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Logo Design in a Multicultural Market

think-08-08-Logo Design in a Multicultural World-Featured Image

We see logos everywhere, from giant billboards on buildings to the cover of the book we recently read, on nearly everything we own. They are the face of modern life.

 

No brand can exist without a logo. No two brands use logos that are identical to each other.

 

But logos are not a modern invention, in fact, they have existed as long as commerce itself. Ming dynasty porcelain craftsmen in China would leave their workshop’s mark on the base of their prized creations. 14th century German great swords proudly bore the “Passau” mark to show their lineage. From East to West, the human race has inadvertently left an abundance of these carefully crafted marks in the history of design.

Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2020

Apple remained the world’s best brand for the eighth year in a row while digital newcomers such as Instagram, YouTube and Zoom rose to the top 100 for the first time ever. Interbrand’s brand valuation methodology considers customer loyalty, financial performance and future profitability in ranking the world’s most valuable brands. Source: www.interbrand.com

Over the years, however, the function of the logo has far exceeded the simple task of identifying a brand. They purport to tell stories, represent values, inspire dreams. Modern brands invest a great deal in their logos. In the 21st century, the cost of a brand overhaul can easily exceed millions of dollars. To a lot of good folks outside the design sphere, this investment is perhaps a little ‘too much’.

 

After all, some logo seems no more than a simple glyph of a few strokes. Just take a look at Nike: 

Nike Logo
Carolyn Davidson's original sketch

In 1972, then freelancing, bankrupt design student Carolyn Davidson took inspiration from the spread wing of the Greek goddess Nike — who symbolized agility, change and speed — and sketched out the Swoosh on a piece of tissue, for a fee of USD35. She could not, however, have anticipated that the logo would go on to become one of the most recognised brand marks in human history.

 

As of 2020, the Swoosh represents a brand that is worth USD35 billion. Nike might want to think twice before revising its brand identity.

 

Yet, other corporates, some with a history of a hundred years, ditch their old logos with a flick of a hand, risking recognisability and the brand value that comes with that mark. Why?

 

Admist all this seemingly perplexing mystique surrounding logos, what exactly are they? What do they mean to us? Is there a difference in logo design philosophy in the East and in the West?

 

ENGINEER’S BLUEPRINT VS. SHAN SHUI PAINTING

Perhaps, to blatantly split the concept of design into East and West might not be the most ideal mode of categorisation.

 

The West is an umbrella term that covers a lot of unique cultures. The subtexts and implied meanings behind one logo that works well in the UK might hit all the wrong buttons in Germany. So traditionally, ‘Western’ logos have tended to lay everything on the table and be very specific about their meaning, usually leaving very little room for interpretation. Even logo execution follows complicated guidelines, specifying where each shape should join or split.

 

Not unlike the engineer’s blueprint.

 

Rumour would have it that the most successful of Western designs even adhere to mythical aesthetic rules like the Golden Ratio.

 

Eastern cultures and societies, on the other hand, emphasise a shared understanding of cultural contexts. Not everything has to be explicitly shown. The undeniable influence of Ancient China strengthens this model. Especially in East Asia, subtexts can usually be accurately read and understood. So ‘Eastern’ logos do not have to always ‘show a lot’.

Bank of China’s logo cleverly fuses the shape of an ancient Chinese coin with the character “中” for China.

Apple’s logo is a prime example of geometric design. But contrary to the myth, it is not based on the Golden Ratio.

It is this same philosophy that drives Shan Shui Paintings to ‘留白’ or ‘leave blank’.

 

The Bank of China’s logo has been hailed by many as one of the greatest of Chinese logo designs. The simple shape might not ring a bell for anyone without the right cultural background. But to a Chinese, the shape of the logo instantly connects to that of a coin — and therefore finance — which makes sense for a bank. A closer look will also reveal a stylised version of the Chinese character “中”, which is the first character of the Bank’s name.

THE WINDS OF CHANGE

There are some interesting new trends in logo design that can be observed in recent years. Let us take a look at two instances.

 

In 2016, MasterCard announced a brand mark revision, to the surprise of many.

 

Renowned design agency Pentagram came up with this overly simplified logo depicting what seems to be merely two overlapping circles. This design was rumoured to have cost MasterCard a staggering USD6 million. Not to mention that they pushed it even further in 2019, taking away the brand name altogether.

 

According to the company, the new brand identity “marks [the company] as a forward-thinking, human-centred technology company that connects people to priceless possibilities”.

 

To the untrained eye, the change that Pentagram made can hardly justify the price tag. However, such a seemingly simple change did come as a result of many hours of hard work and creativity.

 

The philosophy behind this design choice is, by an interesting coincidence, a resonance of ancient Chinese wisdom. Mencius famously proposed that the three key factors needed to win any battle were “天时、地利、人和”, or the harmony of “Time, Location and People”.

 

First of all, the brand has been an essential part of many people’s financial lives for a long time now. It is so familiar that we do not even need the MasterCard brand name to recognise it any more. This change would not have made sense at an earlier stage of brand development when the brand was less well-known.

 

Secondly, the digital era has brought about increasingly more frequent on-screen applications of the logo. The digital devices that the logo appears on calls for more vibrant colour and less cluttered shapes that are legible even in smaller sizes. Hence the original versions of the logo with interlacing shapes with text overlay would not have stood out as well on a smartphone.

 

Lastly, as globalisation becomes inevitable, corporations have expanded to include more and more markets. Well-recognised graphics work much better (and are more cost-effective) than a brand name shown in a dozen localised variations, helping to create a unified brand identity that gets the message across just as effectively.

 

In another instance, Xiaomi, the No.1 smartphone maker in China, revealed its new logo in a high profile press conference recently.

1996-2016
2016-2019
2019-present

The evolution of MasterCard logo

In 2019, the company dropped the “Mastercard” sign from the logo. The iconic circles are widely recognisable to the point that they can stand on their own. 

The new Xiaomi logo

Xiaomi’s new brand identity

The new logo sparked a debate among the general public, whether the “relatively simple design change” with rounded corners was necessary and justified the USD300,000 expense.

This controversial logo change baffled many. People struggled to see the difference between the new logo and the old, apart from the more pronounced rounded corners. Netizens ridiculed the design and were soon calling the subtle change “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

 

Even Xiaomi’s CEO admitted the subtleness of the change in a self-deprecating opening speech. “Is everyone a little disappointed by this logo, that we just turned from a square into a circle?” Many even reportedly recreated the change “in less than 3 minutes” using word processors like Microsoft Word.

 

Japanese designer Hara Kenya, who famously served as MUJI’s design director, was the mastermind behind this design. The RMB2 million design is said to have taken three years of hard, creative labour. It is said to encapsulate the philosophy of Xiaomi’s inner spirit: “Alive.”

 

What is interesting is the extreme contrast between how simple the design eventually turned out and how much behind-the-scenes work actually went into the process.

 

A logo is usually the most accessible component of any design solution. It is the frontman that represents a whole band of sophisticated thought processes, but is often misunderstood as being ‘all there is’. People mock ‘simple’ designs for their simplicity (actually a true virtue). But they as often ignore the perilous and convoluted labyrinth of creative madness that designers must traverse before arriving at a solution. A design that comes from a slap on the forehead may look just as simple, but that would be relying more on coincidence to succeed rather than a well-thought-through conclusion. In the design world, this may cost a brand millions.

 

Design is all about solving problems. Another popular misconception is that there is that one single great solution to any design problem. The truth is, there is no best route. The best route is the route chosen.

 

There can be many factors that affect a design, many of which are not really about aesthetics at all — resource constraints, historical burdens, culture taboos, CEOs’ personal preferences (really!). That is why logo design is often compared to dancing in chains.

The perfect balance

Xiaomi explained in a blog post that designer Hara Kenya used a “superellipse” mathematical formula when designing the logo of Xiaomi. It occured to the company that using n=3 in the formula struck the perfect balance between a square and a circle, epitomising Xiaomi’s inner spirit of “Alive”.

The modernist master

Paul Rand (1914-96) who was best known for his logo designs, including the logos for IBM, UPS, ABC, NeXT and Enron, once said, “Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.” Source: www.grapheine.com

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE LOOKALIKES

Many luxury brands, whose histories have spanned decades, even centuries, have tried to revitalise their brand. Let’s take a look at some of them.

 

The traditional logos (in the left-hand column of Fig. 1) are like Hollywood actors of the old times, competing for attention on the silver screen. Each with its own unique character. Well, the new versions of these vintage brands all look… the same?

 

Stripping away the myth that sans serif fonts look more ‘modern’ than serif fonts, why have they all chosen to forsake their uniqueness (or ‘heritage’) for a slew of distasteful lookalikes?

 

As mentioned above, design serves to solve problems. The need for ‘looking modern’ has outweighed ‘heritage’, at least in the eyes of the brand managers. They believe that a simpler logo will serve them better in the digital age.

 

But patrons of vinyl record stores do not care much whether their player has an LCD screen, a clutter of multi-function buttons, or whether it streams 4K videos. Their choice to listen to John Coltrane on vinyl is not because it is efficient or sounds better. It is, rather, the opportunity to taste a slice of a slower, more elegant age that draws them, and that wills them to pay.

 

These luxury brands fail to realise that, unlike credit card companies, which have only a handful of competitors, they rely on their craftsmanship, rich histories and uniqueness to stand out, and draw their respective loyal audiences.

 

Solving one problem (surviving a new medium) by introducing a much more serious one (losing identity) is certainly not the way to go.

 

LOGOS, LAID BARE

Ultimately, no matter how much ‘fluff’ a company chooses to put on a logo, its design has to still serve the basic function of representing a brand, along with its values, vision and message. If it can be done in a good-looking package, that would be even better. From East to West, corporates eventually arrive at the same destination, albeit through their respective winding routes.

 

The logo is the banner that tribes wave when they go to war. It unites the right people. And according to branding master Paul Rand:

 

“A logo doesn’t sell (directly), it identifies.”

DANIEL LI

Daniel Li is a Chinese creative who has spent most of his grown-up life in Singapore. A veteran of the creative scene, he has worked with Google, YouTube and Netflix, among others, on various branding and marketing campaigns. He is always keen on creating work that explores his cultural heritage through modern mediums. Daniel heads his own creative agency Rockblue Media.

JUNE 2021 | ISSUE 8

At The Crossroads of East and West

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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Stay updated on all the latest news and events

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