Logo Design After Modernism
“Great original artists take a tradition into themselves. They have not shunned but digested it. Then the very conflict set up between it and what is new in themselves and in their environment creates the tension that demands a new mode of expression” — John Dewey
Logo design as we think of it now is comprised of corporate, polished brands so embedded into our daily lives that we rarely even give them a second thought. But the origins of the things we call “logos” date back to the dawn of human history, when the first signs and symbols were created with the intention of communication. Just as cave paintings are forms of visual communication, so too are the large, colorful logos seen on the tops of downtown high rises and billboards lining the interstates. The questions of how forms and markings can communicate a message or a quality of a thing, were no less considered then than they are now. Along the way symbols and signs have naturally meandered in both form and intent, ranging from makers marks on early pottery, to livestock brandings and monograms in the Middle Ages. All of this may seem a far cry from the ABC logo in the corner of your tv screen, but in essence it all endeavors to do the same thing: “to aid and promote instant public recognition” (Wikipedia). But today if one were to survey the entire history of what we call “logo design,” searching for quintessential examples of form and content working in concert, many would point to the Modernist era. This era occupies roughly forty years in the long history of what we might call design, so why is it so important? Many suggest this era as a pinnacle in the history of design, in which simplification and clarity reigned supreme. But how can a foregone era be so significant in an evolving field such as design? One would suppose that we are always building upon the lessons (or mistakes) of the eras before us. Have designers forgotten how to simplify, or rather the importance of simplification? If so, when did we stray from these Modernist principles?
The era known as Modernism fluctuates in its accepted birthdate depending on the book you’re reading or the person you are talking to, but for our purposes, roughly the 1940s might be the beginning of Modernism in the field of graphic design. As with most eras though, the underlying ideas and origins can be traced back a bit further. In the 1920’s a group of avant-garde designers created what would be called The Swiss Style of typography, which would serve to drive the aesthetics of Modernism. The revolutionary 1928 text, “The New Typography” initiated a shift toward cleanliness and readability, with the typography as the main focus. In the early 1900’s design was closely related to other artistic endeavors, with a focus on beauty for beauty’s sake. When beauty is the paramount goal, there are often sacrifices in clarity and communication. The Swiss Style brought about the philosophy that “the solution to the design problem should emerge from its content” (Meggs, 356). While the Swiss Style was initially addressing issues of typography, this shift from ornament to function has obvious implications to Modernist logo design as well. The birth of modern graphics was a moment in which designers were “striving to create clear-cut systems and concepts rather than to display artistic genius” (Müller, 7). The ideas of increased simplification, removing artistic expression, relying on the grid and geometry, and letting the content determine the form are all strands of the Swiss Style that connect to Modernist logo design. A broader definition of Modernist design was laid out in Emigre magazine stating that the primary tenet is that “the articulation of form should always be derived from the programmatic dictates of the object being designed” (Keedy). Jens Müller writes in the book “Logo Modernism” that although the Swiss Style only occupies a brief period in the history of design, its “impact on the field of logo design was so radical that graphic art of the period can be seen as a genuine turning point in the history of the medium” (13).
But the Swiss Style wasn’t the only factor in play during the rise of Modernist logo design. In post World War II America, the country was hopeful for expansion and prosperity. The technological advances and production capacity we grew accustomed to during the war now turned toward consumer goods. It became an era of growing importance and prominence for corporations, and therefore an era of growing importance for the corporate image. Businesses began to see the value of design in mass market appeal and designers latched onto the mantra, “Good design is good business” (Meggs, 399). It should also be noted here that due to growing competition and multinational scope, many corporations embraced visual identities that reached far beyond just a logo design. This is a new trend in the Modernist era: creating and maintaining a brand beyond a single symbol, into all touch-points of communication, all unified, speaking with one voice. The logo was becoming just part of a system within “the unified company image with specific colors, typography and imagery” (Müller, 13). But in reference to the logos themselves, the Modern era has a distinct aesthetic born from these factors (Swiss Style, post-war expansion) coming together.
So what, practically and aesthetically, makes a typical Modernist logo? On a basic level, Modernist designers adhered firmly to the “rules and visual vocabulary of geometry” (Müller, 57). Great Modernist logos also made use of visual references to the companies name or line of work. Modernism was effective at promoting clarity and function, able to be quickly understood in all cultural contexts and languages. Perhaps the best place to look for the hallmarks of Modernist logo design is the so-called “father of Modern design” himself, American designer Paul Rand. Rand’s 1947 design manifesto “Thoughts on Design” is just that, quick yet meaningful jottings of his thoughts on effective and meaningful design. And although appropriately brief and austere, the book reveals his strict adherence to Modernism. The book begins with a chapter called “The Beautiful and the Useful” and puts forth his extended definition of “graphic design,” saying it “fulfills esthetic needs, complies with the laws of form” and “is not good design if it is irrelevant.” He continues it “is not good design if it does not co-operate as an instrument in the service of communication” (Rand, 9). It would seem appropriate here to ask if Rand was adhering to Modernist ideals, or helping to define them, at least in the realm of graphic design anyway. He continues on, espousing about the marriage of form and function, the effectiveness of simplicity, and making considerations about the participation of the viewer. All very Modernist ideals.
So how did Rand’s philosophy manifest in his work? The best way to investigate may be a case study of one of his identity projects. While Rand gained notoriety from his advertising designs, the mid to late part of his career was consumed by logo and identity design. Rand said that “While designing a logo is somewhat analogous to any kind of design problem, it’s special. The problems are different from those in advertising. You have to break everything down into the smallest possible denominator” (Sinclair, 186). In the early 1960s, Rand was one of five designers who submitted a proposal to redesign the logo for the parcel delivery company UPS. Rand approached the project in his typical style, seeking a simple and clear solution that made sense for and held true to the mission of the brand. His solution for the design featured a shield containing the letters UPS, paired with a representation of a parcel tied up with string. Though the company was concerned about the use of a string bound package (they discouraged the use of string on their packages), Rand felt that his bow-tie solution was the best, and perhaps the only, way to represent a parcel using a rectangular shape. Rand argued that it was a “simple, immediately recognizable graphic clue to what the company did” (Sinclair, 185). In a famous story about his use of the tied package, Rand claimed that upon showing his daughter the logo, she said “That’s a present, Daddy,” solidifying to Rand the notion that his solution had universal recognizability. This case study serves to epitomize Modernist logo design, with a mission to say as much as you can with as little as you can.
The era of Rand brought about many copycats and modernist adherents. In fact, classified ads at this time looking to hire designers began specifying a “Paul Rand type.” An early 1970’s issue of Print magazine titled ‘The Triumph of the Corporate Style’ highlighted just how homogeneous design had become. The issue featured samples of design for corporations such as Mobil, Exxon, and Aristar and while they were “orderly, well structured, and undeniably clear”, they were also quite “lifeless and watered-down” in their relentless modernist attitude. The issue‘s introduction concludes with the line “The 1970’s was marked by the rise of the Corporate Style in communications design and the subsequent enfeeblement of imaginative activity” (Poyner 25). But this decade was also an era of transition. Transition into a postindustrial era that could no longer be so readily defined as Modernism. Design, art, and culture began to make noticeable transformations and it became apparent that a new aesthetic had taken shape. Specifically relating to design, the Swiss Typographic Style began to be questioned and usurped as the default style. Previously long-held philosophies of form following function and austerity prevailing over decoration began to be discarded for busy and exaggerated forms. And while these are certainly the identifiable traits of the design that comes after Modernism, critical analysis of Postmodern graphic design is somewhat hard to come by. As Rick Poyner writes, “despite a certain amount of discussion in magazines and chapters about postmodern graphic design in a few books, there has, surprisingly, never been a book devoted to the topic…Critical introductions to postmodernism and the arts routinely deal with literature, architecture, fine art, photography, pop music, fashion, film, and television, but they show little sign of even noticing, still less attempting to ‘theorize’, any form of design” (Poynor 10). But despite this lack of critical literature on the topic, several books have been written about logo design trends through the 80s, 90s, and up today. And from these sources we are able to compare and contrast with the tenets of design in the Modern era. Many writers theorize that the era known as ‘Postmodern’ graphic design ended around 1990, but for our purposes the term ‘Postmodern’ will be applied to all design since the era of Modernism. Just as the unique set of circumstances (Swiss Style, post-war industrial expansion) brought about Modernism, a new set of circumstances brought about the changes that occurred in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Concise definitions of what happened in design in the 1980’s are hard to come by, but Emigre Magazine offers one, stating that, “in the late 80s, an anti-aesthetic impulse emerged in opposition to the canon of Modernist ‘good design.’ It was a reaction to the narrow, formalist concerns of late Modernism. It staked a larger claim to the culture and expanded the expressive possibilities in design. The new aesthetic was impure, chaotic, irregular and crude” (Keedy). So this appears to be the major chasm between modern and postmodern design, with postmodernism reacting directly to the polished, simplified nature of modernism with a busier, no-rules type of aesthetic. And although it was decorative in a different sense of the word than the design predated modernism, it could still be described as decorative in the sense that both the form and the content proliferated in the design beyond what was necessary for communication. Rick Poyner writes that while “modernism sought to create a better world, postmodernism — to the horror of many observers — appears to accept the world as it is” (11). And a lot of times the world is messy, chaotic, and unclear.
One of the first designers to work in opposition to the modernist way of thought was Wolfgang Weingart. T.S. Eliot once said that “It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them” and Weingart was able to call into question the rules of modernism because he knew them quite well. A primary trait of modernism, the use of the grid, was the element that Weingart often deconstructed and reconsidered. Speaking in reference to his rebellion against what was seen as conventional, Weingart stated that, “It seemed as if everything that made me curious was forbidden: to question established typographic practice, change the rules, and to reevaluate its potential. I was motivated to provoke this stodgy profession” (Poyner 20). The way he provoked it was to often take liberties with the grid, exposing it, violating it, and distressing his typography in such a way that abandoned the modernist ideas of clarity in exchange for self-expression. If modernist design was about removal of personal expression, postmodern design was about humanizing the content once again. This is perhaps the most meaningful takeaway from Weingart’s experiments, the pull of design away from cold, corporate clarity and towards more soulful artistic expression. Poyner writes that “Weingart’s work was spontaneous, intuitive, deeply infused with feeling and it had a significant influence on American design” (20). A quote from Weingart himself in an interview served to reflect his postmodern design sensibilities, when he asked, ‘‘What’s the use of being legible, when nothing inspires you to take notice of it?” (Tam).
Another pioneer during this time who built on the legacy of Weingart was David Carson, an art director and magazine designer with a penchant for grungy and experimental typography design. While a discussion about Carson is a bit of a departure from the topic of logo design, his methods and practices influenced the entire design community in the 80’s and 90’s, no doubt having an indirect effect on logo design as well. Perhaps the best David Carson quote for our purposes is the famous, “Don’t confuse legibility with communication. Just because something is legible doesn’t mean it communicates and, more importantly, doesn’t mean it communicates the right thing”. These words all at once dismiss the longstanding tenets of modernist design, while also creating a defense for his own personal aesthetic, as well as showing his similarities to Weingart. He suggested that such devices as taking liberties with the legibility of the text were “necessary to compete with other media attractions” and that “material designed to this degree might be better absorbed and remembered, if the reader had to work at it” (Poyner 63). Carson built his career and style around this idea, that obscuring or distorting the information not only makes it more engaging, it gives the content soul and meaning. This is perhaps most evident in a recent interview about his redesigns of the World Surf League logo.
Although this example is contemporary, it serves as a good example of his disdain for rules and banality in logo design. Carson, a huge fan of surfing, was so displeased with their recent logo design he decided to send them over 150 alternate designs, all of which rejected convention. He said of the logo currently in use by the WSL, “It has no soul. The logo just doesn’t represent the sport very well. It’s pedestrian, unoriginal, forgettable, safe, gentrified and corporate. All things surfing is NOT, at least to me” (Rielly). When asked what was wrong with the logo from a technical point of view, Carson continued, “Nothing is given any importance. All lines are the same width and it’s by far the most common logo, or button, shape in the world, a circle. And those lines. What are those? Rays of sunshine? … It’s forgettable and evokes no emotion or flavour of the activity it is supposed to represent. Mechanically, I’m sure its perfect, same width to all the lines, correct spelling, perfect circle. But is it surfing? It feels more like a student’s first try on Illustrator” (Reilly). This seems particularly interesting due to the fact that the logo does seem technically well done based on the standards by which we typically judge logos. The lines are all consistent, a quality that is often considered (both now and in modernism) to be a good thing. The mark is symmetrical, simple and communicative. It feels quite appropriate for its time and place. But Carson sees surfing as anti-establishment, much like himself. This particular example reveals the postmodern design attitude quite astutely, the idea that design should be more rebellious, less corporate, less Swiss, and even less legible. Carson said of his technique, “I think it ends up in more interesting place than if I just applied formal design rules” (Poyner 13). So while Rand often talked about clarity and communication, Carson is more concerned with what is “interesting.”
But while Carson and Weingart definitely did their fair share to usher in and embody the postmodern philosophy in graphic design, they themselves weren’t primarily logo designers. For the quintessential example of a postmodern logo we should look at the MTV logo designed by Frank Olinsky back in 1981. The MTV logo was a “revolution in corporate identity because it adapted to the language of television and shattered standing notions about the ‘rules’ of logo use” (Redding). No longer was the logo seen as a simple, static, bold image that needed to communicate the company’s essence all at once. For MTV the logo was in a constant state of motion and interchangeability. In the Modernist era, print was the default medium; the logo had no choice but to be constant, still, unchanging. But the 80’s and 90’s brought about television and now the logo had a new intended use, and new possibilities. MTV was one of the first companies to leverage this medium with their logo, which “was regularly animated, shattered, decorated, erased, and reborn in the course of a brief station identification spot” (Redding). Even though Olinsky was still crafting logos using many of the pre-computer tools as Modernists such as Rand, the era and influences were different. Olinsky grew up with television and one of his favorite shows when he was younger was ‘Winky Dink’, the first interactive TV show. The cartoon asked viewers to participate in the story by using a clear plastic sheet on their screens they could use to fill in information with a crayon at key times in the story. After Olinsky’s MTV logo was approved (including the TV lettering he spray-painted in a stairwell), his agency was asked to come up with company colors. They made the decision that there would be no company colors, and that the logo should always change just like popular music. They determined that the “M” and the “TV” could be made of any colors and/or materials, leaving animators and ad agencies the creative leeway to add their own spin, just like the clear plastic sheet over the top of Winky Dink. So while Olinsky was using markers, ink, and paste like Rand, it’s doubtful that Rand would ever use grafitti-like lettering, or leave such a major component of an identity such as the color palette up to whoever happened to be working with the logo at the time.
While the MTV logo is a great example of a medium-specific, evolving identity, there are many logos that demonstrate postmodern sensibilities. One example is the Sex Pistols logo which, like a ransom note, features cut out letterforms from various sources and typefaces. This logo was created by artist Jamie Reid and served to represent the DIY, anti-establishment attitude of both the era and the band. This style was prevalent in zines in London at the time which featured crudely designed pages with graffiti-like insertions and typographic errors, as well as letters torn out from other sources. A logo designed for the retailer Vertigo by April Grieman and Jayme Odgers is also a
great postmodern specimen. While modernist design “aims to produce unified, self-contained wholes”, the Vertigo logo is comprised of a mixture of styles, weights and sizes of letterforms (Lupton). And while the terms ‘Postmodern’ and ‘New Wave’ seem to be used nearly interchangeably in design literature, the Vertigo logo seems to have nearly immediate recognition as fitting the ‘New Wave’ style with its tilted axis, bright colors and geometric forms. Beyond these examples, there are countless more postmodern logos that can be recognized by their rejection of modernist traits, penchant toward decorative/unnecessary elements, and liberties with legibility.
The next major transformation in the field of logo design would come not so much as a response to postmodernism, but from advancements made in the very methods logo designers used to make their work. With the advent of the Macintosh computer, all formats of graphic design was irrevocably changed, for better or worse. This era is often called the Digital Revolution and has many defining characteristics: expanded creative potential, the democratization of design, a more streamlined workflow, and access to decentralized media offering the potential of rapid spread of ideas, inspirations, and techniques.
While many traditional designers rejected digital technology in its infancy, others recognized it as a legitimate tool and embraced it wholly. They saw the many capabilities of digital design such as the ability to make and quickly correct their mistakes, and manipulate and layer forms, colors, text and images. As Poyner puts it, “In digital space, nothing is ever finished; as long as the computer file survives, any element can be rethought … The fact that accidents need not have lasting or negative consequences means that these chance occurrences can potentially be used to provoke unexpected directions in the design process” (96, 97). Also, with the ability to create and distribute typefaces quickly and inexpensively, the industry saw an explosion of typeface releases. And in the digital era, the photograph was no longer seen as an accurate depiction of reality, due to the computer’s ability to manipulate and merge imagery. It was a time of rapid evolution both in design thought and execution. The old, manual, highly technical and mathematical skills of design were replaced with sharp, clear vector shapes with the computer doing most of the legwork. But along with the new digital tools came a democratization in the world of design. As Johanna Drucker has pointed out “The tools of the designer are confused with the skills of the designer … The accessibility of production tools has undercut the design profession since anyone could make a flier or a brochure.” Design began to lose its standing as a specialty skill with anyone having access to a computer and software having the ability to put together slick, polished material with a professional look. Poyner states that “a glistening perfection of finish that would once have exceeded even the finest draftsman is possible now as a matter of routine” (115). It goes without saying that any technology disrupting an industry so fundamentally has many positive and negative consequences on that industry. Design historian Steven Heller says that, “I recoil when I think of mediocre designers ‘doing it themselves.’ People should not think they are Designers because they can fiddle with type on a computer template. If people start thinking that graphic design is as easy as One, Two, Three, it will diminish designers’ authority and clients’ respect” (Lupton). But Ellen Lupton disagrees, saying that “We are in a new phase of culture now, where people have direct access to powerful tools … By encouraging the public to use design tools intelligently, we will ultimately increase the general understanding of professional work, as well as raise the level of design across society” (Lupton). While Lupton’s optimistic view is refreshing, Heller makes a great point that the democratization of design has impacted the industry in many real and negative ways. For one, many clients now expect and even demand design to be much cheaper and quicker than is possible. The crowdsourcing movement in design is also a result of thousands of mediocre computer and software owners, willing to do logos on websites such as fiverr.com for next to nothing. This provides businesses with more (not better) options, often leaving the design to amateur designers who will not spend the hours on research and development that a professional would. This effect has served overall to saturate the world with more (not better) design often with no design-thought or intent behind it.
Our present reality is that design is all around us. Our culture is more visual than ever before with much of our time spent engaged with the blue glowing light of a screen. So while the effects of the digital era had many implications on the prevalence of those who call themselves designers, what implications did it have aesthetically? While modernist logos were almost always simple, flat, and minimal in color palette, the concerns and constraints of many modernist designers were not shared by their digital counterparts. Logos were no longer designed with the outdated limitations of print in mind, instead they were mostly intended to be viewed on digital screens. Because of this many logos in the 90’s and 2000’s began featuring bright colors, multiple colors, gradients, drop shadows, animations, etc. Many of these qualities were also made possible in the print realm, due to digital printing advances. As is often the case with any new technology, many designers started to experiment in many new ways just because they were possible, although not necessarily the best design solution.
While not much has been written on the topic, it is also very possible that the concept of Skeumorphism had an effect in logo design of this era as well. Skeumorphism is a design technique in which the designed object is made to resemble another material. The visionary leader of Apple, Steve Jobs, was very much in favor of skeumorphism. He felt that since the iPhone screen had no buttons and no real tactile quality, it would be helpful to suggest to the user what was a button and what wasn’t. Apple executed this by using gradients and shadows on their buttons, emulating the qualities of a button in the real world. They also indicated textures such as leather and paper within certain apps, perhaps helping users feel more comfortable with the prevalence of a digital interface in their lives. This skeumorphic style became ubiquitous in the mid to late 2000’s in everything from app icons to logos, as well as television graphics. While modernism sought to flatten everything, the skeumorphism movement endeavored to volumize it again. In a time when everything was presented on a flat screen, graphics sought to ‘pop out’, reaching toward the user and asking to be pressed upon. Many companies whose flat, minimal logos had survived since modernism fell victim to the gradient and shadow effect of the skeumorphic era, namely Rand’s UPS and ABC logos. While the essence of the logos remained, they were now overwrought with a sheen and lighting effects much like an app icon or calculator button within an app.
With the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, Apple design leadership turned to Jony Ive, a vocal opponent of Jobs’ favored design style. And even if skeumorphism had at one time been necessary, users were now familiar with what could be pushed and what couldn’t. With the release of iOS 7 in 2013, Apple phased out the glossy design vernacular in exchange for a flat, more simplified design. This moment marked the so called ‘death of skeumorphism’, and like most things that Apple does, had a major effect on design more broadly. Seemingly as quickly as users and companies had embraced the bubbly design style, it was disregarded in favor of a flatter and more straightforward design style. Many companies such as Spotify, Google, and Airbnb rolled out new logo and identity systems built around this flat aesthetic. It seems that around this time (2013–2015), graphic design’s love affair with 3D style logos began to wane, in favor of a return to more modernist ideals. This isn’t to say though, that the past 30–40 years were just a pointless detour in the realm of logo design. Many aspects such as experimental typography, medium specificity, and new possibilities with color have been derived from this era, building upon the modernist values of simplicity and clarity. The contemporary era of logo design is bursting with exciting amalgamations of the past 60 years of logo design history. Take for instance the Google logo. While it is overall very simple and features a limited color palette, it also primarily functions as a word mark, which was not abundantly common in the modernist era. Most modernist logos were more about an icon or symbol which communicated the unified message of the brand. The Google logo is also responsive, adjusting, resizing, and ultimately replacing itself with a more simplified icon when viewed on certain devices or at smaller sizes. A major part of the Google identity is the Google Doodle which features prominently on their homepage, and changes frequently based on world events or pop culture references. Much like the postmodern MTV logo, the doodle is an evolving part of their identity, able to alter and adjust based on the aesthetic of the moment. So while modernism is a major reference point when looking at the great contemporary logo designs, it is not the sole contributing factor. Many other influences come alongside modernism to promote messages beyond just clarity in an effort to keep the identity warm and give it personality.
Our contemporary culture is visual, now even more so than ever before. We are constantly bombarded with text, images and symbols everywhere we look. If we must be subject to design, we should hope it is thoughtful design that communicates clearly. And in a complex and visual society, simplicity is often the most effective and meaningful. Historically, Modernism is regarded as the golden era of graphic design, with that notion extending to logo design as well. Compilation books of modernist logos are still published today, reflecting back on a time in which simplicity and clarity were paramount. It seems every contemporary rebrand or new company logo is reviewed and critiqued through the lens of modernist design. Indeed modernist logos set a standard we are constantly striving to measure up to, despite our various departures from it. It could certainly be argued though, that rather than disregard the modernist approach to logo design, we have built upon it in the decades since its prevalence. As with any creative discipline new eras are filled with superfluous detours and unnecessary additions. Over time though, the discipline evolves time and time again, retaining what is useful and discarding methods and ideas that detract from its purpose. For design, that purpose is communication. In his book, “Thoughts on Design”, Paul Rand uses a John Dewey quote that reads, “Great original artists take a tradition into themselves. They have not shunned but digested it. Then the very conflict set up between it and what is new in themselves and in their environment creates the tension that demands a new mode of expression” (74). So today, the best logo designers have not shunned the austerity of modernism, the chaos of postmodernism, or the shiny, polished look of the digital era. But have digested all of it, and created something brand new that both responds to and fits comfortably in the culture and medium for which it was created.
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