Symbol and Logo

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


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.


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.


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.


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!

One of the most dynamic tools graphic designers use to create great logos is the symbol.. When designing a company logo one of the main things is to define the identity, i.e. to represent clearly who the company is and how it would like to be perceived. A masterfully executed logo materializes the identity for the user and all those who interact with the logo. Now, as designers, we have to recognize and respect what gives logos this power to define-our goal being to create high quality and effective logos for our clients.

symbols in logo design

A symbol, for us in the design world, is usually a combination of graphic elements that represent something to us-in other words, a picture that tells a story. Kenneth Burke, the twentieth century theorist and critic, described humans as “symbol-using, symbol making, and symbol misusing animal” Our interest as designers should lie in how to use symbols correctly, and to avoid at all costs any misrepresentation!

The last thing, we want to do is use a symbol incorrectly and as a result make a client look bad. (The axe is a symbol that comes to mind in this unfortunate scenario.)

Impact of Symbols within Logos

In a world where people and companies are more readily recognized for what they represent than for who they are, symbols have become more and more important, and the use of them increasingly complex.

Some might argue that a logo is in fact a symbol, but it is not that simple. A logo becomes the symbol for the company’s identity, and at the same time, uses pre-existing symbols to do its job.

If done right, symbols can be used to exploit the most unconscious-level of human desire, thus when incorporated into the logo design, symbols gracefully create associations between a company and that which the company would like to represent.

How Symbols influence Branding

Branding is important for current social life, for business, for collective identities and for the modern day human experience. It allows people to identify, organize, classify, embody and make sense of the world.

From a psychoanalytical perspective, creating brands is linked to understanding how humans communicate and express feelings through symbols. It can be thought of as manipulation, but really, it is a matter of understanding the very basics of human communication and how our minds work to create within us a sense of satisfaction.

Brands must be competitive. The symbols being used to represent the brand must be strong. The associations people make via the symbols is crucial in how they eventually classify their brands and thus, chose to interact or not interact with the brands out there.

Tips on Using Symbols in Logos and Brands

1. Storytelling

Remember, not all symbols are created equal-choose symbols that tell a story. Do your research and make sure the symbols incorporated in your logo are not just pretty faces, but convey clear and concise representations.

2. International perspectives:

Examine symbols from multiple perspectives-that of the clients, that of their target audience, and even beyond their normal social and cultural contexts. What a symbol represents in one culture may not be what it represents in another. This is crucial for companies who seek to create international identities and brands.

3. Conflicts of interest:

Again, do your research. Do not use multiple symbols in one logo or brand that might possibly represent conflicting ideas. It is ok to combine forces, but be careful to not overload on symbols, or couple symbols that cause friction. You want the logo to express a unified message.

4. Clarify the Communication

Each logo should communicate something. That something is left up to the client to determine and the designer to execute. Symbols are powerful communication devices when used wisely. One smart symbolic element in a logo design can express everything, but the designer needs to be careful to express one thing well, not many ideas poorly.

As with any device, there are limits to what these graphical tools can do, therefore, keep it concise. The client may resist being overly specific in their message, but as the designer it is your job to stress the need for symbolic impact.

5. Symbols that Interact:

Everything that visually represents the company comes to define it. This is the general idea behind the brand and its logo. The hope is that people understand who the company is and want to incorporate the brand into their lives. The designer must be conscience that symbols do not exist on their own, since conception they have been in a constant state of interaction. Therefore, symbols have friends and they have enemies. The designer must learn to recognize how this will affect the overall impact of the brand and logo.

Excellent use of Symbols in Logo

Here we showcase some samples of companies out there that make excellent use of symbols in their logo.

E T.V. – Exclamation Point: exciting, stand-out, important.

etv logo

Batman – the Bat: Mysterious, nightlife, darkness, sensory.

batman logo

Nike – the swoosh: movement, approval, speed, accurateness.

nike logo

Playboy – the bunny rabbit: playful, innocent, cute + bowtie: formal, gentlemanly, classic.

playboy logo

Target – the Bull’s-eye: Right on the Mark, Precise, Winner.

target logo

Girl Scouts – the Clover: good fortune, youth, holy trinity. The three female profiles: womanhood, holy trinity, equality.

girl scout logo

McDonald’s – Golden Arches: passage way, welcoming, good fortune.

mcdonalds logo

Windows – Window: openness, connectivity, transparency + Flag: victory, loyalty, beacon.

windows logo

Apollo – Four Wheels: transportation, unity, dependability.

apollo logo


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