Per Mollerup’s history of logos Marks of Excellence, reviewed.

How Many Brand Logos Can You Identify in One Glance?

How Many Brand Logos Can You Identify in One Glance?

Reading between the lines.
July 12 2013 11:40 AM

Pattern Recognition

The swoosh, the golden arches, the chevron, and a million other logos your hindbrain can recognize before you do.

Per Mollerup's Marks of Excellence

Photo by Slate

When I went to Burning Man, the visual aspect of the event that most delighted me—besides the flamethrowing robots and the nude aerialists—was the utter lack of logos. Burners work hard to create a “non-commodified” society in that desert. Any reminders of the mass-market culture that dominates the world outside are frowned upon. Or, as one (slightly dickish) Burner pointed out to me upon glimpsing the Nalgene and Goldman Sachs logos on the sides of my water bottle: “You got a lotta brands, man.”

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Yet when Burners discuss their favorite festival online, they often include the little text shibboleth )*( in their chats—an ASCII representation of the Man himself, standing up with outstretched arms. The very first Google Doodle was a kindred line drawing, slyly announcing that Larry and Sergey were off attending the event. Burning Man’s official holding entity has even trademarked a symbol of similar design. It seems that shorthand visual signifiers—crassly commercial or not—come in mighty handy sometimes. (See, somewhat relatedly: the hackers of Anonymous, who have forever linked the foment of digital anarchy with an image federally registered to Time Warner.)

Turns out we were using logos long before anyone decided they weren’t cool. In Marks of Excellence: The History and Taxonomy of Trademarks—now newly revised and expanded in a second edition, 15 years after its original release—author Per Mollerup surmises that the first trademarks “probably marked ownership” and were “a simple sign to show that a weapon belonged to a particular man.” Makes sense. The same jealous impulse is visible today wherever you see a herd of branded cattle, a stack of painted shipping containers, a watermark on a movie screener, or a monogram Sharpied into a kid’s summer-camp undies.


At some point logos graduated from merely proclaiming this is mine (so don’t steal it) to announcing I made this (so rest assured it will exhibit the same craftsmanship as the other things I’ve made). Mollerup attributes the initial appearance of this latter sort of logo to artisans’ “urge to take credit, to show pride and to claim responsibility.” It’s easy to imagine the progression here. People admire my weapon, so I make a bunch of identical weapons and sell them off. My S mark serves 1) as an advertisement that drums up business when fellow warriors held at swordpoint ask my customers, “Where’d you get that fabulous weapon with the big S on it?”; 2) as a symbol of quality, so if my customers want to resell their weapons they can note, “It’s got that big S on it, so you know it’s the jam”; and 3) as a personal guarantee, suggesting, “This weapon has my S on it, so should it flimsily disintegrate mid-skirmish, you know where you (or your heirs) can complain.”

Today’s logos find their forebears in coats of arms and royal monograms. Marks of Excellence wonderfully contextualizes these building blocks of graphic identity. You’ll learn the rules of heraldry, and will soon be sorting invected lines of partition from embattled or dovetailed ones. You’ll spot the difference between chevrons, gyrons, inescutcheons, and double quatrefoils. (The sumptuous heraldic vocabulary alone makes this section worth it.) You’ll learn the original meaning of “hallmark.” (Spoiler: It refers to a hall in London where metalsmiths’ goods were stamped, verifying their purity.) There’s even an entire page devoted solely to sketches of earmarks—the patterned mutilations some ranchers slice into the ears of their livestock.