A good logo is like a bucket: the more superficial design you add, the less room there is for meaning of the thing it represents,

– March 12, 2016

Paul Rand once said, “a logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.”

The first time I heard that, I was a snotty young designer who thought that my shit didn’t stink. “That Rand quote maybe true for most people,” I mused, “but I’m Chuck Armstrong, I’ve won awards.” Then I thought, “wait, he’s Paul Rand. I’m getting confused…”

For years, I looked for loopholes: some reason that the great Paul Rand could be wrong. In time, I came to realize that he wasn’t. Even a flawlessly designed logo cannot fix an inherently flawed product or organization.

Among the logos that Rand designed, is a beautiful creation for a company that you may have heard of: Enron Energy Corporation. The logo itself is flawless in its elegant simplicity, tilt, colors, and its dual meaning: it is a quintessential Paul Rand design. But every time I look at it, all I can see is the biggest corporate failure in America and .com bubble implosion poster child.

So what the heck, if we designers can’t control meaning, why not just make something pretty. We’ve got to pad our portfolios with something, right? We could just be cool and design according to today’s trendy fashions. But anyone who's looked at an old high school yearbook understands that today’s trendy fashion can quickly become tomorrow’s comic relief.

The smart designer is obviously concerned with aesthetics and with meaning, but they are also able to work with an eye to the future. While they may not be able to assign meaning through their design, they ensure that options remain open. They don’t create something that will impose limits or obstacles to certain meaning. It’s almost magical how they can see an organization’s potential and create a logo that evolves as that potential is realized. How do they do it? By research, lots of brainstorming, a whole lot of reflection, and a dose of composition and aesthetics. It’s not easy. In fact, it can be a lot of work. But man oh man, is it sweet when it comes together.

Unfortunately, many so-called graphic designers are either unwilling or simply don't know how to put that kind of effort into the creation of a design. Then there are others — like the afore-mentioned early version of me — who feel that they have God-like powers to proclaim an organization’s meaning with a click of their mouse.

Let’s return to my tweet: a logo is like a bucket, a bucket with a fixed capacity. Some designers fill their logo bucket with style, fashion, and the latest tricks until there’s no room left for meaning. It might look awesome — today — but it could be just as effective promoting a septic tank cleaner. Its meaning is only to be eye candy.

Other designers are smart enough to limit the trends thereby leaving room in the bucket, only to fill it with their own ego by imposing a meaning. That was me.

There’s only so much room in that logo bucket. If you fill it full of everything that you can think of, there’s no room for what your client needs. Great designers, like Paul Rand, get that.