Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Logos are designed to be easily understood at a glance—simple and memorable. This can lead to the misconception that there isn’t much to them. But the anatomy of a logo is not only more involved than it can at first appear, anyone who wants a logo must be familiar with it if they want to create a successful logo.
Even while the whole composition is important, each part of a logo has its own specific purpose and particular effect on the viewer. In addition, different types of logos may contain some parts that others exclude. In order to help you design the best overall logo design, we are going to walk through the individual pieces of a logo and how they work.
The logomark is the icon, pictogram or graphical element of a logo design. It is generally the most recognizable part of a logo, meant to encapsulate the entirety of the brand in a singular image. It accomplishes this through symbolism, shape language, color theory, and design principles—communicating traits to the viewer on a subconscious level. Often, it acts as an avatar, meaning it stands alone for the brand in certain contexts when the other elements of the full logo are absent.
The logomark can come in a variety of forms. A pictorial mark will model itself after a specific image, such as the clamshell on the Shell logo or the peacock tail on the NBC logo. An abstract mark will use organic shapes or geometry with no reference to explicit images. A monogram will use a decorative version of the initial letter(s) of the brand name. A mascot will use character design to create an appealing character, often one that will appear in other contexts outside the logo such as on a website or in a commercial.
The wordmark is the text part of the logo design that displays the brand name. As it explicitly identifies the brand, it is comparable in importance to the logomark, to the extent that for many brands the wordmark is the entire logo.
The wordmark’s main concern is typographic style and legibility. Since it is so important for name recognition, the letters must be readable across a wide range of sizes and distances.
Custom lettering is also preferable to a standard font in order to stake out a unique identity. With that said, plenty of high-profile brands use fonts as the starting point for their wordmarks.
Another consideration is when the typography of the wordmark becomes the basis for the rest of the fonts a brand will use (in letters and advertising, for example). Designers must effectively leverage the way logo fonts communicate through their shape and style.
For wordmark-only logos, many designers choose a more creative, hand-lettering style given the absence of any other graphic. This can be useful if it fits the brand and remains legible. Some wordmarks can also contain graphical elements that wouldn’t necessarily stand alone as a logomark, such as Amazon’s smile or the balloon in Alicia’s Pop Up Party logo pictured here.
The tagline is the secondary text portion of the logo that is usually paired with the wordmark to provide more information about the brand. Often, this will be either a slogan or qualifying words that describe the nature of the business (for example, industry markers like “cafe” or “fitness studio”).
As the information is lower priority than the brand name, it usually contrasts the wordmark with a smaller, thinner or more condensed typographic style. Generally, it will use a font instead of custom typography, and it should be adaptable as the business tagline may change with the marketing strategy over time. Additionally, it is not as important that the tagline be legible from far away. Some versions of the logo can safely omit it entirely as it is a nonessential feature.
The tagline is most useful for new or unknown brands as it offers more straightforward context than the logomark (which relies on imagery and emotional appeal) and the wordmark (which only tells the viewer the brand’s name).
Establishment date and location
The establishment date and location in a logo design offers background history on a brand. This is a rarer inclusion these days—it was much more of a regular feature in the past. Modern logos tend to avoid any excess information in an effort to be more visually streamlined. It can, however, still be useful on emblem style logos for a vintage look. Aside from this, it also tends to signal mom-and-pop or local businesses, given the implicit pride it takes in mentioning its geographic roots.
From a design standpoint, its font is even smaller than the tagline. Usually, the date will be placed above the wordmark—with the “estd” aligned left and the date aligned right—and the location will be placed centrally aligned beneath the wordmark, creating a balanced arrangement.
A frame is an optional logo design feature that encloses the logo in a seal or underscores some of its elements with decorative lines. A frame can be as simple as a plain box around the logo or as elaborate as a multitude of intricate filigrees. It can consist of solid colors or detailed line art.
Ornamental frames are particularly common on emblem logos where they can mimic vintage stamps or signage. When a logo design has many elements, embellishments like underlines and flourishes can help to direct the eye or provide emphasis. More elaborate frames tend to signal elegance or sophistication, given that frames are in and of themselves an unnecessary extravagance.
The effect of the frame (even if the purpose is purely decorative) is to establish an explicit shape. An overall logo design will have an implied shape without a frame, but designers can more directly control the shape that viewers perceive with a frame.
The resulting shape can be abstract, such as a circle or square, and this tends to be ornamental. The shape can also be based on a physical object, such as a shield or price tag, and this can be useful for a more illustrative approach, where the frame can thematically support the imagery in the logomark.
The background of a logo is any color, image, texture or physical material placed behind the logo. Typically, logos are designed in software with transparent backgrounds, but this is not the same as having no background. On the contrary, logos often appear in a variety of different contexts (from letterheads to T-shirts to websites to the sides of buildings and more), meaning they will have an exponential number of potential backgrounds.
Aside from presentations of the logo in which the designer may choose a solid color background or create a 3D mockup of the logo, the other backgrounds the logo might appear with cannot always be planned for ahead of time. The designer can, however, set the logo up to be legible in various backgrounds as a part of the design process.
Negative space is the part of the logo that cannot be seen. It describes the empty space around and inside the logo—anywhere there is not a shape or color.
In a brand style guide, designers typically establish rules for the minimum amount of space that should exist between the logo and any other objects on the page—this is referred to as padding. Without the appropriate amount of padding, the logo can be crowded by other page elements, and this can compromise the effectiveness of the logo or create tangents.
Similarly, negative space must be managed within the logo: a designer must decide how much space to put between logo elements as well as each letter in typography (referred to as kerning). Because the logo can appear in a variety of sizes, correct spacing is largely a matter of making sure the logo reads well when scaled up or down.
Negative space can also be an opportunity to create shapes out of nothing. The Fedex logo, for example, famously creates an arrow out of the empty space inside of its letters. This approach can also be useful in making multiple silhouettes out of a monochrome palette, as in Sava Stoic’s distinct guitar and mouse shapes in the Straight No Chaser logo. All in all, the part of the logo you can’t see is just as valid and useful as the part you can.
Putting the logo design pieces together
The anatomy of a logo design is essential for any designer to know, but it is not enough. In order to get a successful logo, you have to put these pieces together in a way that is thoughtful and effective.
While each piece of the logo design anatomy can deserve its own attention, it is a designer’s job to make sure that they look like they belong together. During the sketching phase of the logo design process, many designers will start with the main feature of their logo (usually the logomark or wordmark). This gives them a visual reference point around which to design other elements.
One approach can be to create cohesion through consistency in design elements—for example, the thickness of the illustrative lines can match the weight of the typography. On the other hand, contrast can make the design elements feel like they are in conversation, reacting in opposition to one another.
Finally, designers must be familiar with the composition principles to arrange all of the elements of a logo in the most effective way. There are a few standard logo compositions, namely a pyramid composition (a central, top-to-bottom arrangement that goes logomark, wordmark, tagline) and a rectangular composition (in which the logomark is placed to the left of both the wordmark and tagline).
These are popular for a reason: a logo is meant to be straightforward and easily read, and sometimes overthinking the composition can needlessly complicate things. But it is still important to explore your options for composition, especially if your logo will contain a lot of elements. Alternatively, plenty of designers choose to create versatile compositions, as in merci dsgn’s Papaya Pup logo.
At the end of the day, great logo elements, great composition and a great designer are how you get a logo that is more than the sum of its parts.
Author: Johnny Levanier