What we learned from the Starbucks, Pinterest, and Mailchimp logo designs

Have you ever tried to create a brand’s visual identity from scratch? If you have, then you’re familiar with the feared blank canvas, the challenge of dealing with too many requirements, and the sense of accomplishment once the project is completed successfully. Designing a logo is one of the most daunting tasks any designer can face in his/her career. It requires a combination of skill, empathy, and research that are truly rare to find—at least in a single person. That’s why many of the most popular logo design projects are genuine team efforts.

Before we even look at examples, it’s crucial to understand the many different types of logos that designers and clients work on:

Iconic, symbolic, or brandmark: uses an image to represent the brand without text.

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Wordmark or logotype: uses text or typographic characters to convey the brand.

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Combination mark: combines icons and words.

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Lettermark: uses the brand name’s initials or an anagram (selected letters within the brand’s name).

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Emblem: encapsulates symbols and text within a single graphic.

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Let’s take a deep dive into how these teams brought together different talents to create three striking logos:

Starbucks, by Heckler Associates, Starbucks Global Creative & Lippincott

The year was 1971 and three coffee-loving entrepreneurs set out to build the venture of a lifetime. To help them come up with a name and visual identity that could represent their dream, Gordon Bowker, Jerry Baldwin, and Zev Siegl hired Terry Heckler.

The original sketches of the Starbucks logo were based on a 15th-century woodcut of a two-tailed siren, which would come to serve as a metaphor for the “siren song of coffee that lures us cupside.”

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While the logo continues to evolve throughout the company’s history, the first mermaid (1971) had overexposed breasts that weren’t fitting for Starbuck’s first delivery trucks. Heckler Associates gave her longer hair to cover up some skin, and continued going in that direction as women everywhere called for more coverage. As of 1992, her body was almost completely covered. More about Heckler Associates’ work with Starbucks here.

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Starbucks’ logo evolution from 1971 to 1992.

By 2011 Starbucks had its own creative team work on a new logo iteration with branding agency Lippincott. By then, the original logo was over 20 years old. It had been created using AutoTrace and the strokes were notoriously messy. The team improved the composition and created more sophisticated strokes and smoother lines. Most importantly, Starbucks decided to removed its brand name entirely:

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Mailchimp, by Jon Hicks

Ben Chestnut first thought of the Mailchimp logo when his co-founder said something along the lines of “Yo Ben, MailChimp’s live now. Um, I think it could use a logo.” To which he replied, “Oh crap. Here, I’ve already got a monkey file open (don’t ask) so I’ll put a hat on him and send it over.” Chestnut explains how he opened Fireworks and whipped something up fast, making the file impossible to scale or print/display in high resolution.

And just like that, the original Mailchimp was born.

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Around 2006, customers started complaining about the chimp looking a little “unprofessional.” Chestnut knew it was time to work on that logo again. His first idea was to remove the chimp completely, turning. Mailchimp into wordmark.

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But in 2008, Chestnut decided that it was time to bring the chimp back and transform his old 2D look to a more contemporary, 3D character. To do so, he knew he had to work with experts., so he brought in Jon Hicks, who’s most famous for his work on the Firefox logo.

The thought process was clear: Chestnut admired the way Nintendo seemed serious yet fun, how KFC had managed to bring the old man back, and the style and detail in the Firefox logo. He even came up with an equation for his concept:

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For weeks, Jon Hicks would send over doodles and sketches to get feedback from the team. Finally, Hicks sent a striking rendition of what’s still Mailchimp’s mascot.

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You can read more about his process on his blog, though his animated GIF shows the evolution of the chimp pretty well.

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Pinterest, by Michael Deal and Carlos Pagan

Pinterest was starting to take off in 2011 when the team realized that the product needed a more mature brand identity to represent it in the marketplace.

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Pinterest’s logo, circa 2011.
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This case is a clear demonstration of the need to combine various disciplines and types of expertise to produce a truly compelling visual identity. When Pinterest brought in designer Michael Deal and his friend, typographer Carlos Pagan, they were clear on several ideas:

  • They wanted to use a script font.
  • They needed something that seemed casual, but that also came off as carefully crafted, much like the items people “pin” on their site.
  • They wanted to bring in a handmade touch and a nostalgic feel that wasn’t too retro.
  • The logo would primarily be seen on screens, so each element had to be recognizable.

Since they wanted the logo to be based on a script font, the first step was to understand the various emotional responses to script wordmarks.

The first few design iterations played with fully upright scripts that left the “P” freestanding and made the rest of the letters in the word connect.

These explorations provided a strong foundation for Pagan’s typographic intervention. He began adding fascinating ligatures without having it turn into something too ornamental.

Oddly enough, the last thing they worked on was the “P,” which has a lead role in this entire design. It started taking the shape of an actual pin, and the team decided to fully explore that direction.

(You can read the entire case study here.)

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Takeaways

Symbols are vehicles that helps us represent and share a brand’s value creation story. Rather than an ornamental or decorative endeavour, selecting a logo is a truly strategic business decision. Starbucks, Mailchimp, and Pinterest are all great examples of how founders interacted with designers to portray values, a mission, and a strategic direction—all using design. Designing a brand’s visual identity requires genuine listening, solving problems, and being willing to scrap work. Next time you begin a new logo project, remember that your brand’s identity speaks about the company’s vision in ways that words will never be able to.

About the Author:

Laura (@laurabusche) earned a summa cum laude degree in Business Administration from American University in Washington DC, a Master of Arts in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and is currently completing a doctoral degree in Psychology. She is passionate about consumer research, design thinking, branding, and their exciting crosspoints. She is the author of O'Reilly Media’s Lean Branding book and a Brand Content Strategist atCreative Market. Laura regularly blogs about branding and business at laurabusche.com/blog