You Can’t Un-see It

Logos can be the simplest visual end-products that a designer works on, but they are often also the most complicated projects. A logo is typically a spearhead or a flagship for an organization’s branding, so most people have seen thousands of them. They know what they like and they know what they don’t like. They know what brands are powerful and which aren’t. For this reason, it feels very easy to the average non-designer to critique, poke fun at, and speak about logo design. In many ways, this is great. Sometimes the biggest hurdle in a project is a clammed-up client who is fearful of speaking their mind in front of a design professional. In other ways, it can be the designer’s bane, because most people have a skewed view of logo design.


In short, the average citizen isn’t trained to see logos objectively. They can’t see the design as a distinct element from the surrounding brand. For example, take the following valuable and respected brands in the fashion world:

The Chanel logo.

The Gap logo.

The Donna Karen NY logo.

The Versace logo.

I’ve removed the color from the logos to give a more objective view. I’ve also excluded alternate versions that include subdivisions in the name. Additionally, I’ve excluded Chanel’s linked Cs mark, as the logotype is often used alone.

Look at those logos. If someone presented you a logo design that looked like these (a typeset word), you might scoff. In fact, looking at them now, I’d tear into the Chanel logotype pretty hard myself, as some of those letterforms could use some help. But these logotypes, for most viewers, are bulletproof. In fact, some of them elicit feelings of desire and envy. Why? Because you’re not seeing a logo design, you’re seeing a brand. These are successful brands. Their logos are virtually content-free. The type communicates some aspects, but for most people, the visual designs are too muddled by their associations.

The Chanel logo, with the letters rearranged.

How does Chanel’s type choice look now? Looks more like a shipping company logo than a highly regarded fashion house. (To be fair, for most fonts some letter combinations look good and others look a bit off, so that contributes to the perception. However, in this case I think the point holds.) And remember, all of these logos are existing away from the storefront and the fancy clothing. What that indicates is that the form of the logotype is linked with the word “Chanel” which is linked with the reality of Chanel’s stores, clothes, reputation, service, history, etc. In a way, when a logo is most effective as an iconic symbol of a brand, you don’t even see the logo, you feel it as a set of sensations and images in your head.

But logos are visual marks and must be designed as such. Sometimes, a clever designer or team of designers will insert extra layers of meaning, as in Lindon Leader’s FedEx logo, seen here.

The FedEx logo, with a line of small type reading OMG! Do you see the arrow?.

Once you see the arrow created in the negative space between the letters of Ex, you find yourself unable to push it back down. The negative space, the ‘nothing’ of the logo becomes the foreground, the ‘something’ of the logo. That shimmering of perception of foreground to background and back again creates a tension that hooks your mind’s eye. It is a bit of extra info that once you’ve seen it, you notice almost every subsequent time. But how many of you had to have me or someone else point it out to you? It’s not something most people would see, and it’s not meant to be seen immediately, or even at all. But it’s there, and once you see it, you can’t un-see it.

Unfortunately, this sort of second layer of meaning isn’t always intentional. The human mind, by its nature, seeks order and pattern to exert meaning on the world around it. Often, a team of designers and even the clients will work together on a logo for months and see it for what they intend it to be. But sometimes all it takes is one person, who has no preconceived notions about the design to say, “Hey, are you guys seeing what I’m seeing…?”

So when a London design firm creates a logo for the Office of Government Commerce, unveils its logo, and someone in the office says, “Hey, when it’s on its side, it kind of looks like a man masturbating,” cut the firm and the client some slack. Would you have seen it if they hadn’t pointed it out? Probably not. Particularly since 99% of the time these logos are oriented in one direction, which does not favor that interpretation. But the human mind is a pattern-making machine, and all it takes is one person to say it. Then everyone sees it. Then they repeat it. And you know what they say…

The OGC logo properly oriented and then rotated 90 degrees clockwise, with a small line of type reading 'Is this dirty? Or is it just your dirty mind?.

You can’t un-see it.

Thanks to Joep and the many others who pointed this out to me. I was going to laugh it off without comment, but it seems to have become the latest undying meme.

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