logo origins

Famous Logos Designed by Amateurs

Sometimes the most iconic things spring from unlikely sources. Walking down the street or browsing the internet, you see company logos everywhere. You may never think about how they originated. Even if you do, you might assume they all come from slick design firms steeped in New York or London glamor. If so, these logo origins might surprise you.

We’re using “amateur” here in its true meaning —  someone who is not yet a professional. Forget, for a moment, that term’s frequent association with the unsophisticated or just plain bad. Prior to the 20th century, companies didn’t normally employ design firms to create logos. According to the Springleap agency, “companies would look to their staff to craft their logo, as they were closest to the company and had a good understanding of the core business.” Today, it’s usually a good idea to approach a professional designer. Even so, some companies have found diamonds in the rough.  



As famous logo origins go, this one is pretty well known. Carolyn Davidson was a student at Portland State University, where Phil Knight was an accounting professor. He needed some extra help with graphics at his side business, Blue Ribbon Sports. So, he began paying Carolyn roughly $14 an hour in today’s dollars. He asked her to take a crack at a logo, and she doodled for about three weeks. She would draw the logo on tissue paper and then hold it up to a shoe to see how it looked. In the end she made $35 for her logo but, fortunately for her, she also received some stock in the company, which became Nike. Nike is now valued at $86.2 million, number 18 on Forbes’ world’s most valuable brands list. Not bad for a part-time college job!



Frank M. Robinson was a bookkeeper at the nascent cola company in 1886 when founder John Pemberton needed a logo… oh, and a name. Robinson generated both. He used the Spencerian typeface, which echoed the formal handwriting style popular at the time. Naturally, he didn’t have Adobe Illustrator, so he drew it by hand. While other elements of the brand’s visual identity have evolved over the ensuing 125-plus years, the script portion has remained.


The Recycling Logo

In 1970, Gary Anderson was a 23-year-old college student at the University of Southern California. In 1970, attention to environmental issues was growing and the first Earth Day was held. A Chicago container company held a design contest to raise awareness about the environment. Anderson won, and his submission became the internationally recognized recycling logo. He won $2,500. The symbol resides in the public domain. Anderson went to become a successful architect and urban planner but is still best known the recycling logo.


Walt Disney’s Signature

We don’t really know who first created this one, but odds are good that he or she wasn’t a designer. Over the years, Disney has produced a plethora of different logos for its stable of products, but most incorporate the founder’s signature. When the company first took off, Walt became famous rapidly, and he was a busy guy. With fan mail pouring in, the company dashed off responses. Plus they needed the main man’s John Hancock on sketches, comic strips, and various correspondence. Secretaries and other staff members frequently signed things on his behalf. Legend has it that Walt Disney himself couldn’t replicate the version of his signature now universally recognized in the company logo.


2016 G7 Summit Logo

Shiho Utsumiya, an 18-year-old student at Tsurusaki Technical High School in Japan designed the official logo for the 2016 Group of Seven Summit. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose her entry from among six finalists shortlisted by a selection committee. 7,084 elementary, junior high and high school students across Japan originally submitted entries. Utsuiya’s design featured seven cherry blossom petals, to represent the seven nations, surrounding a red circle on a blue crescent shape pattern. She told reporters, “I made this logo in hopes of a successful summit and world peace.” Is there any more noble cause for a design?


As you can see, logo origins are sometimes surprising. You never know where amazing talent and the next great idea might arise, so always look around you. And think about these “amateurs” next time you open a Coke or watch Frozen!


IMAGE: coyot / CC0 Public Domain

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