Let’s talk about noise.
When I wrote about designing logos I realised that my attitude towards ‘noise’ was the main reason why the logos I’ve designed look like they do. Also, that I wasn’t always sure what my attitude was, which led to periods of unproductive indecisiveness.
What is ‘noise’, please?
In design, noise is any stuff that doesn’t contribute to the function of that design. It’s easy to spot when the function of a design is clear. Anything on a warning sign that detracts from the warning is noise. It’s more difficult to know what noise is in a design that has a wider or more abstract purpose, such as a logo.
Two types of noise.
A logo can be noisy in different ways:
- The logo contains too many separate parts doing the same job.
- The parts of the logo themselves contain more attributes than necessary.
- Uh oh! Both the above.
Noise is bad!
I don’t like noise because ‘noisy’ logos tend to be bad logos. This doesn’t mean ‘un-noisy’ logos are good logos, but it’s a start. But what makes a good logo? Paul Rand (famous design man) thought a good logo should have:
Read his full article on the topic here.
Noise makes it more difficult to fulfil many of these attributes but it doesn’t necessarily make a logo bad.
Sometimes a noisy logo is ideal if an organisation is aiming to appear ‘fun’ or wants to suggest tradition.1
A logo identifies an organisation. That identification is easier to remember if the logo includes things that refer to that organisation. It might reference its name (using the initial letter or illustrating it, e.g. Apple) or what it does (e.g. a drawing of a fish for a fish restaurant).
Of course, there are many logos that give little or no concrete information2 about the organisations they identify. But including some sort of clear relationship is a ‘safe’ way of approaching logo design. For the designer it provides a plan on how to approach the work. It’s also easier to ‘sell’ to the client3 because the client can see how the logo relates to their organisation. This also means it’s easier for the organisation’s customers to make the link too.
Add the desire for the logo to be relevant with the desire for noise to be reduced to a minimum and you get a problem solving approach to logo design: how can I use these elements in this logo in the most elegant and concise way?
…can be a bad thing…
This is not necessarily a good way of designing a logo.
It can concentrate your focus so you miss out on other more interesting or effective ideas. It can become reductive and generic. Are you really going to come up with an original logo for a builder that contains a picture of a house?4 Also, ‘solving the problem’ can be mistaken for designing the logo. Finding a ‘solution’ becomes the aim instead of creating the right logo.
…but probably isn’t.
It does however provide a more restricted process with clearer parameters. This is a good thing. Too much freedom and it’s not design, it’s messing about. Most of the logos I see celebrated by design critics tend to be, above all, simple.5 They appear to have been created in a ‘problem solving’ way, and usually refer in some subtle or witty way6 to the name or work of the organisation they symbolise.
I like the problem solving approach. It plays to my strengths. However, I wonder if trying to get rid of noise might be going too far. I might be losing something else. I have read that noise is where the personality of a design is found…
Is noise all bad though?
‘Functional’ can seem cold and bland whereas ‘noisy’ can be feel friendly and interesting. The more functional a design becomes the more it tends to look like other designs. The best example of this is on the interwebs. Most websites are now very similar because function – speed, ease of use, ease of creation – is more important than anything else.
A timely example
As I was writing this Juventus football club released its new badge.
The old badge is ‘noisy’. The designers of the new badge obviously decided that most of the old badge is noise. The new badge has been designed for a purpose. It will work better than the old one on a wider range of branded goods and on digital media, for example. But it has also lost something, precisely because it has changed to be more functional and commercial.
Some more offenders?
I am interested in the swooshes, squiggles and swirls that are plonked onto many logos. They’re very popular but I find them annoyingly perfunctory.7
I can see why they exist. They’re often used by organisations that are difficult to represent using the medium of graphics. They differentiate the solicitor with the blue swoosh from the solicitor with the red swirl. I don’t know if they do much more than that. Perhaps that is enough.
The blue swoosh is going to have a different effect on the viewer than the red swirl but does that express anything about an organisation? It seems their main function is to make a logo look like a logo, which is not a good reason for their existence.
I like a logo to have a motivation. I don’t like noise. I should be aware that this can limit my options. I am better at problem solving so I shouldn’t worry too much about my dislike of swooshes and squiggles. Other people can do those. I should be more sensitive to the art of noise and be prepared to be use it.
I don’t know if this helped, let me know. Too long/short/general/stupid?
See more of my logo designs here.
- Historically logos tend to start noisy and become less noisy over time.
- McDonald’s logo tells you the company name begins with ‘M’. That’s it. But its shape and colour says something more abstract about the company: that it’s fast food, that it’s supposedly fun etc.
- Sounds a bit selfish but designing a logo that the client can clearly see represents their organisation is the job, if you want paying.
- I keep meaning to photograph the dozens of variations on the ‘little house’ logo that builders have on their vans. It might be the case that belonging is more important than standing out.
- Fashions affect design as much as anything else but the simple, functional, relevant logo is the equivalent of the little black dress. It’s a constant presence and an influence on other trends.
- See this book for an exploration of humour in design.
- Unsurprisingly the world of off-the-shelf insert-your-name-here logo designs is full of this stuff. Which tells you how generic and therefore pointless they are.