enhance our abilities. But the greatest human limitation is our inability to understand one another — to clearly understand his thoughts or to read her mind. The best technology we’ve developed to address this need is language, an imperfect substitute. We do the best we can, of course, to express ourselves and to listen to one another, but much of what we understand is communicated through the subtitles of inflection and demeanor. Language is laced with nuance; the arrangement and choice of words profoundly alter the meaning of a phrase. We’ve enhanced this ability with images. An arresting photo is worth many words, and a well-executed, creative image may tell a complete story all by itself.
For this reason, entrepreneurs must master communication skills. Images and words are the only way to tell people about your offering. Your website, advertising, product packaging, logo and brand identity are the chief means of establishing an image in the minds of customers, and these are the tools that create desire.
But the modern landscape is crowded with communications. To develop your customer base — to be heard through the noise — your message must be clear and distinct. As you build your business, your ability to communicate will create the primary motivation for customers to engage with your offering, so understanding how to develop compelling, unique communications has become the best way to differentiate your business from your competition.
For every business, this process begins with a logo. A well-designed logo is a distillation of everything a company represents. It visually describes the offering and the vision, the personality and the purpose. A great logo can become as identifiable as a flag or a road sign. It can associate your offerings with price or quality or status or a particular emotion. When done well, a logo can elevate a brand, giving fans a symbol to rally behind.
Changing the Agreement of Language
Three circles, a straight line and a bent line do not, by themselves, communicate anything. But if I put these elements together in a particular order I can communicate the idea of a friendly, furry animal that millions of people think of as a member of the family. Put together in a slightly different fashion, these same elements conjure the idea of an all powerful deity. These simple shapes work together to create a visual metaphor. A word is not the thing itself — it is only a stand-in. Language only works because we agree that it does — we all choose to agree that the word “dog” stands for our canine companions.
When you create a logo you are creating a word and supplying the meaning behind that word. You have an unlimited number of elements available to you — shapes and colors and letters that can be combined in ways that supply information about your offering and create an impression of value. You are, in effect, creating a new word.
A recent example is the word "dell." A few years ago, it just meant "a small valley." The only time you ever heard it was when small children sang "The Farmer in the Dell." Today, of course, most people associate the word with one of the world's largest technology companies. The word has a new meaning. "Coke" is no longer associated with coal. We tend to think of shoes instead of ancient Greek gods when we hear the word "Nike."
Creating New Icons
We’ve done the same thing with symbols. Human beings have created icons and given them meanings for millennia. Crosses, hearts and dollar signs are noteworthy examples; we’ve created thousands of these simple images to convey specific meanings.
Companies have followed suit — Nike, Twitter and the Olympic Games have created instantly recognizable icons that mean the same thing in any country. When corporations engage in this practice, they do so with an eye toward conveying a sense of their personality and beliefs connected to some idea of what they offer. Twitter’s blue bird “tweets” — a reference to the 140-character messages that form the core feature of the communications platform. The Olympic rings graphically represent the five continents using colors that are found in every nation's flag. Nike’s “swoosh” conveys a sense of speed, references the golden sandals of the winged goddess of victory, and resembles a stylized piece of footwear that forms the foundation of the company’s offering.
You Create the Meaning
It is not enough to create a word — you must also create the meaning behind it. If I take some letters and throw them together they have no meaning. I could say “TSFHOG” and leave you wondering if I’ve forgotten how to speak. But if I tell you that TSFHOG means “too smart for her own good” the acronym suddenly makes sense. Entrepreneurs must not only develop the word; they must also provide the meaning behind it. Xerox, Audi, Pepsi, Chanel — these words only mean something because entrepreneurs have associated them with specific offerings.
Let's take the example of "dog" once again. We can, with a few simple shapes — circles, curved lines, triangles — create a clear idea of “dog.” There’s no need for further explanation; if you saw this icon in a foreign land you would understand that something nearby serves the needs of dog owners. If you saw it at the entrance to a park you would assume the park was for dogs. If you saw it above the door to a store you would assume that the store offered pet products.
A logo blends the familiar with the unfamiliar; it must be new, yet it depends on shared cultural references that already exist. The entrepreneur is responsible for using the tools provided by language and history to guide the viewer to an understandable yet innovative conclusion.
The Value of Slogans
For many companies, the addition of a slogan helps clarify the meaning of the logo. Nike uses the slogan "Just Do It.” They aren't telling their customers to get off the couch and buy shoes — although it wouldn't be too hard to cynically apply that meaning. Instead, the company is asking customers to think about their goals and reach for them; to achieve their own definitions of victory. The slogan adds another layer of depth, and creates a compelling message that resonates with customers, inspiring them to reach further and work harder. The slogan of the modern Olympic Games, “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” clearly defines what the games provide — an opportunity to push human abilities ever further and learn what we are capable of. Since its introduction in 1894, Olympic athletes have done precisely this, setting new records and achieving feats once believed impossible.
The words and symbols created by logo artists have become another part of our language. Done well, they can contain a wealth of meaning, and provide a flag for us to follow. Whether for a political candidate, a non-profit organization, a social movement or a for-profit company, a logo can become the symbol on which we hang everything we know, hope and believe about a brand.
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