“How do you symbolize spasm?” asked David J. Herzbrun in the January – February 1958 issue of Print magazine. “A knotted rope? A clenched fist? A duodenum in a vise?” Then he noted, “It had all been done before.” So began a fascinating photo-essay that traced the development of one of Herb Lubalin’s most typographically iconic ad campaigns, for Bentyl, an antispasmodic made by the Wm. S. Merrell Co. The so-called “Slinky” series employed the Slinky toy as the perfect representation of a stomach spasm.
It came about, Herzbrun wrote, because Merrell’s ad manager, Philip Ritter III, wanted something “completely different” from any of the pharmaceutical drug ads that came before. A tall order in the stomach medicine industry.
The new idea started when “Herb Lubalin, executive art director of Sudler & Hennessy’s design organization, spotted a sinuous coil of wire writhing in a toy shop window.” It was called a Slinky — but to him it said spasm.
Lubalin began thinking about how to use this spring-as-toy in his layout. “A few rough tissues and a sketch on the blackboard at the start of a meeting . . . and the campaign is on its way.” (Lubalin is second clockwise from left, below.)
“With Lubalin’s roughs to direct them,” Herzbrun continued, “the staff specialists of the design organization start to put the pieces together.” The Slinky takes center stage it is mounted and photostated, then retouched. The word SPASM is hand-lettered and comps are made with the Slinky forming the letter S. At another of many meetings (“the usual amount of minor hassle . . .”) the comps were released to the client. The following photos follow the process and the outcome.
Kudos to Print for documenting this, long before Spasm became a textbook example of Lubalin’s “talking type.” The process doesn’t change the work’s intelligence. But when an “historic” designed artifact is removed from its original context it usually becomes just a pretty picture or clever idea. Memorable work does not happen in a vacuum. Spasm is one of those familiar typographic masterpieces that was, in fact, the result of collaborative teamwork in writing and art, triggered by a spark of a simple kid’s toy — and the designer who knew what to do with it.