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Greatest logos in history

Some logos are so simple and clever they’ll be remembered for thousands of years … But why?

1 July 2012

History has given us some iconic logos … And some doozies we’d rather strike from the books. The logos of the world’s top 100 Brands contain a good number of great logos. But great logos aren’t always corporate ones. For example, when the WWF was founded in 1961 (that’s the World Wildlife Fund, not the World Wrestling Federation), Chi Chi the panda inspired a simple black and white logo that singlehandedly summed up wildlife conservation in general. And when Baron Pierre de Coubertin designed the modern Olympic logo, the colours of the rings represented the flags of each nation at that time. It’s another universal identifying mark. We’d also argue icons can become ‘logo-ised’ too. ‘Guerrillero Heroico’ is Alberto Korda‘s famous photo of Che Guevera. As one of the most reproduced images on earth, it could be considered a logo now too.


So, how did logos start? 

People have been branding themselves since the first logos started appearing as maker’s marks on pottery. These marks were a quick, effective way to distinguish the goods of one trader from another. Armies needed branding too, so standards and heralds have been used for thousands of years so troops could identify each other in battle. Then there's the esoteric teachings of mystery schools, but we'll come to that in a minute.


From ancient art to the boardroom

Modern logos owe a lot to classical art from ancient civilisations. Artisans from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia showed a subject’s eye ‘front on’ because eyes are more recognisable from that angle, even though the nose, ear and hairstyle on the same figure would be shown in profile. In the same artworks, chests are turned front on because they‘re easier to recognise that way, but hips, legs and feet are in profile. Now think about the famous Apple logo designed by Rob Janoff. The apple is pictured from the side and at eye level, just as it would be in classical art. So is Ferrari’s famous stallion. Even the Guinness harp follows the same ancient principle of showing an object from its most recognisable viewing point. Some things never change!


Ancient symbols recycled

There’s also a legacy from pagan mythology and esoteric symbolism in the logos Brands choose even today. Think about the winged sandal of Hermes on Good Year tyres, or the Medusa used by Versace. Even the Christian cross had its forerunners in the Cross of Tau which is thought to have originated in Ancient Egypt and was the symbol of a Babylonian solar god.* Similarly, The Nazi’s swastika was a mark with esoteric origins. It was appropriated from Hinduism, but was already being depicted on the shield of a gladiator named Memnon on the Colchester vase as early as AD 175.** These marks could all be considered 'logos', and have been invoked by those that understand them for millenia.

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Now to corporate brands

It’s not just ancient myths and symbols that endure in logos today. And this is where storytelling and logos become inseparable. Let’s look at some modern myths… By that, we mean the stories Brands build around themselves. You might know Bibendum as The Michelin Man. He was part based on a pile of tyres the Michelin Brothers noticed at the Universal and Colonial Exposition in Lyon in 1894. However, in the hands of marketers and admen, modern myths like Bibendum become part of a Brand’s story. Sometimes, the story is even central to a brand…


Ultimate storytelling

Nike and Apple are perhaps two of the greatest examples of modern corporate storytelling. Both these Brands are so recognisable they don’t even need their name alongside their logos to be instantly recognised. These Brands were built around selling products people aspired to – not products people even necessarily needed. ‘Sell dreams, not products’ was a principle in Steve Jobs’ success at Apple. He proved when a story and a logo become inseparable, the Brand settles neatly into our mindset. What would Tiffany & Co. be without those blue-green boxes after all? … And remember Snoopy? He became the face of a Brand that earned Charles Schultz an estimated $1billion during his lifetime.


The greatest logos in history

So, what do the greatest logos in history all have in common? There are the obvious things like consistency every time we see them used. There’s huge investment in marketing so people see them over and over again. There’s simplicity in the design – something so striking it outlasts design trends. Then there’s the most important factor of all – A story to tell. To be TRULY timeless, the idea behind a Brand’s icon must mean something to everyone even if it’s not the story directly pictured in the logo. It’s what the most MEMORABLE logos in history all have in common… They stand for IDEAS.


Meanwhile, down under …

Here in Australia, logos have their own story to tell. At some point in the 1920’s, logos in the shape of Australia started appearing on our Brands and institutions. Since then, they’ve never stopped. Remember BHP’s old logo?… Or the logo of the Australian Bicentennial Authority from 1988? How about the ATO?… Or even Oz Lotto?… Well, they’re all Australia shapes.

Exactly why it is that Australians choose our country’s shape as a logo is the subject of The Shaping Australia Project. It’s directed by Queensland graphic designer and educator Troy Sizer. Troy’s blog tracks Australia shaped logos in all forms and welcomes submission from the public. Keep an eye out for the ‘Shaping Australia™’ book due for release soon. Contact us for more information.

© 2012 PO Box 805 Burleigh Heads QLD 4220 is a proud sponsor of Shaping Australia™ – The Great South Brand™.