The simple logo's complex conundrum
We are living in the golden age of simple brand design. Look no further than the apps screen on your iPhone for proof. Despite the ubiquity of marketing platforms, brands have relatively less time and less space than ever to make an impression. That impression needs to be direct, digestible and memorable. Recent rebrands of Instagram, Airbnb and Mastercard are a few beautiful examples of the simple movement in corporate brand design.
Simple, clean logos work perfectly in this age of brand transparency, social media and ever-shortening attention spans. However, simple logos create some challenges for branding firms. The primary challenge is what graphic designers call the "You paid how much? My 5-year-old could have done that." conundrum.
This conundrum has been on my mind so much lately, I thought it would be fun to do a complex analysis of the value of simplicity. Plus, I get to talk about Pete Rose and the Dixie Dregs in the same post, so that's a win-win (for me at least).
It's basic human nature to admire a job well done. Whether it's a logo or a painting or a song — when we're not familiar with how it was made, the default barometer we use to judge a work's value is how much skill and effort we think went into its creation. Naturally, we place a higher value on something that looks difficult to make and conversely devalue something that looks like it was easy to create.
The value of hustle
Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980s was a good time to be a baseball fan. As kids, we'd go to Veteran's Stadium and watch two future hall-of-famers and Pete Rose play the game. First baseman Pete Rose (a.k.a. Charlie Hustle) and third baseman Mike Schmidt were a great study in contrast on the subject of how we value simplicity.
Rose made baseball look like hard work. Schmidt, on the other hand, made the game look simple. Rose was the more accessible player. I knew I could be like him if only I worked hard enough. Schmidt was clearly a superhuman with powers I could never dream of.
In the worst value judgement in baseball history, we booed Mike Schmidt simply because he looked like he was not working hard, while we worshipped Pete Rose because he was always visibly hustling. We mistook the seemingly effortless way Schmidt played the game for actual lack of effort, so we booed the best third basemen ever. Sorry about that.
So by the age of 10, I had learned to value visible hustle over simple perfection.
Back in black
As I grew up and started to express myself creatively, I carried that hustle aesthetic with me.
In high school, I played drums in a bar band, and while we covered AC/DC and the Black Crowes — music that fell decidedly on the simple side of the musical complex-o-meter — my personal musical preference went to Iron Maiden and the Dixie Dregs — bands that clearly demonstrated their proficiency with every note.
In hindsight, I unfairly devalued many of the songs we were playing, based on their simplicity — failing to realize they were simply perfect. Sure, every 14-year-old in every garage can play an AC/DC song, but no one sounds like AC/DC except AC/DC. That's the clearest evidence that easy-to-replicate does not mean easy-to-create.
On the first day of foundation drawing class in college, the instructor went around the room asking students to name their favorite painters. I cited Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali — artists who I loved then (and love now), artists whose hustle is clearly on display and whose level of talent is unattainable.
It took a couple years of art school for me to start to gain an understanding of and appreciation for simple work.
While I still think Black Quadrilateral is a prank, I fell in love with Duchamp's Dada work and Mondrian's abstract masterpieces at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Touring the Duchamp room in particular, you get an unmistakable feel for the level of talent and work it takes to ultimately produce something that looks like a kid could have made it.
It turns out, I was a terrible painter. The additive nature of oil painting, combined with how my brain works, resulted in overworked, muddy canvases. The subtractive nature of graphic design — editing things down to their most basic elements — proved a much better fit for me.
Simple is hard
Boiling down complex, multi-faceted brands to their simplest, purest elements is no small feat. Branding for innovative technology companies takes a special kind of alchemy. Translating engineer-speak into language that builds brand love and converting detailed technical features into tasty, digestible benefit-nuggets is hard work.
Simple, clean logomarks, particularly type-and-bug arrangements where the bug can live on its own, are well-suited for the social media age — where often the only real estate a brand identity gets is a 120 x 120 pixel app icon or a 16 x 16 pixel favicon. There's not much room for fluff.
Another challenge posed by the simple brand identity is securing trademark protection. To earn trademark protection of your logomark, it must be a unique design that does not bear any resemblance to another brand's mark — particularly one in your industry.
I'm with her
In the design essay I'm With Her, Michael Bierut, the Pete Rose of Graphic design, details the story of the initially maligned but ultimately vindicated Hillary Clinton presidential campaign identity.
Bierut reclaims the "My 5 year-old could draw that." insult as a strength, and details how he specifically sought to create an open, modular, accessible brand. He also beautifully addresses the elephant in the room with an honest exploration of the difference between a logo and a brand. Too bad my 5 year-old can't vote.
The deeper you dive into the simple aesthetic, the more complex it gets. Certainly, it’s tempting to look at a Mondrian painting or listen to an AC/DC song and say, “I could have made that.” Well, you didn’t. And that’s the challenge with simplicity.
While I've worked to overcome my bias against the simple and I continue to work to not artificially inflate the value of the complex, I recognize there is a place and time for both. Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt are equally amazing, as are Dali and Duchamp.
There's room in this world for You Shook Me all Night Long and for Country House Shuffle. One I can play and the other I can only admire with mouth agape, but I can appreciate the artists equally and value both for the work that went into their creation — simple perfection and complex beauty. Rock on.
About Toolbox Creative:
Toolbox Creative is a B2B technology branding firm. We speak Engineer, translating complex technologies and bridging the gap between the science of science and the art of selling it. We convert tech talk into brand love and connect tech companies with their customers.
We are on a mission to help technologists, innovators and engineers prove how their big ideas and innovative technologies can change the world.
Our Brand Engineering process empowers technology brands to take on the dominant players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increase their brand equity and grab market share.