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Logo Design for Startups: Why You Should Avoid Generic Concepts

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If the whole point of branding is to help your business stand out from the competition, why do so many startups choose logos that look the same as everyone else’s?

A design colleague of mine recently made a comment that perfectly illustrates the problem with generic logo design:

“I’ve been attempting to watch a US TV series which happens to feature about 6 nearly-identical young men. They’re all tall, muscular, dark haired, aged 17-25. I cannot tell them apart. In a revelatory scene a young man appears on camera and is shown to be a murderer. I still don’t know who the murderer is. And this is why generic design is terrible.”

What is generic logo design?

They’re overused concepts—indistinctive and cliché. If it can be made with or mistaken for clip art, chances are it’s generic. (I “made” the following logos using free clip art in under 5 minutes total.)


Startups gravitate toward generic logo designs because they’re safe and familiar

There’s a reason why something becomes cliché: it works. A tooth means dental, roofs mean real estate, human forms in a circle mean people helping each other and that’s what non-profits do and so on… There’s little chance that customers won’t immediately understand what the company does.

Businesses choose symbols like this because they want to be relevant in their industry

I get that. But just knowing what your company does is not enough to tell your dream customers who you are and what they can expect from their experience working with you.

A brand is not a functional thing (e.g. “I sell houses”); it’s an emotional thing (e.g. “My clients think I’m warm and funny, which helps take the stress out of selling their house.”)

That is not to say that you shouldn’t use literal devices in your logo design. Strong logos often employ safe and familiar symbols, only they give them an original twist.

That “original twist” is the ultimate creative challenge for a designer: “How can I take a literal concept and make it original so I can convey the spirit of this brand?” This is what we do, it’s why working with a designer is different from buying a logo from an app or a stock art site.

Here’s an example of a Mexican food-truck logo concept I created that uses a literal, generic approach… but with a twist.

The hot peppers are hardly original as symbols of Mexican food, and the colors are totally stereotypical because they’re the colors of the Mexican flag—there’s no mistaking what this is! But, the typography and hand-drawn stems give the mark humor and cheekiness. This is not an elevated or sophisticated food truck for high-brow foodies, this is a fun place to grab a burrito on your lunch break.

Because it’s hand-drawn and the idea came from my brain, it’s unique in the world (and trademarkable).

Great logos are innovative as well as relevant.

Maybe a little scary. Great branding usually feels a little uncomfortable (and SO EXCITING TOO!), because it means you’re setting yourself apart from the safety and comfort of what everyone else is doing. Branding = setting yourself apart.

The wrong logo makes branding more difficult

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a logo is not your brand. If anybody ever tells you otherwise, check to see if they’re trying to sell you a mediocre logo design at a high price.

You can have a generic, clip-art logo and have a very successful brand. You can have a beautiful, award-winning logo and fail to win clients over. Your brand is largely defined by the experiences of your customer.

But a logo is a symbol of your brand and it sets expectations, especially when people don’t know you. It embodies who you are and your promise to your customers. It can elevate, convey emotion, and give voice to what’s unspoken.

If your logo is indistinguishable from your competition, and if it doesn’t help your customers remember you—”meh” or “which one are you again?”— that just means you’ll have to work that much harder in your branding efforts

How to get a great logo

It all starts with you becoming clear about your brand and creating a brand strategy. The problem is, most people don’t start there—they start by thinking about colors and fonts they like. But doing the mental work of really understanding what makes youyou”—the heart and soul of what makes you different—will help a designer create a logo that will embody that uniqueness. (It’ll help you make decisions if you’re going the DIY route, too.)

Try getting out of your comfort zone and be a little daring—this is how you’re going to stand out in a sea of sameness. If you’re looking for an out-of-the-box brand identity system, shoot me an email and we can chat over coffee about how I can help.