June 12, 2006

You got your picture in my logo

I’ve been noticing logos lately that have replaced letters with pictures. I think it’s fascinating how the brain just fills in the blanks, whether or not the pictures actually resemble the letters they replace. Various studies have shown that we don’t look at the letters which make up words as much as we look at the shapes of the words as a whole. In fact, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The brain just takes care of the rest.

Here are examples where the letter isn’t completely gone, but a picture is formed by stylizing and embellishing a letter:

PictureLogo PictureLogo


And here are examples where the letter is totally gone, completely replaced by a picture that resembles the missing letter:

Sopranos Signs
Tarzan Empire
SeaWorld SouperBowl

It probably helps that the picture in the word is often a representation of the word itself. Something like the Stroop Effect may be going on here (or maybe the opposite of the Stroop Effect, whatever that would be called. The Poorts Effect?). Take this example, for instance:


The strawberry doesn’t look anything like the letter “a” but we know what letter is supposed to go there because we recognize the rest of the word, and after all, it is a picture of a strawberry.

This is one of my favorites:


We know it’s supposed to say “CIGARS” even though the picture neither looks like the letter “C” nor depicts a cigar! Perhaps the association with some tobacco product is enough.

And then there are the movie logos that replace letters with numbers:

PictureLogo PictureLogo

And of course movie logos that replace numbers with pictures:

PictureLogo PictureLogo

But Google takes the cake. They frequently swap out their traditional logo with one paying to tribute to a holiday or celebrity birthday. Their substitute logos often replace letters with picture, relying on our familiarity with the Google name and logo. They use color to remind us of the original logo, too.


And the granddaddy of all is this Google logo celebrating the Persian New Year. Only one letter remains as a reminder of the original logo:



I cannot look at lower-case r’s now without thinking they look like a Sopranos gun.

The first time I remember seeing this is when the movie Se7en came out. Now replacing a letter in a spelled number with the actual number is done all the time.

I had a class this semester that used this subject to say how strong images are in communication.

Herb Lubalin was cited as being one of the “fathers” of this technique inside the typography world…

some other examples:

I really love the way our brain react to this kind of effect!

I think maybe that cigar shop thought ‘cigars’ was spelled ‘sigars’.

My brain always wants to pronounce SE7EN as se-seven-en. The problem here is that 7 does not really look like a V.

Saw a billboard once in Ohio that said GOD BLESS AMERIC*, where * is a 5-pointed star. That one reads as GOD BLESS AMERICSTAR, because a star does not look like an A.

The STRAWBERRY one above reads as STROWBERRRY with an umlaut on the O. The LITTLEJOHNS reads as LIIILEJOHNS. BIGLOVE reads as BIGLOUE, BIGLOOE, or perhaps BIGLOHEARTE.

I have to confess it never occurred to me that Wolverine’s claws in the X-Men poster was intended to be the Roman numeral III. It did seem odd to me that they were promoting the movie as though it was called X: The Last Stand, however.

Designers are too clever by half.

And of course those studies that purport to show that it’s the overall shape of the word that matters are dubious — what they really show is that the vast majority of people do not actually read words, but rather guess at them, and are so habituated to doing so that they do not even notice when the letters are totally rearranged. In short, dyslexia is not a disorder but a point on a continuum that passes through what passes for normal reading ability these days. Of course, this is thuddingly obvious when you realize how utterly unable many people are to detect their own spelling errors.

Mr. Kindall above is an interesting case. I believe he makes the mistake of assuming that his own perception of these typographic tricks is universal (of course, we’re all guilty of this from time to time). But his post suggests that there are people out there whose brains are wired a little differently, and who struggle to understand what others might read effortlessly. I wonder how many designers (myself included) ignore all the Jerry Kindalls out there just because a small, unscientific sampling of our friends or coworkers tells us that our “clever” typography is legible.

I think the “Cigars” sign may likely be intended to be read “Sigars”, because of the shape. I’ve seen “Price Kutters”, where the “K” was a pair of scissors. I can’t say this type of design appeals to me though…

Another one you may wish to add is the Kiss 100 radio station logo. www.kiss100.com

Here’s one that really doesn’t work: The Bear Naked Granola logo

When I saw these packages at the store, at first I just read B AR NAK D. The claw marks don’t make very recognizable E’s.

I’m not saying that my perceptions are universal. I am simply saying that everyone who does not share them is TOTALLY WRONG. ;)

Some of those logos do work great. The Sopranos one works because a gun really does look like a lower-case “r.” Noticing that, and choosing a font to match it so seamlessly (that happens to remind one of the font used for the Godfather movies), is a genius bit of design. But come on, the Littlejohn’s one? If the kids had their arms sticking out, they’d look like “t”s and it’d work (although not optimally — the rest of the logo is uppercase and those “letters” are lowercase for no reason). But there IS NO letter that looks like the shape those kids are standing in! Perhaps it sorta works when you already know the word is “Littlejohn’s,” but if you’ve never seen that logo before, how in the world would you know that?

I think this use of symbologoy makes the logo more interesting and easier to remember and distinguish.

jerry kindall and gang:
when you are little, you learn to read letters and numbers, seperately. then, you read words (and larger numbers). then, slowly, you read sentences, paragraphs, pages, books, charts, tables, etc. from that point forward, you will read without seeing, just in the same way you see withouth reading. designers are taught (or inherently learn, or both) to not just read words, but to see the letters and words as shapes, but incredibly more precisely than a non-designer. so, we learn to break visual language down, from books, to pages, to paragraphs, to sentences, to words, to letters, to even the spaces around and in between. think of your typographic courses (if, indeed you took any) where you studied counters, ascenders/descenders, x-heights, leading, bowls, brackets, and optical vs actual. design (education) isn’t about fooling the masses by substituting pictures for words, numbers for letters; design is about learning the limits of legibility and readability (yes, they are two different things) and applying them (either by purification or perversion) to create visually memorable designs. so then it goes without saying i totally disagree with the notion of dyslexia as a dumbed-down state of reading. but this isn’t about dyslexia, it’s about your inability to read by seeing, and to see without reading. i find your comments here to be totally ignorant and visually bankrupt. the original post didn’t state any particular affection for the picture in a word logos, but just noted their increasing prevelance, almost to the point of ubiquity. so, jerry kindall (and your like-minded counterparts), the fact that you can’t comfortably be okay with the x-men 3 poster doesn’t mean you’re a better reader than the rest of us, it means you have trouble seeing the forest from the trees. oh, and if i have any spelling errors in this comment, it doesn’t mean i’m stupid, it means you can kiss my *sterisk.

Interesting commentary, and some cute logos. But I the question of “legible or not” is secondary. To me, the important thing to consider is that this formula has been repeated so often it has become a trite cliche. Let’s move on to inventing the next formula!


Logo design is a huge field, the idea is to communicate the business and make it memorable.. Using imagery to replace typography is an age old trick in identity design, and its a good one. It doesn’t always work though that Bear naked thing is a terrible logo, but someone thought it was good someone paid for it… its not memorable though. it wasn’t first done by se7en or any of those movies.. I mean that is clever work.. but its clever and one of the most memorable uses of image replacing type. So is the sopranos logo.

But everything is relevent too by genre. Things you can get away with in logo design for a tv show like sopranos you cannot get away with for a business that sells paper, sometimes things have to be straight forward other times they have to catch your eye.

It’s all a balance and designer’s are by their nature able to see way more visually then people whom aren’t. Case in point I was in a stadium sized pyschology class and they had an inversion technique on white and black space and picture of fruit looked like a human face. They flipped it back and forth and out of the whole room I and another designer sitting with me immediately saw it.

totally ignorant and visually bankrupt

Hey, I’m just telling you what I see — which of those logos didn’t work for me. I’m not a designer but I can, like anyone, tell you which of those convey the intended meaning to me and which do not. I wasn’t aware I needed an education in graphic design to look at something and say what I see.

Unless you are designing only for other designers then you should care whether the intended meaning comes through for non-designers. Or am I completely misunderstanding the purpose of design?

By the way, telling someone who writes and edits for a living that there’s something wrong with the way he reads is… well, let’s just say it would be quite difficult for you to be more wrong.

Designers shouldn’t avoid these nice tricks because visually retarded people like Mr. Kindall.

mr. kindall, you may be right. telling someone what the are or aren’t seeing may very well be wrong. and you’re right that designers are designing, by and large, for non-designers. like where i work, my boss is an investor, not a designer. that’s my job. his job is to make sure we make a profit. but, learning to see isn’t something should ever stop. i read some troubling stats that around 75% of college graduates never read another book after college. what a travesty! i myself am not a big book reader, but i indulge (and educate) myself by reading magazines, online articles, blogs, newspapers, etc. so, whether or not the way you currently see and read is right or not isn’t the whole issue. maybe it’s about what you’re willing to see and read.

Check out the zombie font at www.e-zombie.com

“Visually retarded” is a rather rude way to say that my standards are very high. ;)

Bankrupt and retarded are not even close to similar. He hardly implied you were visually retarded. I have to throw it out there, “..it would be quite difficult for you to be more wrong.” Are you a cartoon? Who talks like that?


Easy now folks,

I may have just accidentally stumbled into this whole conversation but some of you could use to lose the aggression. The use of images to replace letters may be a neat trick but there are people out there who will not understand them. There are people who see them as overdone, cheap tricks or not needed. Some may see them as hindering the overall look.

These techniques do work when aimed at the mainstream but keep in mind that if you were to target an audience of people like Mr Kindall you would either have to adapt or fail horribly. Do not dismiss him as “visually retarded” just because he doesn’t agree with your opinions.

In the same way that certain audiences prefer clean, white space to geek chic and gaudy brush filled designs, different audiences will require you to approach designing from a different angle. It really is a poor designer in my opinion that cannot change to satisfy his/her target consumers.

That’s just my view of things though. I prefer to see responses from people like Mr Kindall as constructive criticism that should NEVER be ignored. A designer should always keep these things in mind. Always.

I learned in college this technique is called “Vignette”, but i was not able to confirm this so far. Any ideas?