By Tara Hornor

5 Shapes, Symbols, and Concepts to Avoid in Your Brand

By Tara Hornor

Have you ever found yourself in a brand design project that has taken on a life of its own and you’re just along for the ride? Well I have, and it can be a frustrating experience, especially if your clients or colleagues are passing on obvious opportunities for improvement and overlooking significant mistakes.

In some cases, the client has an old logo that they just want me to “clean up” or “update” — this is rarely as effective as building a completely new brand, and ironically, it’s often harder. In other cases, you have so many hands in the pot and so many ideas rushing around that it’s impossible to get any kind of consensus — this tends to end up with hodge-podge design work that stitches everyone’s different ideas together into a “frankenbrand” monstrosity.

Regardless of how you end up in these overwhelming situations, there are a couple of ways that you can present your concerns in a rational, logical way that business people can understand. I’ve found that it helps to both visually illustrate their mistakes as well as articulate exactly what’s wrong from a business perspective. So, here are some classic issues that I’ve seen crop up consistently in branding and logo design, as well as my methods for leading the client toward a more focused, effective brand.


Negative Impact Message

Whether by accident or just by lack of observation, sometimes logos get designed with shapes that create a negative impression of the brand on a subconscious level. My favorite (or rather, least favorite) is the downward or backward facing arrow. Why would you want an arrow pointing downward for your brand when you want to help customers progress and improve their lives? Here are a few that I’ve seen across the Internet that are similar to designs that have come across my desk:

These aren’t poorly-implemented logos in terms of functional design, it’s just that they’re pointing in the wrong direction. Even the Local Arrow concept isn’t perfect, because the downward arrow is far more recognizable than the idea of pointing to a map location.

These details are important, because more and more, logos are becoming the only brand identifier. Consider social media — Twitter, Facebook Pages, and Google Plus — the logo is often the only visual representation of the brand. Don’t let it (literally) take your clients in the wrong direction.

While I’m talking about arrow-based errors, here’s an internationally recognizable arrow implementation that’s subtle and carries positive connotations for the brand:

Isolating Customers

Another common problem with logo designs and small businesses is that they sometimes try to incorporate shapes and designs that are laden with  connotations that isolate potential customers for no good reason. My favorites are the fish and the rainbow.

It just stands to reason, why would you intentionally limit your customer base? Why include a symbol that causes strong reactions in many people when the goal is to welcome customers — all potential customers — to your business?

Granted, there are many business owners who feel very strongly about certain causes. If they want to incorporate symbols into their logo for personal reasons, then it’s their decision to make. But, it’s my job to help the brand communicate a specific business message, and if certain symbols distract, I have an obligation to speak up.

Here are a few that, in my opinion, unnecessarily distract from the primary business of the brand:

A real estate firm logo

A coffee house logo

Irrelevant to Industry

Some industries have a consistent theme in their logo designs. From research companies to retail to restaurants — there are patterns, and logo design can tap into these subconscious themes to help connect customers with the brand’s core value.

Whether it’s incorporating the research-esque “swoop” or a house into real estate logo, the point is to find these patterns and creatively, subtly (if possible), integrate them into your design. But what happens when it goes wrong?

A convenience store logo.

A clothing store logo.

These logos, as do many, do not communicate anything substantive to the viewer in terms of their industry or their products and services. Why? Why, I ask?!

Inconsistent Message

Another problem that develops is that of an inconsistent message. Sometimes, the logo and the brand just don’t jive. This can happen when you try to force a particular visual idea — such as using an old logo design or a certain visual concept that simply doesn’t fit the brand.

Classic example: crest logos. Schools, breweries, and certain upscale retail products fit wonderfully with crest logos. But, there are plenty of organizations that shouldn’t use intricate crest designs as their logos:

This is a dog kennel logo — a dog kennel, people.

A child’s clothing manufacturer — could you have guessed?

If you think these are exceptional, think again. I’ve had many ill-fitting logos come across my desk, and I’ve been told to just “update it a bit.” I usually have to scrap it and start over.

Another common problem is that of absolute genericism — when something is so bland that it can’t possibly stand out. My favorite example is a certain popular national tax accounting firm:

I can think of few ways to make something more generic looking — it would be a challenge, actually to make this more bland. When you look at a logo, it should inspire and help the consumer connect your brand with certain ideas and concepts.

Flagrant Screwups

Then, you have the fatally flawed logos that make it out the door. I make it my personal responsibility to interpret all logos as vulgarly as possible! If I can help prevent a major misinterpretation like some of these, I’ve done my client a great service:

What does that look like to you?

It’s a logo for a Jazz dance studio…do you see the problem? Think about negative space

The logos above attempted to connect a graphic with their business, and the initial ideas were good. They just missed some serious misinterpretations. The rest of the above examples show just how many logos are out there that don’t immediately connect the brand to the product. Whether it’s a crest logo that doesn’t really say anything and will be hard to reproduce, or just a logo that doesn’t fit the company because the industry has straightforward brand patterns, you may find yourself in the situation where you have to recommend a completely different idea to the client.

Don’t be afraid to come to the table with new ideas in these situations. Don’t just tell them what they have is bad — show them some a couple of new concepts. Maybe you’ll find that they prefer yours.

Have you come across any branding headaches with your clients? Would you let a flawed brand go through the approval process, or do you feel obligated to point out problems, even if your observations go against client wishes?

  • I LOVE the last two, hehe. Great read!

    • Manuel

      The logo for the pharmacy is really funny too.. but how is to say that their biggest sellers aren’t condoms?

      If that’s the case, what a great subliminal way to have your needs met :))

      • Tara Hornor

        Ha ha…good point! :D

    • James

      Can’t believe you didn’t include the 2012 Olympics logo (Lisa Simpson… )

      • Tara Hornor

        Doh! Yes, that would have been an excellent one to include!

  • Torrance Scott

    1. The fedex logo seems like a great example of a forward arrow speaking towards the speediness of the service except that when it was printed on the trucks and jets it points backwards.

    2. Great example for china restaurant. I’m pretty sure that’s what happens when I eat chinese, so it may speak more to the brand than they realize.

    • Lol – yes, maybe the Chinese logo does work. It actually does seem like a good representation of how I feel too after eating Chinese. Good catch on the Fedex logo. I’d never noticed before!

      • anthonydpaul

        I ran into that issue when working on a logo for a cab company. Any directional logo will pose an issue when you are printing on two sides of a directional object. Forward movement on one side, and regression on the other. You can get around that by having your mark be non-directional, then having other brand elements that are reversible.

    • Agreeable Tiger Moth

      That’s funny about the FedEx “arrow” pointing backwards on the trucks, and it’s a nice thought. Luckily we read from left to right—which is also the direction the arrow travels in the FedEx logo.

      Good eye!

      • As I was reading the article I wondered about multi-national companies like FedEx and how they deal with languages that don’t read left to right. In the middle east it’s common to read right to left and in Asia it’s common to read top to bottom.

        So do we just accept that it won’t have the same connotation there? (that’s apparently what FedEx did) On such a subtle visual cue I suspect that it’s not a big deal.

    • The arrow is hidden!

  • The FedEx logo reads from left to right, so the direction of the arrow depends on which side of the truck or airplane you see, right? There’s a FedEx truck on my street about every ten minutes this time of year, so I get ’em coming and going ;-)

  • Ha ha @ the last 3.

    The Chinese feeling can be understood.

  • Agreeable Tiger Moth

    Great examples of logo designs. Your use of images supports the points made in your article.

    However, I think too much here is being read into the concept of a “logo”. In visual communications one should communicate clearly, but the real importance of a logo is to be distinct and memorable. A logo alone doesn’t sell a brand: the company and its reputation are responsible for the sale of both the brand and its logo. That being said, if a logo makes you look at it—and then again look harder—it’s safe to say that you still looked at it.

    A common mistake is to unnecessarily represent the functionality of the industry in a company’s logo. A logo is largely a type treatment, after all.

    For quality examples of solid logo design, examine works of Paul Rand. He generated some successful logos that are still being used—over 40 years later.

  • Frisian

    Disagree about the coffeehouse logo: Ichthus is the Greek word for fish.

    • Vicky

      The point is that that symbol is also used as a religious one (for Jesus, specifically) and so suggests it’s also a Christian coffee house. Unless it actually is that….

      • Tish

        Based on the name, even with out the logo I would expect that to be a Christian Coffee shop. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichthys) The logo just helps those not familiar with the word Ichthus know that too. So in this case I don’t see a problem with it. I would say it is more effective to have the fish than if they didn’t. Now if they aren’t a Christian coffee shop, then they should probably change both the name and the logo.

      • Michael

        Facebook lends credence to that statement. Their stage has a giant cross behind it.

    • AllowedNoise

      There is certainly no issue with the meaning – it makes sense well enough. The problem comes from the use of the exact “sign of the fish” symbol. Could have easily created a different and, I argue, a better, original & more exciting fish graphic. Maybe some don’t want their coffee brewed with holy water. It might burn.

    • dp

      My first thought on the Icthus logo was the same. It’s got to be a self-consciously Christian coffeehouse. The Papyrus font is also a clue. And while it’s odd to associate coffee and fish, the underlying point is about conviviality, and I can think of coffee joints with more bizarre names. I might be tempted to call it Icthos, though.

      That said, two fish pointing in opposite directions confuses things – not just because it’s a bidirectional arrow, but because the symmetry with the coffee cup ring makes it all a bit of filigree rather than a clear statement about the brand. Were I a coffee-drinking Icthyan, I’d be facing my partner across the table…

      In all, the design gets its core point across immediately, then lapses into confusion.

    • smeling coffee or smeling fish?

  • Mark

    I agree with most of your observations, but I disagree about two logos in particular – the Bealls logo and H&R Block. Bealls is actually pronounced as “Bells” so the use of an A that resembles a bell is totally appropriate. As for H&R Block, the thing that makes this work is its total simplicity. Remember that less is more, and people can easily identify this brand from any distance – if you see the bright green square as you are driving down the street, you know immediately that this is that place where you can get your taxes done. No need to make this logo any more elaborate as it is very clean and it gets the job done. It’s not fancy or cerebral, but it is memorable.

  • J A

    Wawa and the goose icon made immediate connection to me. Ojibway word for goose.
    From Ontario, we have our town of Wawa with its 30 foot tall Canada Goose statue.
    It’s no less relevant than the HR Block ‘square’. It’s a graphic that plays on the word or words in the business name itself


  • Dick Clark’s company logo is along the lines of the last 3 and always baffled me as to how someone would let that go by.

    And unfortunately these days, you have to realize that just because you don’t see the “problem” someone probably will and have a hay day with it.

    cd :O)

  • Another great logo with negative space was the Northwest Airlines logo. When you look at it for the first time you see the “N” with a triangle to the left of it but it also has the “W” in the negative space and has the look of a compass with the circle around the entire logo, clever logo just like the FedEx logo. Wonder if it’s the same designer?

  • Christy

    Y’know, the H&R Block logo is terribly generic but I have to say, I got my taxes done by them a few years ago and they gave me a folder with that giant green block on it. I’ve lost pretty much every important document I’ve ever had at one point or another except for my taxes because I know they’re marked by the bright green block. It’s the only color green in my office type-ish area filled with assorted stacks of papers, so it never gets lost.

  • gary

    Being in Philadelphia, where Wawa is king. There are 10 of them for every one 7- 11 and packed with people constantly. I wondered about the bird and actually it does make sense to them. Wawa is the name of the town that they started as a dairy delivering milk door to door. Wawa is also the word for that bird (I think a goose?) from the local native Lenape Americans. I may have a few details skewed, but generally that bird is a Wawa from Wawa, PA. They are not a national brand so there is little confusion so far at least.

  • George.w

    Here’s a computer service van I saw, but the graphics on the van would have made me think; “Dog groomer”

  • Good reminders on things to watch out for, especially the negative space ones. However, I do think the Jazz one may be deliberate, remember Jazz was originally subversive, and after all, why do most people learn to dance . . . . ?

  • Fascinating. The only two I would possibly disagree with, depending on the nature of the businesses, would be the two “crest” logos.

    The dog kennel logo could make sense if it was very upscale, offering high-class accommodation to purebreds like mastiffs and greyhounds, packs of hunting dogs, pekingese, papillons, King Charles spaniels… Then the logo would make me think of royalty and nobility, great estates, and the serious breeders of the past; a luxury, non-rough-and-tumble, not-just-grim-utilitarian kennel.

    And the children’s clothing logo makes me think of frilly, well-made clothing, a bit old-fashioned maybe. If it was all T-shirts and jeans, and/or very modern, then it wouldn’t make sense at all; but for special clothing, conservative and full of lovely details, the logo would catch my imagination and plant my enthusiasm for the brand firmly in my mind.

  • MEL

    Speaking of obscure design and logos:
    I have a friend who has a document editing /production business. She designed her business card using symblos and colors suggested by her ‘spiritual’ guru.
    I told her a lavender triangle was a ‘gay’ symbol in most people’ s minds and unless she was targeting a mostly gay clientele, I wouldn’t use that symbol and color.
    But she insists that her guru says that that color and symbol will bring her great, good fortune.
    Go figure…

  • Lowell

    I think the jaz studio is pure genius. I hope they got paid extra for it! I wish I was as talented.

  • I can’t believe the “Jazz dance studio” logo was an accident. maybe they were trying some subliminal advertising?

  • Steven

    Just quickly want to point out that the Stefan logo is not a real estate logo as described but in fact a logo for a very well known hair dresser. Whilst I can see the flaws in a lot of these logos especially the flagrantly obvious ones, putting a logo in context of the business may also change the way it is seen as far as branding is concerned how people interpret it.

    Good article otherwise.

  • Very nice article! I never observed the arrow in fedex logo. Great way to put the arrow in there!

  • Danny

    The Stefan logo is actually for a hairdresser in Australia.


  • Keith

    The “Stefan” logo…. it is not real estate, it is a Hair Dresser!!!!

  • Regarding Wawa (from Wikipedia) “The chain’s name comes from the site of the company’s first milk plant and corporate headquarters in the Wawa, Pennsylvania area. The name of the town Wawa is in turn derived from the Ojibwe word for the Canada Goose (taken from “The Song of Hiawatha”).[8] An image of a goose in flight serves as the Wawa corporate logo.” Yes, it’s rather obscure to place a goose in the company’s logo, but I associate Wawa with morning coffee and after a cup or two I then rise up like their goose, flying up out of a mountain lake to meet the new day. I usually go to Wawa about twice a day. Of course, the uninitiated don’t get that until they’ve drunk many a cup of java – so even a bad logo can grow on your clientele and do the job.

  • I’m starting to wonder if that Pagoda logo is an urban myth. The telegraph.co.uk and other sites list it as “The Institute of Oriental Studies at Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil”. Here you say it’s for a restaurant?
    And yes, the Ichthus Coffeehouse is proudly Christian:


    So perhaps a little research would be in order? Because I’m willing to bet that that was EXACTLY the point of that design.

  • Ron

    Tara, yes, the goose has nothing to do with food (other than Xmas goose) but it is a relevant local reference.

    Anyone who drives on Highway 17 in Northern Ontario gets it. The city has one of those huge “tourist trap” statues on the Trans-Canada highway, the “Wawa Goose”. (If you know birds, it is specifically a “Canada Goose”).


  • While the fish logo wasn’t necessarily a good example, I think the article’s point still stands – don’t use religious symbols (or symbols with other connotations) unless you don’t mind loosing business from people who don’t agree with those beliefs.

    The Jazz Studio logo almost seems like it done on purpose by the designer, maybe in retaliation for the client being problematic?

  • Lee Jordan

    I think you make a lot of valid points about logo design and client guidance, but I disagree that a real estate firm always has to use a house, etc. In competitive industries, not going with the expected patterns is a way to stand out. As far as “H&R Block” having a bland logo – it is also extremely easy to spot on signs and posters. It stands out. It’s simple, not pretentious, and gives off a more approachable vibe than a formal accounting or CPA firm logo. Is it boring? Yes. Does it work for them from a strategic standpoint? Yes.

  • Oh no! I love the last two. I didn’t see the jazz studio’s other interpretation at first, but now it’s all i see.

  • V

    WAWA’s goose is for freedom (and wawa is for the cry of the goose), being on the go and Wawa started on a farm with the actual pond in Wawa, PA. They have tours and it’s across the highway from Franklin Mint.

    I hate the typography though, it’s so 60’s 70’s.

    Archer Group out of Wilmington DE is handling some of their ads and marketing, they are the people behind Hoggiefest and Coffeetopia.

  • Thanks Tara,

    Great read. I’ve read a few of your articles before and appreciate your insights.

  • Great …..article and its too good

  • Johnathan

    Yea def about the coffee house do you think starbucks would be global with christian fish facing away from them on their cups. I wouldn’t wanna be seen holding one excellent coffee or not.

  • Lon

    Have a look at the Sunoco logo. It has an arrow pointing down. This was done deliberately to let motorists know that there is a fuel pump below the sign. It was a visual clue that worked. The logo has been updated over the years but the arrow stands. When you think Sunoco, it is hard not to think of that logo. It has become powerful through usage and time and I doubt that many people would even give a thought to a negative connotation of a downward pointing arrow.

    I believe there is way too much credence given to the idea that a logo must represent the product or service directly. You are correct in pointing out some very bad examples but some are really not so terrible as they may seem at first. Yes, some references to local images such as birds etc. may seem to be a mistake but sometimes a company never sees that far down the road to a time that they will become international or a household name. By that time it is too late to change something that is so recognizable and successful.
    The popularity of something often times overshadows the fact of whether it is good or bad.

    Yes, do try to create a good and appropriate logo at first, but like so many things a lot of this is subjective. In my 30 plus years of design, I have found some clients to be immovable in their desire. I comfort myself by saying there will always be a next one.

    In a design world full of drops shadows, bevels and 3D effects, It is refreshing to see a simple, graphic solution such as H&R block. I see their storefronts a mile away. In my opinion it was a very gutsy move on their part to keep it so simple and powerful. They resisted all of the current “modern” conventions and produced (at least what I feel) is a winner of a logo.
    You see it, you know who it is for. End of story.

  • I have never seen that forward arrow in the FedEx logo before!

    Good post! Thanks!

Get the latest in Entrepreneur, once a week, for free.