Logos by the Numbers

Designers of logos and trademarks have long been wary of attempts to subject their work to quantitative analysis, maintaining that such empirical scrutiny stifles and devalues their creativity. Raymond Loewy boasted about how he had departed Chicago on a train bound for New York, and had sketched the new International Harvester logo on a dining-car menu before reaching Fort Wayne. “The spur-of-the-moment creation of this trademark and its subsequent longevity,” he wrote, “contradict the notion of other designers that designing new marks always demands thorough, lengthy, expensive research and a great many interviews, tests, and polls.” Similarly, Paul Rand asserted, “in the area of corporate identity” the need for research, other than to satisfy one’s curiosity, is questionable. How can one research subjects as arguable as novelty, originality, or uniqueness?” Despite this understandable prejudice, I hope to show that research on trademark and logos, when performed well, can help to illuminate the trends and patterns that underlie their design.

As a sociologist who studies the behavior of organizations, I became interested in how companies went about adopting logos. How were the artistic and creative processes involved in designing a logo reconciled with the bureaucratic organizational context in which trademark-adoption took place?

It seemed that the rhetoric of the design and business worlds emphasized that logos should be unique and distinctive, and that they should allow the organization to differentiate itself from its competitors. Yet casual observation seemed to show that many logos, particularly those within the same industries, appeared similar to one another. The flood of turn-of-the-millennium Internet-related logos containing a “swoosh” element was a case in point. What accounted for these trends in similarity in logo design? Could adopting a mark that conformed to the norms of design within an industry provide legitimacy to an organization? Was helping organizations to “fit in” a more common function of logos than helping them to “stand out”?

In order to be able to answer these questions, I looked for a way that I could study developments in trademark design on a large scale, using a quantitative methodology. I discovered that the United States Patent and Trademark Office held a treasure trove of data about logos. In 1983, in order to allow for easier trademark searching, the USPTO created a coding system for trademarks in its records. Using this system, six-digit codes are assigned to trademarks in order to represent their graphical content. The first two digits of each code represent one of 29 general categories, including “Human beings,” “Scenery,” and “Geometric figures and solids.” The second two digits represent a division, or subset of a category. Each category contains its own specific divisions. For example, Category 06 (Scenery) contains five divisions, including 06.01 (Mountains, rocks, caves) and 06.03 (Scenery with water, rivers or streams). The last two digits of a code represent a section, with each division containing its own specific sections. For example, Division 06.01 (Mountains, rocks, caves) has four sections, including 06.01.01 (Cliffs, rocks, walls of rock) and 06.01.02 (Volcanoes). In all, there are 1,304 unique codes in the system.

Each mark filed with the USPTO is assigned one or more codes, as necessary. For example, RCA’s “Nipper” mark received codes 03.01.08 (Dogs) and 16.01.04 (Record players), while the Nike Swoosh was given 26.17.09 (Curved lines, bands or bars). Granted, this coding system is far from perfect. It can be subjective at times, and it often doesn’t draw particularly fine distinctions between marks. For instance, Lucent’s “Innovation Ring” and the logo of the Chicago Cubs are each assigned the same single code, 26.01.02 (Plain, single-line circles), even though the two marks are qualitatively quite different.

“Over time, the globes shrank and largely disappeared, while the orbiting elements became more substantial, eventually developing into the omnipresent swooshes.”

Nevertheless, the coding system, combined with the other data found in USPTO records of trademarks, provides an excellent way to study the big picture in logo design. After accessing the records of the USPTO, I assembled a database of over 750,000 trademarks registered in the United States from 1884 to 2003. Using this database, innovations and trends in the design of trademarks can be tracked and dissected. For example, the rise of the swoosh element, concentrated among internet and telecommunications firms in particular, can be seen developing in the mid-1990s. Similarly, the trends toward the use of striped logos in the 1980s and elements such as globes and arrows in the 1960s become apparent. Other interesting findings emerge. For instance, analysis shows that the two most common basic geometric design elements of logos, circles and squares, appear almost equally among trademarks over the course of the study, and they seem to go through cycles of popularity; one rises in use while the other falls, then these trends reverse.

Incorporating measures of complexity, realism and diversity of trademark design to the analysis helps to bring another dimension to the project. These measures allow patterns in trademark design to be studied over time and across industries. Marks in one industry can be compared to one another and to those in other industries, and trends toward differentiation or imitation can be traced.

The logos of a new industry can be tracked as it develops over time, revealing the evolution of design norms. For instance, an examination of internet marks shows that early efforts often featured various elements orbiting globes, suggesting the transmission of information across the World Wide Web. Over time, the globes shrank and largely disappeared, while the orbiting elements became more substantial, eventually developing into the omnipresent swooshes.

And because the USPTO provides data on the “death” of trademarks through abandonment, cancellation or expiration, the effect of adopting unusual marks, those that break the norms of trademark design, can be studied by comparing their survival rates to those of more “normal” logos. The relative value of conformity and innovation as design strategies may then be assessed.

Any attempt such as this to reduce artistic products to raw data is sure to meet with justifiable skepticism, and Loewy and Rand would probably frown at my study. However, I believe that this research, encompassing hundreds of thousands of trademarks over a long time period, can provide a valuable perspective that sheds light on the effects of social and organizational context on trademark design.

About the Author: James Bowie, a research specialist at Northern Arizona University's Social Research Laboratory, holds a Ph.D in sociology from the University of Arizona. His dissertation research examined patterns and trends in trademark design over time and across industries.