The Saul Bass-Approved Method of Credibility-Based Logo Design
By Bill Haig
Header Image
The Saul Bass-Approved Method of Credibility-Based Logo Design
By Bill Haig
The Saul Bass-Approved Method of Credibility-Based Logo Design
By Bill Haig
Header Image

Saul Bass created many great logos for clients such as AT&T, Minolta, Warner Bros, Girl Scouts of America, Continental Airlines (circa 1968), United Way, and United Airlines, to name just a few. His process has a lot offer to designers seeking to create dynamic logos, but it can also bring designers and business managers closer together to better understand the philosophy, process, and success prediction of company logo design and branding in general.

In 1964, Saul Bass hired me as a strategic logo design planner, account manager, and director of new business contacts. I was young, just a few years out of UCLA, and I was attracted to Saul's rational approach to great logo design in the ‘60s. Saul was captivating as he described his reasoning why his great designs worked: thoughtful planning first, design next. Then it all came together which I call credibility-based logo design. This new philosophy and resulting process happened one night in Saul's office.

The night Saul Bass had a revelation

In late 1967, Saul asked me to see him after work for a very important meeting. He wanted to discuss logo design strategies for a new client, Continental Airlines. Eastern Airlines and Braniff had just launched the airline logo and plane markings boom. Now, this was a new logo and plane markings design image program for feisty small airline, Continental, and we had to give them a dynamic solution. Saul insisted again on logo design planning as a means to achieving his high caliber successful logos.

Previous to this planning meeting, an associate and I observed and photographed how Continental looked in reality. The first objective was to show Continental management what the public saw at ticket counters, city ticket offices, inside their aircraft, outside their aircraft, baggage handling operations, ticket jackets (remember those?), uniforms, signage, stationery, business cards, advertising, and so on. Today we would call this recording all "all visual touch points" for a client. This would be an eye-opener for the client from the customer perspective.

We came back with a photographic inventory of 1,500 slides showing a dated and confused Continental visual appearance. What we found was a definite conflict with Continental's reputation for friendly, high service, and efficiency. The Continental visual look said the opposite. Plus, Continental had no overall distinct character and looked rather like most other airlines at the time.

I remember Saul started our planning meeting by saying something like, "If this were a ‘Western-oriented' airline we would just give Continental a 'Western' looking logo complete with an 'out-West look' reminiscent of cowboy gear." Corny and definitely not Continental. This was a different airline uniquely known for its high service image and new ideas from a maverick president, Bob Six. Mr. Six would be open for a unique solution to make the airline stand out as the smallest compared to United, TWA, Pan Am—the big names at the time.

After discussing several themes, nothing seemed to work and frustration set in. I had an idea and I wanted to please my boss. Suggesting it to the great Saul Bass, however, was like speaking before the "great Oz."

I mustered my courage and suggested to Saul that since Continental is already known for their friendly, high service, and efficient image, why not extend this “reality” image and communicate Continental in all areas visually just like Continental conducts itself in real life? Let's make the logo communicate Continental as a friendly, high-quality service, and efficient airline.

In short, here’s the strategy:

Let's begin with the logo communicating Continental as an "airline," its basic business. Then add to the "airline" logo symbology design motifs expressing "friendly," “high service,” and "efficient" in terms of "high tech" and "state-of-the-art," which are the elements Continentals image in reality.

We’d be taking the known image into visual non-verbal expressions.

This hit Saul like a revelation. Together, we reframed the dated logo design and environmental graphics so vivid in our photographic inventory with the new logo together with simple, contemporary environmental design themes. The plane markings would be horizontal stripping on a long white fuselage of gold, orange, and red beginning with the famous gold tail with a red logo.

The ticket counters would look super efficient—a place for great service in a friendly manner. The city ticket offices and boarding areas would have interesting photos and artifacts from around Continental's routes. The new design image taken in all areas of customer contact would be a natural extension of Continental's reputation for friendly, high-service, and efficient.

But it would do something else from our perspective as graphic designers. What Saul and I were doing was describing Continental's credibility traits in communication persuasion, although we didn't call it that.

Several years later in graduate school, I discovered the connection between source credibility in communication persuasion and its application to logo design. I termed the process: credibility-based logo design, which later became the subject of my best-selling book, The Power of Logos: How to Create Effective Company Logos. I later verified the process in my 2006 Ph.D. dissertation, and today I teach logo design and branding at HOW Design U.

While Saul was pleased with my book, he sadly didn’t live to see my Ph.D. dissertation, which was dedicated to him. He didn’t know the impact on the logo design planning and creative process would have starting in his office that night in 1967.

What is credibility-based logo design and how can designers use it to create logos that work?

First of all, consider looking at a company logo as communication persuasion, rather than artwork per se. It all goes back to Communication 101. There are four elements in any communication process:

1.The source or sender of the message. In our case the source is the company. The credible source is important to judging the message that’s next in the linear model.

2. The message. In our case, unique selling points for the purpose of inducing a purchase. That’s the job of the copywriter, however.

3.The channel. In Continental's case, plane markings as an example, but normally TV, newspaper, phone, website—and medium that carries the message.

4.The receiver. These are important stakeholders such as customers, employees, banks, suppliers, etc.

If the company is the source, how does the company influence the receiver as a customer? Many studies in interpersonal communication over the past 40 years conclude that a sourcethat’s credible will be more influential than a non-credible source. This is called source credibility in communication persuasion. So, let’s revise our model above:

Credible source > message > channel > receiver

For example, a computer wiz would be more influential in recommending what computer software program to buy than, say, a chef. But on the other hand, a chef would be more influential when it comes to recommending the best curry or the latest Pacific fusion cookbook to buy. You wouldn't necessarily go to the computer wiz for food-related purchase advice, and you wouldn't go to the chef for computer-related purchase advice.

In short, a person high in the dimensions of expertise and trustwill be more credible, and, therefore, more influential. In logo design, a credible logo is two to four times more influential than a non-credible logo. Read: more sales. This happened with the Continental logo program big time in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

Credibility-based logo design projects the company as being an expertin their business and communicates trustworthiness. A company must be believable at being able to do the work for which it claims to be an expert.

How does a graphic designer create a credibility-based logo?

Credibility-based logo design first requires a designer to symbolize the company business. Let's use for example Joe's Shoe Repair. This would be a shoe repair shop with a sign hanging on the store front with a "shoe" symbol.

The next step is to give the "shoe" symbol a design character in a way that characterizes Joe's Shoe Repair and how he operates. This non-verbally communicates the business character in a trustworthy design motif. There are an infinite variety ways Joe's trust can be communicated, but the trust chosen must represent how Joe operates in reality. Joe is very friendly and professional. Joe could show that he has modern shoe repair equipment and a high-end environment, which would require a contemporary and classy "shoe" design treatment.

But this is not Joe. In reality Joe does shoe repair the old, hand crafted way, which would be a dated or retro period design with friendly overtones. The objective is to make Joe look trustworthy with traits that define the most descriptive nature of Joe's shoe repair shop which in this example is "experienced,” "professional," and "friendly."

A credibility based logo for Joe's Shoe Repair, the "design brief" would require the logo to communicate: expertise = "shoe repair" + trustworthy = "long time experience," "professional," and "friendly." This credibility trait logo description would produce a logo design of a shoe with dated and retro friendly overtones. It must be simple and have high impact as a sign on Joe's shop. This is a credibility-based logo design.

This approach also demonstrates that if a logo design can be described verbally after it is designed as so many graphic designers and company businesses do, it can also be described before it is designed.

The Saul Bass legacy

The Continental Airlines logo, with its famous gold tail, turned out to be the first of many successful credibility-based logo designs that I helped plan and develop. Company managers and logo designers now have a frame of reference for planning, designing, and creating company logos. Successful logos are no longer concepts that come out of nowhere. They’re planned with the client. They’re credibility-based. This process redefines the objectives for a "design brief" which now describes the logo design objectives in terms of the client company's unique credibility traits.

Credibility-based logo designs are proven to be successful. The process works today for company managers and logo designers just like Saul Bass and I did it with Continental Airlines over 40 years ago.


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