It’s Always Been the Colonel (How Logos Acquire Meaning)

The most common example of hidden imagery in a logo is likely FedEx and its arrow. For me, however, it isn’t what first comes to mind. As a child, I saw something in the Kentucky Fried Chicken logo that I can’t help continue to see to this day—I thought the bowtie was the Colonel’s body.

Kentucky Fried Chicken Logo

The original Kentucky Fried Chicken logo was designed in 1952 and updated to the version above in 1978. Lippincot & Margulies designed both identities, and I wonder if during its development anyone mentioned that they saw more than just a bow tie? The current KFC logo has been changed to the point that the bobblehead I saw as a child is barely there, but it’s still what I connect with.

Individuals Determine a Logo’s Meaning

As an identity designer, I am responsible for ensuring a logo doesn’t convey inappropriate imagery. I look at it upside down, sideways, in reverse, and I ask others what they see. I explore if the company name when used as a URL is going to create a hidden message, and is the company signage going to transform into a vulgar four letter word when the first and last letter of the name burn out over time? A graphic designer is responsible for reducing these risks. Target Up & Up Packaging Target’s up & up packaging reads d(ow)n & d(ow)n when tossed in a cart. In execution, a logos meaning is dependent on each individuals preferences, bias, history, and mood alongside experience with the brand. While a graphic designer can reduce risk, sometimes people will inevitably see ZION in an Olympic logo or a Southern man with an immense head, missing his hands and feet in a fast food identity. What strong associations do you have with identities that the designer and client did not foresee?


    1. Steve Zelle says:
      Apr 19 at 04:31


      Fantastic. Knowing the person responsible for the code I used in this post wrote about the same thing 12 years ago has me smiling—what are the chances? Nice to hear I wasn’t the only one that saw more than a bow tie on Harland David Sanders. I never thought about Cap’n Crunch before but will forever see claws now—thanks to you!

  • DigitalSuture says:
    Apr 20 at 11:04

    Very nice post. As to your question about the fetus- I am thinking the Coredge Software logo or The Wooden Tailor logo. I wish more people cared about their identity with as much passion as their “mission statements”

  • Steve Zelle says:
    Apr 20 at 11:24

    @scruss Well of course you see it Stewart—you also saw the bobblehead colonel and Cap’n Claws. 🙂

    @DigitalSuture. Glad you liked the post. Very interesting that you found not only one, but two potential fetuses—it does show how we read into symbols, potentially making associations that were certainly not intentional.

    Once you make associations, it is very hard to see past them. Like the Colonel, the FedEx logo has different meaning to me after seeing the arrow. These associations can be a strength or a weakness for a company.

    I wish companies would look at their entire ‘being’ as a whole. It’s the only way to convey a consistent experience as a great logo or a well written mission statement is of little value in isolation.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Grace Oris says:
    Apr 23 at 11:41

    Hi Steve. I haven’t thought much about the KFC logo but now, thanks to you, I will never un-see that bobblehead!

    Seriously though, if one makes the associations after the company has already been well established, I don’t think the logo will make much of an impact. Like, I wouldn’t eat at KFC any less because I see the bobblehead, nor would I use FedEx much more often just because I saw the arrow. Of course these may be the “mild” cases as opposed to those like the Zion in the Olympics logo. But I do agree that more care should go into creating a company’s logo to reduce inappropriate associations.

    1. Steve Zelle says:
      Apr 23 at 02:50

      Hello Grace, I agree with your comment–there are plenty of other reasons not to eat at KFC aside from the logo!:)

      Seeing a bobblehead in a logo for a food chain is not a big deal. Seeing a bobblehead for example, in a law firms identity could be–it sends the wrong message. I used my personal experience as an example of how individuals determine what a logo means in the end. KFC is an extreme example of the personal associations I have to every logo I see. These associations have the potential to be leveraged in a positive way by the company the logo represents or in a negative way by their competition.

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment and hope to see you around more.

  • Grace Oris says:
    Apr 24 at 01:54

    I didn’t consider that potential for leverage. That’s a good point. Anyway, I’m just saying that on the individual level, I think the business will improve or suffer only if these associations are made when first seeing the logo. If they are made later on, we will either laugh or go “aaaahh”. It may strengthen or weaken our perception of the brand but our loyalty or disloyalty to their business will only be based on our actual experience with them.

    I’ve been a lurker on your site actually. Finally decided to make my presence known 😀

  • Dylan says:
    Aug 2 at 08:02

    There was a discussion over this same thing on another blog with a logo design that was created for a jewelry store. I immediately saw an image of a menstruating partridge in the design. Some others saw it as well, but were afraid to mention it. If I saw it that fast, then there are others who did and will. There were many who defended it, but I saw what I saw.

    Another one was for a British government office. The letters were OGC, but when it was turned sideways, the letters looked like a man pleasuring itself.

    I always have my mind in the gutter when looking at designs or making sure mine are ok. All it takes is one slip up and it winds up on blogs all over.

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