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  • Oscar Park

A brief history of ‘logo’

A 3D printers mark in yellow on a green background.

It’s fair to say the terms 'logo' and 'logos' have undergone a few changes over the years. They've evolved from their ancient philosophical roots to contemporary significance in the vocabulary of branding and communication. But how have these words and their meanings transformed over time and what do they mean now? 

1. Logos in Ancient Greece

It all started in Ancient Greece, where the term logos held profound weight, rooted in Greek philosophy. The works of Heraclitus appear to be the first time the word was used and later it was popularised by future Stoic philosophers. Logos represented the universal principle of order and knowledge. It encapsulated the rational discourse that governed the cosmos, serving as an intellectual cornerstone for understanding the intricacies of existence.

2. The Christian connotation: Logos in theology

As the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, logos took on a more theological dimension. In Christian theology, the term found a new home in the Gospel of John, where it was used to describe the divine, creative force that existed before all things. "In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This nuanced usage paved the way for a connection between the divine essence and the concept of a meaningful expression - laying the groundwork for future linguistic developments.

Rectangular box outline in black. H H letters on left, W on right. Sceptre symbol in the middle.
Mark of J. Weissenburger

3. Renaissance and linguistic revival: Logo as a mark

Fast forward to the Renaissance, a period marked by intellectual resurgence. The term 'logo' emerged as an abbreviation for the Greek logos, encapsulating the essence of a concept or an idea. This era witnessed a flourishing of humanist thought, and the truncated term found its way into various disciplines, signifying a concise and symbolic representation. Printers, who were often closely affiliated with the church, started making marks to differentiate themselves from competitors and could be seen as precursors to modern corporate branding.

Black and white images of a scallop shell, Gilette logo and a dead lion surrounded by flies.
Early logos for Shell, Gilette and Tate & Lyle

4. Industrial Revolution and commercial identity: 'Logo' as a trademark

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of mass production, the concept of a logo underwent a pivotal transformation. As businesses sought distinct visual identities to set their products apart in a burgeoning marketplace, 'logo' began to be associated with distinctive symbols and trademarks. Logos became complex—they evolved into recognisable, visual representations that communicated brand identity and values.

5. Modern era: 'Logo' as brand

In the contemporary landscape, 'logo' has morphed from the Greek notion of rational thought and discourse, firmly establishing itself as a fundamental component of branding and corporate identity. In fact, it has almost completely flipped in meaning. From ‘order’, ‘rational’ and ‘reason’ to the distinct visualisation of a feeling and emotion. If anything, should the modern logo be an ‘etho’ rather than ‘logo’?

A logo now acts as a key element within a brand system. It is a visual shorthand that communicates a brand's personality, values, and promises in a single, memorable image. Whether it's the swoosh of Nike or the golden arches of McDonald's, logos have become the embodiment of a business communication representing who they are and what they stand for.

In conclusion, the journey of 'logo' and 'logos' is one that migrated from the realms of philosophy and theology, ending up where it is now - commerce. From its roots in Ancient Greek philosophy to its contemporary role within a brand's visual identity, these words have shaped and reflected the evolving tapestry of human expression and communication. As we continue to navigate the ever-changing landscape of language and design, the evolving meaning of 'logo' serves as a testament to the enduring human quest for meaning, understanding and connection.


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