Humans aren’t really that great at grey (gray for the American readers out there). We know black and white. We get black and white. It is simple and straightforward. The only reason we understand grey is because we named it.
In my experience, we polarize by default. Let’s take the latest controversial US election for example. Red vs Blue. Americans had to choose a side. Just 3% of voters voted for third parties, let’s call them the purple parties—the inbetweeners with views that aren’t particularly polarizing. Their choice was less than celebrated.
We just don’t get them. You are either one or the other, not a little of A and a little of B. No, I’m not going to get all political on you, but the point stands. It’s human nature. For all our complexities, the ideas we most readily adopt are…simple.
Let’s cool this conversation down a bit and move to astronomy. Sorry to any of you passionate radical astronomers in advance. Packing things up in neat nice little boxes and giving them labels is what we do best. Are you aware of the Big Dipper? The Little Dipper? Have you ever seen the North Star?
I would argue that before the Big Dipper had a name it was extremely hard to describe out of context. Of all the stars we can see with the naked eye (about 2500 from where you stand) without using the name, try describing this asterism to someone who has never heard of it.
Say what? You’ve never heard of an asterism before? Yeah, we have a label for it. It’s a prominent group of stars that isn’t a constellation. The Big Dipper happens to be part of another constellation. We label everything.
Last week I got a bit heavy on logos and language. Labelling is another case of our natural tendency towards language. It’s not a bad thing, far from it. Labels help us understand complex ideas. They allow us to preload a box with plates, knives, and spatulas and label the box “Kitchen”. There is no ambiguity where these things go even though your movers (i.e. your brother in law) have no idea what is actually inside.
Similarly if a box is labelled “Kitchen/Bathroom” it’s not clear where it belongs. Maybe we just leave this one in the hall.
Meat and Bread take a literal approach with their name and logo. This is a crazy busy lunch place in downtown Vancouver. I’ll give you just one guess what they serve. Their name is simple, easy—straightforward. No words being minced here. And they deliver on the promise by serving exactly what you would expect (thankfully, in this age of clickbait).
But labels aren’t particularly effective if they are wrong. Opening a box in your kitchen and finding a toilet brush is not much appreciated. You’ve been bamboozled. This is not at all what you were expecting. Labels are only effective if we agree upon their meaning.
Finch's Tea & Coffee House just a few blocks away looks like they take the same literal approach. In actuality, I would say the name is inaccurate. They make dynamite sandwiches and salads (Have you been? It’s so good!) Most people are there for their lunch and not their tea or coffee. The power of their label is not in what it literally is, but the meaning they’ve given it in their focussed menu. Their concept is simple and easy to understand: excellent sandwiches.
I admit, this seems to prove my argument wrong. These guys have a name that is false and misleading and yet are always lined up out the door come noon. In reality, most people simply call them “Finch’s” because it removes the ambiguity. It’s even written on their website this way. What they have done right is stay focussed on being an excellent sandwich shop. Describing them is dead simple.
Finch’s now means sandwiches to me, through and through. This is how I refer people. The whole coffee and tea bit I completely drop.
A logo is a lot like a label. Its meaning comes from what it represents. This is where we see a lot of businesses get hung up. The success or failure of your business doesn’t hinge on the logo.
Gasp! “But you are logo designers, why do you even exist?” you say.
Existentially, I really have no idea why any of us are here, but I do know why businesses need logos.
A logo is a label, literal, figurative, or symbolic. Their strength comes from your business being focussed like Finch’s. Without a strong message to represent, any logo will "fail". Finch’s success comes from doing great food. Is their customer base largely referral based? Yes, most likely. They could be doing better with tweaks to their name and logo though.
Bare with me a second. I want you to imagine three cardboard boxes. On all three “Kitchen” is written in masking tape. You know box 1 has your plates, box 2 your glassware, and box 3 your flatware.
The box containing your cutlery has a large blue circle above the label. Which one is most memorable?
Obvious answer. A blue circle now means forks, spoons, knives and…sporks (who packed these?) The blue circle is not necessary but it does make things a heck of a lot easier. Let’s change that blue circle to a brown one that looks like tree rings.
The cutlery inside is made from reclaimed wood. The tree rings make sense now. The circle is giving us some information about what the items inside are, but the items are also feeding back meaning to the graphic. The story of reclaimed wooden spoons, forks, and knives is neatly encapsulated in a circle graphic. That’s useful for you because it is memorable and simple.
If Finch’s had a unique logo that did the same for them they would be top of mind more often when it was seen. The graphic itself would tell its own story that would then be strengthened by the quality of food and atmosphere they deliver.
They would have a logo that says 1000 words about the business and more. It would tap into the tastes and overall experience customers have. Finch’s could very easily take that recognition elsewhere and conjure up the same feelings and meaning by putting their logo on a new door.
This is why it is important to create a box that is suited for what you want to put in it. Labels and logos are containers for meaning. The container shape and size hints at what is inside, but seeing what is inside is what tells us what that shape and size means. The two work together.
It’s a lot like when you received gifts as a kid. No matter how it was wrapped there were always those certain gifts you just knew what they were. I distinctly recall knowing exactly the shape of a Sega Genesis game. Come Christmas I had no problems guessing that I might be opening Rocket Knight Adventures.
When my parents, in their great generosity, gifted me a bike it was a very different story. I was given an envelope with my name on it. In all my experience, this meant card…and in true kid fashion, a little disappointment (okay, maybe I was just a brat). In this case it was photos of my new bike taken at my Dad’s office instead. I was elated but certainly a little confused at first.
While the card made for a great surprise, when it comes to customers they want to know what they are buying. Logos are that chance to take queues from your product and brand promise and label them for easy consumption. How concise is the message of your logo and the business it conveys?