The Process Of Credibility-Based Logo Design

Guest AuthorMarch 28, 20176 min

Saul Bass created many great logos for clients such as AT&T, Minolta, Warner Bros, Girl Scouts of America, Kleenex, Continental Airlines (circa 1968), United Way, United Airlines and Rockwell International to name just a few. His process has a lot offer to designers and marketers seeking to create dynamic logos, but it can also bring designers and business managers closer together to better understand the philosophy, process, and success prediction of company logo design and branding in general.

In 1964, Saul Bass hired me as a strategic logo design planner, account manager, and director of new business contacts. I was young, just a few years out of UCLA, and I was attracted to Saul’s rational approach to great logo design in the ‘60s. Saul was captivating as he described his reasoning why his great designs worked: thoughtful planning first, design next. Then it all came together which I call credibility-based logo design. This new philosophy and resulting process happened one night in Saul’s office.

Saul Bass Logo Design Branding

The Night Saul Bass Had A Revelation

In late 1967, Saul (pictured) asked me to see him after work for a very important meeting. He wanted to discuss logo design strategies for a new client, Continental Airlines. Eastern Airlines and Braniff had just launched the airline logo and plane markings boom. Now, this was a new logo and plane markings design image program for a feisty small airline, Continental, and we had to give them a dynamic solution. Saul insisted again on logo design planning as a means to achieving his high caliber successful logos.

Previous to this planning meeting, an associate and I observed and photographed how Continental looked in reality. The first objective was to show Continental management what the public saw at ticket counters, city ticket offices, inside their aircraft, outside their aircraft, baggage handling operations, ticket jackets (remember those?), uniforms, signage, stationery, business cards, advertising, and so on. Today we would call this recording “all visual touch points” for a client. This would be an eye-opener for the client from the customer perspective.

We came back with a photographic inventory of 1,500 slides showing a dated and confused Continental visual appearance. What we found was a definite conflict with Continental’s reputation for friendly, high service, and efficiency. The Continental visual look said the opposite. Plus, Continental had no overall distinct character and looked rather like most other airlines of the time.

I remember Saul started our planning meeting by saying something like, “If this were a ‘Western-oriented’ airline we would just give Continental a ‘Western’ looking logo complete with an ‘out-West look’ reminiscent of cowboy gear.” Corny and definitely not Continental. This was a different airline uniquely known for its high service image and new ideas from a maverick president, Bob Six. Mr. Six would be open for a unique solution to make the airline stand out as the smallest compared to United, TWA, Pan Am—the big names of the time.

After discussing several themes, nothing seemed to work and frustration set in. I had an idea and I wanted to please my boss. Suggesting it to the great Saul Bass, however, was like speaking before the “great Oz.”

I mustered my courage and suggested to Saul that since Continental is already known for their friendly, high service, and efficient image, why not extend this “reality” image and communicate Continental in all areas visually just like Continental conducts itself in real life? Let’s make the logo communicate Continental as a friendly, high-quality service, and efficient airline.

In short, here’s the strategy:

Let’s begin with the logo communicating Continental as an “airline,” its basic business. Then add to the “airline” logo symbology design motifs expressing “friendly,” “high service,” and “efficient” in terms of “high tech” and “state-of-the-art,” which are the elements of Continentals image in reality.

We’d be taking the known image into visual non-verbal expressions.

This hit Saul like a revelation. Together, we reframed the dated logo design and environmental graphics so vivid in our photographic inventory with the new logo together with simple, contemporary environmental design themes. The plane markings would be horizontal stripping on a long white fuselage of gold, orange, and red beginning with the famous gold tail with a red logo.

The ticket counters would look super efficient—a place for great service in a friendly manner. The city ticket offices and boarding areas would have interesting photos and artifacts from around Continental’s routes. The new design image taken in all areas of customer contact would be a natural extension of Continental’s reputation for friendly, high-service, and efficient.

But it would do something else from our perspective as graphic designers. What Saul and I were doing was describing Continental’s credibility traits in communication persuasion, although we didn’t call it that.

Several years later in graduate school, I discovered the connection between source credibility in communication persuasion and its application to logo design. I termed the process: credibility-based logo design, which later became the subject of my best-selling book, The Power of Logos: How to Create Effective Company Logos. I later verified the process in my 2006 Ph.D. dissertation.

While Saul was pleased with my book, he sadly didn’t live to see my Ph.D. dissertation, which was dedicated to him. He didn’t know the impact on the logo design planning and creative process would have starting in his office that night in 1967.

What is credibility-based logo design and how can marketers and designers use it to create logos that work?

First of all, consider looking at a company logo as communication persuasion, rather than artwork per se. It all goes back to Communication 101. There are four elements in any communication process:

1.The source or sender of the message. In our case the source is the company. The credible source is important to judging the message that’s next in the linear model.

2. The message. In our case, unique selling points for the purpose of inducing a purchase. That’s the job of the copywriter, however.

3.The channel. In Continental’s case, plane markings as an example, but normally TV, newspaper, phone, website—any medium that carries the message.

4.The receiver. These are important stakeholders such as customers, employees, banks, suppliers, etc.

If the company is the source, how does the company influence the receiver as a customer? Many studies in interpersonal communication over the past 40 years conclude that a source that’s credible will be more influential than a non-credible source. This is called source credibility in communication persuasion. So, let’s revise our model above:

Credible Source > Message > Channel > Receiver

In short, a person high in the dimensions of expertise and trust will be more credible, and, therefore, more influential in communication. In logo design, a credible logo is two to four times more influential than a non-credible logo. Read: more sales. This happened with the Continental logo program big time in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

Credibility-based logo design projects the company as being an expert in their business and communicates trustworthiness. A company must be believable at being able to do the work for which it claims to be an expert.

The Saul Bass-Approved Method of Credibility-Based Logo Design

The Saul Bass Legacy

The Continental Airlines logo, with its famous gold tail, turned out to be the first of many successful credibility-based logo designs that I helped plan and develop. Company managers and logo designers now have a frame of reference for planning, designing, and creating company logos. Successful logos are no longer concepts that come out of nowhere. They’re planned with the client. They’re credibility-based. This process redefines the objectives for a “design brief” which now describes the logo design objectives in terms of the client company’s unique credibility traits.

Credibility-based logo designs are proven to be successful. The process works today for marketers and designers just like it did for Saul Bass and I with Continental Airlines over 40 years ago.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Dr. Bill Haig, Credibility-Based Logo Design Expert

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  • Howard Maat

    March 29, 2017 at 10:51 am

    Enjoyed this article not only because it helps explain the careful planning and effort involved with branding/logo design, but I also worked for Saul Bass in the early 1990’s after I graduated from UCLA’s design department. Spending a couple of years at Saul’s agency and getting to interact with him personally was a great experience early in my career. The discovery and planning process was a HUGE part of the work his teams did, right up to the end. It formed a foundation I’ve tried to carry forward with my own work. I still remember Saul asking/telling me: “Do you like the PROCESS? Because if you don’t like the process, get out of this business!”

    Words to live by–not just for designers, but for all of us.

  • Derrick Daye

    March 29, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Adding to your observation Howard, this quote from Saul…“Sometimes when an idea flashes, you distrust it because it seems too easy. You qualify it with all kinds of evasive phrases because you’re timid about it. But often, this turns out to be the best idea of all.” In our increasingly over-communicated world there’s a clear and obvious link between simplicity and success.

  • Dr. Bill Haig

    June 26, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    I am the author of this article and want to make an important comment to those above. First of all, I was Saul’s Logo Account Manager in the 1960s. One of my responsibilities was to meet with a new client management, such as Continental Airlines, and learn as much about their business, shortcomings and opportunities. Saul did not specify what to ask or take notes about. Just learn everything you can was my marching order. Yes, planning was 80% of any new logo, 20% the genius of Saul Bass creative success.

    This article explains a turning point or “a ha” moment. We discovered how credibility principles in every day communication persuasion also applied to logo design and branding. Communication is communication. Credibility based communication moves customers.

    This was my 2007 Ph.D. dissertation, three papers and many articles. High Brand Credibility strategy works — starting with that night in Saul’s office.

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