History of Logo Design

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

The earliest logo designs can be traced to ancient civilizations where coins and pottery were carved with identifying emblems, the Middle Ages with family crests being used in battle, the Industrial Revolution with the rise of major corporations, and finally to today where logos often transcend the company and the products/services they provide.

A well-designed logo is a vital part of running a successful company. It’s how a business represents themselves and makes their mark in this visual world. A brand can sometimes seem like a living, breathing thing, and in many ways, the logo is what puts a face to the name. Whether we realize it or not, we often react emotionally and even physically to advertising logos. It’s why we feel hungry when we see McDonald’s golden arches, pumped up for the big game by Nike’s iconic swoosh, and grateful to have an iPhone any time we pass an Apple store.

When did companies first start using logos? What were some of the earliest designs? Get comfortable, it’s time to dive into the fascinating history of logo design!

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Whatever the event that propelled logos to stardom, the fact remains that today’s most effective logos do much more than stand for a company, product, or service: They trigger emotion, create desire, even forge communities.

Lisa Silver, author of Logo Design That Works

Hour Glass

History of Logos Timeline

Journey through time and see some of the most iconic logos in history, key moments in advertising, and other inventions that helped shape the future of logo design.

  • 2700 BC

    Source: batangascattleranch.worldpress.com

    Ancient Romans used hot iron brands to mark their livestock. This practice carried over to the Old West in America, where farmers would mark their cows with a logo as a way to signify ownership.

  • 520 BC

    Source: 1stdibs.com

    Ancient Greeks used owls to symbolize wisdom and knowledge. This motif appeared on coins created from bronze, but also in pottery and other works of art.

  • 440 BC

    Source: reed.edu

    Phidias, a Greek sculptor, developed the Golden Ratio. This mathematical formula was used to create the Parthenon in Athens and continues to influence logo design today.

  • 479 AD – 1492

    Source: youtube.com

    Metalsmiths created exclusive sigils for aristocratic families in the Middle Ages. These images were engraved into shields and used to decorate banners that were carried in battle, showing both pride and loyalty to the family “brand.”

  • 1366

    Source: bestbeerhq.com

    Stella Artois, the popular brewer from Belgium, was one of the first to use a company logo. Advertising wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is today, and beer bottles weren’t in use for another 500 years, making Stella’s logo a true trailblazer.

  • 1600s - 1800s

    Source: The Laredo Times, Texas, Sept. 27, 1898

    Newspaper and magazine ads became popular, meaning companies could gain attention with more than word-of-mouth. At this time, many brands were already using logos, though they could only be printed in black-and-white.

  • 1810

    Source: brainpickings.org

    German politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the first to explore color psychology. His book, “Theory of Colours,” discusses how color affects mood and emotion, influencing the logo designs of the future.

  • 1837

    Source: historical.ha.com

    Chromolithography, or color printing, was invented by Louis Prang in Boston. Metal was a particularly popular material, with logos being printed on tobacco tins, lunch boxes, keychains, trays, signs, and many other items.

  • 1843

    Source: picclick.com

    Offset printing, a branch of chromolithography, was used for magazine ads, posters, catalogs, and product packaging. Macy’s, Colgate, and Budweiser were a few of the companies printing their logos with this technology.

  • 1876

    Source: blog.visme.co

    Bass Brewery, founded in the United Kingdom in 1777, displayed the first trademarked logo by the British government. The logo was so popular it was mentioned in James Joyce’s novel, “Ulysses.”

  • 1905

    Source: eyemagazine.com

    John Cadbury, the Willy Wonka of the United Kingdom, was one of the first to print his logo directly on the product’s package. This best-selling chocolate bar featured a whimsical font and eye-catching colors on the wrapper.

  • 1907

    Source: amazon.com

    Screen printing made it possible to print logos on a variety of surfaces. About forty years later, the technology made it to the mainstream and was used for advertising on t-shirts, tote bags, and a variety of other products.

  • 1912

    Source: youtube.com

    Pierre de Coubertin, a French scholar, designed the interlocking rings for the Olympic games in Stockholm. The rings are one of the most iconic designs in history and symbolize the unification of all nations without discrimination.

  • 1920s - 1930s

    Source: snopes.com

    The Golden Age of cinema unleashed a wave of big movie studios, all bearing their own distinct logos. To this day, designs like MGM’s roaring lion and Universal’s spinning globe make their appearance on screen before the movies roll.

  • 1941

    Source: news.wjct.org

    Bulova Watch Company became the first to advertise on television. Their commercial, which aired during the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies game, showed their original clock logo and cost a reported $4 to $9 total.

  • 1950s

    Source: diylogodesigns.com

    Fast food chains, like McDonald’s and Burger King, started becoming popular all over the country. Most of these restaurants use red in their logo because it evokes a sense of urgency and increases our appetites.

  • 1961

    Source: 1000logos.net

    Designed by Tom Geismar, Chase Bank was one of the first American corporations to use an abstract symbol as their logo. Geismar wanted to create something bold that could be printed on a small size.

  • 1976

    Source: logodesignlove.com

    Designed by Danne & Blackburn in New York, NASA’s logo evokes a sense of patriotism. This became a symbol of pride for astronauts, especially when the Voyager launched on its interstellar mission a year later.

  • 1977

    Source: youtube.com

    Milton Glaser designed the iconic “I Love New York” logo to bring more tourism to the Big Apple. His original design was sketched on a napkin and offered for free to the New York State Department of Commerce.

  • 1987

    Source: successfulfashiondesigner.com

    Photoshop and Abode Illustrator put design into everyone’s hands. Small businesses, non-profits, and startups could create logos from scratch without hiring an expensive agency.

  • 1998

    Source: digitaltrends.com

    The world completely changed when Google launched. Co-founder Sergey Brin designed the original logo using a free editing program, but eventually changed the colors and font as the search engine became successful.

  • 2004

    Source: pymnts.com

    Facebook became a popular social media platform. Companies could pay for targeted ads, plus Facebook’s logo could be included on other websites to encourage shared content.

  • 2006

    Source: chron.com

    Twitter flew into the social media action. As was the case with Facebook, businesses could show their personality in witty posts and use their designs as profile images.

  • 2016

    Source: adweek.com

    While consistency is key, some companies change their logos based on their evolving brand identity and target audience. Instagram is a good example of rebranding done right.

  • 2018

    Source: uniindia.com

    Logos are always needed for upcoming events and businesses. Take for instance Indian telecom company Trai who hosted a logo designing contest for their public Wi-Fi networks.

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It is clear and simple: our times demand fast, easily recognizable symbols to denote the product and service of the corporation or even individual maker.

Gregory Thomas, author of How to Design Logos, Symbols and Icons

Logos in Ancient Civilizations

Trade and commerce have been part of civilization since the beginning of time. Our early ancestors recognized the need to set themselves apart from the competition. Potters, stonemasons, goldsmiths, and other trades chiseled logos to signify their unique work.

Walk Like an Egyptian
The idea for creating visual symbols to represent words and ideas has roots in ancient Egypt. Hieroglyphics was a formal system of writing where images such as eyes, stars, crosses, and other shapes were used to communicate. The messages would be carved on clay tablets or cave walls using reed styluses that were made from bamboo or other organic materials. The ink was created by mixing carbon black or pulverized ash with lamp oil containing a gelatin made of boiled donkey skin.

Source: firstpalette.com

Hieroglyphs were in the same vein as Sumerian cuneiform and were important for a number of reasons. The symbols, sculpted in stone on temple walls and public monuments, persevered moments in history, as well as ancient Egyptian stories. Artists and merchants at the time would carve their name or some other identifying mark into their work. This gave us our first glance at images being used to convey ownership, a concept that paved the way for the future of logo design.

Source: firstpalette.com

When In Rome
The Romans were also using unique symbols to mark their products. The earliest cattle branding dates back to 2700 BC. Simple symbols were used to create pyroglyphics, a system borrowed from the Ancient Egyptians. The Romans would use hot irons to mark their livestock, helping distinguish their sheep, cows, swine, and other animals from those belonging to neighbors.

Source: ancient.edu

Aside from branding livestock, the Romans also created symbolic mosaics. These were important in commerce as they kept record of transactions. Clothes, food, tools, weapons, spices, and other items were represented with images. For instance, a merchant could print two fish on a tile after making a sale of salmon. Some of the images printed on tiles were so beautiful, they were eventually used to mark private buildings.

Source: ancient.edu

Get It to the Greeks
Ancient Greeks, like Egyptians and Romans, used visual symbolism in many areas. One of the most prominent is in their architecture, pottery, and works of art. The “Greek key” represents infinity and unification. Today, you’ll recognize this pattern in home décor, fashion, and company logos like Versace.

Source: shopvntage.com

The owl and matiasma, or evil eye, are also ancient symbols of Greece. The owl was used to represent Athena’s infinite wisdom and appeared on coins dating back to as early as 520 BC. Coins were also used to honor and identify rulers at that time, such as Alexander the Great. The matiasma, on the other hand, appeared on jewelry and was a way to transfer negative energy to a material or individual. These symbols were hugely influential in society, just as modern logos shape our world today.

Source: shopvntage.com
Did you know?

The word “logo” comes from the ancient Greek logos, which means “word.”

What is the Golden Ratio?

Speaking of Greeks, let’s talk about the golden ratio. This is a mathematical formula created by a Greek sculptor named Phidias who used the equation in his sculptures and for the design of the Parthenon. Throughout time, the best logos have found a way to create the golden ratio. The basic principle is to achieve harmony and proportion in the design. This has guided early art like Michelangelo’s design on the Sistine Chapel and the Pyramids of Giza to modern day logos from the likes of Pepsi, Twitter, and Disney, to name a few.

Source: canva.com

These brands aren’t the only ones to achieve the golden standard. Most logos are based on geometrical forms, with the circle and oval being particularly popular for automobile manufacturers like Mercedes Benz, Toyota, and Audi. The reason they use this shape is to evoke a sense of durability and practicality; what people want when they are car shopping.

Source: canva.com
Did you know?

Some historians believe the earliest known visual symbol is 135,000 years old. It was a bone uncovered with etchings on it, years before the alphabet was even invented!

The Middle Ages: Religious Symbols and Family Crests

Symbols continued to be influential throughout the Middle Ages. Medieval Europe was a time where hierarchy was important in society. People were divided into different ranks, from nobles to clergy to royalty. Those with ruling power would mark their dynasty with an identifying family crest. If you’re familiar with the show “Game of Thrones,” you can think of the direwolf that’s used to represent the Starks, the lion used to signify the Lannisters, or the fire-breathing dragon of the Targaryens. While they’re fictional, these crests are based on real aristocratic emblems that were used during the Middle Ages. These designs were printed on shields and banners used in battle.

Source: amazon.com

A certain set of colors and shapes were used to represent noble families. This was helpful in finding allies on the battlefield, establishing power in various societies, and creating a sense of pride among families. Not to mention, a majority of people during this time were illiterate, meaning symbols were the best way to communicate.

Symbols were also important at the time since society was moving away from agriculture and toward specialized trade. Shops would hang up signs with logos that identified what goods or services they provided. In 1939, King Richard II required brewers to identify what kind of drinks they sold by printing a logo outside their establishments. Competing brewers would select an image to represent their company and that was how customers became familiar with their drinks, kind of like how Coors uses a mountain in their logo today.

Did you know?

The mountain on the Coors logo turns blue when the can is cold. The color blue, though, didn’t exist until about 200 AD.

The Business Boom in the 19th Century

The most important moment in the history of logo design, and advertising as a whole, is the Industrial Revolution. It may seem like we always had a professional landscape, but business really started to flourish at this time. The Industrial Revolution paved the way for mass production of goods, easy transportation to and from factories, the need for product packaging, and innovative technology that made printing easier and faster than ever before. This meant rising businesses could create intricate logos and use them to decorate everything from magazine ads to billboards to promotional products.

Source: chromedelivery.com

Consumers had choices as to what drink, food, car, clothes, toothpaste, etc. they wanted to purchase. Logos were a way for these emerging businesses to stand apart from each other. Many of the early designs told literal stories of the product being offered. Take for instance the umbrella girl on Morton Salt. The company started in Chicago in 1848 and offered salt that didn’t clump in humid weather, while competitors offered flakes. This differentiating factor is what determined the umbrella girl as their logo.

Source: chromedelivery.com

New Technology in the Industrial Revolution

Technology and business were packing a one-two punch that made branding more accessible than ever. In 1837, chromolithography, better known as color printing, was created by Louis Prang. More than 700 printers existed in the United States alone, including the metal lithographers from Coshocton, Ohio who specialized in advertising trays, signs, tobacco tins, and lunch boxes. These were some of the earliest promotional products on the planet!

Source: Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, Ohio

Chromolithography branched off into offset printing about forty years later, which is another key process for printing company logos on materials. Magazine, newspaper ads, and billboards could now be run in color. This was big news for the major companies emerging on the scene at this time, including: Dr. Pepper, Heinz, and Levi’s. They could print their logos on these advertising mediums and gain significant brand exposure.

Source: Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, Ohio

By the beginning of the 20th century, screen-printing was developed. This technology, like all the others of the Industrial Revolution, was hugely influential in what could be printed. Following World War II, when plastic and other resources became more available, screen-printing was used to its full potential. Logos could be printed directly on a variety of promotional products including: flying discs, water bottles, pens, t-shirts, and keychains.

Source: texashighways.com

From chromolithography to screen-printing, these innovative methods gave companies a place to put their logos aside from outside the shop door or carved into a cave wall. The future of advertising was taking shape and the floodgates were officially opened.

Source: texashighways.com

An Advertising Icon: The Coca-Cola Logo

Perhaps the biggest company to benefit from logo exposure was Coca-Cola. John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta, came up with the soft drink in 1886. It was originally marketed as a medicine, promising users relief from headaches and exhaustion. His bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, was enormously influential in the branding of this product, contributing to the soft drink’s name and its iconic cursive logo.

Source: businessinsider.sg

According to “Dr. Knowledge” Charles Reichblum, author of The All Time Book of Fascinating Facts, Coca came from the coca leaves, kola from the kola nuts that were used in the flavor. The cursive script, meanwhile, is an exact replica of the handwriting Robinson used at work. The beverage, like Dr. Pepper and Pepsi, was sold at drugstores as a way to bring in more business. There was no way that they would know, Coca-Cola had no idea how huge their brand would become.

Source: businessinsider.sg

Unfortunately, Pemberton died only two weeks after Coca-Cola made it to the marketplace. The rights were passed along to another pharmacist, Asa Candler, for only $2300! By the 1900s, Coke was sold in bottles and marketed as a soft drink in over 200 countries. This change in the packaging was hugely influential as it took the drink out of the fountain and directly into the hands of many other consumers, helping make the logo truly iconic.

Coca-Cola was building their brand from the ground up, becoming much more than a soda. Candler had the good sense to keep Robinson’s original logo, but still smart enough to change up the advertising strategy. For instance, good old St. Nick came on board for holiday campaigns during the Great Depression. The artist single-handedly created the image we now recognize as Santa Claus. It was red-on-red, and this combination turned Coca-Cola into an all-American classic. The country was struggling, yet they could still spare a nickel for a cold, refreshing Coke. Today, over 1.7 billion servings of Coca-Cola are sold each day around the world. The brand is by far one of the largest in the world, and it all started with Frank Robinson’s signature.

Cut to the Chase: The Rise of Abstract Symbols

Logos were used as literal representations from ancient civilizations through the Industrial Revolution. They contained either the company name or an image taken straight from their history and served as visual representations that, at first glance, told you exactly what that company was all about.

That all changed when Tom Geismer designed Chase Manhattan Bank’s (as it was known at the time) geometric logo in 1961. His design was inspired by rectangular Chinese coins and was rejected at first by businessman John B. McCoy, a higher-up at Chase. As the logo became successful, however, he changed his mind and started wearing it on his ties and cuff links.

Source: 1000logos.net

Geismar was ahead of the curve. For the first time, companies understood the power of abstract thinking and what it could mean for a brand. This simple, small icon works perfectly on the bank’s credit cards, personal checks, company letterheads, and mobile apps. It also works on a grand scale on the buildings and even at Chase Field, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play their home games! The repetition of the logo instills trust in consumers, which is particularly important for a company that supplies financial services to over half of American households.

Source: 1000logos.net

Who Creates Logos for Companies?

The Chase logo came out at the perfect time when it was designed by Tom Geismar. The Sixties were about endless creativity, meaning logo designs were going in bold, unexpected directions. Perhaps that was most true in the cover art for famous bands.

Source: Gerard Huerta, Graphic Designer

Gerard Huerta, a graphic designer from California, is one of the many people out there who create logos. He’s been in the business for over forty years and has done work for Ted Nugent, The Ringling Brothers, Swiss Army, and Time Magazine, to name a few. One of his crowning achievements, however, is ACDC’s iconic design. Huerta originally designed the logo for the cover of their fourth studio album, “Let There Be Rock” in 1977. He found inspiration for the lettering in the first printed Bible from Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press. The logo eventually transcended the cover, and became so massive and successful, that it was forever associated with ACDC. This also helped the band (who weren’t as well-known at the time) catapult to stardom.

Source: Gerard Huerta, Graphic Designer

Huerta argues that perhaps the most important element of an effective logo design comes through its exposure. After all, the ACDC logo wouldn’t be as recognized if people didn’t see it on t-shirts, album covers, and other merchandise. It just goes to show how important it is for any company to print their logo on everything and anything.

Of course, Gerard Huerta is one of many graphic designers in the world. Some other notable names include: Paul Rand, who designed UPS and ABC’s logos; Carolyn Davidson, the young designer behind Nike’s swoosh, and Milton Glaser, the very guy who brought the world the “I Love New York” logo found on t-shirts, hats, and keychains all over the Big Apple. These designers can work for big agencies or work remotely as freelance artists. Either way, graphic design will be a profession that will always be in-demand as new businesses, bands, non-profits, and other products emerge.

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If you have a wonderful logo and nobody sees it than it’s not going to be useful. I approach a design by talking to the client, researching their history, and trying to find something unique or specific about them.

Gerard Huerta, Renowned Graphic Designer

How Logos Have Changed Over Time

Every logo is different, and the best companies know to fixate on something that makes them distinct in their design. For instance, McDonald’s used their golden arches because it was an architectural element of their first building, while KFC created the iconic Colonel Sanders based on a real person who could cook excellent chicken. KFC created the iconic Colonel Sanders based on a real person who could cook excellent chicken. Both used red because the color sends the subliminal message of increased appetite and urgency. You get the picture.

Companies need to constantly evaluate their branding strategy in this ever-changing world. Sometimes it’s as extreme as completely changing their logo, while other times they simply incorporate trends in other areas. Instagram, for example, completely changed their logo in 2016 to include popular gradients.

Overall, design trends can influence what’s coming onto the market. Not much has changed, however, in terms of the way logos are designed since companies that have been around since the Industrial Revolution recognize the importance of consistency. Can you imagine if Coca-Cola suddenly felt a need to use Comic Sans? No thanks.

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The logo is doing its job as part of a wider picture. That central role has not changed very much since the time of the earliest designs.

Mark Sinclair, author of TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos

Why Logos are Important for Business

People are by default visual beings. It explains why we can recognize a friendly face, but can’t remember their name, and prefer to watch the movie rather than read the book. It’s why fashion trends evolve, smartphones are popular, and the bride wants the best photographer at her wedding. Images help us form a perception and understand the world around us.

With that being said, it only makes sense for businesses to create an identifying logo. It helps mark their place in the world, creates loyalty, and sets them apart from the competition. Most importantly, however, logos evoke an emotional response, and emotions are what fuel consumers to make buying decisions above anything else. In fact, a study by the Journal of Human Research in 2013 determined that “consumers are motivated seekers of emotional states.” The best way to get this kind of response is through images since we are hardwired to process those above anything else.

Learn more about the value of company logos in this video from PBS Digital Studios!

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The objective of marketing today is, arguably, to get people to react to logos in ways that parallel how people once responded to sacred or mythical forms.

Marcel Danesi, author of Why It Sells: Decoding the Meanings of Brand Names, Logos, Ads, and Other Marketing and Advertising Ploys

What Will Logos Look Like in the Future

Trends continue to come and go when it comes to logo design. In 2008, street art was all the rage, while gradients were super popular a decade later. About 543,000 new businesses are formed every year, most in need of logo exposure to really sell their brand. Fonts, shapes, colors, and patterns will always be different, but one thing will remain the same, companies of all sizes will always rely on a great logo in their branding.

Stats for Success

It takes only 400 milliseconds to form an opinion about a company based on their logo.

67% of kids between two and three-years-old can recall the product or company associated with a logo.

13% of consumers are more likely to pay attention to a memorable logo.

90% of all information transmitted to our brain is visual.

The Bottom Line

A business can have the most beautiful logo in the world. They can analyze the fine details of color theory and golden ratio and hire the best designers. At the end of the day, however, a logo is only successful through constant exposure. Whether it’s painted outside a store, plastered on a billboard, or printed on promotional pens, it’s about making sure your customers get the picture.

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a super cool Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. She’s a fan of diving into the history of some of the earliest promos on the planet. If you need her, you’ll find her buried in research, in the middle of a phone interview, or singing way off-tune in her office.

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