In Living Color

Closky's Adicolor

Above: Claude Closky’s design for Adidas’s new “Adicolor” line.

The D.I.Y. movement has gathered steam and gone mainstream. In recent months, companies as different as Hewlitt Packard and L.L. Bean have encouraged their customers to customize, and nowhere has this trend been more prevalent than in the all-important sneaker market. Nike’s “iD,” launched online and through brick-and-mortar, was followed by a similar effort from Vans, who tossed in a few models by celebrity fashion designers for those with artist’s block. Converse soon followed suit, asking sneaker fashionistas to “unleash their inner control freak” on their classic Chuck Taylors, and now Adidas has joined the mix with their "Adicolor" line.

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No Goal

Old & New NHL Logos

From left to right, above: NHL, then and now.

Last July, after millions of disappointed fans had endured a yearlong strike and a lost season of their favorite game, the NHL turned the lights back on in rinks across North America, and players hit the ice once more. The NHL was not the organization it had been a year earlier, but after being slammed against the proverbial boards it attempted to a brave face on the situation with—what else?—a new logo. The new logo is essentially the same as the old logo, except instead of orange and black it’s silver and black, instead of flat it’s 3D, and instead of sloping downward from left to right it slopes upward. “New,” indeed.

The Doctors may not know much about hockey, but one of the first rules in branding is that if something needs to change, it needs to change in a significant and noticeable way. The NHL was a company had spent the past year without offering the product that its customers expected, and it had done so because it didn’t want to pay its employees enough to keep them from walking off the job. If there was any question what fans were thinking, let the Doctors settle it now: things sucked for the League and visible change was necessary.

But change visibly they didn’t. By casting a slightly revised version of their old logo as “new,” the NHL cast itself as an organization that was not only unchanged but also somewhat self-deluded. They hadn’t changed, but they seemed to think they had. What had changed was comically insignificant. The change of color scheme, for example, like the change to 3D, was meant to associate the NHL logo with its primary icon of competition, the Stanley Cup. But the two forms look nothing like one another, and the Stanley Cup itself has been “logofied” on many occasions for all kinds of NHL merchandise, including, most recently, the “My Stanley Cup” campaign, launched this April, which features a player’s silhouette hoisting a Stanley Cup high above his head. While the whole thing is encircled by a regrettably unhip swoosh, the “My Stanley Cup” icon is otherwise effective: it shows a player (which the NHL has been accused of neglecting), with a trophy (which the NHL’s unfortunate lost season had failed to produce). With it, the NHL stands for its players and competitions, which is what it should stand for. Not the most groundbreaking logo we’ve ever seen, sure, but a step in the right direction.

In the case of the not-new new NHL logo, though, the visual allusion to the Stanley Cup is unsuccessful. To say that making something silver and 3D will help fans to associate a shield with a cup is not only counterintuitive, but it also sounds a lot like lip-service. If the NHL had chosen gold as its faux logo metal of choice, the Doctors are pretty sure that no one would have objected that it clashed with the Cup. Fans got it: the NHL wanted to show some bling.

This desire to swagger through some rather adverse circumstances was also the key motivator behind the NHL logo’s other—ahem—”significant” change, from downward- to upward-sloping initials. While the Doctors don’t expect sports organizations to be bastions of artistic subtlety, the reason for this clunker is so obvious that it hits you right in the face mask. But the NHL’s press release points it out anyway, noting that the new logo “uses upward-reading letters to project a vibrant, optimistic image.” While the up/good, down/bad equation is simplistic enough for a 4th Grader to understand, it’s regrettable here, both for its one-liner lack of depth and for its probable lack of recognition. Since the new logo is so much like the old, most fans will think nothing has changed, reading up but remembering down, swapping good for bad, or, at least, more of the same. This is not to insult fans: the failure is the NHL’s. In the same way that we stop listening to stories that have no point, we stop seeing new logos that aren’t new logos. Diagnosis? In the words of the hockey blogger Razor with an Edge, “That’s It? Maybe I’m at fault for expecting something a little more radical.” The Doctors agree.

This article was written for BusinessWeek.com but never published. © 2006 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

The Red Crystal

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For some companies, brand recognition is a matter of profit and loss. But for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC or Red Cross for short), brand recognition is a matter of life and death. In order to serve its mission of protecting humanitarian and medical personnel on battlefields around the world, the Red Cross’s symbols must be absolutely recognizable and their meanings must be absolutely clear. Two of these symbols are well known: the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. And, as of 8 December 2005, the organization has elected a third: the Red Crystal.

The adoption of this “third Protocol emblem” (as it is officially known) is the first new symbol recognized by the Red Cross since the adoption of the Red Lion and Sun in 1923, a special symbol for Iran that, while still recognized, has not been used since 1980. In 1957, Sri Lanka tried to establish the Red Swastika, which is a Hindi symbol of good luck, but was rejected. India tried again in 1977 and was also rejected. And, for the last 50 years, Israel has requested the addition of a Red Star of David, known to Israelis as Magen David Adom, but that request has also been rejected.

The reason for these rejections is simple. The Red Cross fears that if emblems become more specific and more numerous, these same emblems will compromise the safety of those the Red Cross has sworn to protect. While we can rely on soldiers in the heat of battle to recognize perhaps two or three symbols of protection, we cannot rely on them to recognize two or three hundred. Moreover, the limited number of marks has a unifying purpose, aligning individuals from different countries under a common goal. To allow symbols for the Red Cross to become veiled symbols for their host countries would be to risk rendering those symbols useless. Rather than conveying neutrality, it’s possible they could invite hostility.

Unlike the cross, crescent, or six-pointed star, which are commonly seen in religious institutions, the place we’re most accustomed to seeing shapes like that of the Red Crystal is on roads and highways, where it is the shape of many of the signs themselves. The symbol’s design, with an empty center, emphasizes its connection to a frame. The symbol is an empty vessel, a neutral shape, a sign of sign-ness. As such, it is hard-wired in our brains as something that means, simply, “take notice,” and that reaction is precisely what the Red Cross wants. As shown on their website, the Red Crystal’s frame can remain empty, as it will for Israel, or it may carry the mark of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, or—in the case of Eritrea—both.

The Red Cross’s name is itself a description of its visual mark, like Target and Apple. The symbol showing a red cross on a white ground (an inversion of the Swiss flag), was devised at the inception of the Red Cross movement by its founder, Henri Dunant, in 1863. White flags were typically used in battle to communicate surrender, so Dunant thought a largely white flag would make troops more respectful of the new, peaceful organization. Once an affluent businessman with interests in North Africa, Dunant’s passion for launching the Red Cross left him broke and homeless on the streets of Geneva. After withdrawing to the secluded Swiss countryside for most of his life, Dunant finally went on to win the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

The Red Crescent was introduced in 1876 during an armed conflict between Russia and Turkey after many Muslim nations refused to recognize it. For decades, Israel had been seeking similar consideration from the ICRC, but it was not until the American Red Cross, lobbying on behalf of Israel, withheld almost $35 million in its subscription fees to the ICRC that the organization began serious talks about the creation of a neutral symbol. While no country or national society will be required to change their emblems, none will be required to use the Red Crystal either, but all nations will be required to respect it. While the resolution to adopt the Red Crystal did not pass unanimously, only Syria was vocal in opposition to it.

In every piece of communication, visual or verbal, there is a sender and a receiver. The degree to which the communication remains intact and intentional from one to the next relies on an absence of “noise,” or interference. In the case of the Red Cross, noise might come from a lack of visibility (the symbol cannot be made out on the door of a muddy jeep), or it might come from a bias inherent to the sender or receiver (the symbol is not recognized because it is also a symbol from a warring religious group).

While it has done literally everything in its power to minimize noise in the first case with a clear and readable logo, the Red Cross has done little over its history to minimize noise in the second case, leaving both of its major symbols vulnerable to cultural bias. The Red Crystal, then, is a major step in the right direction for this groundbreaking organization. Like all doctors, the Logo Doctors are fans of the Red Cross. Now we have one more reason to celebrate. If one type of successful mark must make a call to action, there is no greater call than, to borrow from the words of Hippocrates, “First, do no harm.”

The version of this article that was published on 12 December 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

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Sit down. The Logo Doctors have a story to tell—a story about a time-honored logo that has just been changed. And more broadly, a story about when and how to tinker with a powerful brand icon.

Once upon a time, in the Orwellian year of 1984, one of the largest companies in the world unveiled a new logo that depicted—what else?—the world itself. The designer of this new logo was Saul Bass. The company was AT&T.

Bass’s new globe replaced the company’s previous logo, a bell. Although Bass himself had updated the bell in 1969, the icon had been in use for nearly 100 years before it was replaced in 1984. It was, in many ways, the perfect symbol for the AT&T brand: Not only was it a simple mnemonic for the company’s original founder and the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, but bells symbolize sound and many bells (church bells, doorbells) connect people. And AT&T essentially made sound boxes that connected people.

So why change such an appropriate, well-recognized symbol? Because in 1984, the U.S. Government forced AT&T to break up, spinning off its local phone service in seven regional “Baby Bell” companies. If you’re not the only bell in town, you can’t very well keep using the symbol to mark your territory.

Bass’s solution was to signify something more than sound and connectivity: AT&T’s global reach. If the Baby Bells connected friends and family across town, AT&T linked you to a network spanning the world. Despite the ubiquity of the bell, Bass’s globe was instantly accepted because it effectively symbolized how customers had come to see the company and how the company had come to see itself. The globe signaled to AT&T customers, shareholders, and employees that its new vision was international.

And what a globe it was! Emblazoned in a UN-style blue (an element Bass borrowed from the bell), the globe’s racing latitudinal lines thinned to white in what would be North America’s location, subtly positioning our continent as the information flashpoint for an increasingly wired world. The icon presented the globe as a unified, countryless sphere, coursing with information. This vision of the world has remained a potent one: the symbol is still widely recognized, despite the fact that, since Comcast bought AT&T’s broadband cable division and Cingular bought AT&T’s cellular division last year, the services many consumers had come to expect from AT&T no longer belong to it.

How does AT&T’s new mark stack up? Well, like the old mark, it’s round. Like the old mark, it’s blue. Like the old mark, it has stripes of varying widths. And, like the old mark, it suggests that its round shape is three-dimensional. But this time the three-dimensionality is emphasized with the addition of transparency, shading, and some nifty computer effects. Other than looking like Pixar’s version of an old Disney cartoon, it’s pretty much the same.

As Pentagram’s Michael Bierut—who’s written a moving elegy for Bass’s globe on the site Design Observer—points out, “Bass’s AT&T mark has one advantage over anything that will replace it: it already exists…. Anything new will surrender all that equity, return to square one, and compete for attention with all those other telecom marks out there.”

When a company decides to change a mark that is as beloved and recognizable as AT&T’s globe, it better have a good reason for doing it. Like, the government has declared you’re a monopoly and you must split your company. So: change your mark because the rules of business have changed and the old mark no longer applies. Change your mark because your company has shifted its business strategy. Change your mark because it was bad to begin with and no one recognizes it. And when you change your mark, really change your mark.

The only upside in writing over something as long-lasting as Bass’s globe is in the opportunity to present something entirely new, a bright and confident vision of what’s to come. AT&T’s “new” logo, introduced this 21 November, does no such thing. If Bass’s globe was a confident cannonball into the pool, this logo, by an uncredited designer, is a timid toe in the water. It reduces Bass’s mark to a hollow, cartoony shell of itself. It may not be the same, but it’s definitely not new. As a result, it fails to communicate what, if anything, is actually new at AT&T or even—more basically—why the company changed its logo in the first place. True, AT&T’s sale to SBC required the new entity to review its corporate mark. But in recognizing that AT&T had the stronger brand, SBC should have left the globe alone. The reason for the logo’s change reeks of egotism more than anything else: SBC, once a Baby Bell, has redecorated big Ma Bell’s house its own way, like a bad episode of Trading Spaces.

The “un-newness” of this new mark reminds us of the spring rollout of Mountain Dew’s “new” logo, which looks almost identical to the old one, except that it is sharper and shinier. In response to charges that the new logo was anything but, Scott Johnson of the ad agency Tribal observed, “A lot of people aren’t really going to notice it…, [but] guys can find things that no one really knows are there.”

There’s a great story about things that no one really knows are there, and it’s called “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A king, told his robes are the finest and most beautiful in all the land, confidently strides out in public naked—his perception clouded by the power of his tailor’s story.

In rationalizing its transparent globe, you can witness AT&T falling prey to a similar kind of storytelling. The company says, “The new globe is three-dimensional, representing the expanding breadth and depth of services that the new AT&T family of companies provides to customers, as well as its global presence.” But wasn’t the old globe three-dimensional? It says, “Transparency was added to the globe to represent clarity and vision.” But wasn’t the old globe transparent?

Diagnosis? The third time’s not a charm, AT&T, and your new blue “beach ball” is full of hot air.

The version of this article that was published on 12 December 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Road Trip

If you think branding a 120,000-sqare-foot store is tricky, try branding an entire state. While it may seem similar to institutional and corporate branding, the practice of “destination branding” is a tradition all its own. In many ways, it’s the opposite of a typical branding assignment. Rather than forging an identity that drives a new culture, the existing culture drives the new logo.

While states have branded themselves in many ways and forms throughout history—think flags, seals, and state mottoes—the concerns of a destination-branding assignment are tied more to commerce than they are to Congress.

These days, the state of Georgia may not be as much on your mind as officials at the Georgia Economic Development Department would like, which is why, a few weeks ago, it introduced a new logo—a stylized version of Georgia’s peach—and a new tag line that junks the Ray Charles classic “Georgia on My Mind” and, instead, summons each visitor to “Put your dreams in motion.”

With one of the fastest-growing state economies, Georgia nonetheless ranks 24th out of 50 states in terms of tourism spending, the lowest of all the Southeastern states other than Kentucky. So how does its new identity stack up against the rest? The Logo Doctors decided to take a virtual road trip across the USA—or at least across state websites—and find out.

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These seven logos are fairly typical of what we saw during our journey of state tourism websites. South Carolina combines the palmetto tree and crescent moon motif found on its state flag with horribly stale typography. Alaska transforms the peaks of its A’s into the mountains of the Yukon. The ss’s of Mississippi and Missouri suggest the rolling banks of the river on which the states sit. While Vermont adds a brushstroke of green hills, Arizona adopts a Native American motif, and Kentucky plays on the horse, its beloved state symbol.

While these logos do communicate a sense of place to a potential tourist, the facts they relay are probably already known. Put another way, these logos are more about what these states want tourists to know than what the tourists might actually want to know. They fail, in themselves at least, to offer what most tourists are seeking—the chance to experience the unknown. Otherwise, why travel somewhere in the first place?

Rather than flirting with and ultimately seducing these visitors, the states that use this straightforward word-picture tactic wind up delivering bland information and missing a critical opportunity—the first impression. Particularly in the case of an experience or destination, an identity must leave enough room for interpretation. Questions can be a lot more interesting than answers.

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Traveling on, we saw a number of other trends as well. Versions of the clichéd “swoosh” were adopted, to particularly unfortunate effect, by Kansas and Nebraska—states whose flat, featureless landscapes are more problem than perk. Moreover, the swoosh suggests acceleration, like that of your car as it hurtles across these states at 80 mph without even stopping for gas.

Only a handful of logos went for simple type and a clean, almost modernist, treatment. Nevada’s logo feels somewhat mystical (note the Native American-inspired diacritical mark above the second vowel), Iowa rather cosmopolitan, and Florida less chintzy than usual.

Then there’s the tried-and-true method of showing the geography of a state, used here by Illinois and Michigan, whose geography is not exactly iconic. However, these states, too, have a refreshing, straightforward, modern approach that gives what some would call “flyover states” a bit more flair.

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A logo technique we saw to an overwhelming degree was the use of stylized handwriting. Why? As we mentioned in our column about graffiti a few weeks ago, people think things made with the human hand are more “authentic” than things with perfect angles and machine-made curves.

The handwriting in this case tries to give an understated sincerity to these states’ tourism campaigns. But because of the commonness of the execution and a distinct lack of nuance in the styles of handwriting used, these seven logos fail to deliver.

In the same way that we read graffiti as the voice of its individual scribe, we read handwriting as the expression of an individual, not an institution or a government. As a result, this logo execution suffers from the same problem as schmaltzy music over a Hollywood love scene: when we start to feel our emotions are being controlled, our emotional connection is broken.

(On a side note, the similarities between the logos for North and South Dakota are surprising, given the growing movement among North Dakotans, written about in The New Yorker by Mark Singer, to change their state’s name to simply “Dakota” in order to differentiate themselves from their better-known neighbors. It’s startling that a state that has contemplated something as fundamental as a name change would miss such a simple opportunity to differentiate itself.)

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Before states had logos, they had flags. These seven flags belong to the states with handwritten logos shown (in the same positions) on the previous slide. While the flags are visually rather similar—mostly centered seals on blue grounds—the content is very diverse, showing everything from a pelican to a bison.

Very little of it feels contemporary, and none of these symbols are icons generally associated with these states, making the flags as superfluous in terms of branding as their similar handwritten logos.

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Other flags are more useful, however. The flags of New Mexico, California, and Texas (shown on the right) are all more graphic and more recognizable than their overly nostalgic logos (on the left). Texas’s weathered belt loop, California’s ’50s postage stamp, and New Mexico’s cave painting all champion the past rather than looking to the future. Their flags, in contrast, are striking and original. These states would be wise to cash in on them.

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Images of national monuments can often be leveraged, since they’re already destinations for many tourists. The incredible symbol of St. Louis’s arch seems like the ideal choice to energize a cutesy logo—its shape is futuristic, welcoming, and dynamic.

Milton Glaser’s famous “I [heart] NY” logo, probably one of the earliest U.S. examples of branding a destination, is also one of the best known. As a symbol for New York, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the state’s other great symbols, like the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Niagara Falls. But it’s personal, readable as both a statement and a graphic, and approachable—a key fact for a state whose main tourist city can be somewhat overwhelming. Instead of “authentic” handwriting, the letters are typewritten, and the logo’s unnamed speaker forces each potential tourist, in describing the logo, to utter the phrase for him- or herself: “I love New York.” Say it enough times, and you’ll believe it.

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South Dakota’s sidelong reference to “Great Faces” in the tag line hints at the state’s greatest tourist attraction, the iconic Mount Rushmore. But what if, instead, the logo had taken its cue from the stone carving that so many tourists associate with the state? These great landmarks, and the associations we already have with them, offer the opportunity to build on the empathy of would-be travelers.

South Dakota’s tag line suffers further from an unoriginal sentiment, a problem we also find in South Carolina’s “Smiling Faces. Beautiful Places.” While these two tag lines may not have much to say for their home states, neither do most other tag lines. The assortment in the second row could describe almost any state.

The bottom row contains two groups of tag lines. The first combines the name of the state with its tag line, a novel idea. “Virginia is for lovers” is well known because it is offbeat, charming, and specific. “It must be Maine” isn’t well known because it is bland, dreary, and vague. “I love New York” is the only one to use the first-person voice. Other states might consider following its lead, if it had not set the bar so high in every other regard.

Finally, Tennessee’s “The stage is set for you” and Illinois’s “Mile after magnificent mile” both borrow South Dakota’s strategy of making quiet reference to well-known state icons in the tag line. Illinois’s makes reference to Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile,” also known as the “Mag Mile,” the city’s toniest shopping district. Tennessee’s tag line makes reference to the state’s country-music heritage, but also, more obliquely, to Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage.” The word “set,” with its overtones of tables, food, and hospitality, makes this tag line as good a choice as any.

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Last but not least, license plates might be some of the best advertisements a state has because they have a captive audience—drivers stuck in interstate traffic—and they’re found on every car crisscrossing America. They also have a built-in base of spectators, as drivers often try to spot cars from other states. Here are three of the most iconic.

Pennsylvania’s “keystone” shape, now used for all its branding statewide, was adapted from its well-known license plates. California’s Art Deco sunset is known as much from highways as from its place at the start of TV’s L.A. Law. And, finally, Georgia’s plate carried a peach design long before the tourism board officially adopted one as its symbol.

Diagnosis? The bland tag line aside, Georgia’s new identity challenges expectations and envisions a state that’s part of a fresher, more contemporary South. The identity reflects quite well both who Georgians want to be and whom they would like to have visiting. Having traveled the 50 states by web, we can say that puts Georgia’s new peach logo near the top of the barrel.

The version of this article that was published on 25 October 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Unleash the Squircle

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When your customers are designers, you know your new logo will get a full crit. But when publishing software giant Quark, Inc. unveiled its new identity, timed to coincide with the release of a beefed-up, feature-rich Quark 7, it got something else: a lesson in the difficulties of designing an original logo in a world more packed with logos than ever before.

The new logo seems simple enough—a circle-square hybrid that we’ve dubbed the “squircle,” resembling a very mod-looking uppercase Q, writ large in “Quark Green,” a.k.a. PANTONE 368, a color that Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, equates with growth and innovation.

But “innovation” wasn’t the first word that came to designers’ minds when the logo debuted in early September. Shortly after its release, the design community erupted in accusations that the new mark had been ripped off. Admittedly, the logo is far from original. It’s very similar to logos promoting tourism to Toronto and the Bahamas, and easily comparable to those of Moen Faucets and AkaDemiks Jeans, not to mention a bevy of design-related logos for Sterling Brands, Artworkers, PhotoObjects, and the popular design blog The Designers Network. And color aside, it’s identical to the mark designed for the Scottish Arts Council by the notable Scottish firm Graven Images. In our checkup, we counted 15 logos we’d call highly similar.

Why, the Logo Doctors wonder, weren’t their fellow designers as outraged at the similarities between those existing 15 marks? More importantly, why have so many different companies chosen the squircle? And is Quark to blame for choosing such a common logo?

The answer to the first question is simple: Designers love to hate Quark, for both its limited functionality and its unhelpful customer service. (We happen to be Quark fans, for the same reason we type our columns in TextEdit—sometimes less is more.)

The rise of the squircle is harder to pin down. Like any abstract form, it can be rationalized into a solution for just about any brand. That creates a snowball effect: the squircle’s burgeoning ubiquity endows it with the familiarity that designers aiming to connect their clients with consumers will build on. Focusing on who unveiled the squircle first misses the point.

But try telling that to the Scottish Arts Council (SAC), whose reaction comes as close as we’ve seen to a logo street fight. The defensiveness is somewhat understandable: in 2001, the SAC’s new logo outraged Scots with its publicly financed $37,000 price tag, and the SAC must feel more than a little compelled to defend it tooth and nail.

While a Quark spokesman claimed to Macworld that the company conducted “extensive checks to discover similar existing logos,” this defense is a little tough to swallow. Not only did hordes of enterprising bloggers manage to track down so many within hours, but the shape has been used by multiple companies catering to the same market as Quark.

If you can pardon the company for its total ignorance, the squircle seems better suited to represent Quark than to represent many of the others. After all, it looks a lot like the capital letter Q. (And not very much like the lowercase letter “a” for “arts,” as the SAC claims.) By rationalizing the shape into a monogram, Quark may have used it more effectively than others have. Still, if any mark provokes customer outrage, you can do all the rationalizing you want and the logo is still a failure.

But whose failure is it? While Quark has to shoulder some of the blame and most of the embarrassment, we’d like to suggest that its collaborators at SicolaMartin, a division of Young & Rubicam Brands, should’ve stayed up a little later doing their competitive analysis homework. And we’d extend that advice to them in marketing their own firm. The SicolaMartin website uses the phrase “Good design is good business,” which is trademarked by the furniture manufacturer Knoll. Originality’s a bitch.

As Jeremy Hedley of the blog Antipixel observed, designers are paid as much for the quality of their thought as for the actual Illustrator file sent along at the end of a project. We absolutely agree. If you claim to deliver a blend of differentiating thought leadership along with visual acuity, as SicolaMartin does, then you have to walk the walk. Diagnosis? While the new identity may have its merits, its utter lack of originality is certainly not one of them.

The version of this article that was published on 30 September 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Anatomy of a Merger

On 2 September, more than 1,600 Sprint and Nextel stores opened their doors beneath new signs bearing a common logo. This marked yet another massive telecom merger, following Cingular’s buyout of AT&T last year and anticipating Verizon’s possible takeover of MCI in the weeks to come. Whenever two become one, a new logo is an inevitable offspring, and this merger is no different.

Will the monolithic new company be dubbed “Sextel,” as bloggers once giddily suggested? Hardly. The new branding doesn’t exactly get us all hot and bothered. Like that forgotten soda from the ’90s, it’s basically…O.K.

Then again, post-merger logos are seldom visionary or inspiring because they’re design-by-committee projects mired in politics. So if the committee is actually able to produce a logo that’s on time and un-ugly, they deserve a pat on the back.

And that’s exactly what a team of execs from Sprint and Nextel—along with branding agencies Lippencott Mercer, TBWA/Chiat/Day, Publicis, and Hal Riney—have done. Because a successful logo merger is always a challenge, the Doctors decided to take a closer look at this team’s decision-making process.

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The trick to making a successful logo is keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t. In play are three key elements: name, mark, and color. In the case of Citicorp’s merger with Travelers Group in 1999, the name was resolved from the start: the new entity would be called Citigroup. In designing the logo, Pentagram wisely shortened the word to the very recognizable “citi,” keeping Travelers’ red umbrella, a symbol of protection, while playfully using a “t” as its curved handle. The lowercase “i”s are both human forms and points of connection. The colors of both companies are integrated in the new logo. A masterful merger.

JP Morgan Chase’s new logo is more straightforward. Both banks had great brand equity and name recognition, but Chase’s lovely emblem—designed by Chermayeff & Geissmar in the 1960s and still a classic—was preserved as the more recognizable symbol. They compromised on the colors and updated the typography. Well done.

Finally, when FedEx acquired Kinko’s in 2004, they scrapped the copyshop’s forgettable logo but kept the highly memorable name. Since FedEx has no logo aside from its name, Landor Associates (makers of the original FedEx mark) recognized the need for a logo to anchor the new brand and set it apart from FedEx’s. They devised an innovative asterisk made from three arrows coming together. Three of the colors—orange for FedEx Priority, green for FedEx Ground, and purple for FedEx—were already in use. The remaining color, an aqua blue, became the symbol for FedEx Kinko’s.

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In the case of Sprint and Nextel, the left side of this slide shows the assets in play. On the top row, the names “Sprint” and “Nextel,” and the typography of those names: Sprint’s in outdated bold italic, Nextel’s in an all-caps, no-nonsense sans serif. In the second row, the marks: Sprint’s ungraceful diamond-pyramid thingy, Nextel’s mundane cursor. Finally, the color schemes: Sprint’s commonplace grey and red on a white ground is similar to Verizon’s, Nextel’s black on a bold yellow ground is totally its own.

The right side of the slide shows this process of combining existing brand elements as used by another telecom company. When WorldCom acquired MCI in 1997, the new company took MCI’s name but kept WorldCom’s branding. Later, post-scandal, the company ditched the “WorldCom,” but kept its more distinctive look.

This approach wasn’t an option for Sprint and Nextel: While Sprint clearly had the more recognizable name and Nextel clearly had the more recognizable color scheme, neither company had a mark worth getting excited about. The designers decided to create a new one.

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The new logo is a vast improvement over the previous two. It visualizes one of Sprint’s most memorable marketing claims—its network is so clear that you can hear a pin drop—to remarkable effect. In so doing, it also has overtones of Cingular’s “full bars,” a symbol of the completeness of their network. The new mark also resembles a bird’s wing, a symbol of the freedom of cellular communication.

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Here is Sprint’s final logo, with upper- and lowercase sans serif letters that hybridize the companies’ former typography. In virtually every graphic way, the new branding distinguishes itself from its competitors. We hope Sprint will wear it well.

The version of this article that was published on 15 September 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Too Cool for School

New School SG

With alumni like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and Donna Karan, Parsons School of Design is no stranger to the power of a great brand. And, since we teach there, we’re certainly no strangers to Parsons. So, naturally, our interest was piqued a few months ago when a faculty email announced that the school would now be known as “Parsons The New School for Design” and that New School University would now be “The New School.” Since it preserved the name “Parsons” but clarified our tie to The New School, the new title sat well with us. The email went on to explain that The New School’s other seven colleges would be renamed accordingly, and a new logo would be introduced. Then we saw the new logo.

The new logo, created by brand veterans Siegel & Gale, scraps nearly every convention in the book. There is no heraldry or traditional academic symbolism. Instead of a school color, there’s a school palette. Instead of a single mark, there are several visually similar marks. And instead of well-mannered, serif capital letters, there is stenciled, spray-painted, graffiti-inspired text that Alan Siegel, speaking to AdCritic.com, describes as “hipster typography and blurry lettering designed to capture the irreverent, urban flavor of the university.” The net effect of all this misbehavior is something that feels less like a school and more like a soft drink.

In a New York Times article spurred by The New School’s new name, our outstanding president, Bob Kerrey, was asked about the recent trend in higher education toward rebranding and renaming. His answer was honest and direct. “My view is that you never argue with the customer about your name,” he said.

What some might argue with, however, is the idea of the student as a customer and the school as a lifestyle brand. Schools didn’t use to advertise themselves much, because advertising’s guileless buying and selling was once considered déclassé and unsuitable for the more refined realm of the academy. If schools did any selling at all, it was based not on differentiation but on a commonly agreed-upon standard of excellence. As a result, school logos have traditionally drawn on shields and flags and other heraldic imagery that suggested legacy, exclusivity, and academic discipline.

The New School’s previous logo took its cue from this tradition. Six turning squares, one for each college, create a modern-looking shield. Designed in the early 1990s by Chermayeff & Geissmar—who’ve created identities for PBS, NBC, and Chase Manhattan Bank—the shield was paired with Matrix, one of the first computer-created typefaces. The logo was celebrated as a modern take on a traditional symbol, uniting the past and future with elegance and simplicity.

New School CG

As colleges refashion themselves as brands, however, their icons must shift from symbols of defense to symbols that attempt to identify and empathize with a target audience. The replacement of the traditional shield by the new logo, with its visual cues intended to link the school with a young urban culture, reflects The New School’s embrace of lifestyle marketing as its method for facing the public and attracting new students.

But the method is not without its pitfalls. In fact, the new logo exemplifies the dangers of exploiting pop culture forms such as graffiti. Like Alan Siegel, many a marketing exec has been enticed by the vibrant street art, but the problem with an institution’s use of graffiti, as The New School case shows, is authenticity. Though Siegel & Gale Chief Creative Officer Howard Belk has emphasized that the graffiti “was painted, not Photoshopped,” that is not enough. Dissertations could be written on what makes an artform “authentic,” but most everyone would agree that corporate graffiti is not. Graffiti is almost always the critique of an establishment rather than the symbol of one. It is telling that one of the only unifying marks for graffiti artists is anarchy’s circled capital A.

Anarchy A

While it may be true, as Belk went on to note, that “graffiti has been a medium for voices with alternative views,” any institutional attempt to harness that subversive quality is doomed. British advertisers Saatchi & Saatchi learned this lesson back in May, when they attempted to introduce a campaign via graffiti in London’s East End. Within days, The London Times reported, street artists hostile to the ad campaign had begun defacing it.

Banksy

Elsewhere in London, however, is a different sort of lesson. While designing the Tate’s identity in 2000, the British firm Wolff Olins created an indentity that’s remarkably similar to The New School’s, with more successful results. Like Siegel & Gale, Wolff Olins was asked to create an identity that would unify several locations with different missions. They were also asked to create an identity that would empower museumgoers rather than the institution of the museum itself. The resulting identity is all about shifts of focus, as the logo’s design suggests. The name, “Tate,” is blurred and the specific locations are sharp, just as with The New School and its member colleges.

Tate Logo

Interestingly, one of Parsons’s most direct competitors for students, the School of Visual Arts, also has a logo with a handmade feel. Created by SVA faculty member George Tscherny, it depicts a sun—a classic symbol of education—painted in fluid, Matisse-like brushstrokes by Tscherny himself. In so doing, the mark references both the hand of the creative artist and the tradition of the academic emblem.

SVA Logo

Both the Tate and SVA succeed by avoiding the thorny language of graffiti, which is impossible for any institution to control. And both succeed in branding to their “customers” with big ideas rather than stylistic rationalizations. While it’s true that higher education is a business of youth, exuberance, and constant change, it’s hardly as fluid as fashion, which is seldom the same from one season to the next. Yet the Chanel logo, designed in 1925 by Coco Chanel herself, is only six years older than The New School, and it’s remained unchanged and in fashion ever since.

Chanel Logo

Diagnosis? In choosing their new logo, perhaps The New School should have asked for a little advice from its more fashionable alumni.

The version of this article that was published on 31 August 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

Pro Ed

Con Ed Logo

On 14 August, we’ll celebrate (although that might be the wrong word) the second anniversary of the largest blackout in recent memory. Which makes it as good a time as any to celebrate (and here it is most definitely the right word) one of the most unsung logos in recent memory: the Con Ed logo. It seems like such a classic solution, you’d never guess it’s only three years older than the blackout.

Created in 2000 by branding guru Peter Arnell—the mind behind identity campaigns for Reebok, Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, and Samsung, among others—the logo aimed to reflect changes at Con Ed. The company was no longer in the business of generating energy; it was now in the business of moving it around efficiently. The new visual identity debuted in October with a city-wide ad campaign and a New York Times article by media columnist Stuart Elliott. A year later, what started as a simple consumer education effort gained momentum when Enron announced in October 2001 that its stock was overvalued by $1.2 billion. Suddenly the new Con Ed campaign morphed into a mission to restore consumer confidence in private energy firms.

It happens that Enron’s logo had been created by graphic design’s grandfather, the great Paul Rand, who also created IBM’s famous striped letters and the emblematic C of Cummins Engine Company.

IBM Cummins

If you merged these two classics, you’d have the Con Ed logo, which helps explain its timeless quality. Prior to Arnell’s innovation, the logo had been untouched since 1968, when the words “Con Edison” were stacked and emblazoned in sky blue Helvetica. Arnell kept the Helvetica, an impersonal, no-frills typeface that is right at home in the context of a multibillion-dollar utility company. He also kept the sky blue. Not only does the color make us think of unpolluted atmospheres and optimistic futures, it also makes us feel cool, which, in these sweltering summer months, is one thing we all need Con Edison to do. Imagine if Arnell had jettisoned the blue for, say, the bright red of a hot stove.

Arnell did a number of other smart things as well. He convinced the folks at Con Ed to spell their name “conEdison,” shifting the emphasis from a negative, “con,” to a symbol of innovation and ingenuity, Thomas Edison. The capped “E” also slyly signifies “energy,” which is what the company delivers, and “efficiency,” which is what the company plans to deliver it with. The logo itself literally “consolidates” the letters “C” and “E” into a single, coiled unit. Its spiraling quality suggests an emanating force or an infinite loop.

Its form initially struck us as similar to the “impossible fork,” a children’s optical illusion. It also look a bit like the sorts of symbols used by electrical engineers in their schematic diagrams.

Impossible Fork

And it has the same sort of concentric rings as a manhole cover, which harks back to the 180-year-old company’s oldest trademark.

Manhole Cover

The first Con Ed logo wasn’t made by a designer at all: it was made by an ironmonger. Around the turn of the century, the words “Con Edison Co” were imprinted on the city’s manhole covers, just as the stacked logo that replaced them was. Prior to that, the manhole covers had been emblazoned with the name of their fabricator. In a project from the early ’60s, designer Anthony Robinson trolled London streets for these early manhole covers bearing insignias like “C. Whitley, Ironmonger, King’s Cross” and “Jelley Son & Jones, Grindstone Merchants, Blackfriars Road.” These stampings, either cast or branded into the soft molten metal, trace their history back to the earliest printed marks, including stamps made by Greek potters called “graffiti,” and marks pressed into Roman oil lamps that, before the advent of energy companies, once lit the way for citizens of the world’s oldest cities.

In enlisting Peter Arnell, a savvy interpreter of visual culture, Con Ed found a collaborator ready to both embrace the past and set a course for the future. Diagnosis? An elegant logo ready to last another 50 years.

The version of this article that was published on 11 August 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.

The “DC Spin”

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The design community erupted earlier this May when DC Comics unveiled its new logo, informally titled the DC “Spin.” Designed by Josh Beatman of Brainchild Studio in New York, it replaces the 30-year-old “DC Bullet,” designed by the legendary Milton Glaser, who is probably best known for his “I NY” logo, now omnipresent in the Big Apple.

Why the hullaballoo? Well, as DC, which is a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company, speeds into the vertically integrated world of tomorrow, its considerable array of characters must perform in not just the pulpy rags of its past but the movies, TV, merchandising, and games of today.

When designers start on an identity project, there is often something called a “creative brief,” which outlines what the company needs from the new design. It appears from reading DC’s various public statements about their motivations that the brief in this case is a reactive one: The folks at DC wanted a logo that looks more like the newer logos of companies started well after 1937 and without founding characters like British detective Cosmo, Phantom of Disguise. In short, rather than a logo that leverages the past, DC’s new logo liquidates it.

By contrast, Marvel Comics, in asking motion-graphics guru Kyle Cooper to animate its mark for Marvel Films, displayed a great deal more wisdom. The letters, which bear the hand-drawn feel of comics lettering from the ’50s, are filled with a “flipbook” of Marvel characters reproduced in the coarse Ben Day dots of early color printing. Everything feels old, loved, warm. The motion is created in a precinematic way. The characters are rendered in a predigital form. There is the stuff of legacy and legends here.

DC’s Senior VP and Creative Director Richard Burning had different ideas for DC’s update. In a Newsarama.com interview, he observes, “Due to the computerization of design work, embossed and three-dimensionalized company marks have become very prevalent.” So, instead of highlighting the role of printing in the production of the product, the Spin highlights the role of computers in the production process. In so doing, the Spin pulls a Clark Kent, disguised to fit in with the logos of competitors like Rockstar Games and allies like Electronic Arts. (EA just released a Batman Begins game and is working on another for the folks at WB on Superman.) These gaming logos themselves draw from those of professional sports teams. Not only do sports-related games routinely generate the biggest profits for these companies, but the visual reference to “gaming” helps clue consumers into what they’re buying. Quips one reader of Burning’s interview, “Doesn’t this new logo look like it would really fit as the band for a professional hockey team?” From the mouths of babes.

Sure, they kept the circle and a star. But they added a “glow effect”! The only time we’ve ever seen that work is when the Green Lantern was hurtling through space. Diagnosis? Come back to earth, DC. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

The version of this article that was published on 21 July 2005 by BusinessWeek.com is available here. © 2005 Rob Giampietro and Kevin Smith.