The LogoLounge founder talks logo trends, making magic for brands, and why good design blends the subjective and objective.
By Tim Sweeney
W hen Bill Gardner says the magic of a good logo is the result of blending objective and subjective ideas, he knows of what he speaks—on multiple levels.
As the president of Gardner Design, founder of LogoLounge, publisher of the textbook Logo Creed, and creator of the annual Logo Trend Report, which has become a go-to source for designers everywhere, Gardner is a globally recognized logo guru. He also put himself through college as a magician (yes, seriously), traveling across the United States and around the world and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Siegfried and Roy along the way. When Gardner emerged from Wichita State University with a bachelor’s degree in marketing, he wasn’t overly excited about going into the family business of real estate appraisal. With a talent for art, he went back to school to pursue a design degree, finishing his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design at Wichita State, only to find that no one would hire him.
“I wanted to do logo design, but an agency might do one every three years.” Gardner says. “And every interview conversation would always come back to magic, so I had to put that away so people would stop asking me about it.”
He did logo work while looking for a full-time job until a man who was working for him asked him a simple question: “You are supporting me and my family. Why are you looking for a job when you already have one?” It was then that Gardner realized he had his own business.
Wichita had no American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) chapter; so, as the president of what had become Gardner Design, he started one and began to connect with other designers, visiting whenever he could with those who held knowledge in the field. In 1997, when eBay was in its infancy, Gardner was fascinated that someone in Britain could take a photo of, say, a teapot and anyone in the world could see it instantly and buy it. He wondered about the potential of an online encyclopedia of logos, where people could upload their work and tag it with keywords so it would be searchable for site visitors (or members, as it turns out). He had 2,000 logos in his encyclopedia its first year.
Today, LogoLounge.com houses 350,000 logos and is a repository site where, in real time, members can post their logo design work and search the work of others by keyword, designer name, client type, and more. The site also offers news curated for logo designers. Today, still for $100 per year, members can upload as many logos as they want. Additionally, the $100 membership fee lets users submit unlimited entries for consideration in the biannual LogoLounge book, now in preparation for its 13th volume. This is a collection of logos and case studies representing a best-in-class perspective of the branding industry. (Time to update your logo? Check out Bill’s list of tips for effective updates.)
Gardner selects a panel of internationally acclaimed designers to serve as a jury to distill the highest-ranking logos into the printed book, which houses 3,000 of their favorites. The process of creating it is as arduous as it might sound–there were 35,000 logos submitted for LogoLounge Book 12. This panel of ten judges scrutinize and review everything that has been submitted to the site since the last volume. Every logo is assigned a cumulative score and only the top-ranking logos are then highly categorized, given context, and featured in the book.
“The book was a necessary aspect of this, and books on logos can become outdated in time and many of the logos are designed two or three years before,” Gardner says. “The real reason for LogoLounge was to create a design tool that allows designers to see what other designers are doing in real time. They can upload a logo in the morning and someone in another country can see it soon after. It allows people to see things as they are happening, and it has helped launch the careers of some big designers.”
Back in 2003, Gardner was asked to write an article on graphic design trends for Graphic Design USA, a free publication for design-industry professionals. Today, 19 editions later, that yearly article has become the Logo Trend Report, an industry must-read that lives on LogoLounge.com. Graphic Design USA still dedicates 10 to 12 pages on Gardner’s trend report each year, and it’s often picked up by influential media such as Forbes, Fortune, and Fast Company. The Logo Trend Report has also led to Gardner traveling around the world to talk about branding and identity design.
To discover the trends, Gardner buries himself in his office—with an unhealthy amount of coffee—for weeks on end and combs through every logo submitted to LogoLounge over the prior year. This year, on the first pass, he pulled 2,400 standout logos (out of the 25,000 submitted since the last report). Next, he looks at each logo, one at a time, in search of similar shared attributes such as geometry, line weights, or maybe a unique way of demonstrating a shadow or another unexpected design aesthetic. From there, he groups the logos into clusters. Eventually, he lands on 30 to 40 clusters (trends), which he then shares with a panel of trusted designers around the world. From there, the list gets culled to 15 trends, which are explained in the Logo Trend Report. Today, even the creator of the report questions whether it’s all a case of art imitating life or vice versa.
“Sometimes, the year after a trend report, I wonder if they saw the report and were inspired by it or if we were on target predicting trends,” Gardner says.
Why are these trends important? Gardner believes it’s because it’s more important to know where you’ve come from than where you are. In logo-speak, it also means that if you emulate what’s on trend now, it’s already being done.
“If I stuck a pin in the middle of a US map and told you it represented a person traveling, then asked you where they might be tomorrow, you’d have no idea,” Gardner explains. “But if I gave you the same map and dropped pins to show you where they were the days before, you could see a trajectory there and maybe forecast that they’ll be in Nashville tomorrow. If I show you just one pin, it’s no help. If I show you a logo and then you see where it came from, that’s helpful.”
Gardner is quick to point out that the trend report is simply that: a report on the trends that he and the other panelists are seeing. The smartest designers, he says, will look at the yearly report like pins on a map—as part of a trajectory—and think, How can I move this forward?
Years of looking at these logo-design trends tell Gardner that the trends seem to happen on a pendulum cycle and on multiple pendulums—from realism to flat colors, from thin lines to thick lines, from gradient colors to flat colors. Designers, he says, love to fill a void, and by looking at what’s going on design-wise, you can see the way things are swinging.
“I get loads of emails from people saying, ‘Thank God I wasn’t in the trend report, because I wouldn’t want to be thought of as trendy,’” Gardner says. “But ‘trendy’ is something that is quick lived. Trends are long-term trajectory. If you go back through logo history, you can start to see a pathway, a trajectory of the evolution of logos. If you take the reports we created, you can start to see how the 15 trends we identified each year have merged their way forward by people standing on the shoulders of designers in previous years and pushing an idea into it’s next iteration.”
Though they have helped make Gardner a household name in the logo design world, the Logo Trend Report, LogoLounge, and Logo Creed are always side projects to Gardener Design, the Wichita-based “brandcrafting” company that he runs, which specializes in everything from strategy to branding to digital expertise. Gardner operates his company on the belief that bridging the gap between the objective nature of business and the subjective nature of design leads to successful work for clients.
”Value is the biggest chasm that exists between business and design,” Gardner says. “And successful branding companies and designers understand how to bridge the objective and subjective, because every marketing company walks into a client meeting and the CFO says, ‘Can you assure me the money I spend will equal ROI?’
For the design doubters, Gardner points to the Design Value Index, which quantifies the value of design. In 2015, DMI and Motiv Strategies released a study funded by Microsoft that analyzed the performance of US companies committed to design as an integral part of their business strategy. The dmi:Design Value Index tracked the value of publicly held companies that met specific design management criteria, and it monitored the impact of their investments in design on stock value over a decade, relative to the S&P 500 Index. Results from 2015 showed that over the 10 previous years, design-led companies maintained a significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by a whopping 211 percent.
“When you can share these figures with the investors, it makes a huge difference,” Gardner says, “because I can’t tell the CFO that the spend will equal ROI, but I can show them a study on design-centric thinking. It usually ends up opening up their eyes.”
Two-thirds of the branding work that Gardner Design does is centered on rebranding, which he says requires designers to carefully navigate how to appeal to new consumers without alienating longtime brand fans. All too often, a brand with an identity problem doesn’t notice it has one because such things are easier for outsiders to see. Gardner believes the logo sits at the top of any brand hierarchy and updating elements of the logo gives it a longer life span.
“If a brand hasn’t been touched, it can really age in a six- or seven-year time period,” Gardner says. “Coca-Cola pulls out their logo every seven years and reevaluates it. They look at angles, or thickness and thinness. The dynamic swoosh underneath Coca-Cola was eliminated. The most astute brands are under this constant retooling. A brand staying on top of things is making nuanced changes, but if you just park it, you will have birds nesting inside of it.”
Author and social psychologist Jennifer Aaker offers that there are five big personality traits a company can fall into: sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication, and ruggedness. Aaker’s theory says that while every brand lies somewhere on the spectrum for each one of these attributes, brands that last normally emphasize just one primary trait and perhaps one secondary trait.
Gardner says the brands that fall in a certain personality category have design traits in common as well, which is a way for designers to move the conversation with clients from the subjective to the objective. “We are designing to match the brand personality traits,” he says. “It’s going from ‘I think this is cool’ to ‘Let me show why this is going to work.’ Identify what fits for your brand, and you’ll have a clearer path ahead in all of your marketing.”
He may have put aside the magic tricks decades ago in order to be taken seriously in the design world, but Gardner is still doing his best to ensure that the search for the business objectivity that pleases clients doesn’t come at the cost of creativity that delights the consumer.
“If we were all creating things off the subjective, we would get nowhere for clients,” Gardner says. “On the other hand, pure objectivity gives you no sense of delight and no abracadabra. There is no magic to it. It will bore you to tears. It may help you find the right price point, but not the right outcome. It’s subjective nuance that is the gem that makes people say, ‘Holy smokes!’ That bit of magic makes objectivity successful.”