The Daily Heller: Parody or Pilfery? Humor or Hubris? A Hamiltonian Paradox

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Parody or pilfery? Homage or hubris? These questions are difficult because the answer depends on interpretation. Interpretation is not science. But I do know for a fact that the brandmark/logo for the groundbreaking Hamilton: An American Musical book, words and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda is as familiar as, let’s say, the portrait of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill (and overall, the play is worth considerably more).

From its August 2015 Broadway opening, when the stellar reviews of the groundbreaking hybrid historical musical started streaming in, the logo—a black star with the middle point being the silhouette of a character in recognizable colonial costume, his left arm raised with a finger gesturing upward—became the most identifiable brand for the hottest ticket in town. Like other highly known logos for virtually everything, Hamilton‘s success triggered untold copies and parodies that today flood the internet.

Some are very witty, indeed, and this graphic tomfoolery shows how easy certain mnemonic images cut through the daily visual noise because of the collateral applications. What is overlooked once an image like Hamilton becomes embraced by the vernacular is that it was created for a specific purpose by a designer who was not intending for it to become anything more than a functional identity.

Sometimes the designer gets lost in the commotion. So today’s column is an interview with Nicky Lindeman, she is the creative director of design at Spotco, who conceived the Hamilton image, to explain how the mark evolved, its alternative manifestations as well as the references and rationales for why it looks as it does.

(Also shown are a raft of parodies that are found in unprecedented abundance on the World Wide Web.)

Lindeman’s original sketch

When did you began working on the Hamilton logo? Did you get a brief, script or did you see a preview or reading?
I saw the off-Broadway production of Hamilton at the Public Theater [it premiered there in February 2015 and moved to Broadway in August 2015] and read a script and listened to songs. As a department we met with the Hamilton creative team and producers before starting. And we all looked at a mood board Spotco designers had gathered; they responded and discussed what resonated with them as far as tone and symbolism.

My takeaway from all that was that they would want something that referred to the eclectic music genres and the unique contemporary tone in the production and merge that with the historical aspects in one clear singular image. I kind of approached it like I was designing for music packaging.

How did the process work? Lots of sketches? From other designers as well?
Yes, several designers made several mockups, so lots of sketches (we call them comps, which look very finished, not sketchy). 

Who was involved with the final decision?
The creative team, Lin-Manual Miranda, Thomas Kail and Jeffrey Seller, made the final decision. Basically, the creative team of Hamilton reviewed the comps we presented and they made the choice on the first round (that is not very common). They did want to see a couple variations on the color in the background but then came around to the original “gold,” which I had always thought of as brass.

I am curious about the symbolism of the gold. Was that to avoid the red, white and blue symbolism? Or because Hamilton ran the treasury? Or none of the above?
The black star and the black silhouette were a nod to silhouette portraits of the period in the story, but merged together they seemed like a modern image; I wanted to be sure to stay away from the feeling of a cliche Americana historic image by using these classic elements in a novel way. I placed the black star icon on a background of aged brass as a way to contrast the stark black of the silhouette and to give the art a monumental quality, to me like a bronze statue. 

Also, the gold was bit of a twist on the idea of imagery associated with hip hop music, which is important to the musical tone of the production.

It seems like such a natural selection, but nothing on Broadway, especially as odd as this musical, goes easy. Were there any contentious issues?
No contentious issues. We did have to flesh out how the actual title on Hamilton would work on various usages, because on the original design it was very small within the star, and obviously that was not always going to work. But we replaced the ‘A’ in Hamilton with the star, which was a great solve for a lot of the horizontal usages.

Many iconic images have become engraved on our brains in part because of the repetition and ubiquity of a design and/or its meaning and context. The job of a good brand mark is to be indelible. Part of that relies on copying (on one hand) and parody (on the other). Do you have any feelings about the countless reinterpretations shown here, or is that just part of the process?

When I designed Hamilton, it was all in a week’s work—that’s my job at Spotco. I have done hundreds of designs the have never seen the light of day, so the success of the Hamilton mark was a great surprise!

At the end of the day it is also about what an important beloved theater piece Hamilton has become. People express that through their take on the mark.

Is there anything that you would have done differently? Or preferred? (Despite the overwhelming success of this logo.)
No, but something unexpected and dynamic as a campaign came from this chosen direction that I think was positive. As it turned out, there was a dynamic aspect of the mark that was taken advantage of when this direction was chosen for key art. 

The flat portion of the star icon became a “stage” that would allow the other characters in the story to replace the Hamilton figure and continue the narrative in the same brand. A photoshoot took place with Matt Murphy, in which the whole cast was photographed in silhouette, choreographed from the musical, so we could have assets to work with as the artwork evolved.