Interesting article on how logos are our way of continuing a social dialogue that goes back centuries.

The history of logo design begins with the roots of human expression. In fact, the fundamental power of symbols remains most important element of logo design. A logo has meaning because it draws on centuries of signs and symbols (including the alphabet) in human literary and visual language. A logo designer who uses an image of an apple, for example, is drawing on centuries of potent symbolic usage. For most Western viewers, the image of an apple summons our associations with nature, food, the ‘forbidden fruit’ in the Garden of Eden, Snow White, Apple computers, et cetera. To design a logo with symbolic resonance is to participate in the lineage of social dialogue.

Mohenjo-daro vase

Fragment of a vase, third millennium B.C. The figures on this vase bear a striking similarity to the cave paintings of Lascaux and even to contemporary imagery like the Puma logo. These similarities reveal the harmony and union of human communication over great distances of time and geographic location.

To communicate effectively with design, it’s important to view the big picture of human communication and mythology. Logo design as we know it today is a strategy that rose to popularity with brands and corporations of the twentieth century. However, people and organizations have been identifying themselves with an enormous variety of marks, signatures, and emblems for centuries. In terms of visual communication, a modern company that represents itself with a logo, color scheme, and slogan is not very different from a 15th century royal court that invoked identity and unity through the use of family crests, uniforms, and religious symbolism.

In semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation), human communication is discussed in terms of signs and signifiers. Signs can take the form of words, images, flavors, or even odors: things that have no intrinsic meaning until we invest it in them. We perceive, understand, and negotiate the world around us by investing meaning in all manner of signs and symbols. In the West, an image of a snake signifies evil. But without our Western cultural and mythological associations (many of which are rooted in the Bible), a serpent is just a serpent.

Greek Signature Seals

Greek signature seals, fifth century B.C. Affluent Greek citizens used these molded stamps to sign or endorse documents. Using an animal image to identify oneself has a long history predating famous animal logos like Lacoste and Penguin.

Symbols are highly subjective and dependent upon cultural reference. The swastika, for example, is a symbol that was used by various cultures across the globe for over 5,000 years to symbolize a variety of positive meanings including good luck, life, sun, power, and strength. In fact, the word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being.” Sadly, those meanings have all been usurped by the atrocities of the Nazi party. No symbol has inherent meaning of its own, but when maligned by indelible association with war and unspeakable tragedy, a simple symbol like the swastika can be transformed into a potent talisman capable of eliciting an intense reaction from the viewer. Our complex emotional responses to rudimentary images reveals the profound depth of our relationship with the visual world around us.

The meaning of a logo is often an elusive concept, and two top professionals may disagree about whether a particular logo is a masterpiece or an abomination. This subjective nature of meaning in logography is part of the beauty and wonder of the craft.