SxSW 2008: Why Logos are Irrelevant

by Luke Wroblewski March 11, 2008

I had the opportunity to join Brian Zmijewski's Why Logos are Irrelevant panel at SxSW 2008 along with Christina Wodtke (LinkedIn), and Jeremy Britton (Zurb Inc.). While the panel title might suggest we advocated the death of all logos, the heart of the conversation was about the shifting value of logos in a world of infinite shelf space, digital identity, and the rapid iteration online products and services are afforded by low barriers to entry.

To set context appropriately, these points primary pertain to early stage Web products and services and tee up some interesting questions to consider when deciding to invest in a complete logo design project or not.

  • In the wake of the industrial age, logos communicated trust and reliability to consumers. They were a key element of establishing brand and differentiation at the point of sale because most products were sold within limited shelf space (physical stores). The logo told you which product to trust.
  • Online, logos can easily be re-appropriated by phishing sites or scams. As a result, trust is embedded in URLs –people check the source of a Web page not its brand mark.
  • Content and services from online applications are frequently remixed and distributed without brand marks. Often you are lucky if your favicon is shown in RSS readers, content aggregators (like digg or delicious), or display surfaces (like Facebook or MySpace).
  • Today it is possible to get a logo designed for $25 from logoworks.com but people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on URLs. Are URLs better enablers of trust online than logos? Should online companies invest more in naming than logo design?
  • In early stage companies, spending large amounts of time and resources on logo design may be less important than getting the core essence of your product offering right.
  • Logo design projects tend to consume large amounts of time and digress into subjective opinions of color, shape, and style. Wouldn’t this time be better spent defining the core offering of a company? Is it possible to use the logo design process as a proxy for distilling what makes a company unique?
  • Does the primary use of logotypes (unique letter form styling of company name) vs. logos (visual symbol representing company) in many “Web 2.0” companies point to the increasing importance of naming?
  • In today’s business world, the brand mark is only one element of the total customer experience. In this experience economy, focusing primarily on visual identity may leave many important considerations open.
  • For example, all Starbucks stores closed last week for three hours to retrain employees on the experience they should be providing to customers. It’s important to note this was an “experience refresh” not a “visual refresh”. A visual refresh would have been much more common several years ago and an experience refresh perhaps less so?
  • I’ve had product mangers ask me to make sure I include the “brand on this page”. By this they meant a logo in the upper left of a Web page. Thinking the logo establishes the brand of an online experience is a dangerous proposition. The brand is defined by the complete package of visual design, performance, access, findability, credibility, and more.
  • It’s interesting to observe that most designer’s portfolios are divided into categories of: identity, web, interactive, print, etc. This separation of identity design from product design highlights the fact these efforts are almost mutually exclusive in many cases.
  • From my experience, a visual identity for a Web service can emerge from the product design process and therefore be more reflective and integrated with the product itself.
  • Web-based products have enormous flexibility and often grow/change as they mature. Take for example, the e-commerce site Zappos. They originally began by selling shoes online but have since begun to sell clothing and fragrances as well. When the CEO of Zappos talks about his company he is justifiably adamant that the Zappos brand represents “great customer service.” Yet, the Zappos logo prominently features a shoe. Sounds like it’s time for a new logo?

Are logos irrelevant on the Web? Of course not. But it does seem their relative importance may be diminished relative to names, URLs, and overall product experience.