Graphic Design – The Worship Of Icons

8/27/2012 12:44:20 AM

Incorporating multiple symbols into a logo design can give it tremendous power

One universal truth all designers learn is that when designing logos, it’s important to be simple, direct and to the point. Like all laws, though, the real skill lies in knowing how to break them. In 2004, food and household goods giant Unilever decided to ditch the corporate identity that had defined it for 35 years. It still wanted the large letter U with the company name spelled out in full, but it wanted something that better communicated a sense of the totality of an organisation whose holdings span everything from PG Tips to Fabergé, from Vaseline to Ben and Jerry’s.

Description: Steve Caplin

Steve Caplin is a designer and illustrator working for a range of national newspapers. His best-selling How to Cheat in Photoshop, now in its sixth edition, is published by Focal Press.

The logo that design agency Wolff Olins came up with features the letter U created as a complex pattern, above a much softer, more human version of the company name (1). The letter contains 24 tiny icons, each expressing a different facet of the organisation’s activities. At the top left, a sun represents the source of all energy; beneath this is a bee for hard work, a strand of DNA for biodiversity, a hand for sensitivity and care, a palm tree symbolising a nurtured resource, and so on. If you’re interested, you can read an explanation of the whole set at

Unilever’s multi-icon approach to logo design isn’t new, but it’s a good example of the genre. Each icon appears only once and each is perfectly dovetailed to fit in precisely with its neighbour: there’s a uniform quality to the thickness of the white spaces separating the icons, and a coherence to the design that makes it work as a unified emblem as well as a collection of tiny parts. What’s most unusual about it is that the icons themselves are highly stylised, offering up their meaning only to the initiated. If you need a key to interpret the logo, can it still be said to be doing its job successfully?

You see a far more straightforward approach in the thoughtful logo for American Humane Society (2). This incorporates a selection of 18 American animals, not all of which are endangered, representing the country’s diversity of wildlife. But taken as a whole, the animals also form a map of the US. Furthermore, the placement of many of the animals – the dolphin in Florida, the whale on the Pacific coast– is a direct reference to their geographical location. It’s a powerful logo that tells you the organisation’s scope and purpose at a glance.

A similar approach was taken by Haringey Council in London when creating a logo for a poster designed to promote the borough of Tottenham (3). It features a variety of people, a mortar board for Middlesex university, nature (butterfly and leaf) and entertainment (guitar and film), images representing the quality of the borough’s transport links and shopping facilities. Curiously, the only sporting activity shows a young boy playing football – barely more than a nod to Tottenham’s most famous export.

Not All Multi-Icon logos are so subtle in their construction. The poster advertising the movie The Mechanic leaves the reader in no doubt that this isn’t a film about car maintenance (4). The fearsome array of weaponry on display suggests that the movie revels in its firepower. And yet this is just a single icon; to express the same sentiment in stills from the movie would be hard to achieve.

Where the poster for The Mechanic is proud of its array of military hardware, the Peace poster designed in 2001 by the American artist Luba Lukova tells the opposite story (5). Here, all the weaponry assembles to make the silhouette of a dove, a symbol of peace since the time of Noah. Many of the internal elements have been used to represent anatomical features: the row of bombs creating the wing feathers, the fighter jet forming the beak. And yet the repetition of icons within the design weakens the overall message, as if the artist has run out of things to say.

Description: The worship of icons

The worship of icons

When the Automotive Council wanted to promote their Make It In Great Britain campaign, they came up with a depiction of a vast array of manufactured goods, from high-heeled shoes to folding bicycles, from cranes to headphones, from satellite dishes to skyscrapers, all in the shape of the Union Jack (6). Aside from the dodgy typography, it gives the impression of a vast wealth of manufacturing expertise and output. The tiny size of the constituent icons, though, makes it hard to take in at a glance; the same flag created with far fewer icons, at a larger size, would have been a more powerful image. However, the fine diagonals make this a near impossibility; it’s possible that this is as large as the individual elements could go while still making a recognisable overall shape.

The problem with multi-icon logos is that people need to have plenty of time to study them in order to have a chance of seeing all the elements that compose them. The ideal audience is one that’s captive for several minutes, all facing the same way and with nothing better to do. And nothing fits the bill quite like commuters waiting for a train.

Appropriately, a prime example of this synergy comes in the form of a series of posters promoting the services of poster agents CBS Outdoors. Their poster campaign is currently running in six major cities in the UK and features multi-icon images of animals.

In this poster sited in the London Underground, from design agency Clinic, the form of a shark is made up of dozens of views of the capital (7). It’s highly detailed, featuring many London landmarks – St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, Nelson’s Column, the Gherkin, Tower Bridge and many more – as well as taxis, buses, phone boxes and policemen’s helmets, with witty references to umbrellas, rain and speed cameras. It’s a beautiful, intriguing and arresting image. And that makes it all the more fit for its purpose: commuters spend time gazing at the poster, ‘reading’ all its contents simply because they have nothing better to do. For a poster designed to highlight the effectiveness of this kind of advertising, it could hardly have done its job better.

Description: The worship of icons

The worship of icons

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