From Two, One: Designing for Combined Organizations

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In this blog series, Sagi Haviv discusses principles of identity design as they manifest in trademarks created by his firm, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv.

Bringing together two entities under a single banner—whether a corporate merger or a partnership—calls for a level of sensitivity and understanding of each part. A designer needs to commit to coming up with a solution that will be equally appropriate to both. There are many ways to achieve this balance and equal respect for two sides, but the most important final consideration should be that the resulting design can stand independently.

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The partnership between Hollywood director Brett Ratner and Australian casino mogul James Packer—RatPac—won a much-publicized slate deal with Warner Bros. to co-finance 75 films between 2013 and 2017. Since, according to Director’s Guild rules, a director’s name must be the first personal name to appear in a film, it was essential to create a symbol for RatPac that would remain distinctive and could act as a visual shorthand even alone.

As the brand name was created from the first syllables of Ratner and Packer, an “R” and a “P” fused together it seemed like an appropriate way to represent the partnership. Combining initials is certainly not a novel idea, but it is often an effective way of establishing a connection to a new identity for both sides. But the combination in this case was unusual: while the “R” and the “P” are of equal size and weight, the hybrid doesn’t give equal emphasis to both, but rather reads primarily as an “R.” Our notion is that in the long run, the brand will be perceived as a single unit, Ratpac, and people may eventually not even remember the two parts that came together to create it. Still, the animated onscreen signature plays on the idea of the mark’s being formed by the coming together of two shapes.

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Motion graphics by Grand Jeté.

But initials aren’t always the way to go. Often, in bringing together two entities, inspiration for the new identity can be found in their legacy marks. This was the case with Harper Collins.

In 1987, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquired Harper & Row, a New York publishing firm that had roots in the early 19th century. Three years later, News Corporation acquired William Collins, a famous U.K. publisher founded in the 1820s, with plans to consolidate the two publishing houses.

The newly combined company, HarperCollins Publishers, needed a new identity that would retain as much as possible of both the Harper and the Collins identities, each of which had built enormous reputational equity over the centuries. Harper & Row’s symbol depicted a torch—a classical allusion to the dissemination of knowledge. William Collins was represented by an intricate symbol of a fountain, an allusion to the classical ideal of wisdom.

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When one is faced with the challenge of bringing together two independent and visually complicated icons, it may be a good idea to lean on one of the basic tenets of Modernism: reduction. This could apply to concept or form, or to both.

So, in this case, in place of the literal torch and fountain, the essential element of each symbol was extracted: the fountain became water and the torch simply fire. The reduction yields a broader, more applicable idea. The second step was formal reduction: rendering the two elements as simple forms with a graphic commonality. The resulting combined symbol presents a visual partnership of two equal, yet distinct, entities.

Although the impetus for the new mark came from visual histories of the two publishers, the HarperCollins logo has endured because it works conceptually and formally on its own. The synthesis of the two reduced legacy elements was designed in a bold and somewhat odd arrangement, as though the fire is burning on top of the water, resulting in an overall unusual and therefore memorable form. There is nothing like it in the publishing arena. It is ultimately these design qualities of the mark that help explain its success.

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Extracting the conceptual essence of two identities and bringing them together as one is not an opportunity that presents itself every day. Just as rare are two organizations coming together whose legacy identities have formal properties that almost beg to be combined. HealthPartners in Minnesota was such a case.

For decades, Minneapolis–St. Paul residents have relied on the insurance and healthcare facilities of HealthPartners and Park Nicollet. In the face of a changing healthcare industry in 2012, the two organizations combined. Since Park Nicollet and HealthPartners each had substantial recognition and consumer loyalty within the community, they would keep their names within the new organization. This presented a challenge and called for a new symbol and graphic system that would tie together a range of hospitals and other facilities.

For inspiration for a new mark, we looked to the graphic properties of the two legacy symbols. We got lucky: both existing identities could be reduced to basic forms. In essence, HealthPartners had a green square, and Park Nicollet a purple square on its point. The similarity suggested that exploring compositions of squares could be a productive exercise.

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But the combined symbol had to have a relevance and meaning for the new organization beyond growing out of their collective history. And so the simplified legacy elements were brought together to form a symbol that suggests an essential philosophy of the organization, that patients and members are at the center of their concern. The implied transparency and the convergence of shapes convey a strong idea of partnership—an organizing principle that resonated with the name of the overall organization, HealthPartners.

In another stroke of luck, both organizations had been using the same exact font for their legacy wordmarks: Sabon. We made the case to our client that keeping the existing typography would save millions of dollars in signage around the Twin Cities. We just modified the “P” in both names to be a bit wider.

Our clients in Minnesota, who came from both the original HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, were delighted with the result because they could all see themselves and their respective organizations in the new design, and most importantly, they could see it as representing the new combined organization and their vision for it.

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In these cases, the designer is like an officiant performing a marriage. A new identity can grow out of the existing properties of each of the two entities coming together—their respective names or the essence of ideas or shapes from their respective legacy identities.

The immediate goal of creating an image that would satisfy both sides of a partnership or a merger is often essential to getting the new design adopted and embraced by decision-makers and employees. But the long-term goal of making sure the trademark has an independent raison d’être should not be compromised. This launch video for the new HealthPartners logo demonstrates one way to position a new combined identity within a forward-looking vision:

Motion graphics produced by Thornberg & Forester.

A new logo will hopefully live long after both legacy entities have been forgotten, so it has to work independently from them. With time, the identity will ultimately be appreciated and will endure and gain brand recognition—not because of its relationship to the past, but for its relevance to the future.

 

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