Decoding “logo soup,” the way design firms appear more impressive

Image: Techstars
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Scroll through any professional services website and chances are you’ll eventually land on what’s known as a “logo soup.”

The grid of logos, tantalizingly presented under the heading “clients” or “partners,” offers an at-a-glance summary of a firm’s experience. More than a canned testimonial or a lengthy case study, the medley of trademarks gives an effective endorsement that is arguably well-suited for today’s attention economy.

Startups, for instance, often use logo soup to establish their credibility. David Brown, co-founder and co-CEO of startup accelerator Techstars says that when evaluating applicants for the program, seeing a bunch of logos on a company’s website is helpful. “We care about progress, which would include getting traction by selling to customers,” he says. “If that’s what the logos represent, then it’s a good signal.”

Designers, meanwhile, are perhaps the most common purveyors of logo soup. “It’s a shortcut—a speedy way to imply that you are an extremely accomplished professional designer without having to show any work or explain what you did,” explains Rachel Berger, chair of graphic designer at the California College of the Arts and the author of a sobering guide to preparing design portfolios. She says that logos are powerful symbols, and the designers who create them are very aware of their influence, perhaps hoping “that some of a logo’s value accrues to them when they flash it on their portfolio page.”

Red Antler’s logo soup is backed by case studies about their work for each company.
Red Antler’s logo soup is backed by case studies about their work for each company.
Image: Red Antler.

But in addition to being somewhat effective, the logo soup can be wildly deceptive, warns Emily Heyward, co-founder of the sought-after branding firm Red Antler. At the Adobe 99U Conference, she explained why it’s so crucial to  probe about the actual project behind the logo when evaluating new agencies. “I would dig in to exactly what they did,” she advised, adding, “You don’t want to work with someone who once put up a landing page for Warby Parker and claims that’s their client. It’s very easy for people to throw up logos and claim they worked with them extensively…The Warby Parker logo is on every [design studio] website in New York City.”

Logo soups often contain white lies. Berger says big brands on a firm’s website should be a flag to potential new clients. “You might think showing the Google logo is a sure thing,” she told Quartz, “but the bigger the brand, the more skeptical I’ll be about the scale of your impact. You might think quantity [of logos] is guaranteed to impress, but the more logos you include, the less work I’ll think you’ve done for each of those brands.”

When should agencies feel good about using a client’s logo on their personal website? “If I have a signed contract with the brand behind the logo, that’s a good indication of a true partnership,” says Brown. Berger says the best way to know whether using a client’s logo is appropriate is to simply ask. “Design work is as much about relationships as it is about contracts, so it is never a bad idea to ask permission,” she says. “If it was truly a meaningful engagement, a client should be flattered that a designer wants to use the work as a case study.”