Look up in the sky. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s. . .

That’s right, Superman.

Since 1938, this red-caped, blue-briefed, superhero from Krypton has been firmly lodged in the public consciousness. Even the sound of his name gets us feeling all nostalgic. For he’s a true pop-cultural icon if ever there was one. 

But what’s just as iconic as the man himself? Well, how about that big red-and-yellow crest on his chest? The one that says, simply enough, “S”.

Really, it’s the ultimate logo, the quintessential brand symbol. And it also happens to be a brilliant example of the timelessness and universality of simplistic design.

To explain why, let’s take a look at what the Superman symbol can teach us about minimal branding. But first of all, take a look at the 75-year evolution of the iconic Superman logo.

Image: https://imgur.com/2f0ZO

Pick a letter

Obviously the most striking and memorable aspect of the Superman crest is the imposing, oversized “S” slapped right in the middle. The designers could have opted to include the entire word, Superman, but likely that would have taken away from its bold appeal.

This is a great exercise in restraint. They pared it down, whittled away the excess, and were left with a single letter. What we can take away from this is that, sometimes, less really is more. People already know his name, they already know his face, and they already know his outfit. They don’t need to be reminded. 

These kind of assumptions are crucial when it comes to keeping things simple. When designing a logo, you have to assume that your audience already knows you. It’s not always necessary to feature your full name. A simple symbol can often be far more powerful.

Red and yellow

In the vast majority of iterations, the Superman crest is done out in simple reds and yellows. Nothing more. And, as a matter of fact, only two manifestations of the symbol, as shown above, feature more than two colours (dismissing black outlines, of course).

This takes us back to an age-old design principle that we’ve talked about previously on the blog. The fewer colours, the better. Superman is a fantastic example of this rule because, as an overall brand, his colours are yellow, red, and blue. But the fact that only red and yellow appear in the logo predicates the importance of the two-colour rule.

It’s a nice lesson. It reminds us that though our brands can benefit from a varied colour palette, our logos should always lean on the side of restraint.

Adaptation

One thing that’s striking about the evolution of the Superman logo is that, by and large, it hasn’t changed that much at all. And this must be to some extent due to the timeless simplicity of its design.

The most noticeable change is the move from a triangular to a pentagonal shape that occurred in 1940. But other than that, and aside from the occasional straddler (most notably 1996, 2002, 2003), its been the same image, at heart, for over 75 years.

But how has it remained such a stalwart symbol? Well, much like the Batman logo, which we’ve also talked about previously, its adaptability seems to be positively correlated with its simplicity.

If we think in terms of probability, the more elements a logo has, the more likely it is that one of those elements will age rapidly and become obsolete. According to this logic, by incorporating only a small number of design elements into your logo, there’s much more chance of it achieving overall longevity.

Of course, logos always need tweaking over time in order to suit their current era. But the point is that with simple design, the tweaks are likely to be relatively minor. You’re less likely to require a complete brand overhaul. It might even turn out to be a simple case of changing a shape or brightening a colour.

Superman knows best

So the lesson, then: when in doubt, look to Superman. And ask yourself, “Would Clark Kent wear my logo on the front of his costume?

For more on the art of simplicity, take a look at 8 Minimalist Print Ads That Show Why Less Is More, and Simple Design: Getting More From Less.