We'll start this trends report—LogoLounge's 10th annual missive—with an admonishment that is repeated each year: If you're searching for how-to information, please stop reading now.
In addition, if you anticipate your reaction to reviewing these trends is to dismiss every one of them as yesterday's news, you also may as well walk away right now.
There's plenty to be learned here, but you need to be looking for the right thing. After a decade of studying logos from around the world—32,000 alone for this report—I can say with absolute confidence that the true benefit of studying logo design trends is that they invariably identify trajectories. Once you can see the path a trend starts to take, once you can see its arc and velocity, it's very possible for you to know where to take it next. You get to steer. You can find your own forward direction.
How To Identify a Trend
As I review logos that are entered onto the LogoLounge site, three distinct categories start to emerge. The first and largest category is replete with trends that already have reached saturation. They may be well-rendered and serve their clients very well. Any would have been excellent candidates for trend reports in past years, but they just don't move our field forward.
Leaders in the "done to death" category for this year include designs that include birds, dinosaurs, monsters, people as trees, transparent flip books (actually, flipping or stacked see-through pages of any kind), transparent lotus blossoms, fruit, and X's (this final tribe where two crossed arrows or lines have words or icons in each of the four quadrants is so overdone that designers themselves have begun to parody it).
Another category is on the opposite side of the universe. Here, you might see two and maybe three logos that indicate a brewing trend with promise. But there's no critical mass here yet, and certainly no guarantees that these will eventually grow into something bigger.
Some Examples From This Year's Study
Twixt – These contain odd little interlinks between points that suggest connectivity.
Angle bombs – These contain highly angled geometric shapes, oftentimes triangles, and are usually chaotic and without symmetry, like an explosion of sharp pieces from a central explosion.
Leaf amalgams – Leaves used to build cars, people, other leaves, whatever.
Copy – These designs use minute words as a graphic component, but the words could never be read. It is texture, not text.
Penumbra – Think of a halo of layered and colored light circles that are not quite centered on each other.
Monoliths – Squares or rectangles that are in perspective and that appear to be drifting.
The third category reveals the solid trends for the year. Within these groups, ten to twelve logos will emerge as either completely new in direction or as having successfully grown out of a previously existing trend. A dozen logos may seem like a small sampling, but time has proven this method works with uncanny accuracy. These pioneers set the course for what is to come.
An interesting fact about these emergent directions: They come from anywhere and everywhere. When we started this report, it wasn't too hard to spot a Minneapolis "look," to name one example. Good samples might be emerging from that city, or there could be imitators doing the same basic look elsewhere. That is not the truth anymore: The internet's global visual community can cause the very same idea to pop up in very different places simultaneously, quite unrelated to each other.
Other Design Drivers
What is it?
There has begun to be a real sense of confusion about the cognizant differences between logos, favicons, app buttons, and icons. For instance, if you show most consumers the Google favicon, they will identify it as Google's logo. This is not technically correct, but emotionally it certainly seems to be.
Even designers are letting that line blur. More than ever before, we create families of icons and symbols for use on electronic devices. More and more, we must design to fit the shape of a logo/icon/favicon into a tiny, round-cornered square. Detail is necessarily lost. Function is completely driving form.
Return of the classics
Monograms are coming back. Initials are being reworked and recombined. Some are classic, some are contemporary.
A clearer choice
There is so much use of transparency in logo design today that color choices, by necessity, are becoming lighter. Where areas of a design overlap, the new resulting color needs to be readable, not just mud. As a result, color values have been cranked back.
Dribbble and other portfolio sites are great tools but a proliferation of look-alike styles tend to flatten out (and devalue) illustration. As designers' involvement in icon design grows, the influence of illustration on designers grows. So style saturation has also started to affect logo design as well.
A more positive affect of the tightened relationship between logo design and illustration: When unique styles emerge in one field, they quickly bounce to the other.
The 2012 Trend Report
At this writing, there are nearly 175,000 logos on the LogoLounge site. Each design represents hundreds if not thousands of hours of thought and struggle on behalf of designers around the world. It's testament to their dedication that we're able to create these reports. So thank you to all of the designers who have contributed to the Trend Reports over the past decade.
On to the trends…
Iconic symbols with a universal feel—such as the crosswalk man or the restroom lady—have long been a mainstay of graphic language. They are very useful in their directness. Both icons and logos are used as a pictorial solution reduced to their bare essence to convey a message, but there has always been a fine line between them in that icons are purposely anonymous whereas logos could not be more personalized (or should be, at least).
But as symbols, icons are so ubiquitous that it's probably on natural that they would eventually start to jump the track from the world of giving directions into the world of corporate representation. The question is: How do you send a message with an icon that you are something much more?
The solution: Merge multiple icons together with transparent linkage. Bundling several messages into a single unit demonstrates simplicity and clarity of image but also indicates the depth of a concept. This is managed in the same way you might express a thought by linking several words into a phrase, except with this technique, designers are using icons as if spelling out a rebus. AT&T uses this technique effectively as the visual centerpiece of its current Rethink Possible marketing campaign.
Links Demonstrating strength in numbers by constructing a logo from multiple elements is a long-standing formula. Linking these elements together in a transparent chain-like fashion is new, however. Whether elements are joined in a circle or a linear band is irrelevant as the concept is the same: Diversity finds a common bond and creates synergy from a stronger union. Color is used to demonstrate variety in these samples, and proof of connectivity is demonstrated by tonal shift where elements overlap.
Though nothing is new about the use of transparencies, the increasing use of this technique is now at critical mass. A sense of lightness is prevalent with the use of clear, clean, pure chroma colors that sometimes produce a rainbow palette. These signature colors are likely used as darker or desaturated tones will create muddy overlaps. It's hard not to gain an optimistic perspective when you look at these bright solutions.
Every year, there is at least one trend that does its best to build a bridge away from technology and back to the human touch. And whether this is achieved with a red sable hair brush or a digital filter, the tactile essence of watercolor is marking its territory in this year's trend set. More than just a textured background, this painting technique usually defines the logo's shape, form, and highlights as well. Conveying moisture or a water origin is a common but not a mandate in these solutions.
CooperVision, the world's third largest contact lens manufacturer, recently launched its new identity, created by Siegel+Gale. Design team members wanted to convey the duality of technology alongside the tactile and intimate experience of wearing the lens. Siegel+Gale's Howard Belk notes, "We love the humanity it conveys, the purity of color it makes possible, and how it comes alive in digital, illuminated environments."
Anyone who has ever wolfed his way through a stack of Pringles chips can relate to this shape, better known to the geometry world as a hyperbolic paraboloid. To categorize the appearance of this shape in the world of identity, we'll call it a potato chip as the form of each instance tends to vary a bit, much like the chips in a bag. Flattened out, most of these shapes would look like a circle or an ellipse, but with a gentle twist they occupy a unique three-dimensional space.
The shift to a greater use of surface gradient to define shape is critical to the success of these images: If viewed with just a flat tone, they would appear as the twisted loop of an infinity sign. There is a certain tension that permeates these marks, as if releasing torque would allow the shape to relax back into a flat disk. Flexibility and elasticity come to mind as defining attributes. Being able to simultaneously show both sides of an otherwise two-dimensional shape brings forth even more conceptual opportunities (as well as an excellent bar bet).
Never have two colors carried such a universal set of directions. An offset red and cyan overprint sends the public scrambling for a set of old-school 3-D glasses. This technique was originally developed by a Frenchman to create dimensional stereoscopic imagery in the 1850s. Today, modern iterations of this effect overprint divergent imagery and make one or the other visible depending on the color of lens selected for viewing.
Messaging from these marks creates a dichotomy of choice. They are obvious enough that certainly no special glasses are required to grasp the intent. This technique tells the viewer they may make the choice of this or that but not both. But they also convey that the viewer is responsible for her own selection. Because this is a novel and interactive technique, it commands a response which ensures a few additional milliseconds of attention while the consumer deciphers her options.
Digital and technical advancements now allow almost anyone with a camera or the most basic apps and software to create dramatic imagery through field of focus contortions. Layers of crispness in an image can become paper-thin with everything else wracked by distortion or blur. Even items in the same focal plain can be selectively focused (or not) at will. No surprise to see this effect translate to the field of identity design.
The subtle misty qualities of these logos can create an entrancing effect as the soft edges of the mark seem to vanish into the surface. This technique gives a soft dream-like quality that engages the viewer by demanding a second look if for no other reason than to confirm they are not going blind. This sharp versus fuzzy look is a perfect example of the design industry emulating effects from other visual sectors of the consumer's life.
Certainly this is anything but new, and it's becoming even more pervasive in the last year. These are coarsely woven patches reminiscent of a caned chair seat from another era or maybe micro-shots of an amazing wonder fabric. A sense of strength or an impenetrable bond is created by the interlacing of warp and weft. The interlocking nature of this process can also indicate a union of elements that a ravel-proof.
The concept of taking separate components merging from divergent directions and blending them together to create greater strength is one of an identity designer's oldest stories. This concept is carried to its visual extreme when the combining strands are a Technicolor array of diversity. Curiously, this technique is rendered in a flat, two-dimensional manner as if constructed from ribbon. It will be no surprise if this direction evolves forward with more dimensional strands.
There is something about these designs that is reminiscent of a skillfully tied beef tenderloin, all ready for roasting. Hopefully, it will stay together once cooked, and then the string will be removed, but there is always the possibility it might unceremoniously unfurl as soon as the binding is snipped.
The defining white channel between elements in these logos serves as both a connecting and a bisecting agent at the same time. The randomness of their lines seems to generate just a touch of whimsy.
Circumnavigating lines give the appearance of three dimensions to most of these logos, whether rendered with flat color or gradations. To break up monotony or to demonstrate diversity, some examples use a varied color palette to define the unique segments created by the string. Generally, the deliberateness of the line placement keeps these one step away from a shape that has been scribbled on by a young child.
Sustainability oriented design is a perennial theme, and designers continue to grow new niches—this despite an impending sense that the realm has been so heavily harvested that the soil is near barren. This solution is focused on the seminal moment of green birth, that moment when a seed that has been planted first breaks its coating and a minute green leaf springs out of the ground.
A sprout is indicative of the beginning of a new cycle of life. The spiral nature of this growth is so wonderfully generic: It's hard to say at this stage if the seed is birthing a flower, a tree, a crop, or a weed. It simply represents the green birth. It's a bit like looking at an egg being cracked open by its baby resident and not being quite sure what is coming out. At that moment, it is promise enough of a new day.
2007 marked the graphic invasion of the peeling trompe l'oeil sticker. These graphic devices, usually referred to as violators, held a revered spot in the packaging industry and usually held copy such as "new and improved" or "30% more detergent." Often as simple as a laid-back shape on a round background, these designs gave the appearance of a sticker with poor adhesion. Used on web interfaces and print, alike the proliferation of these violators reached saturation levels by 2010.
The old faux tactile effect, which had completely run its course, is reincarnated now as a reveal. The effect is incorporated into identities set to unveil or expose an inner value or underlying trait. The rendered shadow implying that the peeling back of layers is occurring in real time gives you an immediate peek behind the scenes. DC Comics uses a family of solutions, each pulling back the curtain on a graphic representing a different super hero.
Carving Imagine you were told to design a logo and then, for tools, you were given a wooden bead and a fine point Dremel. Some of these logos remind me of intricate ivory puzzle orbs created in China. Here a sphere is meticulously carved away, creating a series of delicate, lace-like balls nested inside of each other.
It is the idea of taking an orb with obvious highlights and shadows and tooling out enough of the element to create a secondary level of meaning. This might be a letterform or a shape indicative of a process or even a color treatment of the new surfaces to describe a corporate spirit.
Consumers already have a reference for the sphere and whether they imagine it to say "global" or "self-contained" or "precise," they understand the message of the identity is created by what is not there as opposed to what has been added.
Mobile devices and the visual language of apps may well have the single largest impact on how we design identity over the next decade. We are entering a period where the lines of differentiation between logos, icons, symbols, favicons, and app buttons are completely blurred. These elements have always been visual cousins, but the results of their inbreeding is creating some new strains of solutions that don't fit with conventional branding models.
Are these app buttons or are these logos? Designers are tasked with creating identities for entities that may only live in the virtual world. If a mark is to primarily live on the menu of a mobile device, do you design a logo and place it on a button or is it best to integrate the two from inception? Is it imperative to use the glossy reflective visual vernacular for a button, and if you do, is that effect part of the actual logo or does it just appear when the mark is used for that purpose? Expect to see many more of these app logos appearing off-device in unnatural surroundings.
Followers of these reports will see similarities between these logos and Bucky logos and Pixel logos from the previous two years. This is a perfect example of watching a trend progress in a way that proves that designers are evolving and not emulating. Here, multiple geometric shapes are gathered in a series to cover an area with a repeatable pattern. Often the individual components share a common color palette that creates the effect of overlaps and transparency.
Mosaic-like patterns range from highly complex to very simple solutions, created from a small number of elements. Aside from their striking beauty, these logos convey the concept of strength in numbers; combining elements creates a sum greater than the parts. These marks express a scientific nature based in math and give the assurance of precision and accuracy.
Geometry used to be simple when there were just circles, triangles, and squares. There may have been a few more oddball shapes, but I'm sure there weren't more than a dozen tops. Then this shape appeared. and it has become the graphic building block du jour. Similar in some respects to the Potato Chip trend, this appears to be a rectangle that has been twisted 90 degrees and curved simultaneously. It could be a hybrid between a piece of macaroni and a length of fettuccine.
Without transparency or gradation this is a challenging shape to visually recreate in a two-dimensional world. The proliferation of both techniques in logo design has opened up a world of previously challenging shapes to add to our visual vocabulary of building blocks. These arcs combine to express a cyclical motion, creating a dynamic essence of change. The twist also reveals change, as if turning a new page.
Last year's report noted the profusion of logo series designs. And though they were a family of marks, each differed in design and content. This year finds the continued proliferation but with the variation occurring in the surface or technique used to draft the logo. All members are still in the same family, but the variations make the units less like siblings and more like cousins.
Variants used on these series may be for trivial variety, or they may be part of a precise matrix to help code or convey specific information. Whichever the plan, the idea of building a system that is flexible and maintains diversity allows for ready identification, but it recognizes a need to buck uniformity. This can create longevity for a program designed to build equity as consumers gain familiarity with it, yet change with the vagrancies of style through modification of surface and technique.
Bill Gardner is principal of Gardner Design and creator of LogoLounge.com, a unique web site where, in real-time, members can post their logo design work; study the work of others; search the database by designer’s name, client type, and other attributes; learn from articles and news written expressly for logo designers; and much more.