To Abstract Or Not Abstract?

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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. When a graphic designer sits down to create a symbol for an institution or a company, one of the most basic decisions to take is whether the image should be abstract or should represent something recognizable—a pictogram or even an illustration. One of the great developments of modernism in design—and a development with which our firm has often been associated—is the turn towards abstraction in corporate identity design. What I would like to show with the following examples is that abstraction is a tool, just as figurative representation is, and that a designer should make a deliberate and strategic decision between the two directions in order to best solve the design problem. The notion of using an abstract mark to represent a brand was much less common back when Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar were tapped by David Rockefeller in 1955 to design an identity for Chase Manhattan Bank (a merger of Chase National Bank and The Bank of Manhattan Company). Banks at that time generally used trademarks that grew from their initials or an image of the bank’s headquarters building. Chase Manhattan briefly used an awkward combination of a map of the United States, a representation of the globe, the name of the bank, and the phrase “world-wide banking.” Ivan and Tom were convinced that the bank would benefit from a simple symbol that could not only unite the two newly merged corporate cultures but also come to stand in for the company’s unwieldy name in the public mind. An abstract symbol could work, at least in part because Chase Manhattan had tremendous advertising resources that could quickly establish the symbol in the public mind. The top Chase executives resisted the mark for a long time, but eventually in 1960, Rockefeller made the final call in favor of it. Once the design was accepted, Tom and Ivan were struck by how quickly and absolutely people identified with the new mark. This experience has become an important touchstone for us: People can transfer their associations with a company onto even the most simple and abstract of designs, even if it’s utterly foreign at first.


It has been, for us and many other people, a lesson about the power of abstract marks—but that doesn’t mean that an abstract mark is always appropriate. More than 50 years later, we had the opportunity to design visual identities for two conservation organizations. In one case, we encountered very similar issues as we did for Chase, and our solution is abstract. The other organization demanded a very different kind of design. In 2009, Conservation International made a bold and revolutionary decision to change its mission and focus from protecting nature for nature’s sake to protecting nature for the well-being of humanity. The new strategy would greatly expand the organization’s involvement into populated areas, such as cities and farmlands. This strategic shift made their previous logo—an illustrative rendition of greenery with a primate hanging from a tree branch—irrelevant. The group’s director of branding, Laura Bowling, came to us to create a new mark that would be appropriate for the new mission and that would set Conservation International apart from the many peer organizations dealing with environmental concerns. We explored dozens of design concepts, including many that featured or were representations of a human figure. However, in the nonprofit arena the human figure has become clichéd. Throughout the sketching and exploration process, one simple concept rose to become our favorite: a blue circle underlined in green. Although the design was made of two simple, basic shapes, their combination and proportions did not look familiar. And it was appropriate: Bowling titled the form “our blue planet on a green path to sustainability.” As the name Conservation International is very clear and descriptive, we felt that an abstract mark was appropriate. And since the audience for the organization is so specific, the mark could quickly gain recognition. Once the mark cleared the worldwide trademark search, we were convinced we had a winner. However, our greatest challenge was still ahead: Having lived with and loved the previous logo, the decision makers found it extremely difficult to accept a simple, abstract form in its place. In the ensuing months, we found ourselves honing our sales skills. We had to make the case that an effective mark can never express everything about an organization. Rather, a trademark is only a small part of an organization’s communications, and its most important task is to be an effective identifier. Finally, we developed a short animated piece for Conservation International, paying homage to the old mark while transforming it into the new design. The sequence started with a monkey sitting in a tree, followed by an expansion of the camera view—suggesting the expansion of the scope of the organization’s work—to other areas of conservation, including humans, and ended with the new trademark. With this animation, we were able to infuse the simple icon with passion, history, and rich meaning. It was, finally, this animation that helped Conservation International begin to transfer their own positive feelings from the old mark to the new.


But an abstract symbol isn’t always the appropriate solution. Just this year, we had the opportunity to work with another respected conservation organization—Rare—to reinvent their identity. For the last 40 years, Rare has worked with communities around the world to tackle environmental problems with locally led solutions. Their g
oal is to inspire people to become proud, careful managers of their local natural resources. Unlike with Conservation International, whose name is descriptive and clear, the Rare name carried with it a great challenge. Although short and easy to pronounce, the four-letter name always prompted questions for the organization’s employees and leaders. In the organization’s past, the name had stood for “Rare Animals Relief Effort,” but since that was no longer their mission, that acronym had faded away. We came to the realization that our task here was one of clarification: could we with a simple mark help make clear that Rare was not an antique store or a meat restaurant and instead situate the organization in the conservation field? Out of quite a few design alternatives presented, our client ultimately gravitated toward a lively combination of four bold and clearly understood icons: a drop of water, a leaf, a human head, and a fish. While each icon on its own may look generic, the combination and arrangement is distinctive and also meaningful. The organization’s founder, president, and CEO Brett Jenks saw the four archetypes as representing the fundamental elements of Rare’s mission: fresh water and oceans, food and animals, vegetation and forests, and, of course, humans.


Tom Geismar said to me once: “Since we did an abstract symbol for Chase, many have tried to do it in cases where they shouldn’t have.” If we are doing our job as designers, our solution should always grow out of a well-thought-out strategy, and an abstract symbol is only one possible tactic among many. Looking to Dive Behind-The-Scenes of Additional Identities? Sagi Haviv, Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff share authoritative information in regards to identity design, gleaned from their work on iconic trandemarks. Add Identify: Basic Principles of Identity Design in the Iconic Trademarks of Chermayeff & Geismar to your reading list.