[Tom Biederbeck] At the crossroads of design, branding and statistics is Emblemetric, a new site where Dr. James I. Bowie uses data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to discern patterns and trends in logo design. What do the numbers say and how do they say it? Useful and sometimes startling things, it turns out — about style, color, geography, industry. I asked Bowie about his findings and their significance … and his own branding, too.
How did you come upon the idea of using Patent and Trademark Office data to look at logos?
I’m not a designer — I call myself a quantitative sociologist. For my dissertation, I was studying logos and stumbled across the Patent and Trademark Depositories, a network of libraries set up by the Patent and Trademark Office in the pre-internet era to make information available on all the logos registered in the U.S.
There I discovered what’s called the Design Search Code manual. It’s a coding system that people can use to make sure that, say, the new logo they’re considering won’t infringe on someone else’s logo. Using this data was tricky, because I was applying it to something it hadn’t been intended for. I had to figure out how to configure that data to see patterns over time, by industry, etc.
Emblemetric is a way of getting this information out to a broader, non-academic audience.
How do you select the attributes you’re going to analyze?
I look for things that people will find useful, for example color, which I know branding and marketing people are interested in. There are codes for color in the system, so I can pull those out and analyze them with respect to time, industry and other factors.
Above: Use of color in logos. Below: “Trendiness” of color use in logos. The technique uses data on logos “dying” or otherwise being abandoned, compared with new registrations. In the past few years, color trends have tended to even out.
Do you have specific models or sources for visualizing the data?
As a sociologist, I’m trained to some extent to convey data visually. You’re familiar with Edward Tufte; I’ve studied his writings and attended one of his seminars. His message is to be as clear as possible, and to avoid extraneous elements.
Infographics today are very attractive, but they don’t always convey data in the clearest way possible.
Is there something ironic about using data about design from the past to predict future trends? Are you concerned that this might devalue the role of creativity and unique solutions in design?
That’s a good question and something I’ve thought about. I can see how a designer might think this is trivializing creativity and lumping things into categories in order to spit out data. I tend to look at it more in terms of the big picture. I don’t claim one logo is better than another. This work isn’t qualitative; it’s quantitative. I think there’s room for both.
You have your own logo for Emblemetric (at the top of this article). Where did that come from?
It was designed in-house, I like to say — by me. I have limited design skills, but I did put it together. Let me ask you: What do you see?
Data points, trends or directions, and graphs?
Of course it’s also a capital letter E — a monogram. Esentially I’m referring to the shapes that are in logos — circles, triangles, squares. Next week I’m publishing an article on the site that addresses the issue of shapes in logos.
The logotype in the banner is Helvetica bold. It’s tongue in cheek: Helvetica is a typeface of modernism, and Emblemetric is sort of a modern project. The idea that you can quantify logo design seems to me like a modernistic idea.
Do you have a business card?
I do. I put this site together and decided I should get cards for it as well. I’m going to be speaking at a design conference in Boston, so they should come in handy. I got my cards from MOO!
The Patent and Trademark Office data covers more than 1.2 million logos from 1884 to today. All of this data goes into Emblemetric.com to yield patterns in logo design relating to the birth and death of logos, trends in style and elements, and much more.
Emblemetric is produced by James I. Bowie, PhD, and is based on his research on logo design and its strategic importance to organizations. Bowie has written about logo design for BusinessWeek Online, AIGA Voice, Brand New and The Alcalde. Emblemetric offers custom research services to branding, identity and graphic design specialists, as well as to organizations concerned with their graphic identity. E-mail [email protected] for more information.