Rian Hughes is a force of nature (logo nature, that is). For 20 years he has been illustrator, type designer and letterer for scores of varied clients, created comics, edited books of imagery and more. His new book “Logo-a-gogo: Branding Popular Culture” is a brick of a book, featuring logos for CDs, retail, sports and comics. There are more logos than any one person could do in a lifetime. I asked him about his span of life and work.
In the book? Roughly 1,000 separate logos, 6,500 including all the variants. All of them are your creation?
Yes indeed. I’m a one-man band. There are a handful that update or reference an old design, for example the ‘60s Batgirl logo I’ve redrawn with a modern sensibility, or my Captain America: Reborn design which takes elements from Joe Simon’s original logo of 1941.
How many won’t you show?
The book features around 80% of the logos I’ve designed over the years. For each commission, I may have produced anything from a couple to – in extremis – well over 80 concepts. Some of these may have been quite similar — alternative colors, or subtle type changes, for example. Where this is the case, I’ve edited them down to show just the main variations.
I hear that some designers present just one option to the client. If there seems to be one elegant, perfect solution and that’s the one I’d like the client to use, I have occasionally done this, but it can be a risky strategy. I may have completely missed the mark for some legitimate reason that was opaque to me. On the other hand, if I find I’m delivering dozens of alternative ideas it may be because I’ve not understood the question I need to answer and I’m thrashing around, or that the client is not sure what they want and I’m trying to elicit some meaningful response. There is, as with most things, a happy medium.
Are they all in use?
Apart from those labelled as ‘proposals’, which were commissioned but for various reasons — the company went bust, the label dropped the band, no-one liked what I’d produced — didn’t go through to completion, all the logos (as far as I’m aware) were used. Some, like the Forbidden Planet logo, have been in use for around twenty-five years. For this book, I tracked down quite a few printed comics and record sleeves on eBay and the Web that I didn’t have file copies of. I also went to the British Library to photograph the covers of old magazines, some of which I’d forgotten entirely. It was like researching an earlier version of me, a designer I barely recognized.
I don’t ask many people this, but how do you do it? How do you get that much work and conjure that many ideas?
The tiny fees some of these commissions command mean I can’t spend more than a day or two on them, tops. So I have to be fast. I sometimes hear about the lengthy focus group and research processes that design groups go through to create a logo. I find that, more often, there simply isn’t the time or the budget, and I’m not sure the results are superior. There’s no substitute for a good idea.
As I say in the introduction, at one of the record sleeve design agencies I worked for just after graduation I was taken aside after spending three days doing “research”, and told bluntly that if I “can’t come up with a dozen presentable ideas in a morning, I was out”. A good piece of advice I still adhere to.
What determines what you final logo will be?
Ideally, a sensible discussion between myself and the client should naturally converge on the best solution. If the brief has been articulated clearly, the solution can be self-evident before I’ve even sketched a thumbnail. Sometimes the client doesn’t know how to write a brief, or just isn’t very articulate, in which case I’ll try and ask some leading questions. Of the options I tender, I’ll generally have a favorite, and that’s the one I’ll steer the client towards. Each logo I present has accompanying text that sets out my thinking, though this can often get lost in the internal approvals process and people higher up the food chain can come back with peculiar or arbitrary comments that reveal that they’ve not grasped the concept. This can also act as a sanity check, though — a logo, in the final analysis, does have to clearly communicate what it needs to communicate, all on its own. Looking back at the logos in the book, there were instances where I thought the client didn’t choose the best version. In retrospect, sometimes I can see that they were right.
Sometimes I find that I’m dealing with marketing departments who aren’t really after something original at all, but are after what I’d call ‘supermarket own-brand toothpaste’ design – something that resembles what other mayor players in an industry are doing, but not so closely they’ll sue. This is often described as “positioning”, and as with many other marketing techniques, looks not inward to the clients’ product for an original and appropriate solution, but outward to a perceived audience. I think most audiences can tell when they’re being patronized, whether that be with generic comic book movies that have been concocted in focus group meetings to appeal to some imagined demographic, or companies that have no vision other than to replicate some existing company’s success. “Me too” logos never date well.
What works and what does not?
That depends on the context. A successful logo is an appropriate and original response to a given situation. There are very few solutions that apply in all cases. However, there are certain technical aspects that should always be evident. Harmoniously drawn letter-shapes. Internal consistency of style. The balance of positive and negative space. Clarity at all sizes. Consideration of where the logo will be used.
What are your favorite three?
The James Bond logo. In a deal set in motion by Mike Lake, Dynamite commissioned Warren Ellis to pen a new James Bond comic series based on the novels — the Bond of literature, rather than the Bond of the movies. Mike asked if I would like to create the logo, cover template and interior page templates that would be used each issue by Dynamite’s in-house designers. I felt the logo needed to be elegant, sleek and masculine, like a bespoke gentleman’s outfitter or high-end automobile livery. Early roughs (not shown) played around with a Bond signature.Having emailed over the concepts, Mike and I had a meeting with the Fleming Estate at The Society Club, a bookshop/café in Soho. We spoke for an hour about the films, the books — in fact, everything except my designs. Then, in passing, it was mentioned that they liked the logo, and that it was approved. And then we didn’t talk about it again. The chosen design manages to be sophisticated without being feminine, hard-edged without looking like a Fast and Furious franchise. Understated but self-assured, just like Bond. The art was intended to occupy a square area below the logo; unfortunately, as several covers for the first issue had already been commissioned before the design was approved, I had to crop and extend some of them to fit. Where I could, I involved the artists concerned to make the process as painless for them as possible.The color touch in the logo serves to differentiate ‘007’ from the name, and was keyed to the art each time. The credits, ‘Ian Fleming’ strapline and indicia are all set in Clique, one of my own Device designs. The first issue of James Bond: Vargr had more than twenty variant ‘retailer incentive’ covers. Warren Ellis followed up with a sequel, Eidolon, and Andy Diggle with the four-issue mini-series Hammerhead for which the logo was reversed, white on black. I also designed the inside front cover and inside back cover (usually given over to advertisements in Marvel and DC Comics titles) which enabled me to make sure the design was consistently applied throughout the whole package, and drew some dramatic black and white silhouettes that served to frame the comic itself. Note the removal of the gun and bow tie for the final printed version.
For Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s ongoing Batman and Robin title, Grant sent me scans of late 1950s and early 1960s Batman covers that had the strong, flat pop-art look that he was after. Some of my early type treatments bordered on the psychedelic, while others were too minimalist. Isettled on heavy block capitals with a curved baseline. The angled ‘B’ and ‘N’ were achieved by sloping the mirrored ‘A’s while keeping the ‘T’ and ‘M’ upright. This enabled me to elegantly fit the type within the Bat shape without arbitrary distortions.mGrant’s original cover sketch included the circular Robin ‘R’ monogram (as featured on his costume) centrered below. As this was italic and the rest of the logo was upright, it proved hard to integrate elegantly. For the final logo, ‘Robin’ is set in a matching heavy sans with a serif on the last ‘N’ to mirror the extended stroke at the top of the ‘R’. I supplied a number of colorways that used the limited palette that 1960s printing allowed: CMYK values that mix 100%, 50% or 25% values of each ink with no gradations and few tertiary colors. The art also used bold, flat colors to great effect, the first issue being reprinted in several different colorways. The final covers were laid out in-house by Kenny Lopez and also bear his then-current Batman: Reborn branding that ran across all the Bat-related titles
The Forbidden Planet logo. Named after the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet is a chain of shops with branches across the UK, Ireland and the US. The first small shop opened in 1978 in London’s Denmark Street, where I first discovered its trove of imported US SF books, magazines and comics during the school holidays. As the scope of the store expanded to embrace film and television, a second store was opened around the corner on St Giles High Street. Titan Books started their publishing business in the cramped basement, where I delivered early book cover designs for Mark Cox and Leigh Baulch. In 1986 the shop relocated to a ‘megastore’ in New Oxford Street, at which point Jon Harrison, Forbidden Planet’s manager, suggested it might be time to design a new logo to replace the straight Compacta that had been used previously. Early design concepts 5, 6 incorporated Forbidden Planet’s iconic Robbie the Robot, who had featured in Brian Bolland’s original artwork for the shop’s bags. One concept involved different icons that would brand each subsection: SF, comics, horror, etc., but in the end just the rocket was used.
The extended type style of the final logo owes much to Aldo Novarese’s Microgramma, a typeface that I remember from Gerry Anderson’s TV shows and Countdown comic. Its ‘obround’ extended design projects a modernist futurism that, at the time I designed the logo, was very much at odds with the prevailing letter spaced and condensed styles.
Of all the skills you practice what is the most pleasurable as an end product? Comics? Illustration? Editing? Logos?
I think it’s working across a range of interlinked disciplines that keeps them all interesting. Concentrating on just one would feel restrictive, and apart from having a low boredom threshold I’m not a great believer in strictly delineated categories. The most interesting work, just as in music, often happens in the liminal spaces between.