Something fairly monumental happened in late 2016 that reset the rules of the road for marketers, brand managers, and digital strategists. In November of that year, mobile internet usage exceeded desktop browsing for the very first time.

There had already been a growing awareness that the future would be mobile, but that news created a powerful motivation for organizations all over the world to rethink their branding in light of changing consumer habits.

In particular, logo design underwent a rapid evolution, with major brand after major brand reworking their identity to better fit smaller screens.

The name of the game was simplification. With precious few pixels of real estate to work with, logos now had to be just as engaging, just as memorable, and just as unique, but still look great whether it blown up on billboard or shrunk down to a tiny icon on a social media feed.

Responsive Design Needs Responsive Logos

For web developers, answer to the  mobile revolution was responsive design: approaches that adapt on the fly to fit screens of all sizes. Similarly, a number of brands have started rolling out adaptable logos that better fit their current usage. Broadly, there are four subtypes of these logos:

  • Responsive: Logos that grow or shrink to fit different screen sizes
  • Contextual: Designs that conform to their environment (e.g. monochrome logos for e-ink displays)
  • Generative: Algorithmically-controlled logos that are in a constant state of flux
  • Variable: Event or location-specific logos (e.g. a green variant to accompany eco-friendly initiatives)

Unless You’re Already Well Known, Descriptive Logos Work Best

Recently, the Journal of Marketing Research released the results of a brand equity study that looked at the logos of nearly 600 companies. It found that, in general, descriptive logos (ones that explicitly state or show what the brand does) are easier for consumers to visually process than conceptual logos (abstract designs that don’t necessarily tie into the brand’s product or service).

For example, the Burger King logo has a burger in it, whereas McDonald’s golden arches doesn’t directly signify that the chain sells food.

The study also found that descriptive logos have a far more positive effect on purchase intent and even net sales when compared to alternatives. Across all different brands, descriptive logos also made brands “appear more authentic in consumers’ eyes” and played a substantial role in their brand evaluation process.

However, before you rush out to add a fish to the logo of your seafood processing business, it should be noted that these positive effects are diminished if the brand is already very well known. So, in the case of Mickey D’s, not putting food items in their logo isn’t all that necessary because just about everyone already knows what their brand identity stands for.

Furthermore, brands that deal in products, services, or industries that aren’t all that appealing (e.g. funeral homes, pest control, waste management, etc.) also don’t see a benefit in the use of highly descriptive logos.

Current Trends

Following the trends in logo design is a full time job. Every brand wants to stand out and designers are constantly searching for innovative ways to help them do just that. Here are five design aesthetics that have been growing in popularity:

1. SIMPLICITY

Dunkin’ Donuts removed both the word ‘donuts’ as well as the image of coffee cup from their logo. Mastercard dropped their name entirely and remade their logo as just two overlapping circles. Volkswagen did away with the gradients, shading, and three-dimensionality of their famous “VW” mark and went back to a simple black and white logo.

Across industries, brands are removing anything extraneous from their logos in an attempt to distill them down to their bare essence.

2. SEMI-FLAT

Flat design had a breakthrough year in 2013 when Apple released iOS 7. Lead designer Jony Ive scrubbed away all of the operating systems skeuomorphic features like the faux wood grain on the games app or the legal pad appearance of the notes app. In its place he created a luxuriously minimalist, two-dimensional look that is still in place today.

Flat design took the web and mobile devices by storm and is still quite prevalent and fashionable, but some logo designers have started playing with the format slightly by adding subtle cues that add depth like long shadows, such as in Netflix’s new ribbon-like “N” logo.

3. THE 90S

When streaming rights for “Seinfeld” and “Friends” set off bidding wars, you know that the 90s are back. 2018 saw the renaissance of 1980s looks like the famous Memphis design language with its bright colors and squiggly lines. That trend is still hot, but lately the sharp shapes, funky attitude, and gloriously tacky maximalism of the 90s is getting love too.

4. BADGES

Blame it on the hipsters, but insignia, crests, and other vintage-looking badges, often graced with crossed arrows, dates of establishment, and credos and taglines are only growing in prevalence. A popular variant combines this look with flat design to create an identifying mark that blends traditional and modern aesthetics.

5. HANDWRITTEN LETTERING

Maybe it’s because digital technologies have taken over our lives, increasing the appeal of pre-internet sources of nostalgia, but there is a flourishing movement that is embracing yesteryear’s crafts and skills. Want proof? vinyl albums are selling at the highest level in decades.

In logo design, this trend can be felt in the large number of branding marks that are incorporating handwritten lettering. Whether it’s done in classic and refined calligraphy or intense and unrestrained wildstyle graffiti, a hand drawn wordmark reminds consumers that there are real people (with amazing creative abilities) behind the brand.

Follow the Trends, But Don’t Be a Slave to Them

Trend following is a balancing act. Veer too far away from current styles and you appear outdated and obsolete. But adopting the latest trends wholesale can make your brand look just like everyone else doing the same or worse, a fashion victim blinding following the pack.

Sure, you’ll look modern, fresh, and outfitted to match the age, but your brand will lack uniqueness and be hard to differentiate from competitors. The real trick is to find a balance between classic and modern designs, using each to its fullest potential.