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Recently a big international bank came to us asking that we design a symbol for them, as Tom Geismar had done many years before for The Chase Manhattan Bank. For over a decade, this international bank had been using a wordmark for their short four-letter name. We advised that they did not need a symbol and turned down the job.
Creating a symbol can be a great design exercise, but we try to be very disciplined about only developing a symbol when there is a compelling strategic reason to do so. This is because visual identities work through familiarity, so any new visual element has to be learned first in order to be established. Using a symbol as part of the logo means that there is an additional element that has to be learned. We find that people are generally willing to learn as little as possible.
There are, of course, good reasons to create a symbol as part of an identity program. For example, if you have a long name, like in the case of The Chase Manhattan Bank (now simply “Chase”), a symbol may help tie it together as a unit and add visual impact.
Or, a symbol can help link together many divisions or branches under a single institutional identity—as in the case of the Smithsonian Institution.
But absent a good reason for a symbol, it is always a better idea to start with putting the emphasis on the name and trying to find a simple, focused way—a change of color, an unusual arrangement of letters, a graphic accent or even just a unique lettering style—to make it memorable.
An early example of this approach is the wordmark Tom Geismar designed with the red O for Mobil Oil exactly 50 years ago. Tom explains why he chose the red O to give visual distinction to the name:
“The identity was part of a larger effort led by architect Elliott Noyes who brought us into the project. In the 1950s and 60s, people were immigrating to the suburbs in increasing numbers. Oil companies such as Mobil found that they were being zoned out of new communities because of the less than graceful look of their service stations. The idea of the red O came about partly to reinforce a design concept to use circular canopies, pumps, and display elements for a distinctive and attractive look.”
It also served to help people pronounce the name correctly (Mo-bil, not Mo-bile), and of course to add a single memorable and distinctive element to an otherwise very simple lettering style.”
A design intervention in a typographic mark, however simple, has to make sense conceptually and be appropriate to the desired personality. The Barneys New York logo, designed by Steff Geissbuhler when he was part of our firm, features unusual spacing and eliminates the apostrophe, which allows the two lines to form a single block. That the N and Y align vertically to form NY is like an Easter egg for the viewer to find.
Although these two solutions are simply representations of the respective brand names without additional visual elements, they could not be more different from the standpoint of personality: the bold, bright mark for the oil brand and the elegant, neutral mark for the high-end department store.When it makes sense strategically to focus solely on the name, the case may be so overwhelming that it can sometimes mean eliminating an established symbol.
In 2003, the Hearst Corporation was moving out of offices dispersed all over New York City and into a shiny new glass tower on 57th Street, designed by Norman Foster. The company came to us to help make sure that its identity, which had been around since the 1950s, was ready to take a much more exposed place in the public eye. Hearst’s existing mark was a somewhat complicated pictorial image of an eagle with striped wings.
Hearst Corporation is essentially a parent company. It needed a trademark that would work with all the existing trademarks of its various subsidiary brands. In other words, the new visual identity wouldn’t have to brand the Hearst Corporation itself so much as proclaim Hearst’s ownership of its many established media properties.
There were two reasons to move away from the eagle. For one thing, with all of the eagle symbols out there today, it’s nearly impossible to create a distinctive (yet still good) eagle.
But much more important, Hearst Corporation did not need a symbol at all—eagle or otherwise. Each of their subsidiary media had its own visual identity. The Hearst mark, appearing alongside these marks, should not compete with them for visual impact and attention, as a pictorial symbol would.
We therefore worked to design only the name itself as a distinctive and appropriate wordmark. For the parent company name, we used very bold letterforms, but spaced them widely apart for a more memorable appearance.
To complement this strong, sans-serif typography, the generic division names are set in a classic typeface—lowercase Garamond Italic. This provides contrast to the Hearst wordmark, and adds a lightness and elegance to the overall look of the identity system.
The Hearst wordmark is one of the simplest, most straightforward marks we have ever designed. The characteristics that were expressed in the eagle—strength, authority, boldness—are embodied in this purely typographic design in a simple and immediate way.
But when we say “wordmark” it doesn’t always mean a barebones solution like Hearst. Employing a graphic element that interacts with the typography can make for a memorable identity. And when you get a meaningful brand name, it’s always a good idea to derive the distinguishing graphic treatment from the meaning of the word. This was the case with Showtime.
The company’s previous mark was a logotype that was bold, but not particularly memorable. It made sense to focus on the name because it was so appropriate (if generic).
The shorthand for Showtime in the TV listings has always been SHO. This abbreviation inspired the solution. And so the first three letterforms were reversed out of a red circle. Ivan Chermayeff explains: “We highlighted SHO in the name by shining a spotlight on the letters—just the right metaphor for show business.”
Not only does the treatment instantly make the generic word unique, it also naturally produces a focused visual icon —almost a symbol—for use as on-screen channel identification.
Incorporating a graphic element into the wordmark in the case of Showtime added boldness and visual distinction. A graphic element can also give a designer an opportunity to add personality, as was the case with Beko.
The identity for Beko just last year presented a real challenge. For a four-letter name, we would generally start from the assumption a wordmark is the way to go. But the brief we received from the Beko leadership—who think very strategically, called for a highly conceptual approach—one that would be a tall order even for a symbol to express.
Ultimately this project was about balancing the client’s desire for expressing specific personality traits such as approachability, youthfulness, and dynamism with the need to do something simple that can live in people’s houses on their washing machines, stoves, and TVs for a long time. It was also important to signal change with the identity update, so the solution had to be substantially different and also have an air of optimism about it. For the desired qualities of approachability and youthfulness, we set the name in all-lowercase letters– a stark contrast with the bulky, rigid all-cap letters of the original mark. We added an angled underscore that suggests energy and optimism and also added distinction.
Although assignments that call for a purely typographic solution can often be challenging, they are less excruciating in one respect: the pressures and stress of the trademark search.
In recent years, after several decades of modern corporate identity design, the world has become saturated with logos and symbols of every kind. It is becoming harder to create an original symbol simply because so much has been done, and so many basic, simple forms have already been claimed and trademarked.
No matter how excited we are with a new symbol design, it still has to be tested by the trademark attorneys to make sure it is ownable. There is no more humbling moment for a designer than when we receive the fat spiral-bound reports with all the symbols similar to our designs, and we can see how many designers out there have already thought about the same exact thing that we thought was so original. Although our designs usually survive this process, it is nice every now and then to be able to skip the search.
The advantage with a wordmark is that if the client owns the name, trademarking another element may not be necessary: usually the client will automatically own the new logo.
By Sagi Haviv, Tom Geismar, and Ivan Chermayeff
The NBC peacock. Chase Bank’s blue octagon. Mobil Oil’s arresting red ‘o’. PBS’s poetic silhouettes of the everyman. Though Chermayeff & Geismar may not be a household name, its logos are pervasive in every corner of the world. (One identity – the official logo for the U.S. Bicentennial – even sits on Mars). The firm’s visual identities are an integral part of American culture, and instantly recognizable by countless millions. Authored by legendary designers Tom Geismar, Ivan Chermayeff, and Sagi Haviv, Identify is the ultimate authoritative examination of the process, approach, and principles that result in identity design with the potential to become iconic, and thus succeed in representing a brand in the mind of the public for generations. Get it here.