Photo by Hamed Daram on Unsplash
April 15, 2020

Should your logo stand out or fit in?

Big Duck’s CEO Sarah Durham and Design Director Sandy Zimmerman discuss logos. If you are contemplating a new logo, should you go with expected imagery or go with the unfamiliar? This blog examines the merits on both sides and shows how a little bit of both can help your brand shine.


Sarah Durham: Hey, welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Durham. I’m joined today by Sandy Zimmerman, who is Big Ducks Design Director. Welcome back to the podcast, Sandy.

Sandy Zimmerman: Thanks, Sarah. Great to be back.

Sarah Durham: Sandy wrote a terrific article, which is published on Big Duck’s website on our blog. It’s called “Standing out or fitting in: Where should your logo be?” And we’re gonna link to it in the show notes. You can also find that article and many, many others on topics related to what we talk about in this podcast if you go to and click on “Insights.” But this piece particularly intrigued me because in it, Sandy sheds light on some nuances that come up in the logo design process that frankly I think a lot of non-designers don’t think about and maybe some designers don’t think about enough. So Sandy, talk us through what this piece is about for folks who haven’t read it.

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah, so the piece is broken out into three sections. The first is the “Fitting in” section where I talk about the sort of surprising aspects of why you might actually want your logo to fit into the landscape of the work that you do. And what that’s really talking about is using universally understood tropes and symbols or even colors and typefaces that your audiences already understand. So not to rely upon clichés, but to really kind of leverage those symbols that are out in the world so that audiences can more quickly come to understand what kind of work you do before they even read about you. The second section is about “Standing out” and those situations where you might have a reason to really buck those trends and do something different and unexpected and then it ends with the section that’s called “The happy middle” and how we can kind of think about both of those sides of the coin and borrowing from both and why both can be useful.

Sarah Durham: In my conversations with you, we’ve talked about some of the reasons you wrote this article and some of the elements that you want to impact, but let’s talk about that. Why did this piece need to be written? What inspired you to think about this?

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah, I was just thinking about how when we go to design a logo, whether or not we explicitly ask ourselves this question, we have to contend with all these symbols that are out in the world and in my years of design have always tried to stay away from clichéd designs. You know, really unoriginal ideas. And actually the definition of cliché is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. So that is an approach that I have always tried to avoid, but it dawned on me that we do need to think about what symbols are in the world and that there’s a difference between symbols and clichés.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I remember a lot of conversations we’ve had here over the years about the cliché of the happy, smiling people holding hands around the globe. And actually sometimes symbols become clichés. So a globe or a human silhouette is I suppose a symbol, but it becomes a cliché when it’s used in these obvious ways. I think with humans and with gloves, one of the most clichéd executions of those symbols is like the childlike thing where it looks actually like an adult trying to draw like a child draws. Not even like how a child really draws… Actually a kid actually drawing a globe might be a more original execution of the symbol.

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah. I think we do see a little bit less of those types of logos out in the world now, which is sort of why I think I started thinking about the value of the symbols rather than just thinking in this negative construct about we have to stay away from clichés, we have to stay away from clichés. I started thinking about actually there are really powerful symbols that we should be harnessing and sometimes it’s really important to think about what are the symbols in the universe of the work that this organization is doing.

Sarah Durham: Can you give us an example of a symbol that you’ve seen in the world that our listeners might be familiar with that you think does that well?

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah, I think one of the best examples is the Human Rights Campaign, which uses an equal sign and it’s just a really simple logo that’s so powerful because it is relying upon that symbol that is so well understood and quickly understood and they kind of own that now. So good for them.

Sarah Durham: They’ve done a great job taking that symbol of the equal sign, which is actually like so simple. It’s such a straight forward mark and using it in ways where it has really stood out. There’s a great story about them encouraging their community to adopt the logo and make it your own and do your own thing with the logo even play with it. And that was actually a really interesting idea of taking this kind of basic symbol and then letting people get creative with it. Which I thought did a really nice job reflecting also their brand strategy of democratization that we’re all a part of this community that supports their work. So symbols, thumbs up, clichés generally thumbs down or is that an oversimplification?

Sandy Zimmerman: I think that’s generally true. I think that there are ways that we can take what are sometimes seen as clichéd symbols and do something original with them. And also there are some organizations that had been represented by a certain symbol for years and years. So even if the landscape has become saturated with that mark or with that type of symbol, it still can be worth keeping that around. So an example of that is the Girl Scouts and using the faces and faces are very common in logos and if rendered particular ways can look like a cliché, but because that symbol is so uniquely drawn and so iconic for that organization, it does make sense to hold onto that.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, I love that example. Girl Scouts has had the profiles of the girls for decades and I think they did an update of that logo maybe 10 or so years ago to make it a little bit more current. Irrelevant. But as you said, they knew it was iconic and so they didn’t change the fundamental nature of the symbol. PBS, which is New York City’s Public Broadcasting System, also has faces. Hands are another one. There’s you know, the Boy Scouts logo with hands. There’s a lot of logos that use hands. And again, probably the difference between the symbol and the cliché is all in the execution. I would say that the way I think it’s Boys and Girls Club maybe use his hands. It’s like interlocking fingers in a kind of an interesting execution.

Sandy Zimmerman: Right.

Sarah Durham: So if somebody was listening to the show who was about to embark on a logo design process, and this is all food for thought, how would you recommend that they go about deciding whether their new logo, the logo they’re creating, should stand out or fit in?

Sandy Zimmerman: I think the most important place to start is by really surveying your landscape, your peer landscape, looking at what other organizations who do the same kind of work that you do. What are they doing? What do they look like? And familiarize yourself with that so that you can assess how much you want to be part of that mix or how much you want to stand out from that mix. And based on your brand strategy, how far do you want to differentiate yourself from the pack? Or is it important because of your audiences that they just get right away what you do? And that kind of looking different is not going to be so important to those audiences.

Sarah Durham: I would add to that that it’s also probably very important to factor in your organization’s overarching brand strategy and personality and to have that make sense with the execution and if you are trying as an organization to go for a brand personality that is kind of warm and you know more cute or fuzzy or expected than the fitting in thing probably makes a lot of sense to kind of rely on those symbols or tropes. But if you’re really trying to stand out and have a brand identity that is very differentiated, then I imagine there are many ways you can stand out. But probably being very deliberate about the use of the symbols becomes even more urgent. Do you think that there is any tension here also with the quality of design? Like is it one of those things like if you’re working with a really high caliber designer, whether you’re paying them or they’re doing it pro bono, you can expect them perhaps to work with symbols in a more sophisticated way? And if not, you know, be aware or is that unfair to say?

Sandy Zimmerman: No, I don’t think that’s unfair to say at all. I think that that’s what you should expect from a skilled designer is that they will be looking for those original ways to work with the symbols that are out there. And you know, we’ve been talking a lot about symbols in this conversation, but actually color and typography are also maybe a little bit more subtle but also have their own associations as well. So, for example, green is widely connected with environmental issues. Or in my article I talked about the colors that are associated with LGBTQ issues like pink or the rainbow flag and how those are, I consider under the umbrella of symbols and the imagery and tropes that we should think about when we go to design a logo.

Sarah Durham: Yeah, we’ve certainly worked with a lot of organizations who are a part of larger movements associated with colors. For instance, pink in the breast cancer world or red and the AIDS world where we’ve had a lot of heavy conversations about whether to embrace those colors or differentiate from that. So that’s a great point. Great addition. Okay, so we will link to this article in the show notes and Sandy’s written other useful pieces around this. So if you’re about to embark on a logo design process, I would encourage you to check out and just do a search for logos and you’ll find many of her great thought leadership on this topic and other people on our team too. Sandy Zimmerman, thank you for joining.

Sandy Zimmerman: Thanks, Sarah.