What Is a Logo?

A logo is a graphic mark, emblem, symbol, or stylized name used to identify a company, organization, product, or brand. It may take the form of an abstract or figurative design, or it may present as a stylized version of the company’s name if it has sufficient brand recognition.

Logos have become an integral part of companies' brand identities. A widely and instantly recognized logo is a valuable intangible asset for a corporation and is thus trademarked for intellectual property protection in the majority of situations.

Key Takeaways

  • A logo is a visual symbol used to instantly identify a company, organization, product, or brand.
  • Logos may show an entity’s name spelled out with letters or they may be abstract designs, such as the Nike stripe.
  • Some logos contain hidden messaging, for example, keen observers will notice how the FedEx logo contains a white arrow shape, in the negative space between the letters E and X, to symbolize delivery accuracy.
  • Logos are an important part of a brand's identity, and instantly recognizable logos are valuable property to a company.
  • Logos are intellectual property protected under trademark law.
  • Some companies with the most famous logos are Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Nike, Starbucks, Apple, and Mercedes-Benz.

Understanding a Logo

Logos are meant to visually identify a company. The logo can contain the company's name or just be a visual representation. A company's logo is most often plastered on any association with it: on the products it sells, on advertisements, on sponsorship deals, or donations to charities. A logo is meant to quickly and appealingly draw an individual's attention to the company.

While logos aim to bring instant brand recognition, some cleverly maintain hidden messaging that only eagle-eyed consumers may spot. Consider the logo of the package delivery company FedEx. A close study of the logo reveals that the negative space between the letters E and X shows an arrow, which suggests delivery accuracy and a forward-looking business dynamic. Another example comes in the logo for Wendy's restaurant; the lines in the collar of Wendy's blouse spell out the word "MOM," to suggest a homey feeling.

The use of color is an important element in logo design. Due to the mechanics of human visual perception, color and contrast are critical to detecting visual details. The vast majority of consumers tend to associate different colors and different color combinations with different meanings. As an example, in the U.S., red, white, and blue colored designs evoke feelings of patriotism.

Careful planning and consideration go into the creation of a logo and once that logo becomes well recognized, companies guard its use fiercely, as it is directly associated with the company itself. Logos are intellectual property and are protected under trademark law.

A Brief History of the Logo

Logos have been in existence for thousands of years. The earliest logos were nothing more than simple distinctive markings, symbols, or literal brands, that were created to signify the maker of a product or communicate the type of products that a particular merchant was selling.

For example, under the reign of Henry III, in the year 1266, England’s Parliament passed legislation requiring that all bakers use a distinctive mark for the bread they sold. Historians widely believe that this was England's first legislative act concerning trademarks.

The modern logo began its evolution following the introduction of trademark laws in the 19th Century. Jack Daniels’s iconic logo dates back to 1875, shortly after Congress passed the U.S. Trademark Act of 1870 in an attempt to establish a federal trademark regime that was rejected by the Supreme Court. In 1876, the Bass Brewery’s famous red triangle became the first trademark to be registered in the U.K. after the Merchandise Marks Act was passed in 1862.

As the Victorian era progressed and the first brands were established, these trademarks became more complex and evolved into logos as the discipline of graphic design emerged as an art form. Modern-day logos have shifted from complex visual statements back to more simplistic imagery in order to stand out in a world of visual overload and make them more easily recognizable across multiple media channels, including mobile phones and tablets.