This image hit the web a few months back and received a number of reposts on pop culture blogs and design sites, such as LogoDesignLove.com, along with an accompanying video that explores the icon’s evolution à la Michael Jackson’s Black or White. The Batman icon is arguably one of our most recognized graphics, dating back to 1941 with the publication of Batman #1 (Batman first appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics) and receiving a huge pop culture push in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman. Most importantly, this evolutionary chart is a perfect example of what a good, recognizable icon is made of. After nearly 70 years of artists and designers tweaking the design, there’s no doubt what each iteration represents. But if this is such an exemplary icon, then why do all of these sites keep calling it a logo?

Design clients often struggle with our terminology when requesting graphics for their projects. Isn’t it a logo? What exactly is a wordmark? By the looks of internet chatter, sometimes we even get confused. This image provides an opportune time to clarify, so here goes…

There are 3 basic options when creating a graphic to brand events, products, companies, and what-not. The first, and most basic, is the icon. Similar to the Batman graphic above, icons are simple graphics sans-text. The Nike swoosh is a perfect example of this. When creating representational icons, the graphic should always capture the characteristics of what is being represented and be easily understandable. This is where the Batman icon excels, and where the icons on your computer or mobile phone screen should, but often don’t. So when you see a neon green swoosh on someone’s sneaker or one of the above bat-shaped graphics in the night skies of Gotham, there’s no questioning what they represent.

The other end of the spectrum is the wordmark, which is a text-only representation. Think Coca-Cola, FedEx, and Google. Wordmarks are representations of a word or name that are intended as visual symbols of a organization or product, and sometimes also referred to as logotypes. My personal guidelines are that a wordmark can only include symbols located on the QWERTY keyboard, but there are a number of designers that will incorporate further design elements (such as horizontal rules or custom-shaped letterforms) and still consider the product a wordmark.

And finally, when an icon and a wordmark really love each other, they make a logo. Logos incorporate graphics with text to accomplish the same fundamental goals as stated above. In fact, many organizations, such as Nike again, have both logos, icons, and wordmarks to represent their companies or products, and all three can be used in combination for successful branding.

Additional links:
10 mistakes in icon design

10 tips for effective icon design
Todd Klein’s history of the Batman logo


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