When General Mills decided to launch its first new cereal brand in 15 years, the company knew it was facing a major challenge. “There are very few new brands coming to cereal,” explains Alan Cunningham, senior marketing manager of cereal innovation with General Mills. “We really needed to break through with something different.”
Designing an engaging brand identity, therefore, was paramount. General Mills needed to create a logo so enticing that it could convince consumers to try something entirely new. The product concept — cereal shaped like tiny pieces of toast — came first, then the name (Tiny Toast, of course). That’s when the design work began.
“It was a long process of trying to figure out what was right,” recalls Kyle Jensen, vice-president and design director with Minneapolis-based creative studio Ultra Creative, the firm that designed the graphics associated with the Tiny Toast brand. All told, it took Ultra Creative and General Mills a year and a half from initial product idea to final design. The product hit the shelves in June, and the Tiny Toast brand was born.
Navigating a New Design
More often than not, logos look deceptively simple. How long could it possibly take to create that Nike Swoosh or Apple apple? But as General Mills can attest, it can take months and even years to design a symbol that truly embodies a brand’s character and speaks to consumers.
There’s a lot of pressure on brands to get it right. Companies like Netflix, Airbnb, MasterCard, and Instagram have all updated their iconic logos, and the results aren’t always well-received at first. Airbnb’s new symbol, for example, was meant to embody the brand’s ability to deliver a sense of belonging to global travelers, but the company came under fire when the public pointed out it looked like everything from a guitar pick to parts of the human anatomy. Instagram’s simplified logo, unveiled earlier this year, was polarizing, too.
Over time, consumers come to connect with brands through their logos. A change can be jarring — and yet, a new logo is often a must. The new Netflix icon is part of a growing trend toward designing for smaller screens as brands try to keep pace with consumers’ evolving device preferences. Wired magazine called the Netflix “N” “the latest in a spate of redesigns by tech companies looking to update their visual brand for the mobile age.”
So what’s a brand to do? To ease the transition to its refreshed logo, MasterCard made a point of retaining its “50-year-old familiarity” and well-established visual language, while simultaneously creating a more digital mark. Instagram, meanwhile, created a social video that shows its customers how the new logo was derived from the well-loved original.
The Making of a Mark
“The logo is the most identifying element of the brand and what creates instant recognition,” explains Rovena Aga, creative director with a luxury resort in Manila, Philippines. “It is the soul of a brand and your first introduction to it.”
And like a first impression, brands better make sure it counts.
For Aga, the logo design process starts with the client briefing. During this discovery phase, the designer familiarizes herself with the company, its values, mission, vision, and employees. “We learn about how they perceive themselves, and how they would like to be perceived,” she said. Next comes the market and competitive research phase, which leads to brainstorming. Aga always sketches on paper first — “writing down key words and just letting the thoughts flow” — allowing her to experiment with graphical elements like colors and shapes. She never dismisses these early ideas, as they help her stay on track.
Eventually, she takes the process digital using software like Adobe Illustrator, chooses a font by trying out multiple variations, and identifies the three best options in the pack. These she presents to the client, and the fine-tuning begins.
Different Strokes for Different Designers
In some ways, to create a logo is like creating a work of art: it might take hours, days, or years to achieve the desired outcome. “It varies wildly,” said Mike McGowan, a designer with the the University of Michigan’s Office of University Development and a longtime freelancer. “I’m currently working on a fairly simple identity project that’s gone on for well over six months.”
There are times, however, when the answer is immediate — an “aha!” moment that reveals everything. As McGowan points out, it can take a 20-minute cab ride to create a logo: Famed graphic designer Milton Glaser thought up the I ♥ NY logo in the back of taxi on the way to a meeting about New York State’s marketing campaign. On the other end of the spectrum, it took several creative teams and about 200 designs to come up with the logo for FedEx that’s still being used today.
Like Aga, McGowan has learned there’s no better way to start than by putting a pencil to paper. “I like to use really cheap printer paper. It has a good tooth, and because it’s so thin I can use it like tracing paper,” he said. McGowan considers everything in these early days, from whether the company name can be abbreviated, to whether the acronym can become a word (like NASA), a monogram (like Chanel’s logo), or presents a graphic solution (like FedEx).
Eventually, he too goes digital. “After digesting (the client’s) feedback, I almost always make a nice and tight vector drawing of the logo, trying to make it as close to finished as possible,” he said.
But different designers have different preferences, and unlike Aga, McGowan doesn’t invest much time in those initial, “fast and messy” drawings. “If you do,” he said, “they become precious and it’s hard to let that idea go, even if there are better ones.”
The Proof is in the Preference
In the case of Ultra Creative and General Mills, letting go of those early designs was crucial, particularly after market research and testing. The length of the Tiny Toast logo design process wasn’t just due to ongoing experimentation, but also the fact that the packaging and brand identity conceptualization were conducted simultaneously.
“Many times, you design a logo and try to shoehorn it into the brand design, but (Tiny Toast) was all done together,” Jensen said. General Mills’ R&D team didn’t just investigate the product’s market potential early on, but also after the logo was starting to take shape. “Focus groups are fantastic for getting answers to a handful of questions,” said Cunningham, “but when evaluating the first moment of truth, you have to go in-store.”
To assess whether its preferred logo options could effectively convince consumers to try Tiny Toast, General Mills planted mock-up boxes on actual grocery stores shelves. Some customers were taken to the product and asked for their initial impression. Others were left to discover it on their own.
“Some of the early designs we really liked failed in-store,” Cunningham said. “They didn’t have enough energy to pop, or were a little too flat.” That’s when the company made some “huge pivots,” including abandoning the idea of incorporating characters, which Cunningham notes “were fun, but aged the cereal down.”
Before landing on the right logo for Tiny Toast, which Jensen said was built around the shape of the toast top to emphasize the alliteration in the product’s name, Ultra Creative and General Mills went through 10–15 different logo designs.
Cunningham reports that after its launch, Tiny Toast managed to generate 700 million impressions of earned media. It’s hard to imagine that the carefully crafted Tiny Toast logo didn’t play a part in its success.
Why Redesigns Aren’t Faster
Market research was also a big part for of the logo development process for computer software company WhiteSource. After introducing a new product six months ago, the company went from catering exclusively to executive-level decision makers to software developers as well.
The original logo represented the startup well, but WhiteSource didn’t think it would resonate with developers; they needed to create a logo that spoke to both audiences. “The problem was that we are still selling to management C-level and VP level. Developers aren’t the ones buying the product, just the ones using it,” said Maya Rotenberg, director of marketing with WhiteSource.
Working with a graphic designer, the company came up with two ideas: An animated gopher that was in line with the branding approach other companies take for their developer tools, and a hard hat that represented WhiteSource’s commitment to protecting the site-build process.
WhiteSource interviewed nine of its customers about each concept, and also held an informal roundtable discussion on Reddit. “We were told the gopher gave the sense of a developer tool, and that the second option looked like a hipster with a beard,” Rotenberg said. Interestingly, the company had already been referring to the icon as the “hard hat hipster” internally. Once it saw that the logo appealed to its customers and that they appreciated its unique character, their logo choice was clear.
Even though WhiteSource was redesigning a logo rather than starting from scratch, it took two graphic designers seven weeks to finalize the color scheme, graphic language, and various iterations. The company wanted to be sure its logo served its evolving business needs.
It was a similar story with online international freight marketplace Freightos. It, too, needed to redesign its logo to appeal to a new audience after expanding its product.
“We started by asking who we were, and what we wanted our logo to reflect,” said Guy Laor, the director of UX (user experience) and design at Freightos. “It’s not actually so easy, because when you conduct research within the company you hear about 30 different opinions.”
Laor says it took several months to align everyone at the company, which facilitates global shipping, around the simple idea that it shouldn’t be hard to move things from place to place. That led to the adoption of a series of squares representing the goods inside a shipping container.
After many conversations about color palette and font, and tweaking the logo to work online, in print, and on different screen sizes, Freightos and its designer were satisfied. All told, the process took two months.
The final Freightos logo captures the idea of moving shipping containers from place to place. (Freightos)
How long does it take to create a logo? The answer is simply that it depends on the brand and its designers, and how much market research they need to conduct. The concept may come quickly. It may take months. When a logo does come together, most companies will tell you it just feels right.
And when it does, the odds are good your customers will agree.