Who is your logo for?

It should be for you.

We hear a lot of talk about “target markets.” As in, “Our product appeals to married 30-somethings who earn over $60,000 per year and live in the suburbs.” This is nonsense.

I remember as a 14-year-old middle-schooler getting lumped into a category called “youth.” I hated that. I guess youth could be differentiated from child-rearing, car-driving, home-owning adults, but that’s it. I knew, and every kid in school knew, that we were all different. We had jocks and brains and frat types and musicians — those were the big categories — but even within those, our lives, our tastes, our experiences, our aspirations were as different then as they are now. Some of us were not into rock music. Some didn’t obsess over their hair. Some actually liked history and chemistry. We had funny kids and sassy kids and outgoing kids and quiet kids. Some were unbelievably smart and confident and driven; others were lost and broken and alone. No two were alike. Same as today.

The best logos that I can name were not designed for a “target market.” They were designed for the owner of the logo. Each was an expression of what he or she loved and valued. An enterprise is often, even usually, an expression of its founder’s vision and personality or an internal culture that it’s acquired over time. The logo, expressing the thing, is full of life.

On the other hand, a logo designed for a “target market” is an image without a soul. How could it be otherwise? A “market” has no face, no heart, no hands, no smile. It cannot buy your product or appreciate your art or contribute to your cause. It is a statistic, literally, dead as a rock. It is nothing.

Think about kids naming their new soccer team. Or your literary friend naming her new used-book store. They’ll pick names that they like. Before & After’s colorful logo wasn’t designed for a “target market.” I was looking for a way to express transformation, I liked the beauty of the color spectrum and the simplicity of kindergarten, so I combined all of it, designed it for myself, and others embraced it. I gladly welcomed as subscribers not a “target market” but all who were interested, and, to this day, a lot of my readers are not designers. Who could have known?

Shedding the target market straightjacket will liberate you. Color will return to your cheeks, warmth to your hands, and design will get fun again. You’ll be free to express what’s real and true. A design made for a client can express who they are — quirks, idiosyncrasies, and surprises included, and even better, celebrated! Because everyone is unique, the design will be unique in ways that target-market thinking could never see.

Imagine designing a wine-bottle label for a “target market” of “upscale” 50-somethings. Good luck with that. Now imagine making it for that white-bearded happy guy who whistles while he works and was crazy enough to start a winery at age 70, thinking that a boutique wine made from his special grapes could succeed in an already-crowded market.

He’s the one who will get the good label!

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18 Responses to Who is your logo for?

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    You are dead on, John! But then we are getting used to that! Too many of us are enamored of ideas in their heads that don’t correlate with reality. I fall into that trap from time to time myself.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. I don’t think a branding expert would solely (or soullessly as you point out) design to a target market. When I meet with clients, I stress that the logo should express the personality of their brand. That will help them reach those within their target audience who vibrate with or feel attracted by the personality they are putting out. We do an extensive session where I ask a lot of unusual questions rather than just a cold creative brief. It’s a great experience for the client and many times helps them hone in on what their position is and what makes their brand special.

  3. Judy Robertson says:

    There have been many, many lessons I’ve learned from you throughout the years that had nothing to do with graphic design.


  4. Hi John,

    Enjoyed the article. Good points. A logo does need to reflect the heart and soul of the business owner. I take it a step further and create a logo that shines in the sweet spot that includes what the business owner loves and what his or her ideal client wants to feel.

    The sooner a business owner recognizes the kind of clients that make his or her heart sing, the happier that business owner will be. It’s not an age group per se, it’s a kind of person who could be any age doing any kind of business.

    For example, I’m a challenger of assumptions — a person who values humor and beauty. The clients I enjoy working with tend to mirror that. A real conservative person would not be attracted to me or my business. Business owners who want to bust out of their “You must do it this way” cages will.

    I see it more as a blending of the two, which may be why my favorite wines are blends . . .

    Thanks! Giulietta

  5. Bryan Lewis says:

    I really enjoyed this article because I have been on the fence about this topic for a good minute.

    I understand that this article pertains to logo design but do you think it could also extend to other areas of design?

    Do you think that there are some situations in which the “target audience focused design” should be employed?

  6. Kirsty says:

    Not all women like shoes and handbags.
    Not all men like beer and football.
    Not all little girls like pink and princesses.
    Not all little boys like football.

  7. Tari Donohue says:

    I have to disagree in principle. Crafting a brand (certainly more than a logo) is somewhat of a tightrope walk between building a reflection of the owner and their product/service to the world, and being relateable to an audience.

    I caution my clients to not design a logo based solely on their own whimsy — at least not without a story launching alongside — because an audience has to work too hard to understand it. They may not make the effort if they haven’t heard something about the brand prior to seeing it.

    Take wine, as we have been using for our example. If you as a winemaker are into butterflies and ladybugs, unless those butterflies and ladybugs have some hand in making the wine, you need to consider whether to use them in your logo and gamble on whether they will understand the relationship between wine and bugs. You should consider whether it is just YOUR brand or a brand that extends your passion to your audience.

    Hit or miss is at stake here. You don’t want to get so wrapped up in your ethos and personality and quirks that you miss being relateable to the people (probably not “youth”) who will buy your wine. It’s costly to miss the mark.

    It’s okay to think about the “right people” who will be interested in your product or service. That kind of thought needs to go into a logo, and frankly, a logo should be the last thing designed for a brand. The ethos, the story, the r’aison d’etre, those come first.

    • Designed well, a very personal logo can lead to a story, which can lead to a deeper connection to a brand. The trick is always to figure out how to spark that interest in the conversation.

      “What is that floating in the river, dad?”
      “Well, son, that is a rivershark!?”
      “What’s a rivershark, daddy?”

      Scroll down to find out…

    • Kerry says:

      I had similar thoughts. Thank you.

  8. Steve Teare says:

    I agree with Tari Donohue. 100%.

  9. Barbara says:

    Best design advice I’ve read this year.

  10. Thanks John for writing this. I enjoyed the challenge.

    I agree that we should not get so caught up in designing for the target audience that we forget the identity and essence of who we are trying to represent. There is a danger in that the brand may morph into something it was never meant to be.

    But let’s not forget the context. An image is an impression.

    In the same way we would dress differently for different occasions, we should consider how we would present our brand in different products or settings.

    I think the most effective brand encounters happen when the personality presented (which accurately represents the brand), meets an audience that is attracted to it. The marketing strategy behind the “matchmaking” is just as important as the design strategy that made the brand outfit to match the occasion.

    “Your image is the sum of the impressions you leave behind.” – Aurora Rogers

  11. My Rivershark logo is unapologetically, unabashedly and selfishly my story.

  12. Dama K says:

    wow! i wish i could redo my whole university experience with this perspective

  13. Pingback: Für den Auftraggeber oder für die Zielgruppe — für wen das Logo gestalten? | Corporate Design und Corporate Identity Agentur München Gesundheit Food Kultur Bildung IT MISSING LINK

  14. Kerry says:

    Every signature is unique. Every fingerprint is unique. And each can stand alone as a mark of the person who owns it. However, the owner doesn’t control much of what it means to other people.

    Logos are similar. They can reflect what the owner likes or feels about themselves, or it can reflect who they really are. And the best way to achieve a more accurate representation of one’s self is to ask one’s friends. They will share a perspective that helps illuminate (or build upon) what one thinks they are.

    What I mean is that I agree that it’s not about a homogenous target market, like you said. But it also is not simply about what the owner likes either. A logo should be seen as an important component of a brand. And a brand is a reflection of a reputation.

    No matter what Enron thought of itself, and what it wanted to portray, their reputation defined them. No matter what an athlete thought of themselves and wanted to portray, their reputation defined them. No matter what any politician thought of themselves or wanted to portray, their reputation will define them.

    I agree that a target market cannot be the judge of a logo approach. But I also agree that a logo ought to reflect the reputation and authentic identity of the owner. That takes more work than designing for a faceless target group or for personal self-image.

  15. Peter Brock says:

    John has got it right. In fact, advertising gurus like Roy Williams and Bob Hoffman say much the same thing. Phonies, flimflammers and clap trap peddlers drone on and on about targeting and segments, trying to convince you it’s about reaching the right people.

    But what John, Roy and Bob tell us is different. Business success is all about being the right people. If your message is right, the rest just falls into place.

    But if the message is weak, fake or boring, then nothing else matters. You won’t make a dent in any target you aim for.

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