Is your logo sending the right message?

Published by Nela Dunato on in Branding, Graphic design

Logos, those pretty graphics that decorate website headers, app icons and business cards. Ordinary people rarely give them a second thought even though they encounter hundreds of them daily. Media is only interested in them when there is a scandal such as logos that are too similar, or one that unintentionally resembles genitals (Airbnb got lots of press for both (NSFW)).

But logos are far more than that. I’ve written in a previous article that the logo is a business tool that helps you differentiate your business from competitors, attract attention, establish familiarity and—most importantly—communicate your main brand message.

Is your logo sending the right message? The secret language of brand design

Communication is the main purpose of graphic design—so much so, that this field has been renamed to visual communications design in recent times.

Design is a visual language.

Verbal languages use sounds and letters which form different words, each of them holding a meaning for those who understand that language.

The elements of visual language are line, shape, color, form, motion, texture, pattern, direction, orientation, scale, angle, space, and proportion.

You’d think that graphic designers are the only ones privy to the meaning of visual language—after all, it takes years of education and practice in order to “speak design” effectively and become proficient in it—but that’s not entirely true.

Our first language was visual.

Some species in nature rely mostly on scent. Some rely heavily on sound. Humans are one of the species that predominantly rely on vision.

Our vision isn’t perfect. We can’t see as far as the eagle does. We can see only a fraction of the light spectrum that the bees do. Our night vision sucks. When we can’t trust our eyes, we rely on other senses, but vision is still the biggest source of information for a healthy person.

Nature talks to us through visuals.

Colors of the berries, animal tracks on the ground, position of the Sun in the sky, the color and texture of clouds—all of this information warned us of available food choices, or of the approaching nightfall or a heavy storm.

Our alphabet, and other writing systems in the world developed from early pictograms and ideograms—drawings that represented concepts and enabled people to record their culture more permanently. Visuals have become even more meaningful in the industrial age. Enter: traffic signalization, map symbols, warning labels, …

Children are taught to count or the names of animals using picture books. Nonverbal children use communication aids with pictorial symbols corresponding to different concepts, and are able to interact with others in this way.

Every human (with a healthy vision) living in our society understands visual language, whether they’re aware of it or not.

The limitation of most people is that they’re conditioned to interpret what is being communicated, but not taught how to formulate a message themselves. This is where visual designers differ from other people: we’ve broken down the language of visual communication into its elements, and know how to use them correctly.

In my experience, most efforts of non-designers to create a design are random—akin to a cat walking over a keyboard, or a person trying to play a musical instrument they’ve never seen before by the ear. (I’ve compiled the list of 11 most common beginner design mistakes here.) A designer knows exactly where the key for each letter is, and in which order to press them to craft just the right message.

Visual language is not a mystical, innate talent that only the special few possess. There are rules, and there are books (some of them very old) that you can learn from. Everyone has the capacity to learn it:

“It seems that human beings have an innate capacity for cognitive modeling and its expression through sketching, drawing, construction, acting out, and so on, that is fundamental to human thought.”

So, to summarize:

  1. Humans can understand the language of visual design (even if they’re not aware of it).
  2. Visual design has certain rules (natural or cultural).
  3. Logos and other graphics can transmit a nonverbal message.
  4. Skilled designers can make the logo communicate the desired message.

The question that remains is:

What message is your logo supposed to communicate?

The key message that encompasses the value your business is bringing to its clients is called the brand message. A well-crafted brand message is attractive, inspiring and persuasive. It contains the essence of your brand—including its intangible qualities—explained through as few words as possible.

Coming up with a good brand message is tricky, and it takes some time to solidify it. Your brand message can also be used as a tagline, but the two are not the same thing.

Once you decide what your verbal brand message is, we translate it into the visual language, so it becomes a part of your logo and visual brand identity.

There’s no rule as to what message your logo should communicate. This depends on the businesses or organization, and sometimes on the market. A logo isn’t created in a vacuum, so we need to take into account what other businesses are already doing. You don’t want to be just another “me too” voice in the crowd.

Here are some ideas for what may be an appropriate message for a logo and a visual brand identity.

1. Features of your services or products

The most basic message, and one that is quite common and most immediately recognized by people is one where the logo depicts a literal function of your product or service.

You’ve seen this countless times:

  • Scissors for a hairdresser
  • Hand on a person’s back for massage
  • Wrench for a plumber
  • Stethoscope for a medical doctor
  • Tire for a tire repair company
  • Steaming coffee cup for a café
  • Cow for a dairy farm
  • Grapes for a winery
  • Bread or cupcake for a bakery
  • Ale tankard for a pub
  • Shoe for a shoemaker
  • Computer hard drive for a hosting company

You get the idea. These logos are most common for distinct physical products, or services that use a recognizable physical tool. These types of logos are very old, and were used on medieval store signs.

This makes them the most obvious, cliché and overused visuals, which is why I advise that we avoid them. If there are fifty cafés in your town, and all of them had a steaming cup as their logo, how would you know which was which? If a café wants to differentiate, they need to communicate something in addition to the fact “We serve coffee”. (That’s a pretty underwhelming brand message.)

2. Product or service benefits

The next level are the benefits that your service or product provides. While features are inherent to the product or service, the benefits are only created in connection to the client. A message that communicates the benefits is more compelling, because it highlights what’s most important to the buyer.

Some ideas for benefits of different products and services may be:

  • Security for a data backup company
  • Elegance for a fashion brand
  • Tastiness for a restaurant
  • Coziness for a cafe
  • Reliability for a telecommunications company
  • Modern for a hair salon
  • Relief and relaxation for a massage salon
  • Dependability for a lawyer
  • Transformation for a life coach

Benefits are often more abstract than features, and challenging to depict visually, but that’s what makes the designer’s job interesting. Literally anyone can draw a coffee cup, but not everyone can depict a cozy feeling through typography, shape and color alone.

Wild Woman Spirit logo by Nela Dunato
Logo for an integrative health coach who helps women get in touch with their “wild self” depicts the concept of transformation

3. Aesthetic brand qualities

If benefits are what the business achieves for the client, qualities are how the business feels to the client. They’re the aesthetic description of the brand, words like: minimalist, classic, traditional, modern, luxurious, mysterious, natural, unconventional, bold…

Qualities can be communicated visually—through a careful selection of colors, fonts and imagery, as well as verbally—through topics, style of writing and word choice. If you’ve read my book The Human Centered Brand, you’ve encountered them in the chapter on Brand Voice (and you know my trick for selecting fonts based on those qualities).

When my clients say what they expect of their new brand, usually they describe it using qualities. I make this even easier by suggesting a list they can choose from.

You may have noticed one thing already: in services which are highly aesthetic (arts, crafts, fashion), benefits and qualities may in fact be the same. For services and products which aren’t primarily aesthetic, we try to find matches between the benefits and the brand qualities that correspond most closely to them.

Claire Fortune hand-lettered logo design by Nela Dunato
Hand-lettered logo design for Claire Fortune depicts the qualities of a mystical, dreamy and illuminating brand

Isn’t aesthetic “beauty” superficial?

Quite the contrary. Aesthetic qualities are speaking to the instinctual part of our consciousness, one that creates decisions in milliseconds. Psychologist and user experience expert Don Norman calls this the “visceral level” of cognitive processing, and places it as equally important as the two other levels, behavioral and reflective:

“All three levels of processing work together. All play essential roles in determining a person’s like or dislike of a product or service.”

The client’s aesthetic impressions of your brand create the expectation for what the rest of their interaction with you will be like.

4. Your core values

If you want to communicate a deeper message, one that goes to the very essence of how and why your business does what it does, we need to dive into the core values. Core values are very high-level concepts like love, connection, peace, strength, compassion, excellence etc. that drive people towards certain actions or choices. Acting in integrity with your values is key to living a fulfilling life.

Your core values are inherent to you as a person, and this also makes them inherent to your business. Most people don’t consciously think about their own values, and aren’t even aware of what they are. If you want help finding them, read my post on core values and how to identify them.

The company core values are typically based on the founder’s personal core values. The more people is involved in creating the company culture, the more this will be a blend of different people’s value systems.

Your business and your ideal clients share common values. This is what attracts these people to you, as opposed to other professionals who offer the same services.

Broadcasting your core values through your visual brand is a powerful way to capture the attention of people who are a great match for your business.

You might wonder, how are core values related to benefits? They may or they may not be, but if you dig into it, you might find that behind each benefit is a very deep core value that people actually appreciate and want from you.

  • Security, reliability and dependability may come from the values of strength, support and excellence
  • Elegance may come from the values of beauty and grace
  • Tastiness may come from the values of enjoyment and sensuality
  • Coziness may come from the values of safety and community
  • Modern may come from the value of creativity and boldness
  • Relief and relaxation may come from the values of care, spaciousness and nourishing
  • Transformation may come from the values of inspiration and growth

Can elegance, transformation and other benefits be core values in and of themselves? Sure they can. This is not exact science, and for some businesses things may be more straightforward than for others. I wanted to illustrate how often the benefits are what the clients think they want, and the values are what they actually crave but aren’t admitting to themselves.

Since values are mostly abstract, they also present a design challenge—but to be honest, my very favorite logos are those where I get to dive into the client’s value system and bring their deepest essence to the front, for the world to see.

Hand-lettered logo design for Savarakatini by Nela Dunato
Savarakatini’s core value of “fun” is depicted through unique lettering, a strong orange color, and the devilish tail

Who determines what your logo & brand should communicate?

Since the business owner is the one directly in touch with their clients and every aspect of their business, they’re the ones who should come up with what they want to communicate. However, only the most self-aware of business owners are able to do it without outside help.

My new book The Human Centered Brand is a comprehensive guide that teaches you how to decide what you want to communicate with your brand, and how to do it using certain elements of design (typography and color). With this book, business owners are able to identify at least one key message they want to communicate to their ideal clients.

Go as deeply with your message as you can.

I’ve explained 4 types of branding messages: features, benefits, qualities and values. Choose the deepest message you’re able to identify.

Why go deep? Because the more you dig into the essence of your brand, the more permanent your brand message will be.

Features may change as your offers and business model evolve. You might uncover new benefits that your services provide. Brand qualities are more permanent, since they depend more on the personality of the business owner than on services alone. And core values are most permanent of all—brands that are based on them will last the longest, despite other changes that may happen.

This is especially true if you have an expansive vision for your business that is far beyond what you’re able to do right now. If you want to avoid rebranding your business every time you pivot, focus on the core values, not on superficial aspects.

(You could combine multiple levels in your brand message, and that’s what some of the examples I’ve shown in this post do.)

When to call on the help of a brand strategist

For those business owners who have a hard time doing this on their own, either because it seems too esoteric and complex, or because they simply don’t have the time to dedicate to it, brand strategists come to the rescue.

A brand strategist is a person who can distill the different aspects of a business into a coherent, clear list of core values, qualities and messages that make the brand unique, as well as identify the best target audience and appropriate channels of communication for the brand. (For more information, read my post: Struggling with your brand strategy? Start here.)

Even though you might invite someone else to help you out, this is still your brand. The strategy they come up with needs to feel right to you, like they’ve given words to something you were struggling to see clearly and formulate into words. If you don’t feel like this person has seen and understood correctly what your business is about, then this is not the right strategy for you, and implementing it won’t inspire you. It might feel as if you’re wearing shoes that are too tight, or a pair of pants that are sliding off your hips all the time. That’s no good—your brand strategy should fit you perfectly, like it’s tailor made just for you—because it is!

This is a step that all the other design and marketing decisions in the future will depend on, so it pays off to spend a bit of time contemplating what it is that you want to communicate, and if needed, choosing the right professional that gets you as a person, and will be able to formulate your experience into words. (If you’d like to explore that option, I’m throwing my hat in the ring: check out my services for more info.)

Whether you decide to DIY your brand strategy, or hire a strategist, the final responsibility on what you want to communicate to your audience lies with you.

The Human Centered Brand by Nela Dunato: A Practical Guide to Being Yourself in Business

Become your own brand strategist

My new book The Human Centered Brand teaches you how to create a magnetic brand in a way that’s natural for you, and easy to implement.

In the book, I lay out my best advice for creating a lasting and memorable brand and provide clear steps you can take to make progress immediately. It’s written specifically for service based businesses and creatives who want to grow authentic relationships with their clients and their audience. Find out more about the book

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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