Remember the first time you came across these images. What did you see? The skeleton or the girl looking in the mirror?
What did you see in this classic? The old woman – or the young woman?
Or here, the rabbit- or the duck?
The point is that different people can see (and interpret) different things while looking at the exact same image. So when it comes to logos, the same idea applies. What may start off as a well-intended meaningful design to communicate associations relevant to the brand can be sometimes receive unintended interpretations. This can result in the logo being mocked (which is a rampant phenomenon online) - or worse yet, the brand becomes subject to rumours that are difficult to squash. The bottom line is this. Brand building efforts can be crushed based on ambiguous logo design. Let’s look at a few examples.
What do you see in this logo? This logo was originally designed for a Brazilian university's Oriental studies program. The purpose of the logo is to give an "Asian" vibe through the Asian architecture that rests ahead of the rising sun. Of course, there is a much nastier interpretation to this logo. To add irony to this logo, the Institudo de Estudos Orientais is part of University Catolica Portuguesa.
Here we see a logo for Safe Places. Safe Place provides access to immediate help and supportive resources for all young people in crisis through a network of sites sustained by qualified agencies, trained volunteers and businesses. What's your impression of this logo? Is it the safe hands of a protector - or the perverted hands of a groper? The two interpretations are communicating opposite messages.
Sometimes fonts or spelling blow it for the brand. Consider Kids Exchange- a brand that allows consumers to buy and trade previously owned kids' toys and clothing. It is almost comical that this name could as easily be read KidsExchange as KidSexChange. All that the designer needed to do here was exaggerate the size of the K and E - or have a bit of a space between "kid" and "exchange". The brander who signed off on the logo design here was just asleep at the switch.
Logo misinterpretations often have a double entrendre of a sexual nature (e.g. Islamic Understanding Institute). Sometimes, however, folks can go out of their way to mock the logo. Zune gets mocked in its mirror image which circulates over the Internet. Once you see this, you'll probably never think of Zune the same way.
The granddaddy logo fiasco belongs to P&G. Procter and Gamble trademarked its man in the moon logo way back in 1851. According to P&G, the 13 stars in the logo paid homage to the 13 American colonies. According to Snopes, the man in the moon was used just because it was a popular design of the time. In those days, brands traded a lot more under graphical images (rather than names) so the distinctive graphic could help consumers recognize the P&G brands of packaged goods. Incredibley, rumors surfaced (many fuelled by Amway salespeople) that P&G had links to Satanism. The bearded-man logo was offered up as evidence. Hidden within the beard are a series of 6’s- marking “666” – the mark of the beast. The 13 stars, "of course", refer to Revelation Chapter 13 which discusses the mark of the beast. The rumor spawning from the logo cost Procter and Gamble unspecified sales and extensive public relations counter efforts, while forcing the company to redesign it world-wide company logo.
There is a simple take away from this post. Logos are intended to convey meaningful associations about the brand. For some reason, poor logo designs sometimes sift through the approval process. Sampling a few employees- or consumers- for their interpretation of the meaning the logo is clearly in order. I'd bet that the brand managers of the brands presented above all wish that they had spent a little more time on this screening process.