Your logo is the first line of marketing for your company. It’s everywhere from business cards to billboards, so of course creating something different and expressive is the goal of every business owner. You find yourself longing for a symbol that is unique, bold or whimsical—and that represents your company appropriately, of course. So you tell your designer, “I want something like Apple or Nike.”

Sigh.

With his palm on his forehead, he replies, “Can you give me some more details about your company, please? What’s your marquee product? Who is your target customer?”

Trust me, your designer gets asked to create a logo of Apple or Nike caliber every single day. There are two fundamental problems with this request: 1) creating a unique logo that doesn’t have an obvious connection to your business can be risky. 2) The Apple and Nike logos are not as arbitrary as most people think—there was a method to the madness.

Origin stories of some unique logos

Apple

Original Apple Logo with Sir Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree.
The original Apple logo: busy and cumbersome.

A bitten apple has nothing to do with computers, right? Since an apple has no obvious link to computers, most people assume the iconic Apple logo is completely arbitrary. But when you look at the original logo designed in 1976 by Ronald Wayne, you’ll see that the design included a sketch of Sir Isaac Newton sitting under the apple tree; the one that dropped the fruit that would change science forever.

Through this detailed logo, Apple hoped to align itself with one of the premier thought leaders of all time—not a bad move. But the the logo was too busy. Its complex and detailed design didn’t translate well to the various mediums on which it would be emblazoned, like your computer monitor. Apple fell into a common trap of innovative (and non-intuitive) logo design: taking a route that was way too cerebral.

Modern monochrome Apple logo.
The slick, clean Apple logo design we recognize today.

Not more than a year later, Steve Jobs sought a logo that was more modern. Keeping with the underlying theme of an apple changing the science world, (with a few iterations along the way) the current silver apple logo was born.

The bite? Nothing too clever here, at least initially. Rob Janoff, the designer, wanted to make sure people knew it was an apple and not a tomato. That “bite” is a nice play on “byte” was just a stroke of luck.

Nike

Black Nike Swoosh
The iconic Nike Swoosh had humble beginnings.

People around the world, of all ages, see the Nike Swoosh and immediately think of the sports apparel and accessory giant—a logo dream come true. But was the logo the handiwork of a major advertising or design firm? Not even close. The infamous Swoosh is the product of an undergraduate design student, Carolyn Davidson, who was tasked by one of Nike’s founders (the original company was Blue Ribbon Sports), Phil Knight, to create a stripe for a new line of shoes that “conveyed motion.” Davidson was paid $35 for the job. The rest is history, sort of. Knight wasn’t originally crazy about the design, but eventually came around, giving the design the ultimate position—company logo.

Why explore a logo’s origin story?

Understanding how original logos came to be, by looking at the initial designs and mistakes made along the way, can help you develop a process for your own unique logo design.

Apple’s design began with the desire to align itself with top scientific thinking. Nike wanted the shoe stripe to convey motion. What do you want your customers to think or feel when they see your logo? The first step in logo design is to ask yourself this question!

Think of it like this: if you are an attorney, it may not be wise to use the “scales of justice” in any of your branding as it is the most overused symbol in the industry. It won’t set you apart from anyone. But you may have to drill down a bit to discover what you really want to convey with your logo.

Perhaps you truly believe that the pen is mightier than the sword and you can help clients avoid dangerous confrontations with written legal action? Great! Pens and swords are not scales of justice. You are moving toward a unique perspective—brainstorming in the right direction.

A story about a little hawaiian surf shop

Town & Country Surf was created in 1971 in Pearl City, Hawaii. Most surf shops logos go straight to surfboards, waves and amazing sunsets in their logos. But Town & Country Surf’s logo skipped all that.

Town & Country Surf Design yin-yang logo in black and white.
Town & Country Surf looks nothing like a surfboard yet the yin-yang symbol is iconic in Hawaiian and international surf culture.

Their use of the yin-yang symbol isn’t typical for a surf company. So what were they thinking?

If town is yin, country is yang. If yin is soft, yang is strong. If yin is light, yang is dark. The symbol includes everyone. Surfers come from all walks of life, so this is a very Zen approach to logo design.

Now look at the curves of the yin-yang: they can represent waves if you want them to, which brings in the whole surfing thing. Translation: surfers from all walks of life are welcome to ride waves.

The logo works. This small little company has become an international sensation that’s about more than selling surfboards. Their t-shirt designs are beloved in Hawaii, Australian and Japan.

So, how do I make a unique logo?

Don’t be in a rush to design a cool logo hoping it will become a merchandising magnet. A timeless, original logo takes time. Focus on what makes your product or service unique and think not just about what you do but why you do it. As you dive into the process of creating your ideal logo keep these design tips in mind:

1. Ignite inspiration

What inspired you to start your company? It is this thinking that can lead you to an unexpected logo design (think: Newton in Apple’s original logo). If you’re a new almond milk brand you could consider playing around with the concept of milk or dairy—how does your brand approach the category differently? Perhaps you can create a playful mascot: Super Almond (almond with a cape and mask?) to compete with the tired cows that represent traditional milk products.

2. Know your audience

Who are you serving? Town & Country Surf understood that many surfers subscribe to everything that the yin-yang symbol represents: unity, balance and connection with the sea. Are you tapped into the fundamental motivations and values of your target audience?

3. Trust your designer

Once you have done the necessary research and brainstorming, share your findings with your designer, then step back and let her do her job. When you’re in the forest, it can be hard to see anything but trees. Your designer is looking at the whole concept from above the forest and her job is to develop your key concepts into something special. Trust her instincts.

Apple’s initial logo was created by one of the founders. It was redesigned decades later by a professional designer who maintained the essence of the original concept while integrating Steve Jobs’ aesthetic sensibility and direction for the company.

4. Be flexible and adaptable

Flexibility is key in logo design. The Apple and Nike logos that we know and love today did not have such auspicious beginnings. Remember, the beloved Swoosh was a simple shoe stripe for on a company that wasn’t even called Nike yet. Your logo doesn’t need to be perfect today! As your company and brand develop, you will be able to see and test what customers love—and don’t love—about your logo. This doesn’t mean that logo redesign is an easy undertaking, but may companies go through it more than once in their lifetime. From Pepsi to AT&T, many brands have updated their logos to keep up with evolving times, technological advancements and changes in their products, services or customer base.

5. Keep up with technology

Modern State Farm logo with three red ovals stacked as a pyramid.
State Farm spent millions redesigning its logo to better translate to a digital world.

Some companies, like State Farm, invested in a logo redesign to keep up with the ever-evolving digital world. You may be determined to do something different with your logo, but be sure that that your unique design can stand up to any digital space, from a smart phone screen to Twitter handle and everything between.

You’ve now got the building blocks that will hold you up as you embark on the journey to a unique logo design. Take risks, but be aware. Get inspired, but be practical. Adaptability is key and flexibility rules.

You’ve got this!

Ready to create a timeless, unique logo? Start the process today by launching a logo design contest.