Throughout design history, companies have always strived to keep their logos current or ahead of the curve. For several large companies, time has worked in their favor. Take Apple for example, whose 1976 apple symbol has lasted to date with nothing but a simple color change. On the other hand, companies such as Caterpillar, Shell and Pepsi have gone through handfuls of logos in trying to stay with the times.
This article compares famous brands and how their logos existed within in several slices of time. Trends will be explored that may give insight into how aesthetic integrity plays into commercial logo design, and how designers can exist within the rhythms of logo evolution.
‘30s-‘40s: Complex illustrations go out of style
Logo designs from 1906 to 1939.
Logo designs from 1931 to 1947.
The ’30s and ’40s represent a period of simplification in logo design history. In 1931 Caterpillar moved on from their 1925 quirky representational logo to a more streamlined serif face font. Soon after, in 1935, Kodak scrapped their 1907 monogram for another simple serif type face. In 1939, VW left their 1930 spinning emblem for a simpler emblem with less line density. One year later, Pepsi made a similar simplification to their 1906 script logo, also removing sub-lines and descriptors. In 1947, IBM unveiled the minimal abbreviation of their previously spelled out 1924 logo.
What’s fascinating about this shift is that the aesthetic integrity of many of these designs was not improved, but rather the art was simply changed. The 1925 Caterpillar logo was full of charm and personality that spoke to a modest farmer. The 1907 Kodak monogram was powerful, proportional and thoughtful. The 1930 VW spinning wheel was clever, having a self-evident visual punch line.
Some other motivation beyond aesthetic improvement must have been present during this time, one of which may have been the association of a style to an era. Many of the early logos featured above were some of the first recognizable logos in America.
They could be thought of as style-A, where as when style-B appeared in the ‘30s and ‘40s, style-A suddenly felt shackled to the years which it was created in. This naturally comes with feelings of being dated (or inadequate). Then again, perhaps this has little to do with the aesthetic integrity so much as it does the passage of time.
‘50s-‘60s: Sans serif takes over
Logo designs from 1942 to 1950.
Logo designs from 1950 to 1965.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, a handful of companies departed from serifs and scripts to sans serif typefaces. In 1950 Lego changed their 1946 “signature” cursive to a strong vertical sans serif face. Shell, who had taken several steps to change their line-heavy 1909 illustration, transitioned to a more graphic representation in 1955. Two years later Caterpillar joined the sans serif movement with a powerful, construction-like sans serif font. In 1962, Pepsi left behind a smorgasbord of script iterations for a solid, block-like sans serif – and in the same year Walmart debuted their simple sans serif logo. Lastly in 1965, Chevy abandoned their 1942 serif face for a simple sans serif.
This period represents a second shift that, again, may not have been for aesthetic improvement necessarily. In graphic design, sans serif is not any worse than serif and vice versa. In the context of logo evolution however, sans serif may have represented what people perceived to be the next best thing (as apposed to actually being the next best thing). It perhaps became a trick used by corporations to make competitors appear to be attached to a past era – a phenomenon they may have picked up on in the previous shift.
70’s: Sharper, sleeker and negative space
Logo designs from 1971 to 1978 (Caterpillar 1989)
The ’70s brought a slew of sharper and sleeker logo iterations containing yet another new trick – negative space. In 1971 both Shell and Kodak redesigned to versions containing sharper lines and stylish angles. Shell creating radiant beams and Kodak creating a flash of light using negative space.
1972 birthed the famous Paul Rand IBM logo, which contained the sleek, cutting horizontal lines in negative space. In 1973 Pepsi jumped on board with the negative space border and circular frame. Five years later VW punched their previous logo out of a blue circle to place the entire logo in negative space. Much later in 1989, yet in the same line of thought, Caterpillar created the famous yellow triangle which cuts out negative space in the “A”.
Not unlike the previous style shifts, the negative space movement utilized a recently recognized technique to give brands an edge and perhaps to make competitors look dated. It is very likely that some of the companies that showed up late to the negative space “party” felt left out or inadequate – again in actuality having nothing to do with the aesthetic integrity of their previous logos.
2000: Making it pop with 3D
Logo designs from 2000 to 2005.
Y2K dropped 3D design like a bag of bricks. In all of logo design history this may be the most defined and recognizable shift. Just to name several examples: In 2000 both Chevrolet and BMW made the 3D rebrand. In 2003 Chevron joined in with the folding blue and red ribbons. In 2003 Ford switched to a 3D emblem, and in 2005 Pepsi released a logo where the Pepsi symbol is blasting through a psychedelic blue 3D world.
In speaking to the relevance of aesthetic integrity in this study, I personally find this era of logo design to be the weakest. Computer technology was largely unmastered, and the style feels fake and intangible. Regardless, due to the phenomenon of perception in time, this is the style that made all other logos look old. This was the “trick” of the 2000’s.
Today: A new shift
Logo designs of today
What is the commercial trend of our current era? Some might say flat design, some might say sans serif, others might say visual puns. Truthfully, in the context of past generational styles, this era is all over the board. A small sample is shown above. IBM has stuck with negative space. Pepsi has combined aspects of both 3D and flat design. Kodak has arrived at a simple sans serif font, and Walmart incorporated a simple 2D design element.
Interestingly, what can be said about these logos as well as many others of today is that they maintain some level of aesthetic integrity. Perhaps this era is the first which is void of new tricks or effects, and simply aims to create strong designs; regardless of style.
At the end of the day, aesthetic integrity should be a top priority to every graphic designer and, for that reason, it is exciting to be part of an era that appreciates that quality. If there is one thing that can be taken away from this study, it is to look beyond logo trends. In the words of Paul Rand – “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.”