History and Purpose of Logos

This chapter includes information about:

  • How logos developed from ancient communication
  • How mass production influenced logo design
  • Examples of evolving logos over time

First, watch this short video from the PBS Off Book series about the history of logo design.

Symbols and Brands Throughout History

The principles of modern logo design are rooted in ancient forms of communication. Long before the invention of the printing press or forms of mass communication, people in ancient civilizations used symbols and pictographs to represent their work or affiliations.

A cattle brand. Photo by Anne Worner via Flicker Creative Commons
A cattle brand. Photo by Anne Worner via Flickr Creative Commons

The word “logo” derives from the Greek root meaning “word,” and our modern usage evolved as a shortened version of logogram. Our modern use of “branding” comes from the Germanic word for “burn,” which has been used since at least the 16th century to mean burning something permanently. The symbol a rancher might brand on his cattle to denote ownership is a practical use of a rudimentary logo.

Since ancient times, families, dynasties and cultures have identified themselves with symbols, many of which are still used in various ways. Shields, religious symbols, Greek letters and other symbols with a long history remain popular elements in modern logos, though some uses are unwise if they do not take the full history into account.

Marks used by pottery companies in the 1700s and 1800s.
Marks used by pottery companies in the 1700s and 1800s.
As this excellent Smashing Magazine article puts it, “To design a logo with symbolic resonance is to participate in the lineage of social dialogue.”

Take the swastika, for example. Although used for thousands of years in an astonishing number of cultures around the world — often as a symbol of life or eternity — its use in the 20th century by Nazi Germany has become the pervasive association, and it’s no longer possible to use the symbol without taking that history into account.

Mass production and Modern Logos

The purpose of logos and trademarks shifted with the rise of mass production and consumer goods in the late 19th century. Before, most people purchased generic goods from local merchants. But with goods produced at large factories by growing companies, consumers no longer went to the store to buy flour — they chose a particular type of flour. Companies realized the need to differentiate their products from those of competitors.

Many of the logos that have been with us for more than a century date back to this shift in consumer choice and behavior. This is when logos took on their modern purpose, as defined by John Murphy and Michael Rowe in How to Design Trade Marks and Logos:

  • Identify a product or service or organization.
  • Differentiate it from others.
  • Communicate information as to origin, value, quality.
  • Add value — at least in most cases.
  • Represent potentially valuable assets.
  • Serve as important legal properties.

Recent Trends

Larger design trends in architecture, fashion, typography and publication styles also apply to logo design, and most organizations periodically update their logos to keep up with the latest trends.

The most significant changes in recent years are driven by technology, as the Internet and social media continue to change the way people perceive organizations and interact with them. The shift to digital first created an explosion of options for creating bright-colored, three-dimensional, shiny-looking logos. More recently, trends have tipped toward simplification for smaller screens and the use of icons that work across platforms.

Examples: Logos Over Time

YMCA

The YMCA changed its logo several times during the organization’s early years before settling on the bright red triangle in 1897. The “Y” logo was introduced in 1967, with an update in 2010 that introduced a variety of colors to represent “reflect the vibrancy and diversity of our communities and activities.” Source: YMCA

Shell

The oil company Shell has kept a literal shell in its logo since the company’s inception. (The company was originally a London-based shipping business dealing in in antiques, curios and oriental seashells.) It has also maintained the same red and yellow color scheme. Source: Shell

shell-logo-history

Walmart

For the first two years of Walmart’s existence, the company didn’t have any official logo. It started with a Western frontier-style font, and in the most recent version swapped the hyphen-star for a starburst following the name. Source: Walmart

walmart-logo-history

Union Pacific Railway

Union Pacific started out with ornate Victorian-style logos before adopting the shield logo in 1887. The first shield logo took a year and more than 100 sketches to produce, but was revised just seven months later to fulfill the company vice president’s desire for a more “patriotic” logo. Also note the outlier in 1939, which was heavily influenced by the modernism movement and the attack on Pearl Harbor, but only used for three months. Source: Union Pacific

union-pacific-logo-history