Reading the Signs: Determining the Necessity of a Mark

By Summer Teal Simpson Hitch

Do you have a compelling strategic reason to create a mark? You have to ask yourself if a mark is helping or hurting your cause. It’s one or the other.

Logo Type Focus Lab

First, a little lesson in branding terminology. For the purposes of this post, and any work that comes out of Focus Lab, here is how we refer to logo design elements.

The mark. A symbol created to represent a brand, often placed to the left of the company name. Also referred to as a ‘logomark.'

Mark

The logotype. The company name spelled out in a font or custom font. Exists alone, without the company of a mark. Also referred to as a 'wordmark.'

Logotype

The logo. Or logo lockup. The combination of the mark and logotype created to represent the brand.

Logo Lockup

Symbols predate language to communicate ideas. Many symbols go beyond their literal structures to create memorable associations; a red octagon means stop, for example. It is human nature to employ symbology in communication.

Accordingly, the majority of our clients either want or think they need a logo lockup—that is, a mark paired with type. When they think of a standard brand, they are mistakenly assured that a mark is a necessary component therein, when in fact countless legendary brands exist and have long existed without the accompaniment of a mark. While we enjoy designing marks and giving our clients what they want, we must do our due diligence in asking: “Is a mark necessary?”

When clients think of a standard brand, they are mistakenly assured that a mark is a necessary component therein, when in fact countless legendary brands exist and have long existed without the accompaniment of a mark.

Anything superfluous or not serving a particular function or intention within a brand experience has the effect of eroding the brand, complicating the message, or confusing the audience. Renowned designer Sagi Haviv, of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, addresses this brilliantly in his article, “When to Wordmark” in Print Magazine.

Creating a symbol can be a great design exercise, but we try to be very disciplined about only developing a symbol when there is a compelling strategic reason to do so. This is because visual identities work through familiarity, so any new visual element has to be learned first in order to be established. Using a symbol as part of the logo means that there is an additional element that has to be learned. We find that people are generally willing to learn as little as possible.

Think of companies that almost exclusively rely on a mark for visual recognition—Apple, Twitter, Target, Nike. None did so until they had established brand recognition with a full logo and other brand elements. Some spent decades evolving their visual identities, simplifying as they went, until they found themselves recognizable without the type.

Essentially, the design of an intentional mark is a challenge. The implementation of a successful mark is another challenge. And the evolution of an identity to focus almost exclusively on the mark is a reality for a few longstanding industry behemoths.

Visual identities work through familiarity, so any new visual element has to be learned first in order to be established. Using a symbol as part of the logo means that there is an additional element that has to be learned.

Sagi Haviv, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv

Bringing this home, ask yourself if you need a mark. Do you have a compelling strategic reason to create a mark? Haviv argues that a mark may create visual impact for a company with a long name. Companies with many divisions that need a unifying design element also have cause for a mark. And we’ve seen instances where mobile-first companies living in predominantly square environments make a strong case for a mark. Shy of that, you have to ask yourself if a mark is helping or hurting your cause. It’s one or the other.

Because a brand is a system that embraces every touchpoint of your company, you’ll have more opportunities than just a mark to demonstrate uniqueness or personality. If you’re focusing too much on the mark to carry all your storytelling, you’re not embracing or honoring the effectiveness of branding in general.