Co.Design

What's The Difference Between A Logo And A Symbol?

And does the distinction even matter? Experts Michael Bierut of Pentagram and Brett Wickens of Ammunition weigh in.

The misuse of the word "logo" is one of those things that gets many design-minded people practically purple-faced with anger (a sibling to debate over "fonts" v. "typefaces"). A logo, they say, is not the same as a symbol, which in turn is not the same as a combination mark.

So what's the difference? In brief: A logo is a word, a symbol is a picture, and a combination mark is a PB&J mashing up the two. But really, in most circumstances, using "logo" for everything is just fine, say Pentagram's Michael Bierut and Ammunition Group's Brett Wickens. Just don't expect the pedants to like it.

Logos Vs. Symbols

Although most people call any emblem that has been designed to visually represent a brand a logo, "logo" is usually taken to be short for "logotype," which literally means "word imprint" in Greek. This is why we sometimes call logotypes "wordmarks." According to this line of thinking, the only true logos are the ones that contain nothing but stylized letters, representing the literal name of a company. In its curlicue cursive, the distinctive Coca-Cola emblem is a logo. So is Paul Rand's Venetian Blind IBM wordmark . Other logos include CNN, Sony, Samsung, Ray-Ban, Dell, NASA, Fed-Ex, and even Fast Company. Basically, if you see something in a company's emblem that can't be read, it's not strictly a logo. Or, at least, a logotype.

But logotypes have issues in a global economy. Because they depend upon being read, logotypes for American companies might be confusing to people who live in countries that don't use the Latin alphabet. Sometimes, companies will modify their logotypes for different markets accordingly: Coca-Cola, for example, maintains a stylistically consistent logotype in many different alphabets. These days, though, many companies prefer to take a more abstract approach, creating a universal symbol that abstractly represents their brand. Apple's iconic fruit is such a symbol, as is Airbnb's new sexual Rorschach test of an symbol. Other examples of symbols include the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems, the Shell gas station symbol, the Nike swoosh, and more.

Combination Marks

Finally, there's the combination mark. These are emblems that use a combination of both words and symbols to represent a company or organization. McDonald's, Domino's Pizza, Starbucks, TiVo, AT&T: all these companies use combination marks. Some companies use both logotypes and symbols, depending on the context. Nike, for example, has both a logotype and a symbol, which can be used to represent the company in different scenarios. The Nike swoosh by itself might work on the side of a sneaker, whereas a combination of the swoosh and the Nike logotype might look better on company letterhead, for example.

Do The Distinctions Matter?

Over the years, we here at Co.Design have had plenty of commenters criticize us for using logo as a catchall term. But really, the distinction is pedantic.

A symbol may not be the same thing as a logotype, but abbreviating both logotypes and logomarks as "logos" is totally logical, because both types of logo are meant to do the same thing. In fact, symbols are often referred to logomarks for just this reason. The distinction between a symbol and a logomark might be useful to designers, who may want to pin down what type of logo a client is looking for, or experts who are discussing the distinction between logotypes and symbols academically. But 999 times out of 1,000, just saying "logo" is fine.

"I don’t think the distinction is that important," Brett Wickens, partner and identity specialist at Ammunition Group told me. "Almost everyone refers to the emblematic visualization of a brand as a "logo," even though it might be a symbol, a stylized word, or a combination of both. For a designer, what really matters is deciding what’s most useful, and what’s likely to convey the right attitude and distinction for the brand."

Pentagram partner Michael Bierut agrees. "Everyone seems to have come up with their own definitions for this," he says. "The distinction only matters when you’re in a situation where you need to refer to these overall identity elements precisely."

Don't expect the people who want to distinguish between logos and symbols to go away, though. Wickens says that while "logo" is a perfectly fine catchall term for an emblematic visualization of a brand, new techniques in identity design are creating even more kinds of logos (and more names!), such as responsive logos that change depending upon the ways they are used.

"With emblems that change based on circumstance, we see new terms like 'fluid' or 'dynamic identity' starting to emerge, and I’m sure a whole new lexicon will spring up around that," he says. There's a new world of logo design right around the corner to be pedantic about!

Add New Comment

21 Comments

  • erictan2004

    The distinction disappeared in the mid- to late-90s. Designers with degrees know the distinction. People who think knowing PhotoShop means being a designer do not know the distinction. This applies worldwide.

  • Thank God someone has brought this topic into the limelight. I am already sick and tired of people using symbols and icons as logos under the banner of minimalism.

  • Evan Brown

    The usage of words does evolve over time. Especially the ones that have been adopted from foreign languages. More often, such words have a meaning that is only remotely relevant to it's foreign prototype. The origin, at times, only hints at the meaning and context of the words used.

  • Cringe at the incorrect usage of 'logo' all you want, but the real problem here is the inadequacy of the word 'symbol.' We are talking about commercial and corporate identifiers here, and the word 'symbol', with its myriad other uses, completely fails to connote that intention. It's no wonder 'logo' is often preferred; it communicates much more about a symbol's context.

  • Alexander M. Schmid

    For me, a logo helps me to identify a brand (company or organization). A Symbol helps me to identify a feature or a place (bluetooth, WIFI, Toilet, Bus stop, train station,...).

  • Has anyone else heard of a logogram? I was introduced to it in art school: a sign that stands for a name.

    "Logo" has become shorthand for both logotype and logogram. It's something that represents the visual identity.

  • It's nice to have some sort of conclusion that even the influencers agree that the difference is minimal. So I'm perfectly content with just putting the topic to rest.

    Our time is probably better spent convincing clients to better understand the creative process/language anyway. That to me is a perpetual problem that we all face across all levels of businesses.

  • designinfonaut

    Symbol is only ever an image, no matter how simple (Apple symbol comes to mind) A logotype is type and image combined, no matter how simple. (The old Microsoft logotype comes to mind, with a little cut in the letter) I and many other designers prefer “signature” for a type only identity. (Sony for that one.) But forget all that. An identity is also the color or colors, the proper and innovative or appropriate choose of type families for text, heads, and other uses on any media. Paper or pixel. Plus a myriad of other things ranging from smells to sounds to the floor, furniture, clothing, vehicle color, etc, worn by employees and seen by, anyone. But a trained professional designer, should know all this and more.

  • William Henry Rice

    The only meaningful definition of 'logo' is the recognition given it by the consumer. Bootstrapping a design business I was doodling (I called it 'brainstorming') ideas for a trademark when my dad dropped in. His successful business ran bearing his name and my efforts mystified him. Turning to go he said "Seems like a signature to me".

    Signatures needn't be understandable - only instantly identifiable - only memorable. I'd been trying to represent my business in a single kernel of meaning - in a meme - and, of course, failing. My 'logo' was, well, amateurish - the saving grace being it was less so than my competitors'. But it was recognizable and memorable.

    Christianity, Islam and Judaism got it. Cross. Crescent+star. Star of David.

    Oprah got it the message and used her signature - simple enough to be seen as an image - with no language requirement. McDonalds got it with golden arches easily seen and unmistakably memorable.

  • mail

    A good logo or signet if you like consists of 3 components. 1 - the company name, 2 - an icon which in what ever way symbolizes either the company's name (initial) or the company's field and 3 - a slogan or message if you like expressing the company's philosophy using the fewest words possible. Grapfically combined, these 3 components result in the mark. The better the components or brought into harmony, the better the logo. It's as easy as that!

  • mail

    A good logo or signet if you like consists of 3 components. 1 - the company name, 2 - an icon which in what ever way symbolizes either the company's name (initial) or the company's field and 3 - a slogan or message if you like expressing the company's philosophy using the fewest words possible. Grapfically combined, these 3 components result in the mark. The better the components or brought into harmony, the better the logo. It's as easy as that!

  • Wow, where did you get that collage of logos/symbols/combination marks at the top of the article? Some of the brands are very regionally specific to where I'm from and It's freaking me out.

  • Weird... Where did you get that collage of all the logos/symbols/combination marks? SOme of them are very regionally specific to where I'm from and it's freaking me out.

  • Steve Osborne

    Some good ad buying going on to the right of this comments box: A man who speaks the words of the devil (looks a bit like him too) by claiming to design a logo (presumably in any of the above guises) for $5.

    As for the 'argument' implicit in the article headline, it turns out there isn't one. So let's throw in 'sound logo' and see if any pedants are watching (or should that be listening?)

  • So where do the McDonald's "golden arches" fall? The mark is at once both a letter which can be read (M), as well as a symbol of arches.

  • The golden arches alone would still be a symbol. The golden arches used in conjunction with the name of the restaurant would be a combination mark.