Logos are the strong, silent types of the graphic design world; Digital Arts unpicks the best.

The task of devising a symbol or picking a font that encapsulates a company and its ethos is one that frequently has graphic designers scratching their heads. A good logo can represent a company for decades – a couple of those on this page are almost a century old. A bad logo, on the other hand, is a public relations fiasco. We’ve sorted the wheat from the chaff to bring you some of the greatest logos.

New York State
The logo that launched a million knockoffs is so instantly familiar that it’s hard to think of it as a logo in the traditional sense. The branding masterstroke was commissioned in 1977 by the State of New York – not, as is often believed, the city – as part of an attempt to lure tourists back to the flagging metropolis. Eminent graphic designer Milton Glaser took on the project for free, creating the distinctive rounded heart shape and typewriter-style font that’s adorned so many T-shirts, mouse mats, mugs and anything else with a white background; the state has spent a significant portion of the past 30 years chasing copyright infractions. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Glaser designed a modified version, I Love NY More Than Ever, with a black mark on the heart symbolizing the twin towers’ location on Manhattan.

While it was always fairly obvious that the logo for Apple Macintosh would involve fruit, Rob Janoff’s balanced, stylized icon goes deeper than that. The apple represents knowledge, while the bite missing from its side indicates enjoyment (a very early version of the logo, not by Janoff, featured Isaac Newton). Janoff’s design has proved adaptable and durable. His ‘rainbow apple’ represented the company from 1976 right through its first heyday in the 1980s; its shape survived a major redesign in 1997, which changed it to one colour; it’s since been redesigned in matte silver to match the iPod range.

In these eco-anxious times, there’s a new logo for recycling, recyclable materials, sustainable materials and so on almost every week (or so it seems), but the original triangle logo remains a classic. In 1970, a US paperboard-recycling company launched a nationwide competition for students searching for a suitable logo; 23-year-old graphic design student Gary Anderson scooped the $2,500 prize with his design modelled on a Mobius strip. Partly because it’s never been trademarked and is available to all, and partly because it’s so clean, clear and self-explanatory, the logo remains the most familiar symbol of recycling to this day.

The monochrome linked Cs, surrounded in a bubble, are a versatile visual shorthand for the brand, appearing on couture, makeup, perfume and accessories. They reflect the label’s classy, understated chic, and also have a dash of the Art Deco styling adopted by Gabrielle Chanel for her shop. The now-iconic logo first appeared on the lid of a perfume bottle in 1921; its designer is unknown, although it’s frequently speculated that it was designed by Chanel herself. Chanel’s longstanding artistic director, Jacques Helleu, designed the fashion house’s font based on the logo.

Nike’s ‘swoosh’ logo echoes the can-do ethos of the slogan ‘Just Do It’. The simple but stylized symbol is splashed across communications, clothing and sports gear in vivid colours, and it’s equally identifiable whether it’s blown up to poster-size or used on a button. Several years ago, Nike dropped the company’s name from the logo, allowing the swoosh to represent the company alone. Although any communications agency would be delighted with themselves for producing such a recognizable and potent logo, the swoosh’s history is more humble: it was designed by a graphic design student, Caroline Davidson, in 1971 for a fee of just $35.

Slick and elegantly technical, the Mercedes logo has much in common with the vehicles it decorates. The three-pointed ‘star’ was originally designed by Gottlieb Daimler, one of the founders of the company that eventually became Mercedes, but it wasn’t adopted until 1909, several years after his death. The three points of the star are believed to symbolize Daimler’s ambition of achieving motor transport in the sea, on the land and in the sky. Over the past century, the logo has been stripped back little by little to achieve its current uncompromising, simple form.

London Underground
The roundel – to use the official name of the bar-and-circle Underground logo – first appeared on station platforms in 1908, bearing the name of each station. However, it wasn’t until 1911 that the word ‘Underground’ was used on the blue bar, and even then the logo had to go through several further changes before it was finally worked into its current form by typographer Edward Johnston. Johnston, who also designed the distinctive Underground typeface, launched his reworked roundel in 1919 and carried on tweaking it until 1930; it’s now as much a symbol for London as Glaser’s I Heart NY is for New York.

Formed of a single line, the Habitat logo is almost childishly simple, but is very clever nonetheless. The placement of a heart inside a home encapsulates the aims of the company – a chain of furniture and homeware shops – perfectly, while its single-line construction adds the ‘designed’ edge that the brand prides itself on, and stops it from becoming cheesy. Designed by Graphic Thought Facility in 2002, the logo appears on paper bags, shop fronts and publicity – and has even been made into some rather natty paperclips.

When logos fail

A lot of work has gone into formulating the qualities of a good logo. Designer Saul Bass said that a logo should be strong, unique, memorable, flexible and enduring, and many other attempts to quantify good logo design are along similar lines.

Despite such critical thought, some logos do fail – what makes a logo bad? David Airey is an Edinburgh-based graphic designer who specializes in logo and identity design.

He runs a logo-focused blog, logodesignlove.com; he says that a common mistake from logo designers is, “Too much detail. A simple logo is a memorable logo. If you can describe the design to someone on the telephone, and have them sketch an accurate representation, you’re definitely on the right track.”

Jerry Kuyper’s 40-year career has seen him work on logos as varied as AT&T (with Saul Bass), Touchstone and the World Wildlife Fund. He says, “The trait I wish designers would avoid is superficial glowing, shiny, metallic renderings being used to hide weak or non-existent concepts.”

‘Car crash’ logos

When asked to name a high-profile disaster of a logo, Kuyper brings up accountancy and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers: “This long name undoubtably has equity but how did they get from Price Waterhouse and Coopers Lybrand to PricewaterhouseCoopers when the companies merged?

“In the logo the multiple type sizes jammed together suggest a car crash. The font and ligatures add to the confusion. The symbol reads PCw when they refer to themselves as PwC in text. In their business, trust is essential; this logo reminds me of a ransom note – it doesn’t get any worse than this identity.”

David Airey says: “To be honest, I’ve seen so many poor logos that it’s hard to pick... the worst I can remember from recent memory was the brand identity for Italia, by Landor. It doesn’t capture Italy, and the mix of typefaces doesn’t serve its creative intention. The green shape looks more like a pickle than anything else.”

One logo that gained the wrong kind of international attention last year was Wolff Olins’ London 2012 logo; both Airey and Kuyper agree with the general verdict.

“This logo seems completely inappropriate for an international event of this stature – a huge missed opportunity,” says Kuyper. David Airey is marginally more circumspect: “To me, the logo appears clunky, and not representative of athletics. It’s extremely unique and memorable, but is it appropriate? I don’t think so.”

Logos that failed to stun the world: Landor’s Italia.it logo, the PricewaterhouseCoopers logo and Wolff Olins’ much-maligned London 2012 logo.