Originality has never been an ally to the 21st century, as music, movies, fashion and even art consistently come under fire as being nothing but recycled ideas. Spencer Chen, "startup personality" and marketing and business development VP for the Chinese online trading group Alibaba, thinks this is especially true in design, after he put out a tweet last month comparing the likenesses of modern company logos to those he found in a 1989 design book.
Medium, Flipboard, Beats and Airbnb are among the business brands bearing similarities to illustrations in Yasaburo Kuwayama’s 1989 publication Trademarks & Symbols of the World: The Alphabet in Design, which is essentially a logo designer’s go-to dictionary.
But what Chen’s pointed out about originality is certainly unoriginal. Resemblance between Airbnb’s 2014 logo and a symbol found in a decades old publication was ‘discovered’ in a Reddit post nearly a year ago and, interestingly enough, that logo was also criticized for being identical to the brand identity of software company Automation Anywhere. What Chen does bring up, though, is the role of design and the thought-processes behind making a logo, where designers will agree: nothing is original.
“Logos can’t be too unique,” says Mike Hankin, product designer at London design company morrama. “Design is more of a science than an art. In the arts, you can constantly innovate and try out new things. Art, unlike design, doesn’t have a job to do.” Designers have clients who want to stand out and a logo’s role is to communicate a company’s values or a product’s intended purpose. Yet standing out too much in the saturated marketplace can result in something that’s disastrously uncomfortable or equally forgettable, like the design for the 2012 London Olympics, which was criticized for resembling a Nazi symbol. It's not like everyone loves Airbnb's logo, anyway.
— Spencer Chen (@spencerchen) April 27, 2016
Hankin explains that logos tend to use commonly recognized design cues because customers believe that their favorite brands share the same values and beliefs. It's these logos that represent those values in drawings. “Think about a map pin icon,” he says. “Everyone uses it without any outrage or accusations of stealing. This is because it’s an instantly recognizable and understandable symbol so why wouldn’t we use it?”
Hankin also says that logos can have a “trend cycle,” and in 2016, that means less is more. “That is inherently limiting,” he tells The Creators Project. “In logo design there are only so many lines that you can use in only so many positions before you cross from the safe minimal, flat and—dare I say—trendy design, into the tacky, bubble written, 3D effect rainbow world of the late 90s and early 00s design.”
The minimalist logo design, where companies are recognized by mere shapes, is now seen across the board, such as Instagram’s new logo, released on Wednesday of this week. Long before Kuwayama’s book, the stripped-back trend can be traced back to the 1960s and German industrial designer Dieter Rams, known for his work with product company Braun and his innovative approach to design. Apple, a company with one of the most successfully branded logo and products, has drawn a lot of its inspiration from the work of Rams.
“It’s reasonable to assume that what was genuinely good design 50 years ago is still good design today,” says Hankin.
When it comes to logo design, originality is no measure of success—but the ability to monopolize an industry with just a few lines definitely is. No matter how many aspects are borrowed, getting that logo formula right is much like a DJ sampling and justly requires its own unique creative thought process.
“Artists’ ideas don’t exist yet,” says Hankin. “They build up and create to get to their new idea. For designers and miners, our ideas are already there all around us. We just have to chisel away until we find it and the better we are at mining the more polished we can get our idea. Maybe two designers just happened to find the same idea.”