The history, the value, and the future of logos

Article published at: May 4, 2024
The history, the value, and the future of logos
All Inky Tales

Logo design has a rich history that dates back centuries. However, for the past decade or so and even more so currently, people's perception about the value of logos has devolved to impersonal graphics that can be bought on Fiverr or created with AI. Is there any value left in professional logo design? Any reason for small business owners to pay for the experience of a professional designer?

Well, we are biased of course, however a quick history of logos might prove a compelling argument even for the non-biased. 

What were the earliest logos?

We wouldn't really call them logos in the modern parlance, however the Ancient Egyptian cartouches of pharaos and queens around 2200 BC were probably some of the earliest forms of personal branding.

Around 500 years BC affluent Greek citizens used seals to sign or endorse documents. Essential to the political economy of the region spreading with trade in all directions, seals, for several millennia, were used as a method of designating signature, private property, ownership and authority. In fact, the word ‘logo,’ which is short for ‘logotype,’ comes from Ancient Greek—lógos meaning ‘word, speech’ and túpos meaning ‘mark, imprint.’ 

Starting around the 8th century BC, Greek artisans began to sign ceramics and other crafted items with increasing frequency. Like most inscriptions, there was a formula to follow, often including the Greek verb ‘ποιεῖν’ (“to make”). The formula for providing a signature was typically “[Name] made this.” Occasionally the piece simply bore the name of the artisan. A famous instance of an artisan signing his work was this trompe l'oeil detail on a mosaic from the 2nd century BC, originally from a palace on the Acropolis at Pergamon and it bears the signature of a mosaicist named Hephaistion. 

Hephaistion makers mark

Seal type amulets have been found even in earlier civilisations, such as the Neolithic clay amulet of the Tărtăria tablets set, dated to 5500-5300 BC and associated with the Turdaş-Vinča culture. The Vinča symbols on it predate the proto-Sumerian pictographic script. The amulet below has been found buried with what is thought to have been a female shaman or important person. The meaning is unknown, but it is likely it reflected something meaningful in a culture that is not actually supposed to have invented writing. 

Tartaria amulet

In Ancient Rome Aes signatum (Latin; lit. 'stamped bronze') consisted of cast ingots of bronze of measured quality and weight, embossed with a government stamp, used as currency in Rome and central Italy starting in the 5th century BC. The stamp features a very distinctive image of a branch with side branches radiating from it, called ramo secco ("dry branch"). The Romans also brought to us the word “signature”, which comes from the Latin verb signo. A signaturum is something about to be sealed or marked off. 

Aes Signatum

In China, the  Heirloom Seal of the Realm was created in 221BC and served as the imperial Chinese seal throughout the next millennium of Chinese history, and its possession was seen as a physical symbol of the Mandate of Heaven.

Heirloom Seal of the Realm


Fundamentally, a logo is really just a symbol. Or as my beloved semiologist Umberto Eco would say, a sign. "The sign is used to transmit information; to say or to indicate a thing that someone knows and wants others to know as well" (Eco 1988, 27). 

And people always wanted other people to be informed of things. Mostly of their own ownership of things, their status, their power, their family or tribe belonging etc. One finds these signs scattered throughout the history of humanity. 


The Middle Ages

Between 1300-1600 AD, the signs became more concise and specific: heraldry came about and at the other end of the social spectrum, beer producers (often pubs) started to use pictograms to link batches of beer to their own establishments.

Heraldic Shields

In 1366, a Dutch brewery named Den Hoorn established itself in Leuven, Belgium, and started using an image of a - you guessed it - horn to represent its beer. The brewery was sold to brewer Sebastian Artois, and the image of the horn endured. In fact, you're probably very familiar with it, as it still exists today under the name of Stella Artois.

Stella Artois Logo

In 1462 the oldest verified printers’ mark of Fust and Schoeffer, printers from Meinz, is used it in a Bible. They were the first printers to use such an instrument for protecting from piracy, that also served as a symbol of quality. Printers marks continued to be used for centuries after and so the commercial context of the logo was established.

Fust and Schoeffer Logo

The design of a printer’s mark used visual puns, wordplay or sometimes a rebus, a puzzle combining illustrations and letters to depict a motto or printer’s initials. Sacred symbols, the cross and the orb, real and mythical animals, heraldic symbols, and scientific instruments were used in thousands of combinations.

You are sure to know at least one printers mark that is still in usage: Penguin.

Penguin Logo

When did modern logo design begin?

 Modern logo design usage accelerated starting with the Industrial Revolution. This era left us logos such as Coca Cola (1885), Twinings (1887), Levi Strauss (1892)  and Shell Oil (1906).

Oldest Modern Logos

By the 1800s, advancements in printing meant that colour printing became affordable and available for the first time ever in mass, allowing companies to make  labels, advertisements, and posters to capture their audience. 

Pauls Rand's logo design for IBM in 1956 marked a significant turn in the logo design: logos transcended beyond simple brand recognition and started to become imbued with emotion and meaning. 

Paul Rand IBM Logo

The MTV logo marked another evolution in logo usage and design, pioneering the creation of a logo that was ever changeable and could be charged with multiple meanings and emotions.

MTV Logos

The Google doodle, Nike swoosh and the Apple apple play similar roles and are equally versatile. 

Google Doodle Logos

So what role do logos play in branding nowadays?

“A logo derives meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolises, not the other way around.” said Paul Rand and this is probably the most concise observation one can make about the future of logos. 

The logo has arrived at a point in its history where it can continue to be nothing more than an identifier - or can aspire to be much more. A vehicle of emotion, a carrier of ever changing messages (Google anyone?), or a versatile graphic element that can draw customers in via creative displays, animations, interactions, etc

I don't think any one of us knows where logos are headed, but millennia of human history show us that humans need identifiers and logos aren't going anywhere. It will be fascinating to see how they evolve. 

In the meanwhile a good logo still has to be distinctive, versatile, recognisable, emotionally engaging if possible and appropriate and representative of the brand it spearheads. A tall ask for any designer, and thankfully still beyond of reach of AI. For now.

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