Five Rules for Designing a Great Logo

In 1975, the network introduced a stylized letter 'N' logo, only to find that the same design had been trademarked by the Nebraska ETV Network. NBC paid the Nebraskan network to transfer the rights to NBC. A few years later, it brought back its iconic peacock simple, overlaying it on top of the 'N'. When Chermayeff & Geismar was brought in to rebrand in 1980, the designers dropped the 'N', even though the network had paid dearly for it. "It seemed completely wrong to highlight the first initial of the three-letter designation NBC, which was how everybody knew the network," they write in their monograph, 'Identify.' The peacock, however, lived on.
Courtesy Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv

Chermayeff & Geismar isn’t a household name, but if you walk down any major street in the U.S., you’ll see prominent examples of the studio’s design work. Chase, Showtime, Mobil—the New York firm created bold, recognizable logos for all of them while remaining largely anonymous itself.

This year, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar are getting their design-world due with a lifetime achievement award from the Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York. The milestone doesn’t signal impending retirement: The designers continue to practice—along with their younger partner, Sagi Haviv—using the same disciplined, research-heavy approach they developed more than 50 years ago. Bloomberg Businessweek spoke with Geismar about the universal guidelines companies and their designers should consider when developing branding campaigns:

1. Identify the problem. Chermayeff and Geismar start every job by interviewing the chief executive officer and other head honchos about what the company does and where it’s headed. “We try to get to the top people, because they have the vision of where they’re going.” Once they do the background research, they start sketching—by hand—and refining the concepts that will be presented to the client in all the relevant media (brochures, stationery, ads, and social media, for instance). “We never just show a logo on a piece of paper,” he says. Depending on what the company hopes to signal, the appropriate solution can be as radical as an entire overhaul (see the firm’s work for Mobil in the slideshow) or a subtle refinement of an overly fussy logo (see Xerox).

2. Ignore trends. A morphing logo with 40,000 different permutations may be considered modern by design aficionados, but for a company that wants to establish an iconic symbol for its brand, a complicated trademark can be counterproductive. “The logo is the main thing used to identify the institution,” Geismar says. “The longer it’s in existence, the more readily people will recognize it, so you don’t want something that’s going to change.” Most of his logos have endured for decades. The trick, he says, is to arrive at the intersection of simplicity and distinctiveness. A brand’s customers should be able to draw its logo from memory.

3. Go simple, but not too simple. Small companies may be tempted to adopt a standalone emblem that they hope will be as instantly recognizable as the Nike swoosh. There’s just one problem: They’re not Nike. Geismar says that an abstract logo, such as the octagonal sigil he designed for Chase, is best reserved for the Starbucks and Apples of the world. Until a company has reached the big time, it should identify itself with a wordmark (a stylized version of its name) or a symbol that contains clues as to what it does.

4. Channel your inner micromanager. Geismar says the best clients are the ones that get really involved and enforce standards. Before Steve Jobs, there was Rawleigh Warner Jr., the CEO of Mobil who worked with Geismar to transform the oil company’s look, jettisoning the Pegasus symbol for a simple wordmark and giving the gas stations a major architectural face-lift. Warner toured the world to inspect his company’s properties with a discerning eye. As the designer recalls, “He would call up and say, ‘Gee, I saw that one sign, and I wonder if that shouldn’t be centered rather than flush left.’” That C-suite level of understanding of and appreciation for design is “always rewarding.”

5. Stick to your guns. Even well-considered branding campaigns attract backlash. Take the controversy surrounding Airbnb’s recent rebranding initiative, which invited comparisons to private parts. “We’ve learned it’s just human nature that when you see something new, you’re going to say, ‘That reminds me of whatever.’” The first wave of commentary doesn’t necessarily determine whether the logo will ultimately be effective.

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