Design Observer Twenty Years 2003-2023

Kate Howe | Essays

The Insignificance of a Logo (Even When Significant)

About two years ago, I had lunch with my old friend Hussein from college. After undergrad, he had done a master’s in theology and doctorate in Islamic studies at Harvard. I had recently received my MFA and was freelancing as a graphic designer in New York and feeling a deep disconnect between my daily reality of working for a mass cosmetics brand, and my ideal of making world-helping design.

As Hussein and I chatted, an opportunity for collaboration emerged. Branding and graphic communication, it turns out, are not discussed in the curriculum of the Harvard Divinity School. I waxed on about all the benefits I believed mission-driven organizations could derive from more attention to graphic design, and Hussein was intrigued. He was consulting for an organization, he told me, and thought it was in a perfect position to benefit from a rebrand. A couple of weeks later, I had the job. A couple of months later, Cordoba Initiative had its new logo and visual identity system. Yes, that's right, Cordoba Initiative, a tiny nonprofit at that point, which has recently ignited a national controversy around its proposal for a Muslim community center blocks away from Ground Zero.

The logo I designed reflected Cordoba Initiative’s mission to bridge the divide between the Muslim world and the West. I turned western peace signs into a Moorish-inspired star motif, creating a nice pattern when it tessellated out. Everybody agreed that this was a wonderful graphic demonstration of the organization's ideals. I delivered the work and went happily along my way. My client built a website with a firm that had slightly more “web 2.0”-ish tastes than mine, but the logo’s basic form and concept remained intact.

So I was quite surprised, a month or so ago, when I finally read that Cordoba Initiative was the organization behind all this mosque frenzy. My little client had provoked Sarah Palin and President Obama to interrupt their busy days to make public statements? I had a strange sense of excitement to be associated with such a notorious entity — as if I had gone to high school with Monica Lewinsky.

And yet, in all of the press coverage of the issue, Cordoba Initiative's logo has not been mentioned once (and least not that I could find, via Google). As commentators debate the organization’s motives and character, no one has said, "But look, their logo incorporates the western peace sign into a Moorish-inspired pattern. They obviously have good intentions.” Or anything like that.

I did my best to pack Cordoba Initiative's symbol with positive significance, but It has failed to convey the group’s peaceful and progressive message. It has just stood for a Logo that identifies a Real Organization, passed over blindly in the race to express predetermined positions on this very heated issue.

Would it be different if it weren't such an intense, emotion-laden issue? Would it be different if Cordoba Initiative had been more consistent and proactive with their branding program overall? Perhaps yes — under those circumstances the logo might have had some minor impact. (I keep thinking, for example, that BP's happy green flower must be affording them some modicum of unconscious and undeserved protection from negative public opinion in the wake of their environmental armageddon.) However, mainly I've been reminded of what I guess I already knew: when something is a Big Deal, graphic design means very little.

Posted in: Graphic Design

Comments [30]

The joy and power of the logo is that, if effective, it's greatest work is done subliminally. It is memorable without anyone giving it a second glance. Surely the issue here is that a small organisation was involved in a discussion that grew much bigger than any party involved. It's not so much the logo that was forgotten, more just the individuals involved in the entire movement. Logos remain hugely powerful yet understated. (imo that is...)
Shivani Singhal

As designers, we are often too close to the work (and the story of the work) to see it as others do.

I didn't clearly read a peace sign in the logo until I read your explanation. Even so, I can see peace signs, but I have to coax my brain to see them, rather than a spider web, or stained glass.

That said, it's a very nice mark, and I think cross-culturalism and openness come across in less literal ways. It works. But I don't think it's surprising that amidst a complex issue full of anger and resentment, people haven't commented on something so subtly encoded.

This article just seems like a rant on why the logo was not noticed by the media. Your subhead reads "On the futility of designing the symbol for a controversial religious organization" yet the design was done well before the they were a "controversial" religious organization. The fact remains they are only controversial in their desire to build a mosque on the site of an American tragedy. So I fail to see the significance of this article? Other than you don't agree with the other firms approach to the website and that you were upset that when this announcement came out that no one noticed your logo. Should every news story that followed the BP oil spill have pointed out that their logo is all about beyond petroleum and we should not worry about the spill, because they are all about alternative energy. I mean it says so in their logo right?

Damion, I think you know well enough what Kate was saying through this article. Despite the fact that designers create identities to reflect the client's mission, ideals, beliefs, etc. more often than not people just see logos as logos.

If nothing else, this article is telling designers to calm down. A logo is just an identifier most of the time and nothing more.

Great reminder that a logo (no matter how good it is) does not import value into an organization. Rather, the organization and its values and practices are reflected in the mark. Designers entrust an empty symbol to their clients and it's the client who fills it with meaning, just as Damion (above) points out with the BP logo.

I'm sorry, but I don't think anyone would pull a peace sign out of that logo. Lovely mark, but not a peace sign.
Cam Hoff

@Cam Hoff? All of the little circles making up the larger mark are peace signs, right?

another reason why 'design' and 'problem solving' should never be uttered in the same sentence...
Colin Davies

Perhaps this is a transatlantic thing, but in the UK, those are "Ban the Bomb" symbols, not "peace signs". Whether nuclear weapons threatened or maintained peace is a political issue - but those are not peace signs!!
Paul K

Agreeing with Damion on this one. The designer sounds a little miffed that she wasn't mentioned in the story. There are no celebrity graphic designers and the fact that you designed the logo is not a story anymore than someone painting their walls. Let's try not to be "happier" and just be "happy" you designed a nice logo, did your job, and promote it without coming off as pouting no one noticed you.

Branding is at play in the situation and the logo is not the brand. It may have initiated a brand statement, but despite their message conveyed in the brand, it's just a piece of a big mushy pie. Yum. And symbols are one thing, but context is another. People read that situation with their perception of, "Hey, you're kidding a mosque where supposed Muslim extremists blew up two monstrous towers! How ironic, this doesn't seem right." No matter what your logo or branding material would have said, that context described what they were in American minds regardless of any design.

As for the commentary here, I don't think it's about a designer wanting fame, rather I think the designer noting that design was clearly inferior to the context of the situation, and maybe not doing anything at all. It's an observation, hence it's posting on design "observer."

What I wonder is how this logo was designed without the knowledge that this was the ground zero mosque controversy and feel that the mark was perfect for the organization. Was there no research to the design? Did all of this happen exactly one month past your involvement? Nowhere did that come up in a google search, an inquiry of dialogue, a definition of the organization's mission or future plans? Maybe it's just me that's bothered by the fact that the designer didn't know this was happening or going to happen.

A question to the designer,
Now with this knowledge, would you change the design? does it have a different function or meaning?

Mathias Burton

@Damion Mike I think you missed the point. Perhaps didn't finish the article. She very humanly shares how her idealistic views of youth are very clearly not reality. Its kind of a slap in her face that few us get in such a remarkable way. When we grow older we recognize that life isn't as simple as we think when we first get out of school and think that a logo might have a big impact.

Its not a rant, its an interesting example of recognizing that life is more complicated than she thought when she was in her 20's.

Sara Davis

Paul K — yes it's a transatlantic thing. In the states it is indeed a peace sign. I always think it's cute when my English wife talks about how her dad used to be a "ban the bomb" leader. Don't know what it means but I like the sound of it. I also agree with the other posts that the peace sign is hidden, in the sense that I didn't see it until I read the article. I like it a lot though, very cool. And yes, I think this issue went well past the logo although I'm sure that a well done logo did lend credibility to this organization for everyone involved in this issue for whatever that's worth.
Jon J

How is it that you forgot to mention the consultant's last name, Hissein Rashid. Isn't it wrong to consult for them and then write negative articles a few years later?
Mark Beeman

Is this similar to the continuing discussion over the NSAS logos?
Is logo meant to identify the organisation/brand or is it meant to convey the some of the purpose of the organisation the logo represents.
If so, should all for profit companies have the same logo_ "$" or the whichever currency symbols represents their base.

I am partial to subtle and or very subdued messages. I don't know if obvious ones serve more purpose than invoking criticism from the design community.(?) Their significance when it really matters seems to be understood here. However if your goal was to make it obvious, perhaps you should have asked friends/strangers what they noticed about the logo. You would have figured how slight your "peace sign" really is. At which point you would have to decide how important it is to you or the client that this sign is noticed and reconsider how to achieve that.

At the same time, I'm not sure design is as irrelevant as stated when it comes to doing good. If you believe design is all about aesthetic, than you will be very quickly disillusioned in terms of your ideals. I come from architectural design, so I can realistically speculate how my designs may impact the greater good. I would imagine graphic design is most effective when it's symbolism for a core of ideas that aren't simply invoked but acted upon. Perhaps said organization would have been more successful if they really reached out in the neighborhood while wearing their logo around. The logo would be the simplest way of identifying who is actually doing good; this would probably have yielded more local support when faced with controversy. Although I can't speculate on the significance it would play on the national perception.

All in all, it's clear that this controversy is bigger than the organization. I know nothing about PR management, but it seems there might be something to raising the organization's profile as dogooders; the graphic element of branding can help with this.
Louis Rood Joseph

Sorry but this is annoying me, but ... when is a peace sign not a peace sign? When its the sign for CND (campaign for nuclear disarmament).

I'd be interested to know when the CND symbol – incorporated into the 'Cordoba Initiative' logo – became known as the peace sign. Indeed has it or are people just wrong here? The peace sign is the victory or 'V' reversed is it not?

As graphic designers let's be clear on such things.

Alex Cameron
Alex Cameron

I sympathize with your frustration that all your well-meaning intentions (logo design and your obvious deep humanity) did not mitigate this extremely controversial issue. And my reading of your conclusions (words like insignificance, futility, etc) reminds me of a moment of disillusionment I myself had a decade ago (dissimilar circumstances) at the lack-of-power that design has (contrary to the literature in our field). It was a powerful enough moment that I began to have significantly different thoughts about our profession, craft, discipline that my intellectual path really began to deviate from the "norm", in other words, I stopped drinking design's proverbial Kool-Aid. Once you allow yourself that, you are one liberated individual. As they say, you might not be able to change the world, but you will die with your eyes open.

This is likely to happen to you, based on this incredible and unique run-in with history. If only more designers were confronted with such difficult and challenging circumstances to cause such authentic circumspection. I wish you the best of luck on your journey and encourage you to keep asking these questions. I believe there is no right and wrong, but I do believe the world needs more and more people like you. This is not about the logo, and the story never was. But your work, and by extension, you, are "involved" in this geopolitical situation...your DNA is present in the drama (albeit ignored, as you say), and you should recognize the significance of that.

You used the BP example, there are many others. When confronted with the cross, the story is not the symbol but of Christianity. One person sees Jesus dying on the cross, I see hundreds of thousands murdered during the Crusades in the same of Jesus. The Nazi symbol. The Anarchy symbol. The Hammer and Sickle. The United Nations. The Star and Crescent. The Ku Klux Klan. The NOW symbol. Et cetera.

Welcome to the real world, Ms. graphic designer. Glad to see someone else here. No cosmetic gloss here. Just a lot of pain, conflict, dissent, subterfuge, statecraft, bloodshed, propaganda, rhetoric, imperialism, dominance, hate, war, suffering, and every now and then a little peace.
Gong Szeto

It's a fine logo, but what I think what you're missing is that people are becoming savvy enough to know not to trust them. Maybe I'm jaded, but who in their right mind associates BP with green efforts. The sheer audacity and outright irony of the BP logo is amazing, Orwellian even. While I think this whole Cordoba "controversy" is a Fox news right-wing hit job, I think it's too much to expect people to gather any sense of trust from a logo. People/consumers have gotten too wise to our skills.

Thanks for all comments. My take was mainly about the irony/ sadness of the negligible impact of my intent to do "good" through the design of this logo, as several people have understood. However, many other interesting points raised - obviously short articles, like designs, are read and interpreted through a variety of filters ;-)

The main comment I want to address @Mark Beeman is that I am still friends with Hussein, passed the piece by him, and incorporated his feedback before publishing. I'm not sure how this is even construed as a 'negative article' about Hussein or Cordoba Initiative, since my main point, which I guess you missed, was that I wished my logo had done more for them.

Also on the peace sign... the symbol did start from the Center for Nuclear Disarmament, but as it spread became a more general sign for peace - see


Thanks for the article Kate.

Has wikipedia become the de facto standard for what's true vs. not? It makes me very nervous if this is so.

It's interesting how it can feel like design falls by the wayside when "bigger things" are at play. I don't know how I feel about that statement (don't quite agree or disagree).

I do, however, think about the hindsight that comes into play when looking back on heavily influential art and design. Yes, it's disappointing that the messages they are trying to importantly get across in the time they are most needed, can often become muted by pressing social issues. However, I think that design embeds itself in our culture in a way that forces designers to play a support role.

Very few designers ever become rockstars in the field and get interviews in Gary Hustwit documentaries. But the influence felt by the compelling design of diligent and well trained design-communicators ends up defining various aspects of our modern demographic.

Great read.

I think your putting too much importance on the logo.
The logo would have an influence on whether a Muslim decides to visit the place or join them or whatever, but for the logo to stop people fearing (or hating) Muslims is a little bit too much to ask.

Great work on the mark Kate, I believe that your re-brand of the organization has positioned them to expand their brand value and open up an educated dialogue about the Cordoba Initiative's goals and mission statement.

I think what is most disappointing about this situation is a lack of effort by the organization to fully realize the mark as a powerful, multicultural PR tool. With the national spotlight glaring at Cordoba 24/7, an opportunity to put forth a unified brand image has been missed thus far. Where is the logo during media interviews (pins, ties, press conference backdrops) activists on the street (t-shirts, hats, posters) or in social media outlets?

Why not use the mark as a catalyst for engaging and meaningful dialogue about the current mosque situation? For example send out individual blue peace symbols to community leaders and to the general public in different areas of NYC inviting them to participate in an open public forum/"townhall meeting" so that when those leaders come together to talk about these current issues and address the concerns of the public, the logo is also realized as the individual invitations come together under one roof to form the unified mark.

I am jealous of your opportunity to work with what has now become a nationwide brand, and hope that you can continue to collaborate with your good friend Hussein on various ways to enrich this ongoing debate by utilizing smart and strong visual communication.
Joe W.

I never noticed the peace symbol and I doubt that anyone would--which is good, because overuse has rendered it more than meaningless. It's been kitsch for, I'd say, about forty years.
Leave it to the tweener t-shirts. That being said, a lovely article. Question to Kate: did you anticipate and intend that the symbol would be lost in the larger pattern?

Great article and proof that no matter the design the name Cordoba
has a significant meaning dating back to the Middle Ages that would even challenged Paul Rand himself.
Cordoba Spain was capital of an Islamic caliphate or government in 711 when it was captured by the Muslim. The name Cordoba in 2010 also can give the radical right wing of our God trusting nation to much bait and the wrong message.

The great thing about design and good designers is that by virtue of our very discipline we make real what till then was merely two words made up of 17 letters on a white 8.x11 piece of paper. Maybe your clients should have considered who their audience REALLY was before they selected that name Cordoba in the first place. I can tell you that my brother AM talk radio guru Michael Savage was all over the idea that of putting a mosque named "Cordoba" within blocks of an attack by radiacal who happen to me extreme Muslim's was and is indeed a slap in the face of the good ol' USA. I can only guess at the analogy a person who oppose the mosque might make would be. Maybe if the Japanese called the SONY building NYC "Pearl Harbor Towers"

You have been, as may other designers, trusting in the notion that the commisioners of this great concept had played devils advocate many times over before you put your ideas to paper. The use of the peace sign is very clever but unfortunately lives strongest in the your mind. Given the current political landscape and if you known the true battle you all were undertaking you maybe would have pulled a page out of Paula Scher's book" Make It Bigger".
Daniel Paterna

Having invested the better part of two decades in design I've come to believe that corporate identity systems only work when they are adhered to over time. The swoosh didn't make Nike come to stand for what it is perceived to. Nike the company, made the swoosh stand for what it does. Nike created the brand, not vice versa.

I commiserate with the designer here, but this is a truth I think many designers have come to realize - you could create something that is lauded by the design community, but unless it has the blessings of a consistent and pre-conceived implementation (including, in many cases a healthy budget), it's not going to be interpreted as anything other than just a logo for a particular company.

We read all kinds of messages and interpretations into the horizontal lines that make up IBM's logomark, but here is what Rand had to say "There's nothing inherent in horizontal or vertical lines that says 'computer' except what you read into it because of association with a good company". He knew that the company made the mark, not vice versa.

Unfortunately for Cordoba, their name (and therefore your work) has come under a lot of negative publicity. As such Kate, I wouldn't be surprised that no-one's getting any insight from your work.

That's just the nature of the beast.

For the record, I didn't notice the peace symbols either, until I found the reference to them in the post. Then when I went back and looked, I liked! :-)

It was, what I like to call an 'Ahhh' moment.
Andy Malhan

Before seeing this logo, I was 100% behind any religion having the freedom to share and build spirituality where they may... At the site of the WTC? Muslims? Even better. Think of it this way... They won't attack us again with a mosque there, right? (wrong).

But now that I've seen the logo, I'm 101% behind it. (What's the 1% you ask?... It's me taking the effort of posting up this reply).

Great job. I'm at peace.
Filip Stoj

interesting solution. would make a nice animation too. sometimes, or most times your only reward is a job well done.
felix sockwell

Symbols mean alot when things are a big deal, such as the cross being a symbol of Jesus or the swastika representing thr nazis

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