Does interface boil down to logos?

You’re not going to believe this, but corporate logos areabsolutely the least important feature of “branding”and “identity.” They should also be the last thingdesigned in a new identity program.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it?

OK. How many companies do you like?

How many of their logos can you draw freehand? We’d wagerit boils down to FedEx (don’t you use the mail more often?),VW (do you own one?), Apple (do you own a Mac?), and maybe Michelin(aren’t your tires Bridgestones?). The Nike Swooshtika,probably.

Recollection of logos has little to do with present-day businessuse. How often do you buy a Mac or a Passat? How often do youchange your tires? You merely remember their logos because they arelongstanding and well-deployed.

But those are rather the exception, aren’t they?

What’s the logo of your supermarket? How about themanufacturer of your car stereo? What is the logo on your milkcarton?

Apart from Kiss, can you think of even five musical groups whoselogos you can draw from memory?

How about cinema? Give us five movies you’ve seen in thelast year that can even be summed up in a logo.

Let’s give you a bit more education here. A logo thatconsists purely of a word (FedEx’s is an example) is actuallya logotype. A logo that is largely pictorial, likeApple’s, is a logo proper.

Why can’t you remember many logos? Because most logos areactually logotypes. We doubt you can differentiate Univers, Helvetica, and Arial. Just how are you goingto remember even five different logotypes? How do you drawthem?

Logos per se stand in for words in many cases. (In countrieswith poor literacy, colouration and photographs on product labelsare used to differentiate brands.) We could run a test of logorecognition by slapping, say, a Volkswagen circle on a PowerBook,and an Apple with a bite taken out of it on a Jetta. You’dnotice something amiss immediately.

But it’s hard to test logotype recognition. Whatare you going to do? Switch fonts? Screw the letters up? Switch toGreek?

In short, then, people say logos are important, butthat is because (a) logotypes are less iconic and harderto describe and reproduce despite being vastly more commonplace and(b) that’s what people think you want to hear.

Now, then. On the Web, are logos even moreimportant? A questionable study says yes.

Following up on an earlier investigation, a not-very-new report(summarized here)states that what stuck in people’s minds as differentiatorsof one site versus another was one simple thing;Logos. Subjects were shown Web pages and asked totell the researcher if the page was from the same site as thepreceding page or represented a new site. The old research foundeight factors by which people would differentiate sites, but sevenof those were toast in the new study.

After making a judgement, the participants were asked to tell whichof the eight dimensions most affected their judgments. For bothexperienced and inexperienced users, “logo” was theprimary dimension used. Even though the subjects in the firstexperiment tried to identify why they had made their judgements,seven of their eight within-page dimensions seemed to have little,or no, actual impact on the decisions being made. (Testparticipants frequently try very hard to satisfy testers withlogical, but meaningless, explanations for theirperformance.)

Right. And test participants know that logos exist, and thatthey have a nice name with an internal rhyme. Of coursethey’re going to tell you logos are important.

What were the other seven “dimensions”?

  1. Background color and/or background pattern of a page
  2. Company or organization logo or symbol
  3. Font style used and its characteristics (size, color, bold,italics, etc.)
  4. Location of the table of contents on each page (left, right,top or bottom)
  5. Organization of text and graphics on a page
  6. Style of graphics used in pictures, banners andillustrations
  7. Subject-matter of the Web page
  8. Title or heading at the top of the page

Note that none of those can be summed up in a nice two-syllableword. And what are we missing here? Content. (Anice two-syllable word, albeit lacking internal rhyme.)

If you ask people to explain what separates two sites, mightthey not fall back on a word they already know, one that representsa concept they think is always a differentiator?

In usability testing, it’s common to run site prototypesby test subjects using no actual body copy or images (which couldbe blurred in the prototype). All the navigational and“branding” elements, like text and image links, couldbe in place, using real words or “Greeked” text. Thesubjects’ mission is to tell the researcher which of theseelements is the search box, the link to the homepage, a link to thenext page in a series, that sort of thing.

The present study appears to have done much the same. Subjectswere presented, presumably, with content sites (as opposed toservice sites like search engines), but were denied access to theactual content. How so? “The participants were shown the Webpages one at a time for about 20 seconds.” Very experiencedWeb-surfers can chew through the meat of an entire page in lesstime than that. But those surfers typically ignore everything elseon the page. In this experiment, the subjects were clearly expectedto consider everything on a page.

If you had to look at everything on a typical commercial Webpage, could you figure it all out in 20 seconds?

When asked whether or not that page represented a new site orthe same site as before, are you going to futz around trying to putconcepts like “font style used and its characteristics (size,color, bold, italics, etc.)” into words or are you just goingto say “The logo was different”?

A useful new experiment would test personality and point of view asdifferentiating factors. It might not be so hard. License segmentsof short stories from authors with divergent styles – MartinAmis, Will Self, Peggy Atwood, Mark Leyner. Using exactly the samepage designs, show different segments for 20 seconds each. Can thesubjects tell you if the author has changed?

Posted on 2001-01-12