Modern Logo Design and Why the Spirit of Modernism is Alive Today
Good design is good for business. When it comes to creating a logo for your own brand, this critical step should produce one result: a design that is both beautiful and functional. After all, your logo is the face of your brand, visually summarizing its style and message.
When designing a logo that truly reflects your business, there are certain aesthetic decisions to make along the way. For instance, determining the right colors, font and imagery to harness your brand identity will affect your logo’s ability to communicate with customers and build recognition.
Here’s some food for thought as you contemplate logos ideas of your own. In this article, I will discuss modern logo designs, surveying the clean and sophisticated characteristics that embody this style today. Rooted in modernist ideas from the last two centuries, a modern logo will make a statement that‘s simple, effective and timeless.
What is modern?
While “modern” is used to describe something that’s new, fashionable and contemporary, the term also refers to the characteristics related to modernism, an aesthetic movement developed in the late 19th century and popularized in the 20th.
In the wake of industrialization and rapid change, modernism fostered a period of innovation brought on by a demand for new modes of expression. It can best be summed up with these four words: “form ever follows function” - an overused, albeit accurate, maxim originally coined by American architect Louis Sullivan. Seeking functionality over beauty is the driving force behind the movement’s aesthetic genes.
Modernism influenced the spheres of fine art, design, architecture, literature and the performing arts. In the world of graphic design, branding and logos, this culminated in a shift toward a visual language that’s universal and no-fuss. This meant experimenting with simple forms, clean compositions, sans serif fonts, and primary colors.
What is a modern logo?
A modern logo is considered to embrace characteristics of the modern movement, and can benefit businesses looking for a less complex, timeless design. Immune to the ebb and flow of logo design trends, the ideas of modernism are still very much alive, and continue to impact the world of design and branding. Across industries of all sizes, we see logos every day whose success can be attributed to their modern qualities.
7 traits of modern logos
Let’s go over the distinct qualities that make a modern logo and look at some well-known examples. If you’re deciding how to design a logo for your own brand or business, you might find that this style fits in with your overall brand identity. Keep in mind that modern features like these can be applied to diverse types of logos:
03. Familiar symbols
06. Primary tones
01. Sans serif typeface
The sans serif typeface is a staple of modern logo design. Sans serif fonts get rid of “serifs”, or the strokes at the ends of letters. Eliminating this ornamental flair, sans serif fonts such as Helvetica and Futura use smooth lines to convey simplicity. The result leads to clean and eye-catching fonts that are easy to read and adaptable to screens.
Throughout the 20th century, use of these fonts became increasingly popular. Brands especially embraced the ability of sans serif to communicate information effectively in advertising - and continue to do so.
With over 100 fonts in the sans serif family, this typeface is versatile and can be applied to logos in a range of ways. Below, you can see how American Apparel’s wordmark logo is tightly arranged to achieve a sophisticated and classic appearance. ShuttleBoi, on the other hand, creates a more dynamic design by shifting the weight of its letters from bold to normal text.
When choosing from the best fonts for logos, remember that sans serif is sure to give your brand a modern touch. Additionally, it's the easiest typeface to adapt across media formats, making it a practical choice for a business logo that will be stamped onto various marketing assets, such as a website or business cards.
02. Active negative (or white) space
Looking at an object or image, you will see that negative space refers to the area within and around the subject. White space is simply another term used to classify this separation. Instead of treating this part of a composition as a mere background, modern designers and artists activated it.
Modern designers began to “carve out” imagery or patterns into negative space, and experiment with its capabilities. This also brought attention to the fact that negative and positive space each have their own “weight”, and that a balance between them could be improved upon to enhance the appeal of any given image. It was a revolution that led to more engaging designs, and especially upgraded design’s approach to modern logos.
In 1972, Paul Rand designed the IBM logo you see below. Notice how he energizes the modern logo’s negative space by using it to form horizontal stripes. In this case, it connects the entire composition, achieving a look that suggests “speed and dynamism.”
Take note of how brands today continue using this approach to make a modern logo. With the Albus logo, also seen below, negative space is amplified by slight breaks within the sans serif lettering. The background invades the lettermark, creating the effect that each letter is floating. Otis’s logo utilizes negative space to form an unusual op-art visual that acts to catch the eye of the viewer, while sealing a signature mark for the brand.
03. Familiar symbols
Modernism sought unification through design. This led to increased use of symbols that could be recognized by anyone. Driven by the belief that imagery communicates on a different level than words, modern designers and artists alike developed a new visual language using rudimentary shapes and symbols.
One of the most iconic modern logos manifesting this idea today is that of Apple. Though it was an intricate emblem at the start, the Apple logo successfully evolved into a flat design that, nonetheless, is the symbol of a brand who represents the epitome of taste and innovation.
Apple’s logo is just one success story of many. While many businesses embrace the idea of using a standalone logo symbol to represent their brand, others incorporate symbols and shapes into a wordmark combination. In the examples below, both Moonday and The Queendom use commonplace symbols in their own playful way to strengthen the identity of their brand.
Apart from the unique look one can achieve with a modern logo, there’s a practical benefit to a feature like this. Having a simple symbol in your design is an effective way to build your brand’s recognition. Let’s say you're designing a restaurant logo for a new cafe on a busy street. Your goal is to attract hungry passersby and bring them in for a meal, or at the very least - a cup of joe. A logo that uses a modern symbol of a fork and knife, or a minimalistic coffee cup, gets straight to the point, even engaging international customers.
04. Geometric shapes and lines
Alongside the use of flat symbols to promote clear communication, modern design was a movement that believed complex concepts could be stripped down to the most primary forms. This was rooted in an overall desire to use pure and familiar visual elements which, as designer Paul Rand said, “you can’t criticize geometry, it’s never wrong.” Therefore, basic geometric shapes and lines have become key traits of modern logos.
“You can’t criticize geometry, it’s never wrong.”
- Paul Rand
This approach has escalated since its inception. Today’s best logos with a modern approach often have squares, triangles, circles, straight or diagonal lines incorporated into their designs. These elements can be used in combination to form new, abstract logo symbols reminiscent of the functional and out-of-the-box aesthetic of the mid-20th century. They can also be added alongside a lettermark or wordmark logo to amplify a brand’s message, improve its composition, or to add a memorable touch.
Have a look at the modern logo for Phil Parson’s Lighting below. Notice how the brand uses raw shapes and lines to form an image suggestive of a backstage lighting apparatus. It has a signature look that will strengthen the brand’s identity.
Spotify’s branding is another great example of how these ingredients can convey a clear message on their own. The three slightly arched lines that make up their abstract logo allude to sounds waves, a clever interpretation of the brand’s mission. National Geographic uses a yellow rectangular box juxtaposed to their brand name to add balance and movement in an otherwise plain wordmark. The color and shape pay homage to the magazine’s trademarked cover, an identifying mark that’s recognized worldwide.
05. Balanced composition
Modernism seeks a clear-cut aesthetic, which usually means balanced compositions. A well-balanced layout is one whose visual weight is the same on all sides. This gives the viewer a sense of visual harmony, feeding into modernism’s emphasis on designs that function.
When thinking of balance, our default is to envision a symmetrical image. However, modern design went one step further, asserting the idea that it can be achieved in an asymmetrical fashion, too. This opened doors, resulting in eye-catching logos, advertisements and art works whose compositions were dictated simultaneously between balance and movement.
Plenty of famous logos do this. For example, Mastercard’s brand mark below features an abstract symbol that is nearly ubiquitous throughout consumer culture. While this custom symbol is often featured solo across the credit card company’s branding assets, a variation of the modern logo also includes the brand’s name to improve recognition. Take note of how the vast white space surrounding the name “Mastercard” keeps the asymmetrical combination thoroughly in check.
Overall, it’s easy to master this look in your own modern logo by combining imagery with text, or by creating an offset symbol of your own. Notice the following two contemporary logo examples by Kanso Store and Vossler Engery - the idiosyncrasies within their harmonious designs make each one a bit more compelling, while upholding the principles of balance.
06. Primary tones
While there are no uniform color palettes from the modern era, there was a tendency to stray away from exotic hues. Modern design can be characterized by the experimental use of primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), concentrated tones, and a slight obsession with black and white.
Color in a modern logo has one goal: to generate an experience that’s simple yet striking. The Mobil logo is a modern classic, executed using a solid font choice and patriotic colors. A bright combination of colors in an otherwise straightforward lettermark gives the modern logo a bold edge while emphasizing the brand’s message. This results in a branding asset that is both timeless and singular.
Black and white will always result in a good-looking modern logo, as exhibited in the examples by Bespoke Bloke and Vida Mia below. When taking this direction, it’s important to include one aspect that distinguishes your design. Notice how both brands use a wordmark to heighten the business name, while additional shapes and clean lines help it stand out.
Deciding on the right color palette for your logo will go hand-in-hand with choosing logo colors. Each color on the wheel evokes a different emotion that plays into visual communication with the client, so aim to select colors that send the right message to your clients, while complimenting each other aesthetically.
Above all, simplicity is at the core of modern logo design. In the wake of embellished art deco and art nouveau movements, modernism sought a refined aesthetic void of frippery. Reducing complex concepts into concrete forms is one way modern creatives were - and still are - able to successfully put function at the forefront of their designs.
The less-is-more approach can result in a powerful, functional modern logo. 3M’s current logo, shown below, is a stripped down version of what the company used before 1978. At this time, they redesigned, making the shift toward a modern logo design. This was carried out by eliminating their embellished emblem, opting for a lettermark logo in the traditional Helvetica font. Strictly bold red letters enhance the idea of durability from 3M’s consumer goods.
A clean modern logo can be achieved while implementing any of the elements and characteristics mentioned throughout this article. Frame My Space’s photography logo below utilizes nearly everything mentioned above: sans serif font, lines which form a symbol cleverly alluding to a camera’s focus, balance and clever use of white space. Each of these features comes together, making an uncluttered logo that powerfully communicates the brand message.
On the practical side, less embellishment means it will be easier to scale your logo for diverse digital and printed marketing material. Additionally, the ageless characteristics of modern logos shows that they will always evolve gracefully with your brand, as it and you continue to grow.
By Jenna Romano
Writer, web design and branding expert