Our current definition of the word logo encapsulates graphic forms that represent companies and businesses. It sounds hollow but practical. We readily identify our favourite brands by their logo. There is more to it though.
When you check dictionary.com you get:
noun, plural logos.
- Also called logotype. a graphic representation or symbol of a company name, trademark, abbreviation, etc., often uniquely designed for ready recognition.
- Printing. logotype (def 1).
But if you look a little further down, they also provide the origin of the word itself:
- a combining form appearing in loanwords from Greek, where it meant “word,” “speech” (logography); on this model, used in the formation of new compound words (logotype).
The term literally was derived from “word” or “speech”. We are talking about language itself.
One of the earliest known written languages is that of Sumer, a civilization in the southern region of ancient Mesopotamia. It is arguably the first civilization along with Ancient Egypt. With it, came what we currently know as the first written language, Sumerian, dated as far back as 3000 BC (thank you Wikipedia).
You see, Sumerian as a written language is purely logographic. Do you sense a trend yet? The written language was neither phonetic or linguistic. In other words, the language didn’t relate to the sounds that one speaks directly. It was abstract.
The symbols carry no inherent meaning on their own, much like our current form of logos. Arguably, no language carries any meaning on its own. It is human to imbue pictographics, letters and symbols with meaning. Language does not exist without a person to speak or write it and another to listen or read it.
So let’s go back a bit further. The origins of language are as hotly debated as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, “…the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioural traits.” This is because one such theory suggests that language was just as evolutionary as humans ourselves.
There are so many theories I can’t even begin to choose one without at least a cursory minor in linguistics. Language first began roughly between 350,000–150,000 years ago. Some would even debate that. Seems like a pretty broad range, right?
However, a common factor among many of these theories does emerge. It centres around who we are as humans (I promise, this is coming back to logo design). The same nature that would allow civilizations like Mesopotamia and Egypt to form is the one that would allow language to.
When we first started settling around rivers for drinking water and maintaining crops we had to deal with neighbours. We had to trust that those neighbours would not steal our homes or the food we grew. The first laws written were precisely for this purpose. Laws don’t work if we cannot trust that the majority of people will abide by them.
The exchange of language is based on the trust that is innate to humans. The word “tree” will only represent a tree if both you and I agree that is what it is. We have to trust that whoever taught us this was accurate. We also have to trust that when we say this word the other person will know what it means.
Mesopotamians had to agree that the symbols represented in their logographic language were mutually understood. Deeper than that though, they had to trust that what was being said was true, especially when it came to written laws.
We still rely on this principle today. If literally every word out of each other’s mouth was a lie, would language not fail? Communication would be irrelevant. Why even bother?
Ancient languages were abstract symbols but modern written language is not so different. Yes, in how it is constructed and the system we’ve built it is much more elaborate. But truly, it means nothing if there isn’t someone to understand it. English letters can look completely abstract to a person that only recognizes written Arabic and vice versa.
At the core of a logo is language. We’ve been using language for hundreds of thousands of years. We’ve seen how Sumerian is a series of graphics and is considered logographic. The logo communicates a message and is another extension of language.
Because the logo is language, it is based on trust. This is why the most effective logos are those that best communicate what a business is. Those that are designed with dubious or deceptive intent fail. Those that relay the wrong brand promise are ineffective. As a civilization we are putting trust into what a symbol, a logo, means.
To put this into context, the Nike Swoosh carries the meaning of sports apparel. It means sneakers. We have all jointly decided to trust in a symbol to mean a specific business. When we first saw it we trusted in the dynamic nature of its design to mean something of the brand itself. It was true, so we trusted even more deeply in the symbol.
It is language. Logos are language based on trust because simply the act of seeing it conjures up imagery and ideas of its meaning. It can only have that meaning if the business and the logo have this symbiotic relationship. When they don’t, they hurt each other and we question our trust in both. When they work together, they build on each other.
This is the strength of the logo and why as a business you must take it seriously. This is your piece of language to the World.