Because a logo represents your brand, it stands to reason that it should stick in your customer’s heads. But creating a memorable logo design is rarely so straightforward. For one, a technically well-executed design is not the same as a memorable design. For another, what one person finds memorable may not be the same for the next. And finally, there’s competition: people interact with so many brands in their day-to-day lives that there are a ton of logos to remember.
While all this is true, many brands have succeeded in creating memorable logos, which can help provide a blueprint. And over time, logo designers have developed practical, tried-and-true techniques for creating a memorable logo.
What makes a logo memorable?
First, we need to pin down the essence of memorability: what makes one logo memorable and another forgettable? The best way to investigate this is by looking at what famous memorable logos have in common.
It’s worth noting that famous brands do have the marketing power to make themselves memorable irrespective of their logo designs—to essentially buy memorability through ad nauseum advertising. At the same time, these brands didn’t always have that level of influence. And most brands that have survived for long periods have reworked their logos time and again, to the point that the end result is often radically changed. Point being that even the wealthiest brands are concerned with getting the logo just right, and their logo evolutions reveal clear strategies based on the choices brands have made to keep ahead of new competitors.
What memorable logos have in common
Their design elements speak for themselves
Famous companies place great weight on visual branding elements like colors and fonts. This makes sense as logo design is a visual medium—its shapes and colors are how it communicates. The benefit of recognizable design elements is that they reinforce pattern recognition: repeated exposure of the same imagery over time makes it easier for viewers to associate a brand with the logo.
Mastercard took this idea to the extreme with the most recent iteration of its logo, designed in 2019. This version eliminates the brand name entirely, relying on viewers to identify the business purely from its overlapping red and gold circles. Of course, Mastercard has been around since 1966, so it’s had a fair amount of time to build up this kind of pattern recognition.
They are simple
Simplicity is one of the key principles of logo design. Not only that, there is a clear connection between their simplicity and memorability: a simple logo is easier to remember than an overly complicated one. This is because cluttered designs contain several competing elements vying for the viewer’s attention, and it can be hard to walk away with a singular impression.
At the same time, “simple” does not necessarily mean visually minimalist: it means that both the imagery and the backing concept are focused. This is what allows a clear message to get across through the design, and the clearer the message, the more likely it will sink in.
Levi’s logo is a classic example of this idea. The company began in 1890 with a detailed illustration of cowboys hauling a pair of jeans, all of which was surrounded by a bevy of minute text. Over time, this was replaced by a simple wordmark with a red frame that not only provided a splash of bright color to make the logo more visible, it has a practical function as the red tag sewn onto the back of the products.
They are unique
“Unique” is one of those words like “creative” that tends to get thrown around without meaning. In regards to a memorable logo design, uniqueness means standing out from the crowd. In logo psychology, the Von Restorff stipulates that, when presented with a homogenous selection, people gravitate towards the odd one out. Essentially, originality is more memorable than a generic design.
An image search of “cafe logos” brings up mostly brown logos with illustrations of beans, coffee mugs and other brewing implements. Starbucks’s logo, on the other hand, uses a green color and an enigmatic mermaid mascot with a split fin. It’s no small feat that even as famous as the Starbucks brand has become, its logo is still unique amongst its many generic competitors.
They have stood the test of time
A memorable logo by definition is one that is not forgotten, which makes them timeless. Timelessness describes logos that are able to transcend their current audience and cultural context, and are designed with the future in mind. Design gimmicks and chasing current popular styles are a surefire way for a logo to quickly become dated and forgotten over time.
Microsoft learned this lesson with its first logo. While the ultra-thin concentric lines scream hi-tech brand, do I even need to tell you this logo was designed in the 70s? Its current logo, designed in 2012, is less try-hard and less likely to turn gauche with changing fashions.
Tips for creating memorable logos
Next, all we have to do is take these common traits and translate them into practical steps you can apply to your own logo designs. Creating a memorable logo is not an exact science, as it will depend on your target audience, but here are some strategies to maximize your chances.
Start with a clear concept
In many ways, a brand is a nebulous thing. It encapsulates things like public perception, business services, a mission statement, personality, and voice. The challenge of a logo is that it must distill all of that into one image. A focused concept is what allows it to do so memorably.
In logo design, the concept is essentially the background idea or inspiration that informs the design. It usually connects to a key brand metaphor, and for the best result, you should try to keep this down to a single word or phrase, something that describes the fundamental essence of what the brand is all about.
For example, Apple Computers wanted to express the concept of human progress in their logo, so they turned to the story of Isaac Newton, who discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head. Their first pass at the logo was a literal illustration of this scene. They later recognized that the same concept could be streamlined by focusing on the singular image of an apple. It was the apple itself, after all, that had inspired Newton, not all of the background scenic details.
Stand out in the marketplace
Designs that blend in with their competitors are in danger of being mistaken for them. In order to survive, a business has to decide on its value proposition, what it can offer that a competitor cannot. A logo is the same in this respect: it must offer something different.
With that said, difference for difference’s sake is not recommended. Should a serious financial business use a whacky cartoon character logo just because none of its competitors are doing it? Of course not. Point being: anyone can make a weird logo if they really wanted to. An over-the-top logo might be memorable, but you want to be memorable for the right reasons. Essentially, the difference has to be borne from the brand.
For example, computer company Vaio wanted a logo that would stand out in the technology industry. While plenty of similar brands use hi-tech-inspired lettering, Vaio sought inspiration from their specific history of transitioning from analog to digital. With this in mind, they combined an analog waveform with the digital binary 1 and 0, creating a unique and highly memorable symbol out of its brand name.
Be wary of trends
A memorable logo is one that stays with you, potentially over decades. Trends, however, come and go. At the same time, trends can be unavoidable in some respects—it’s hard to tell what aesthetic sensibilities are going to be out of vogue in the future. Again, this is where a strong concept comes in.
When you look at the evolution of a logo like Shell’s, you’ll see that it is regularly updated, sometimes to fit in with the current style of its time. But—and this is the most important part—the essential image and colors of the shell remain the same. While surface details might be subject to trends, the logo concept should be something that will transcend time. Usually, it helps if this concept is truly meaningful and relates to the core of who the brand is.
Make sure the silhouette reads well
Color connects to our emotions on a primal level, which means it definitely influences memorability. At the same time, most people do not pay close attention to the details of a logo that they see in passing. This is where a clear silhouette comes in handy: it provides a shape that is easily identifiable.
An all-black version of the logo is standard to provide, but rather than treat this as an afterthought, it can be helpful to design the logo in solid black from the start of the process. This gives you a better sense of whether the overall shape makes sense, is legible at different sizes, and more importantly, is visually interesting enough to be memorable.
Test it in front of an audience
The only way to tell if a logo is memorable is to see whether real people actually remember it. Rather than find out a logo is forgettable after it is put out into the world, it is better to test the logo before it is finalized.
Many brands conduct logo tests through surveys, where they might either test multiple variations of the logo at once (a sequential monadic survey) or they will divide participants and test a single version of the logo on each group (a monadic survey). When it comes to gathering feedback through polls like these, you’ll probably want to find out a lot of information at once: their general impression, the emotions the logo inspires, whether they understand the concept, whether they can tell what the business does, etc.
While not directly related to memory, these impressions do factor into it. And when all else fails, you can consider having focus group participants draw the logo from memory a few minutes after they’ve seen it.
Design an unforgettable logo
Memorability is a crucial factor in the success of a logo design. But the honest truth is, whether a logo is memorable or forgettable is not fully in your control—it ultimately depends on the audience. But there are techniques and practical principles that you can apply to optimize your chances of creating a memorable first impression.
Of course, there is one absolutely essential ingredient to the creation of an unforgettable logo: a talented designer. A true professional will have the experience and skill to make sure that your logo does not get lost in the crowd.