From Death Dust to golden arches: exhibitionism in logo design [Written for the journal Typotastic, on the theme 'extroverts and exhibitionists']

Thinking about extroverts and exhibitionists, I was attracted to the idea of writing about letterforms rather than people. I wondered what kind of typography shows these qualities. Surely the brash world of corporate branding must feed on extroverted letterforms. But when no contemporary design sprang to mind, I looked back in time to last century.

And there I found what I was looking for: bold, brave, showy typefaces that still jump off the printed page despite changing times and altered design sensibilities. Logo design from the first half of the 20th century features hand-drawn letterforms coiled tight as springs, ice-encrusted, blown up, struck by lightning – subjected to all kinds of torture in the name of making an impact and forging an unforgettable identity.

Today we seem less inclined to put our letterforms in the firing line. Perhaps it’s because today’s designers all work at computers with thousands of ready-made typefaces at their command. Or maybe it’s the lingering effects of the terribly serious International Typographic Style, which swept in during the 1950s and brought with it the injunction to solve graphic design ‘problems’ with clarity, calm and a scientific approach. With this kind of mindset, there wasn’t much room left for eccentricity or exuberance.

Let’s look at some examples of current corporate branding. These are drawn from a random survey of the weekend papers – that pile of printed materials that clutters up our lives and our living room floors. The samples include a range of multinationals – Microsoft, Hertz, Mitsubishi, Brother – and some that are homegrown – Telstra, Commonwealth Bank, Sydney Festival, Reece.

You couldn’t say that any of them are extroverted in terms of typographic approach. In fact the opposite is true: the designers seem determined to squash any personality out of the letterforms they choose. Some do have a subtle twist to give the brands some vestige of uniqueness: Microsoft, Samsung and Australia Post fall into this category. Design students would know the story of the development of the Commonwealth Bank logo by Ken Cato, with its double M that becomes a single, extended character. Some logos, such as Officeworks, WoolSet and Sleepmaker, look like they use typefaces straight out of the catalogue. Others have such minimal typography that they are almost refined out of existence. BMW is a good example: it pays homage to the International Typographic Style with its beautifully refined grids and use of white space – and total lack of emotion. Some brands consider that they’re so well known they don’t need to include their names: the always recognisable golden arches design falls into this category. And beyond even that minimalist approach, Shell dispenses with words altogether in its branding, leaving its motif to stand alone. The only solid information in the corporate ad from which this logo was clipped was the company name within the address of its website.

For all their disparity, the typographic approach that these examples have in common is their enormous restraint. There’s no exhibitionism on show here. And this restraint is not just confined to the typography. While you would think that the aim of corporate branding is to communicate information about the company, marketing managers seem to believe it is somehow gauche to include anything that gives you a clue as to what these companies actually do. Look at the design and bylines for Canon (advanced simplicity), Toyota (oh what a feeling!), LG (Life’s Good), Microsoft (Your potential. Our passion.) The inference is that if you don’t already know what these companies do, then they’re not going to tell you.

Let’s look back now at the corporate design from last century. Business life was just as competitive then, and ads jostled for space in the newspapers just as they do now. Advertisers were always looking for something to make their product stand out. But instead of going for the subtle approach, they went in with all guns blazing. Designers tried every trick in the book to impress the brand name on readers. There was no sense of restraint or reticence in those days. Without a familiarity with household brand names of the day, it’s difficult for us to work out what some of these companies were selling, so here is some information on the samples that I have included:

Evendens’ Spring Head: nails, Melbourne, 1895
Muratti: tobacco, England, 1897
Yarmouth: oil clothing, New Zealand, 1899
Australian Explosives: blindingly obvious, Melbourne, 1902
The Fisheries Products: fertiliser, New York, 1920
Death Dust, agricultural chemicals, Sydney, 1925
Welding: publication, Pennsylvania, 1930
Spark-O: metal polish, Melbourne, 1931
Amat-Ice: refrigeration, Sydney, 1931
Zephyr: fly swatters, Iowa, 1937
Jingle Bell: ice cream, Texas, 1938
Rondon: shoes, Sydney, 1954

Without these explanations, you might not have picked up that the Zephyr brand is designed to sell fly swatters, but once you do know, those speed stripes running in a graceful arc are strangely apt for both name and function, and you’re not going to confuse it with any other brand’s fly swatters.

To our eyes, these old logos look charmingly naïve. What you see is what you get – nothing is left to the imagination when you’re dealing with products like Death Dust. Yes, they look dated to us now, accustomed as we are to the beige typography of modern corporate branding. But the world still needs its share of extroverts and exhibitionists, and design students of the future may find our 21st century offerings sadly lacking.

Julie Hawkins

Further reading:

A History of Graphic Design, Philip M Meggs, John Wiley & Sons, 1998
Symbols of Australia, Mimmo Cozzolino and Fysh Rutherford, CIS Educational, 1990
Trademarks of the 20’s and 30’s, Eric Baker and Tyler Blik, Angus & Robertson, 1989

The Weekend Australian, The Mercury, Australian House and Garden, The Bulletin, Gardening Australia, Woman’s Day, March 2007