The most famous logos are instantly familiar. The best don’t just express a brand’s identity: they help shape its future. And behind every iconic logo, there’s a talented designer.
Some of the world’s biggest logos have been created by people who live and breathe the brand: the company founders themselves. But as this list shows, these symbols have also been created by students looking for extra funds and famous logo designers with hundreds of great concepts behind them. Here, we explore the stories behind the world’s greatest logo, traveling from Coca-Cola to the Wu-Tang Clan via the world’s biggest search engine and French haute-couture.
Frank Mason Robinson
The modern logo has its roots in heraldry and hieroglyphics, but it took shape in the 19th century. Color printing and a rising middle class in North America and Europe led more and more companies to differentiate their products with strong, distinctive design features.
Most early logo creators weren’t specialists: the creator of the Coca-Cola logo, Frank Mason Robinson, was the company’s bookkeeper. He came up with both the product’s name and script, which moved from a standard serif font to flowing Spencerian script—then the standard business font in the US—in the 1880s. Robinson was responsible for much of the company’s advertising in the next few years, and in his role as company secretary and treasurer, was integral to the removal of cocaine from the drink in the early 1900s.
Coco Chanel’s personality defined her brand—so who better to create its logo than the woman herself? The symmetrical, interlocking Cs of the Chanel logo represent her initials and were inspired by the interlaced curves on the stained glass windows at Aubazine Abbey in southwestern France.
Chanel was raised in an orphanage in the abbey after her mother died and went on to shape 20th-century fashion via sleek but comfortable clothing and signature perfumes. This strong, elegant and minimal logo, a fine representation of Chanel’s mantra that “less is more,” puts the designer center stage. It remains unchanged to this day.
As the 20th century moved on, branding was important enough to become an industry in its own right. One of the most famous early logo creators was Paul Rand, who not only rebranded himself (he was born Peretz Rosenbaum) but also, according to his colleague Lou Danziger, “almost single-handedly convinced business that design was an effective tool.”
Rand moved from creating stock images to designing magazines, and by the 1950s he was shaping the biggest brands in corporate America. Rand insisted on collaborating directly with copywriters, rather than being briefed by them, allowing him to work directly with clients, and once asked for (and got) half-time and double-pay. Among many definitive logos, his use of eight horizontal bars to give IBM a sense of “speed and dynamism” remains legendary.
In 1971, Blue Ribbon Sports co-founder Phil Knight was looking to rename and rebrand his company. Walking down a corridor at Portland State University, he heard a student complain that she couldn’t afford supplies for oil painting, and gave her the chance to work on a logo.
After 17.5 hours of work at $2 per hour, Carolyn Davidson had produced a dynamic swoosh that combined a checkmark with a wing shape. The logo referenced the winged Greek goddess of victory that gave Knight’s company its new name: Nike. Davidson’s creation is now so well known that the swoosh is most often run without a brand name or slogan. In addition to that $35, she was given 500 shares in the company in 1983. They’re now worth over $1 million.
Davidson isn’t the only side-hustling student to create a modern icon. In 1970, London’s Royal Academy of Arts took a call from Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones frontman asked them to recommend a student to design a poster for the band’s European Tour. Pasche took two weeks to design an epic image of a cruise ship, and a delighted Jagger rocked up to his degree show and asked him to design a logo for the band.
The result was a famously lurid tongue and lips. “The design concept for the tongue was to represent the band’s anti-authoritarian attitude, Mick’s mouth and the obvious sexual connotations,” explained Pasche. He was initially paid £50 for the logo but kept his copyright, which he later sold on to the band, and went on to create posters for the Stones, the Who and Paul McCartney.
Music acts’ logos are often playful and designed on the fly. The right one can be an integral part of a band’s identity and a valuable source of income, dotting everything from T-shirts to board games and stethoscopes. But getting the right mix of edge and accessibility isn’t always easy. Just ask Ronald Bean (better known as Mathematics), an associate of the hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan.
The producer and designer initially worked on a design of a hand emerging from a “W” shaped body holding a bloody, decapitated head, in a reference to an early single “Protect Ya Neck.” Wu-Tang main man RZA sensibly decided the image was too over the top, but only had a day to go before a batch of stickers were due to be printed. Mathematics scrapped the head and reworked the “W” into an iconic, bat-shaped stamp with the band’s name in the middle, creating one of rap’s most influential logos.
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo
Almost every band wants publicity, but many want the spotlight to shine on the music, not the performers. French electronic duo Daft Punk hid their identities behind masks and rarely gave interviews, mixing house music with funk, indie and hip-hop. The band instead built their visual identity through their robot costumes and their famous logo, designed by member Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo.
Homem-Christo’s scratchy script and rectangular form echo the patches that 80s rock fans attached to jackets and bags. It’s a neat approach, making the group’s debt to earlier musical trends clear and putting the focus on the audience’s interpretation of the music. Importantly, the logo was flexible enough to work in a range of colors, including a signature liquid chrome look that pointed to the future as well as the past.
In the last 60 years, Britain’s railways have been privatized, then partly renationalized, with cutbacks closing some lines and high-speed routes coming to others. But one thing has remained constant: Gerry Barney’s double-arrow logo, a bold, streamlined statement of identity that has stood the test of time.
The logo came as British Railways was rebranding to British Rail in the early 60s, replacing its imperial red lion branding with an icon fit for the modern age. The 24-year-old Barney was too junior to meet British Rail’s management at the time and came up with the sketch while riding the Tube to work. “I seriously did do it on the back of an envelope,” he says. “When I got to the office I drew it up. It’s exactly how I drew it the first time, with straighter lines. I just had to formalize it.”
Does $1.5 million for a napkin sketch sound like a bargain? When Citicorp and Travelers Group merged in 1998 to create Citibank, they paid Paula Scher’s Pentagram agency $10 million to create a brand identity for the new behemoth, with $1.5 million of that going on the logo. Sitting with Citibank executives during an early meeting, the famous logo designer doodled on a scrap of paper, creating the first draft in five minutes flat.
Scher’s experience helped her come up with a winning concept and present it persuasively. Her smart but jaunty Citibank logo is one of many prominent corporate projects she’s worked on, but Scher is almost as well known for her playful, postmodern posters for theaters, galleries and cultural events: proof that designers can follow their passions, rather than having to limit themselves to one style.
Open the world’s most famous search engine and you’ll find six serif letters. The company—of course—is Google, and when Ruth Kedar designed its logo, she was an art professor at Stanford and its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were PhD students.
Brin and Page contacted several designers about the logo. Kedar believes Google chose her because she saw each meeting as a collaboration. “The purpose of these presentations is actually to very much like Alice in Wonderland,” she explained. “Every presentation is an opportunity for them to hone their thoughts and for me to learn more, and understand more.” Kedar’s design used the font Catull, combining clean lines with traditional styling. In 2015, the logo moved into a simple geometric typeface, but Kedar’s work continues to underpin almost every search we make.
The designers behind the logos
As we’ve seen, there’s no one way to create an iconic logo. Some famous logos result from meticulous research and meeting after meeting. Others simply come from the right designer being in the right place at the right time. The future may see radical typography or grunge revivals shape logo design, but the one constant is the need for a designer who understands your vision—and can use it to forge a modern icon.