Bill Gardner could not have predicted that “musing on the vagaries of logo design could become an institution.” But two decades ago he launched LogoLounge Books and the Logo Trend Report. Logos, trademarks, brand marks—whatever they are called these days—do follow and set fashions. There are vintage classics (like Coca-Cola, Ford, GE) that are so very slightly refined over the decades; contemporary pillars (like Apple, Microsoft, Nike) that are tweaked when necessary; and, of course, relative newbies (Amazon, Citi, Netflix) that set a course for others. I am not a logo designer, but I know how incredibly difficult it is to make the perfect specimen using color, shape, type and, well, that special sauce that at once distinguishes and embodies the business it represents. Paul Rand once called the logo a “rabbit’s foot”—meaning a mark invested with supernatural, superstitious and supercilious power.
I’m always interested in what Gardner discovers in the ever-expanding logo universe. And in this, his 20th year of rooting through the current good, bad, memorable, forgettable, bizarre and banal I’ve asked him to wax poetic on what he’s found, which he does below.
Tell us about some of the takeaways from this year’s report.
Humanization of visual expression is the exit lane of design’s super-highway. In the rush to merge out of the banal stream of me-tooism, sans-serif wordmarks, there are a few fender benders to be assured. The desire to express personality, any personality, is paramount and likely a result of the need to remind clients of an entity’s sympathetic, if not empathetic, core.
We’re now on a first-name basis with the flexible antics of Angi, Upwork and a few hundred others twisty logos, each of these professing humanity by introducing a looping letter in a name crafted from an otherwise stoic string of letterforms. That same spirit of nature and individuality is revisited with the whiplash trend that embraces the organic variable line from the Art Nouveau aesthetic, returning every 60 years or so to remind us to chill and let the siren call of earthly spirits intervene.
Roughhewn, illustrated logos are being employed to whimsically promote products of every artisanal ilk. These marks are at home in handcrafted and cottage industries promoting such sundries as chocolates, rugs, mugs and most especially cannabis anything. Look for a signature trending field of dots, each applied just out of alignment to guarantee that humans are flawed. And that’s a feature benefit.
Trends by their nature are about transition and trajectory. Everything evolves from something. Almond and macaroni building blocks from this report are relatively locked-down shapes, and their evolution may be a sluggish crawl. It’s the trends that look at broader visual treatment that have the greatest potential to transcend. Rooters is a way of expressing controlled organic chaos in a surface area, and fresh iterations will follow. Reverse-stress letterforms, with their reintroduction of visually unexpected weights, have that same potential.
Design leaders look at trends not to follow, but to evolve. Crystal gazing and trying to speculate too far into the future can disconnect you from what resonates. The leader of a parade is only a few steps ahead of the followers. If you’re out of sight, you’re not the leader.
How long have you been working on this now epic project and publishing the books?
LogoLounge started in 2001, pretty much right after 9/11. Crappy timing, in theory, but we’d approached a group of name-brand designers that we both knew and tried to explain the concept to them. Asked them to upload their body of work (logos) to the site including ones that had not sold. Made them founding members and gave them a lifetime membership. The design community just found and embraced us and we were off. The idea of paying $100 to put your work into a database of logos that was contextualized was alien to them. What they did understand was paying a fee to submit work for a competition, and an unlimited amount of it for $100 was a bargain.
The books! Case studies and highly organized logos selected by a name-brand panel of eight designer judges, organized off the Kuwayama Trademarks and Symbols books because I loved that they were organized like a grocery store. You could naturally find foxes, or boxes, or the letter ‘W.’ All the other books that were on the market had absolutely no context to them. If I’m in a book looking for how other designers have rendered a fox, I’d be Post-it Note–crazy for hours. Type “fox” into LogoLounge and you get hundreds of them in a flash, or sort by industry, quality, designer, geography, style, keywords …
Now we are releasing Book 13 and it has over the years turned into the largest-selling series on logo design. 30,000+ logos and countless case studies, not counting the additional 12,000 logos in the four LogoLounge Master Library series. Book 1 came out in 2003 and we generally publish one every year-and-a-half to two years.
The idea of categorization and taxonomy is natural but it drives creators and their clients crazy. Has there ever been any backlash?
Guess we got here with my OCD. The site gives you plenty of opportunity to discover inspiration seredipitously or in a highly contextualized fashion. On the other hand, books are analog and yearn for some semblance of order. There are 380,000+ logos on the site. I often tell folks if they were all just laying on the floor in my office they would have no value. A wealth of volume but no way to utilize them. Like letters or words, Steven—on their own they are swell but string them together and you have order and genius.
When you start looking at this many logos, you can’t help but mentally categorize them. “Oh, it’s another sphere”; “it’s another transparent sphere”; “it’s another sphere made out of brushstrokes.” It’s one thing to recognize everyone is doing a knock on a specific logo but it is altogether healthy and informative to see Felix Sockwell’s continuous-line illustration style inspire others to use the same style and try different subject matter. And keep in mind that was in the first trend report in 2003, and though Felix didn’t invent it, he did give it notoriety.
With the single-line logos, pretty soon someone lifts the pen when one line crosses the other and you have a continuous line logo with line breaks, and that is evolution. Someone looks at that and says, “what if my line were to be made of a gradient and shift color along its path?” Now we have another evolution that branches off and makes another launchpad for a different trend. It is hard to make a judgement on stock values based on a single day of activity. Look at that stock over 365 days and you can see a trend. We have 35,000 logos a year uploaded to LogoLounge. Look at that many points of data and you can definitely spot trends.
There are still a few folks out there that can’t grasp this is a report. I am not saying what I like or don’t like or even what is good or bad. I am just telling you empirically what is happening out there. I also continuously press the point that design is ever-evolving and we are not recommending that you imitate these. We go out of our way to suggest that these inform you and give you an opportunity to discover a trajectory and, if you wish, press it forward to its next great iteration.
The backlash comes from those that are caught out being slavish to the work of others. If they are “design aware” and their work looks more influenced than inspired, the industry will call them out. When I identify a trend I usually post four examples of that aesthetic from maybe 20–50 examples of it. There are usually a couple of marks that are nearly identical and may look like knockoffs, but usually it’s by chance. I try to show a diversity of ways a trend is manifesting itself so you can get the breadth of it.
Trends good. Trendy bad. Most designers respond to being included in the trends as a badge of honor and look at it as being a leader. In regard to backlash, there is always someone that takes offense, assuming this suggests they are being trendy. Let’s be honest … the consumer has to see relevance in a mark for it to resonate. A designer who professes not to look at what others are doing is full of shit and/or broke.
Is your intent to create an objective record or taxonomy of conceits or is there an implicit criticism about these conceits?
Love your use of the word conceits here! Again, it’s a report so a record for sure and primarily objective based on my attempt to extract personal opinion out of the collections. A touch subjective in that if someone else committed the time I invest in these reports with the same data and logos, their trends would vary from my own. I try to find trends in techniques, subject matter, concept, symbols, shapes, type … God knows 15 trends a year doesn’t cover everything happening, and there are more than enough aesthetics occurring in volume that they never hit the report because they are pervasive.
The intent of this record is to create a snapshot each year of the logo design industry. We forget that the public is exceptional at identifying a dated technique or style or fashion. They would have a harder time than we as designers identifying the cues that we are consciously aware of. We can write a book on—and you probably already have—the variable line weights of a certain period or the colors that tie to a generation or what photos looked like before we could manipulate them. You and I could take a crate of LPs and organize them chronologically with some pretty good accuracy without even looking at the artists or songs.
Where this objective record finds its greatest value is in retrospect, as we see how styles transition over time. When you start to look back a year or two and you see that line work is gradually getting thicker it’s a valid guess to make the next line you create even fatter. When you see two strong styles emerging and it works out, why not merge them? All of this is based off of the rules of evolution. Sometimes there’s a freak anomaly, but more often that not we can see the transition happening. But you have to be able to look at where you came from to know where you are going.
Are there an infinite number of varieties, or is complete originality impossible in the logo field?
More than ever, I believe our mediums are opening up the next adjacent possible. We may be redefining what a logo is for some, but I believe it is a representative element. A thing that symbolizes a concept or entity. That could be a sound or vapor or flash of light. We have to move beyond the concept of a logo or wordmark as a picture. Much like we moved beyond the logo construction canons of the last century with the shift from CMYK to RGB, we haven’t even fathomed how people will respond to a brand in AR or the metaverse, or whatever next year brings. Stick a flat logo in AR and what does the back side of it look like—is it just flat? Does it have dimension? What does it feel like? Does it have a personality or attitude? A voice? Does it bounce or break if you drop it? Can you drop it?
We are in reach of haptic technology that would allow you to touch the screen on your mobile device and a picture of water feels like water. Leather like leather. What does your logo feel like? I would have to doubt that we even have a mobile device in the next generation, or at least nothing that vaguely resembles the devices we have now. Does a logo recognize your mood or your persuasions and adjust to your needs and desires? Do brands go away entirely? When you stood in the Wichita federal courthouse on Screw magazine’s pornography charges, no one had conceived of the internet and the ubiquitous distribution of porn or virtual sex or the societal norms of today. So don’t imagine that we can even guess where logo design will be in 30 years, or even five years. How can we profess that originality is impossible when we don’t even know what is possible?
What is the most frequently used conceit? Conversely, what is the least used?
This is a really excellent question, and I’d just have to venture a guess. A conceit is close to a cliche in many ways, or a storyline that we fall back on—as trite as they are, a globe to indicate “international” and an arrow moving up to the right to indicate profits. If all you have to tell folks is that you’re international and profitable, you have a pretty thin story, right? From a data perspective we know the terms that people most search on LogoLounge, and though we see micro shifts in these that help us identify expanded activity in sectors or what interests designers and where, many of the top tropes have been in the same sequence of popularity for years. Tops on that list generally are tree, hand, bird, star, water, circle, arrow and compass. An insight, trees are so often searched because they are a bitch to refine symbolically unless you’re willing to put a ball on a stick. I think designers are desperate for another designer to show them how to make an engaging and beautiful tree mark.
Would you hazard a rationale for both frequent and infrequent shape, motif or element?
Oddly there is a prevalent shape or two that rises up every year and they are always a treat to speculate on why they have risen to the top. Five years ago there was an avalanche of hexagons. these usually tied to the cell shape of a hive or to the three-quarters perspective outline of a cube. Seems both came out of the analogy of efficiency of work and industrious “like bees,” and the two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space. Many of those hexagons were using transparent plains crossing over each other, and those were driven by an enthusiasm for transparencies.
There was a run on rectangles with a single- or double-rounded corner. This year the use of almond shapes and macaroni shapes. The prior year we saw asterisks, many of which started to have a downward shift of the center point that started a new icon for cannabis. The year before that it was a twinkling four-pointed star and lightning bolts. Just about all of these ultimately derived from someone else’s excellent mark that gained notoriety, or the use of a shape du jour based on what is developing credibility in the market of other designer’s minds.