Creating the perfect logo comes with immense pressure, but the issue only compounds when you have to juggle multiple design elements. Making a cohesive logo that balances a symbol and wordmark through its shape, size, color, and branding could takes dozens of drafts, piles of money, and days, weeks, or months of time.
So ignoring the issue can be tempting. You might consider slapping your company name on a white background and closing the deal. Or, you might decide that a picture is worth a thousand words and use a symbol to embody your startup’s new brand. After all, Apple gets away with it, right?
But instead of running from your problems, you can learn more about the tools in your toolkit. While you can employ a variety of logo types for your brand, typography is an important element of many effective logos. Typography has its own ability to establish your brand alongside color, spacing, symbolism, and the other various design elements that comprise a logo.
So how important is typography in your logo design? And how can it affect consumer brand recognition? Let’s dive in.
Symbols only become recognizable with time. You may think it’s sensible to start with a wordless design, especially with minimalist logos being one of the most popular design movements of 2019. But very few companies achieved their success through picture alone.
Shell, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Nike are all recognizable through their symbols, but they had their own trial periods of a word/picture combination, sometimes for decades. It was only after their brands caught on that these companies began to forego the wordmarks in their marketing.
For example, Nike’s 1978 logo still had a wordmark to strengthen brand association with their symbol. But now, they’ve dropped it.
Unless you’re a brand well loved by millions of customers, you’ll probably need a wordmark or lettermark in your logo. “People tend to remember logos that they can absorb and remember quickly,” personal branding coach Danica Norton says, “so something they can read does the trick a lot more effectively than something they have to figure out.”
As owner of logodesigngroup.com Richard Williamson opines, “Typography is the most important part of logo design. Too often, we think of the illustration or image as the logo, but without the words, logos are largely meaningless.” There are rare exceptions to the rule, but most companies start with their name or initials somewhere in their logo.
Adding onto this, Holly Mullinax, art director of The Symphony Agency, explains that “logotypes also often stand the ‘test of time’ as they are not burdened with trendy or gimmicky imagery.” The more elements a designer adds, the more difficult it is to create a balanced and cohesive design. If you want a timeless look, you might need to incorporate your company name somewhere in the design.
The ideal lettermark logo will vary based on the target audience, industry, company’s personality, and how the company intends to use its logo.
Williamson says that your audience will be a key determining factor for your logo design, and he provides a couple examples: “The most obvious example of this would be military-related products and companies that use stencil-type lettering. See a stencil letter and you know there is something military being sold. Similarly, kid-targeted products or businesses . . . Cooper Black used to be a standard typeface in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it's often used for whimsical kid-oriented products today.” And you can see, with the two conventions swapped below, why understanding the needs and assumptions of your audience is critical.
Then, you’ll need to consider whether your design will work for your industry. Mullinax notes, “The font you choose for a logo can add to or detract from the credibility of your brand. For example, an attorney logo rendered in a hand-written or display font may not convey the seriousness or professionalism that one expects when hiring legal representation.” If you looked at the company name below, you might assume it was from a more informal industry. But how would you feel about hiring an attorney with this font?
It could be a rare exception where the user will successfully break the mold of their industry, but it could also be a case where they lose potential clients due to an inappropriate font.
And then what about your company itself? Company identity lies somewhere between the audience and the industry, delivering its industry’s services to a target market that identifies with your brand.
Pamela Webber, COO of 99designs, has an interesting example of a company using its own personality within industry conventions: “Zara was the recipient of an unusually enthusiastic level of criticism when it unveiled its new logo, partly because any rebrand tends to always create some drama, but also because it disrupted the fashion branding formula du jour. This new logo pushes back against the ubiquity of the lean, bold sans-serif font with plenty of white space that has taken over high end fashion in recent years — think Balmain, Burberry, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, for example.”
Balmain, Burberry, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent have all redesigned their logos in the past six years, and all of these changes have trended to the simple, black sans-serif. These design conventions are quickly becoming associated with luxury and quality.
So what did Zara do differently? They still have the black wordmark, but they used a serif and mitigated white space.
“It embraces a curvier serif wordmark that stands out from the crowd, is full of character, but also reflects its brand proposition of blending high street and high fashion brilliantly,” Webber continues. “Having defined itself as a market leader in the premium fast-fashion space, it makes sense that Zara took a typography trend and turned it on its head.”
A good wordmark will allow you to be yourself within the context of your industry.
You’ll need to consider how your logo will be used in your marketing and packaging. Designer Brit Casady explains, “Logos that are primarily in symbol form are most effective in applications where a larger logo or drawn-out text wouldn't be feasible. Almost every car model has a symbol of some sort on the back to represent the brand, whereas most storefronts are almost always a typographic logo so that people can quickly read it as they are driving by.”
Will your logo be on coffee cups? Computer hardware? A retail location? A logo with a symbol and wordmark could work in tandem. Casady continues, “Even the storefronts usually have a shortened logo or symbol they use in different applications. For example, Target has their typographic logo (accompanied with the symbol of a target) on their building so that it is widely recognized. But, you will notice that on their products or clothing they will often just use the symbol.”
Figure out your brand, industry, and target audience before diving into a design, so your logo will match your intentions.
If you want a starting point, Norton illuminates the different uses of specific font types for your audience: “If they’re contemporary or a bit more relaxed, a sans-serif will probably work best for your logo. If they’re a more serious bunch, a serif is likely the way to go. Script is more decorative and fun, while display is more bold and energetic.” She adds the disclaimer that these aren’t strict rules, and each class can have font families that break this mold.
And if you want more detail about want to hunt for, here is Norton’s analysis: “Sans-serif fonts are generally wider and rounder, so they cause less strain on the eyes and take less effort to read. This makes them good for headers, or other places that require quick reading and absorption (this includes logos).
“The opposite is true for serifs. The letters are usually thinner and the serifs guide the eye along, which makes them ideal for long bodies of text. They can work for logos, but only if the right font is used.
“Scripts are popular for logos because they have a lot of personalities. However, they can be difficult to read. They’re a good choice if the word you’re using it for is short and easily readable.
“Display fonts are created specifically to be seen from a distance, so they are very easy to read (if they’re not overly decorative). This makes them an ideal choice for logos.”
If you want to learn the nuances of a specific font choice, there’s some forthcoming research that can help. Dawson Whitfield, CEO and co-founder of AI-powered design platform Looka, has been working on this task: “We recently sent out a survey covering over 2,000 fonts and found that not only do people have strong emotional associations with different fonts, but that some of those associations are things you might not expect.” Among the results for this soon-to-be-published survey are findings regarding a font’s formality, friendliness, technicality, warmth, and more.
Most Friendly: Watermelon Script 91%
Least Friendly: Neototem 26%
Research like this can help you discover if you’re creating the right impression with a font, and it can give you a good baseline for what types of fonts evoke which feelings in a consumer. As Dawson pointed out, you won’t always be able to predict your audience’s assumptions.
While there aren’t many hard and fast rules on the perfect logo font, there are some universal mistakes you can avoid.
One typography sin is paying no attention to your tracking and kerning, filling a desired space with reckless abandon. “Don't squish letters together, overlap them, or crop them unless that is inherent to the name of the company,” Willamson says. “Unnaturally wide spacing, too, can be unreadable. Remember we read from left to right, top to bottom. Making the audience read otherwise can undermine the effectiveness of a logo.”
According to Mullinax, some other obvious don’ts include “ignoring typography hierarchy, utilizing faux-bolding or faux-italics when a typeface doesn’t offer those font options, non-proportionally stretching fonts, using too many fonts or weights, [and] adding unnecessary effects like drop shadows and outlines.”
You can see why paying attention to Mullinax's advice is important.
And while some companies get away with it (looking at you, Coca-Cola), twirling scripts and boxy, geometric fonts can be difficult to read. “Some of the best logos around don't use showy typefaces with curly cues or large boxed characters,” Casady explains. These can get lost in translation, particularly if you have a global audience.
Then there’s the mistake of trendiness. Companies always balance trendiness and timelessness in design, but sticking to what your audience wants in the present will hurt you in the long run. “If you do, your logo might look good for a year or two, max,” Norton says. “Then when the next trend comes around, you’ll be stuck with a dated logo or you’ll have to invest time and effort on a new one.”
It’s no coincidence that many typography mistakes can be avoided by following basic design principles such as hierarchy, spacing, and balance.
If all this is confusing, the good news is there’s help available. There are many good logo design companies that will take your market research and transform it into a logo that reflects your brand. And of course hiring your own designer or in-house team is crucial if you plan on consistently creating your own content. A professional graphic designer who has trained to deliver quality assets can step in when you lack the skill and the no-know. But now, as you move forward with a basic understanding of design elements such as typography, you can have a more informed voice in the design process.
Disclaimer: This article is not an indication that Best Company is affiliated with any of the companies whose logos are displayed.