Logos are a critical component to any branding and it is no different in college sports. In fact, considering how much passion we associate with college affiliation, it is arguable that logos in college football have an added intrigue over regular business logos—college logos incite feelings of comradery, loyalty, disdain, jealousy, and excited anticipation (sometimes simultaneously!) more than most other logos have the power to.
So, with the 2013 college football season upon us, let’s look at what makes for a good college football logo. According to tried-and-true logo design principles and based on the needs of a logo for college football audiences, I have come up with five criteria for evaluating this year’s logos:
1) Colors: College football logos ought to use saturated colors (which basically mean pure, unfiltered primary and secondary colors), not diluted with white or tainted with black. This means that all maroon, gold, or pastel-type colors are less effective. Sometimes a darker blue or red can work if the design remains simple. Design theory tells us that saturated colors are more iconic and stand out more. Black and white can be used in harmony with a saturated color, but should usually be used to emphasize the color, not detract from it.
2) Icons: College football logos ought to incorporate a memorable icon. Icons function as mnemonic devices, or visual cues that help us remember what they are affiliated with. Sometimes a typeface can function as an icon (think of the Coca Cola logo). For an icon to work well, though, it needs to be a)obvious what it is an icon of; b) simple; c) a single color; and d) unique.
3) Typography: College football logos don’t necessarily need to use typography for a logo to work well. Many schools, in fact, have memorable, iconic logos and don’t use text much at all. But if a school opts to use typography, it should follow three guidelines: 1) it shouldn’t use more than one letter (people need to read and recognize it from far away); 2) it should be somewhat unique (using Times New Roman would be a bad idea) but not too crazy (a grunge font would just seem silly); 3) it should have a college feel to it.
4) Simplicity: With the first three criteria in mind, college football logos should also be simple. Two colors is a strict maximum. Shapes and icons should be identifiable from far distances. No more than one letter if text is used. Borders and outlines are typically visually noisy and detract from the overall feel.
5) Creativity: Last but not least, college football logos ought to have some element of creativity in them. It may be a unique design or a simple tweak to a letter. In any case, the logo shouldn’t be similar to other logos or easily mistaken for something else.
Below are the results: college football’s best and worst logos of 2013.
The best college football logos of 2013
1. One of the most recognizable icons in college football, Clemson’s paw beats out Texas’ longhorn simply because of the more saturated orange. You may like to wear the burnt orange more, but Clemson’s bright orange makes a powerful statement in Death Valley. Full disclosure: I’m a Clemson alum, so take my opinion on this one with a grain of salt.
2. It’s hard to argue against this college classic. It is simple, mnemonic, and just plain cool. Even Oklahoma fans have to be jealous of it. The graphic of the longhorn is iconic and the orange, though burnt, is still largely saturated.
3. Although the team isn’t typically considered one of the powerhouses in college football, BYU’s logo is one of the most iconic. The creative typography design and use of negative space to create a downward arrow make the ‘Y’ instantly recognizable from any distance. Combine the simplicity with creativity and this makes for one of college football’s best.
4. One of the more creative uses of typography designs you’ll see in college football, Washington State turns letters into an icon. It comes after BYU, though, because it isn’t quite as simple.
5. One of the few schools that has been able to successfully pull off purple (compare it to LSU’s logo, and you’ll likely agree). Kansas State’s nice simple design and creative use of negative space make it unique and recognizable.
6. While the Devil on the inside is a bit busy, the unique diamond in the ‘D’ and the “horns” on the left side make this logo easy to recognize from just about anywhere. The football team isn’t usually great, but their logo is another classic.
7. After being tainted by a terrible scandal, Penn State can still be proud of a strong logo design. Effective use of negative space makes it creative and easily recognizable. The logo follows Duke, though, because the color is less saturated.
8. Known more recently for its wild uniforms, Oregon’s big ‘O’ is probably much more famous. The letter may not appear to be real creative, but its subtle curves and bright, saturated yellow stroke make the Oregon green-and-yellow combo almost (but not quite) cool enough to wear on days other than gameday. Perhaps Oregon and the Green Bay Packers are the only teams to pull off these colors.
9. It’s just a ‘W,’ right? Not quite. The subtle reshaping of the letter at the top and bottom of the ‘W’ make for a unique adjustment to typography that is memorable. The black shadowing makes the iconic red stand out, making Wisconsin’s logo one of the easiest to recognize at a distance.
10. Maybe it’s the colors, but Miami’s logo is unmistakable. The cut-in-half ‘U’ is creative. Like Oregon, Miami almost makes wearing the two colors together in public seem fashionable. This logo is proof that simple design with a little creativity can go a long way in the branding of a team.
11. Certainly one of the most famous logos in college football, Michigan falls lower on this list because it lacks some creativity. But the fact that it is about the only (nearly) solid yellow logo in the NCAA makes it stand out against the rest.
12. Kentucky may be better known in basketball, but these letters still look good on a football helmet. The typography is iconic of university lettering, but the unique overlapping of the ‘K’ and ‘U’ make this easily recognizable. The bright, saturated blue makes the logo stand out against the college football crowd.
13. Auburn’s logo is much like Kentucky’s; it comes after simply because the colors are less saturated, making them less iconic. The navy and burnt orange are more contemporary, though, for all you football fashionistas. Auburn fans can be proud that their logo is much stronger than their nemesis Alabama’s elephant logo.
14. Although there isn’t much to it, USC’s simple design and creative interlocking of the ‘S’ and ‘C’ make this a solid design. Like the other one-or-two letter designs, this logo thrives on simplicity. Once again, this is proof that subtle changes to simple ideas make for strong designs.
15. Rounding out college football’s top 15, Tennessee’s logo is simple and uses a nice saturated orange. The tweak to the typography make it unique.
The worst college football logos of 2013
1. Sure, the yellow stands out, but from a distance all we would see are two pointy rods. Try standing about 10 feet back from this and decipher what the image is of. Black, white, yellow, and navy are too many colors. Too busy, too hard to tell what it is. Yuck. Navy, you can do better than this. Much better.
2. Unless you are a Gamecock fan, I’m not sure how anyone could appreciate the ugliness of South Carolina’s chicken. But get rid of that bird, and there is still an ugly mix of maroon and black. Busy, ugly chicken, bad color scheme, and a boring ‘C’ make for a pretty awful combo. This logo is in need of an overhaul.
3. Is it just me, or did the colors on this logo get sun-bleached? Too many words, a busy tiger icon, and the awful dingy tan-gold color make this bad. Combine it with too many letters, and you get one of college football’s worst.
4. Sorry Northwestern, but your logo looks like it is the product of a junior high school design competition. It’s bad enough that you have to work with purple (again few college football teams have ever pulled this off). The wildcat needs some work from a more skilled designer. So does your ‘N.’
5. Too many letters. Too much tiger head bursting through a wall.