Shell logoShell logo by Raymond Loewy, 1971.

These marks have one thing in common: a huge marketing spend.

So is it possible to design a truly iconic logo without the backing of an exceedingly large wallet?

Something I was thinking about earlier.

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February 16, 2010


No. Identity designers are creating logos than can be considered iconic all the time. But not having a big budget will limit the amount of eyes admiring it. Without the buzz and years of advertising, a possible iconic mark will not reach it’s full potential.

Responding to the topic and Mark Brand (nice name)

I think that’s what he’s getting at.
A logo with a limited amount of views can’t be considered iconic even if the logo it self may be worthy of iconic standards.

Considering you already have two key factors in place:
1. a huge budget
2. a very good logo designer

I think you also need one other key ingredient to break into the realm of iconic logos; a good and desired product.

As a matter of fact,
could it be possible that a logo be iconic, and not actually be a great design? i.e. McD’s golden arches.

But the question still remains:
If you have a great logo design and a great product, could the logo become iconic without major marketing dollars backing it?
I hope the answer is yes…..

An interesting topic, I’ll be looking for more comments.

Many logos have the potential to become iconic, but they only do so with the backing of million-dollar campaigns. Quality alone can’t make an icon, but icons are almost always born from quality.

Aren’t they “iconic” because they belong to big, well known companies that have.. big marketing budgets? :-)

There are lots of small companies with simple, punchy logos produced on, I assume, a small budget, but you couldn’t say they’re “iconic” when the companies aren’t.

1. relating to, resembling, or having the character of an icon
2. (Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Art Terms) (of memorial sculptures, esp those depicting athletes of ancient Greece) having a fixed conventional style

so by definition, yes. but the way you mean it, I would guess you need the marketing budget to allow the masses to see it to realise that it’s iconic.

Without the bankroll for universal exposure, that product of our passion, crafting, toil, tweaking, re-doing, discussion and frustration,
even though it gets rave reviews, may barely see the light of day or even survive in public awareness past the company’s infancy…

That being said, however, logos also become iconic because of what they come to represent over the long haul. So…

And, if I don’t do the designing, the client won’t be doing any buying!

I guess the answer could be that they are both designed and bought!

I’m going to chime in with a qualified no.

No, because I believe the same factors mentioned so far are unavoidable.

Qualified, because I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, somewhere managed to offer an exception to this “rule.”


They put quite a bit of research into their own brand, and probably spend a nice bit of change on their ‘special’ logos that they feature during holidays and events.

But they’ve never put much money into marketing their brand– at least not back in the late 90s when they got their start. In recent years, they’ve started to use ads to promote their other ventures, such as the Chrome browser, but otherwise, they are a company that advertises themselves at no extra cost to their normal business.

This depends on the definition of iconic which in itself is quite subjective in nature. In one person’s eyes a mark or even a painting could be iconic, though if you ask someone else they will have their own unique opinion. It really comes down to semiotics, perceived knowledge and one’s own opinions. Where does one draw the line between what is considered an icon or merely art? It’s hard to say.

Was the ‘I LOVE NY’ logo iconic when it was in the mind of Glaser? Was the ABC logo iconic when it was first drawn in Rand’s sketchbook? Or on the 30th January 1972,the day before the nike swoosh was trademarked, was it iconic?

Of course not… Logos become iconic when they are in the minds of the public, this can only happen through mass media advertising.

Iconicity is most certainly bought…

Iconic logos are never created in my opinion. Their status as an icon is earned over time.

Kelloggs, Ford and Coca Cola all started out as just signatures and hand written text. But over time as the brands became more and more apart of our lives they became icons of our culture, not an iconic logo.


For the most “iconic” logos: I think having a hundred years’ head start is the key. Probably more important than the spend.

Hard to buy that, though. ;)



That’s true, probably no regular marketing was done by Google, but only being there, running those servers, having magazines articles all over to get public attention = time spent, and some say time is money.

Sometimes the iconic status of the person designing something can rub onto what he creates but for the most part I believe that iconic status are the result of years of marketing effort.

I would say bought. Simply because a logo ideally is just a part of the marketing campaign and the more money you spend there the better the campaign therefore the logo is.

Good discussion, as, I suppose, always.

what makes a logo iconic is the fact that it was born when it was needed , it had a lot of money invested in it and the design was decent…i’m gonna piss off a lot of people for saying this but the ibm logo isn’t all that briliant in it;s execution as it’s just the fact that it was designed by a great designer…after all it’s only a text made of horizontal lines…it says nothing ;) but it was made for a product that changed the world , there lies it’s success

The most iconic logo IMO is the nazi swastika … It’s iconic style was born in its design but its iconic sentiments were born with its associations, thus solidifying it was a powerful symbol.

Glaser’s “I Heart NYC” was a paid campaign initiative. But how many paid campaigns of the same reach, budget, magnitude reap no iconic remembrance? A big budget does not necessarily equate iconic success. (Zune perhaps, nice ‘icon’ … not so much identifiable or iconic in this generation anyway). Conversely, a small or non-existent marketing budget does not inherently limit a symbol from becoming iconic in our culture.

Was the peace symbol of the 60’s-70’s marketed or adopted by a generation? At what point did it become iconic?

As a logo/symbol designer, it’s our job to provide images that could become iconic … that are, in their own merits, memorable and unique icons that are representative of some sort of marketing idea. Whether or not it becomes ‘iconic’ from a cultural standpoint is not altogether something money can buy.

Paul Rand himself would say, “It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning. It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes. If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate. It is foolhardy to believe that a logo will do its job immediately, before an audience has been properly conditioned. Only after it becomes familiar does a logo function as intended; and only when the product or service has been judged effective or ineffective, suitable or unsuitable, does it become truly representative.”

I would have to say that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Just because you have an potentially iconic icon, if you don’t have the money to ingrain it into the minds of people for decades then it never truly becomes iconic.

Likewise, if you do have the money, but the logo itself isn’t memorable or it isn’t consistent over time then it also fails.

To me, Coke is iconic mainly because the logo is largely unchanged for over a century. Pepsi on the other hand has changed drastically over the years.

Iconic logo is linked to iconic brand. It’s the part of the brand.

Nobody wants to have an iconic logo itself. Iconic logos are born through clever branding.

So, IMHO, logos are designed, not bought.

The ones who mentioned Google and the Nazis speak to the point that, while money makes a difference, an iconic mark is one that is saturated into the public consciousness. Another example is Saul Bass’s AT&T Bell – I don’t know how much marketing the behemoth did back in the day, but the fact that they monopolized the telephone market gave the bell a 90% recognition rate.

Influence is the name of the game. Whether it’s by money, marketing, military, monopoly, or anything that doesn’t begin with an M, it’s how well the entity is able to impress upon the public.

i think this is basically an example of mathematics in aethetics.The probability of liking or disliking an logo increases as the number of people seeing that logo increases.Which is done through marketing.When a logo is discussed by lot many people.It become famous be it good or bad.And finally there is nothing called as bad publicity.

“Design is just another cog in the marketing machine.”
– David C. Baker

I agree, to spend money hiring a designer is already investing in your marketing. How large that investment is determines the pace of the brands growth and awareness in its market.

The nazi swastika was a oft-used arts and craft symbol long before the Germans got their hands on it. It’s used in a frieze in our local early 20th-century post office here in Troy, NY, and it’s all over the Cranbrook Art Academy campus in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. It’s the associated usage that has changed its significance. The subject of usage is really at the core of this discussion: good design can help make a distinctive mark memorable, but this can’t happen in a cave. Large media spends can make poorly designed logotypes memorable as well (Google, Verizon, etc…) It’s the well-designed, well-funded marks that will always be considered the true icons. They satisfy the designer’s need for visual and semiotic quality, as well as the masses need for duplicity.

@mircha69 – you’re kidding right? The IBM logo is ‘only a text made of horizontal lines…it says nothing’? Seriously?

Anyway, I’m completely with Stephen on this one; it is a designer’s job to create a logo that could become iconic. Not an easy task, obviously, if it is to become iconic for the right reasons design-wise. I’d suggest that simplicity is probably the major ingredient in doing so (e.g. no ‘trendy’ typefaces, can work in one or at most two colours), but clearly not the only one.

For it to *become* iconic however is dependent on a number of things, with a sizable budget being one of them. However we could start a thread here of major brands who spend fortunes, brands whose names we are all aware of, but if you were to ask the lay person to describe the logo or even offer a crude sketch, they couldn’t.

Stephen’s examples of the Nazi symbol and the peaces symbol are perfect examples of the sort of icon that enters the public domain through its exposure and as a result of its message (in these two cases, their messages couldn’t be more different) proving that money, whilst handy to have, isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Either way, money or no money, iconic status is something all aspire to but most never get close to.

It may be less common, but it’s certainly possible for a logo to become iconic without support from a big budget.

Case in point: the Firefox logo was created as part of an open, community-based design process and has never been part of a big advertising campaign or marketing spend of any sort. But, it’s one of the most widely-recognized logos in the tech industry.

So, anything is possible!

Here’s an iconic logo: ✝

Icons without money: no, somebody always pays for those peace sign buttons.

The one exception would be symbols which appear “organically”, independently of culture. Such as a drop for water or flicking the bird.

There is is, Armin, a notable exception.

Earlier I said as a rule, not possible but wouldn’t be surprised if an exception were noted.

The cross is an example of an iconic symbol which became so by a grass roots movement beginning centuries ago, not by any single entity bankrolling its promotion and subsequent ascent to iconic status.

Other examples mentioned so far the peace symbol and swastika. We could add the evangelical fish symbol, also from ancient Christianity.

There are no doubt other examples. So while it is the “rule” that this cannot happen, it does.

The best take-away for us designers is that alluded to by Stephen and Martin, if we can design a symbol with the potential to reach iconic status, we have done our job, regardless of whether that happens via ad budget, grass roots, or not at all.

I tried responding to the ‘Design Responsibility / Influence’ article you originally wrote however your site was down (and still is?). As for creating a logo that is ‘iconic’ I guess this is partly what this conversation is about. When can one say when a logo is iconic or not? Everyone’s opinions are going to be different as is evident from the comments left on this page.

Though in saying this I understand where you are coming from and will consider such poises (re my logo tutorial in Computer Arts mag) in the future, it is my responsibility after all. In my defense, I believed that the word ‘iconic’ was also an aesthetic quality. Thanks for voicing your opinion, I appreciate it.


Glad to hear your response and that you acknowledge your responsibility as a blogger with quite a large following. I am sure through these kind of discussions you (and me) will develop a stronger understanding on the field. I appreciate the response.

As for my site, I’m undertaking a few changes in format so many of the older links aren’t functional. Slowly but surely. Thanks.

This is an interesting way of thinking that has not been covered before, and certainly makes your questions why exactly iconic logos are as such. All those listed, CocaCola to Shell, are logos that most of the population can instantly remember, but maybe this isn’t necessarily due to their design aspects.

I think a good example of this is probably the Coca Cola logo. Quite simply put, it is just a font face and colour choice. There is nothing else to the design, yet this is one of the most recognisable logos ever.

However I think in this case it is purely down to marketing spend. Having such an unlimited budget and success has allowed Coca Cola to market themselves massively throughout the world, and as such we are regularly viewing their logo. It is instantly recognisable because of the font, if the text was in another then it wouldn’t be so instant. Simply put, there is little to this logo other than the font, and a font choice doesn’t constitute design.

I will be interested to read others opinion on this matter, and whether this opinion will be reflected or countered.

Hey Jacob. Thanks for the personal link to your response here.

I think everything has already been mentioned by the masses and Youssef, and in good taste too.

Certainly we’re all passionate, and with passion comes debate. Debate is knowledge.

As your quite a strong blogger I think its important for you that you understand what age group your comments are coming from. Your initial seems (im only speculating) to draw a strong crowd from young designers and probably amateurs. Over a lengthy period of time this could be quite dangerous for yourself as your articulation and detailed expression of thought could diminish. With a limited fan knowledge comes a limited scope of expression and ultimately I think that was what what led you to poise ‘iconicity’ with small consideration.

Its been interesting to see how well your defended yourself here when push came to shove. Ultimately for your own sharpness I think you should always write for the heavy hitters and design professionals.

In saying that I am of course, in no way a professional yet. Nor am I an expert writer.

Hope to keep in touch.


the swastika, although in some ways is a good example of a symbol which never had marketing spend, in others is a dreadful example, because if something is present for that amount of time, it’s going to get recognised. the swastika has been in use for over 3000 years, that’s a long time. and the example of a post office isn’t the best you can do, it was used on some amercian army shoulder patches during world war 1, and by the finnish air force until WW2.

I think that shows another ingredient though. so far I have the ingredients to an iconic logo as:
Great design
Marketing spend

It would seem that you can sacrifice any of the 3 to some extent, but never get rid of more than 1 completely.

The shape of an apple existed long before a computer company appropriated and branded their products with it. The question is … when did it become iconic?

Perhaps before WWII the swastika did have some recognition in American / European culture, but its appropriation as a brand, and consequent global recognition, happened in Nazi Germany. The history prior to that is insignificant. The Germans used it in a new way and redefined it with all that it now signifies. Using a black icon on a white circle with a red background makes it an iconic design. The actions they took under its use define what it means to our culture today. I think the Nazi party used all three of the ingredients mentioned above. Of course, they could have used any symbol and it would now be iconic. But they didn’t, they polished up and represented an historical symbol.

The converse shoe star is iconic but obviously existed as an image long before the shoe company appropriated it. Did Shell reference a familiar image? Should designers try to create visual associations with known symbols or try to create completely novel shapes?

Does a historical reference disqualify an icon? Or perhaps give it a greater potential for becoming iconic?

Might I just say…

Thanks to David Airey, great post, certainly got the ball rolling for good discussion.

Thanks for that, and be sure to post topics like this that get us talking more!

+1 – The brand is the thing.

Does the brand need to have money behind it? No not really. It’s really the association you have with the brand.

There are umpteen logos that are horrible but could be considered iconic.

There’s been a couple of mentions of the peace symbol, but it should be pointed out it was originally designed as a logo for a march in the UK, and then used as the logo for the UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, before becoming to represent a larger international movement.

My question to your question is, an iconic logo can be designed by an exceptional individual who charges hundred of thousands of dollars, can this expectional designer by himself create a strong symbol compared to what a company (with directors, designers, writers, researchers) can do?

Is that why those iconic logos are so expensive, because they are craeted by a group of people instead of an individual?

Is the Apple logo iconic already? Used to be when I thought of Apple it had to do with long playing records and the Beatles.

Standing the test of time, and somehow being able to evoke more than just what the product or idea itself is, seems to be indicative of iconic nature.

I hope whoever it was that designed the heart shape got paid handsomely.

Unfortunately, no one got paid at all for the heart shaped logo. It’s been in circulation dating back to medieval times. There are many theories behind the shape. Some believe it is based loosely on the shape of an actual heart – or the more commonly available cattle heart that would be studied in place of human hearts.
Another theory states it was drawn to slightly resemble the females genitals – not unlike the barely known shape called the vesica (a two sided shape containing two curved lines)
The silphium plant had a seed that resembled the modern heart shape, and it was used as a contraceptive in ancient Egypt. Because the use of the seed was romantic in nature, that shape is thought to have gotten linked to love and romance. It is interesting to note that the hiroglyphic symbol for an actual human heart is actually a fair representation of the anatomy of a human heart.

I think, in the end a logo has to be designed first.

What the logo symbolizes and what drives its popularity (a corporation, a religious entity, a mass movement, a product) would decide whether it getting bought is a factor.

I think time plays an important factor.

Most of the logos mentioned there have all had huge marketing spend (and thus visability) for at least a generation. Nike, Shell, IBM, Macdonalds, Coca-Cola etc.. all have strong logos but its the epic amount of money that gets makes them highly visible and keeps them visible.

Therefore I would have to say no. You can have a logo that has the potential to be “iconic” but without the money to put it somewhere, and keep it there, that’s all it will ever be.

Certainly marketing support builds awareness of a corporate mark. That is patently obvious.

But having a small marketing budget is the best argument for creating a good logotype, since it will have to get the most bang for the buck.

Can it become “iconic?” I would have said no 10 years ago, but considering the huge influence of the internet, hell yes!

I don’t know how much money Google spends in media other than internet based, but I’d wager it’s a fraction of what Coaca-Cola or Nike spends in mass advertising.

An Iconic logo is no always bought, of course big budgets play an huge role in making a brand iconic but I think we should also give some credit to the design itself. There different ways to become iconic and memorable in positive or negative ways.

A logo can become memorable for its low design quality or for its genius design. A good example would be the London 2012 Olympics Games, a very controversial issue that can give to this terrible logo a place in history.

Another example of how important is the technical level of the logo itself and that not always big budgets do the trick is in the chinese market. Chinese companies have huge budgets behind their brands but their logos are so lame and so terrible designed that they could never get the level of memorability and iconography of Nike, Apple, CocaCola, etc.

So yes a big budget is important but also a good design is essential.

T+O x $ = E > E + PP x Q = ICON

How cool, I’ve just found this site and was having a similar conversation recently with a colleague of mine. I concluded the following.

For anything to be iconic it must have a certain amount of “exposure” If I designed the worlds greatest logo and I was the only person to see it, it could never be considered iconic. Therefore an iconic logo must have exposure. In our global village money is required to succeed in any venture, therefore the answer is YES, money does buy exposure and that intern can lead to iconic status.

However great movements can also emerge and when coupled with a great logo design they can succeed organically and achieve iconic status. This is however quite rare and having money is much more of a guarantee of exposure, so Iconic logos are mostly bought but not always.

The greatest confusion arises when we mixup Quantity with Quality. Spending time with my 7 year old nephew clearly illustrates how we are programmed to beleive biggest, fastest, tallest…. is best. The primary reason we consider these logos to be iconic is because we rate them not just according to their aesthetic merit but on the level of exposure. When the oil runs out will the graphic designers of tomorrow be saying “What Shell Logo?”

It is much easier to quantify and qualify which is the biggest company than it is to quantify and qualify which is the best design. Whist there are many agreed criteria for judging the aesthetic merits of one logo against another it ultimately comes down taste and we all know how quickly tastes change.

Time is the crucial factor here. The greater length of time a logo is in circulation the greater exposure it gets. The key thing is a logo designed for today must meet the needs of tomorrow. An iconic logo design must remain relevant for the same period of time that it is receiving a high level of exposure. Or at least be tweakable, like the shell and coke logos, so the public at large will not see a discernable difference.

Finally the more people who say a thing is iconic the more it does in perception become iconic, regardless of how qualified a person is to make such a remark and how accurate their remarks are. If everyone says the earth is flat, is it not flat?

T: Time E: Exposure O: Organic Q:Quality PP: People Perception $ = MANY$$$$$

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