One aspect of the graphic design profession that I find frustrating is our inexact terminology. Many of the words that we designers routinely use can mean different things depending on the context of their use.
As an example, current digital service designers often refer to themselves as “product designers.” That meaning conflicts with what our Industrial Design peers have done for decades, the design of actual physical products. It not only reflects an overly narrow disciplinary view, but also ties screen-based design outcomes to mass-produced objects with a logic that’s problematic at best.
Given the looseness of design vocabulary, I often advise students creating a thesis document to include a glossary that clearly defines the meanings of all terms used in the context of their study. The writer is then required to adhere to the definitions provided and not use terms beyond the intended meanings. While such steps may seem extreme, we find that they help prevent many misunderstandings with the reader and are necessary for clear communication.
We can do better than the term “logo.”
Designers often use “logo” to refer to all types of brand identification devices and some dictionaries include this very broad definition. On the other hand, Merriam-Webster’s entry (1) instead refers us to “logotype,” defined as “a single piece of type or a single plate faced with a term (such as the name of a newspaper or a trademark).” Many of us fail to realize that “logo” derives from “logotype” and its very specific meaning.
Alina Wheeler, in her book Designing Brand Identity (2), generally refrains from using “logo,” and instead uses “logotype” to correctly refer only to typographic elements that display an organization’s name within a brand system. She also offers other, more specific terms, employing “brandmark” for mainly visual identity forms, and “tagline” for supporting text or slogans, as all are common elements in a brand “signature.”
Wheeler further provides terms to define basic types of brandmarks. She includes “wordmarks” such as Pinterest; “letterform marks” such as Fine Line Films; “emblems” such as Bruegger’s Bagels; “pictorial marks” such as Apple; and “abstract marks” such as Chase.
There’s currently a glut of publications that lump all brandmark types under the broad term “logo.” That approach may make the subject seem more accessible to the public, but it does a disservice to the profession by making our efforts appear generic. Those engaged in developing comprehensive brand identity systems know that it’s a serious undertaking deserving of specific and detailed terminology and descriptions.
An appeal for a better design vocabulary.
I propose that we refrain from using the term “logo,” and instead employ any of the better, more specific alternatives offered here. In my case, I’ve banned its use by students in the brand identity design course that I teach and suggest that my design educator colleagues consider doing the same.
I require that students develop either a pictorial mark, an abstract mark, or a hybrid that integrates both approaches. During the first few weeks of the semester, I will often ask students using “logo” in class discussions to instead use “mark” or “brandmark” when referring to their work. A few weeks later the students will correct each other in a good-natured way, and by the end of the semester the term is rarely heard. I also consistently reinforce the importance of verbal presentation skills, and the use of clear terminology as an important aspect of that competency.
Language changes over time, including definitions of terms as part of that process. Graphic design is also changing, as many of us have moved beyond commercial work and now also engage in more socially relevant engagements. However, the need for clarity remains concerning how we communicate what we do — and that’s something we can try to control for the benefit of all involved.
Finally, I know full-well that I’m fighting an idealistic, losing battle regarding this issue. “Logo,” like the proverbial cat, has been out of the bag for far too long to ever go back in. We can, however, leave “logo” to the public. A sloppy professional vocabulary suggests sloppy thinking, and that’s an impression that we graphic designers would do well to avoid.
Paul J. Nini is a Professor in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. He has served as a member of AIGA’s Design Educators Community steering committee, and as an advisory board member for AIGA’s Dialectic journal. A collection of his academic writing can be found at — https://medium.com/@pjn123.