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What can we learn from a logo?

The logos of Microsoft and Apple, interpreted charitably and not-so-charitably.

I’m struck by the ways that a good logo can signal a company’s marketing priorities and customer culture.

Take the Microsoft logo, for example. It’s symmetrical and consistent. And that consistency is a key part of Microsoft’s brand; enterprise customers need predictable upgrade cycles, legacy interoperability, and clear vectors for support. Another visual element worth noting? The logo’s lines intersect at a single middle point, and Microsoft hopes to sit at the center of your business, delivering the software that ties together disparate systems.

Meanwhile, Apple’s logo, with its trademark missing bite, is very intentionally unsymmetrical. The imbalance implies some quirkiness—which appeals to the creative, “crazy ones” who make up its key market demographic. The logo also relies on an organic, natural symbol, rather than an abstract, precise polygon. This familiar shape distances Apple from the computer’s mathematical underpinnings and eases its brand toward the humanities. Note how often Apple’s executives discuss the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.

Of course, we could also analyze these logos less charitably. Microsoft’s logo is simple and unrelentingly… well, square. That slang term fits the company’s “tragically unhip” reputation. Steve Jobs once complained that Microsoft’s chief failure was its lack of taste. He compared it to McDonald’s—a restaurant that delivers a consistent experience but inspires no one. (Appropriately, McDonald’s golden arches are also symmetrical.)

Apple’s logo could be interpreted cynically, too. This symbol is concrete and unmistakable, and the apple’s “leaf” and “bite” both point in one stubborn direction. The implied message? Take it or leave it, it’s Apple’s ecosystem and they grip the reins tightly. If you want to ride along, Apple gets to drive. So, unlike Microsoft, Apple eschews cross-platform interoperability whenever it can. It limits users’ ability to customize its precisely-designed interfaces. App Store developers must play by Apple’s rules. iOS users can not set third-party app defaults for things like maps or email. Facetime never became that “open standard” that Steve Jobs promised.

Silly semiotics? Maybe so. A fun exercise? For sure.

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