Every one seems to be talking about them, designing them or getting them designed for their company. What are logos? How are they different than icons? People are confused about this but it isn’t keeping anyone up nights unless they happen to be deeply immersed in the study of ancient civilizations. Even though the word “logo” comes from ancient Greek and it translates to “word” or “speech”, other cultures – the Babylonian, Assyrian, Mayan, Chinese, Egyptian also used pictographs to communicate words and ideas. Pictographs could be considered early logos; unfortunately, gang graffiti on the walls of inner city buildings continues that trend of identification through signs and pictures.

Icons (derived from the Greek) are also used to communicate, but with pictures instead of words. The dictionary definition of “icon” is “image or likeness”. Thus, logo is to “word” as icon is to “picture” yet in the modern world of product identification, the distinction between the two is sort of cloudy; many well-known logos combine a tag line/motto and a picture with the corporate or product name in the logo. Other logos are clearly just words – the company name with no pictures. Maybe what we need is a new word to define the crossbred creation – a “locon” or “logon”?

Until that comes to pass, let’s stick with logo, even though many well-known logos are combinations of words and pictures. What is important about logo history is what has happened in this century – the universal adaptation of the logo as a key element used in the identification and advertising of a product or service.

One of the earliest logos anyone who is alive today will remember is that of the dog Nipper sitting in front of a phonograph and listening very intently. The motto “His Master’s Voice” is part of that logo. This logo made its debut in 1910. Is that logo still in use? You bet it is! RCA, the corporation that took over the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1920, still uses Nipper to hawk its products.

An even earlier logo, which is still very much in use, is that of Prudential Insurance – the Rock of Gibraltar. This came on the scene in 1896 and Prudential still urges consumers to “rely on the Rock”.

Some logos are so powerful they become universally known as symbols of a complete profession. Any doctor’s office will turn up a host of papers and other medical items imprinted with the symbol of a snake entwined around a staff – the caduceus. The medical community uses this logo to identify itself and every layman recognizes it.

Various religions use logos to reach their flocks. The cross, the Star of David are symbols of two of the major sects.

In the secular world, however, logos have grown so ubiquitously, that children in the new generation can identify popular logos even before they have learned to talk. What little child doesn’t immediately recognize the Golden Arches of McDonald’s?

The use of logos as trademarks goes back in time to the early days of the Renaissance, the 13th Century. Goldsmiths’ marks, paper makers’ watermarks were among the first logos used in this way, as trademarks. Trademarks, in today’s world of advertising, provide an easy method for recognizing a particular product.

Call them what you will – icon, trademark or logo – these powerful symbols have revolutionized the advertising world and you can’t escape their effect.