Brands and Logos


I’ve been following the excellent Cooper Typography Blog for a little while now, and recently Sasha pointed me to his article on Alfred Mahlau, with a short biography and a large collection of images of his work. Of course I’ve traced a few of them below. The lettering is distinctive and highly geometric - the curves are all based on circles - and has some attractive ligatures. As Sasha said in his article, the treatment of some of the umlauts is attractive - replacing the diacritic with a digraph when writing Lübeck. Check out the rest of the site; it’s got great articles, fascinating examples and links (you may lose a day or three with this one), and is definitely well adding to your RSS/bookmarks.


Have a look at this article about Lübeck to see the original of what’s represented in these posters. The distinctive cityscape is also used in the still-used brand identities for Niederegger and Schwartauer Werke, also created by Mahlau.


A few more, so you can see the lettering. More here.



I saw Airside’s great brand/logo system for Greenpeace’s Airplot! campaign (against the new runway at Heathrow Airport) the other day, and today Bauldoff linked to more information on the development of it. I love the development process for the typeface used in the identity, printed in acrylic paint with letters cut out of corrugated cardboard; the corrugations in the cardboard brilliantly emulate the ridged appearance of ploughed fields, and creases and imperfections bring to mind the parch marks brought about by underlying geology (or archaeology!) you can only see from the air. The whole system is very flexible, and as you can see from the examples, allows for a wide range of messages to be created and set while maintaining the strong visual identity of the campaign.


All in all, it’s a great idea, well executed. The campaign itself is interesting and rather amusing, it certainly caught my imagination when I first heard of it. Basically, Greenpeace bought a field in the middle of where the new Heathrow runway is going to be, and is parcelling it off and selling it to potentially hundreds of people worldwide, with the idea that the Government won’t easily be able to track down the owners to force a compulsory purchase. It may not prevent the building of the runway, and may not even slow it down very much (the original purchase could be identified as being legally ‘vexatious’ and nullified) but it brings the protest to light in a positive, clever and interesting way that is likely to appeal to the public. Other recent airport expansion protests have focussed on inconveniencing the travelling public, which, while you might say it’s justified in highlighting the importance of the issue, isn’t going to get much support from said travelling public.

Brand Conformity

I’ve had the basic kernel for this article sitting around since 2007, when I was sat around recovering from an injury and needed regular doses of painkillers to make it comfortable. I was surrounded by the empty boxes of these painkillers (hey, who thinks of cleaning when injured?) and started thinking about the ‘brand space’ of consumer drugs. Writing about the Arabic logos and brands reminded me that I’d not finished the article, so here goes.


Years ago I’d read how there’s a great deal of conservatism in various industries, and especially the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector when it comes to designing packaging and logos. The basic idea is that when your Average Punter goes into a shop to buy, say, bathroom cleaner, he will span the shelves for the specific and familiar constellation of bright colours, dramatic lettering and packaging shape that would identify the product type. It is the combination of all these things, taken in at a glance, that helps us quickly identify bathroom cleaner from, say, furniture polish even though they may share some aspects (in this case, packaging type and lettering, but not the colour range). For the designer of such packaging, coming up with something new and different enough to get noticed without being so different as to move it out of the visual category entirely is the difficult job, rewarding to some and incredibly constraining to others. I follow The Dieline regularly, and while there’s a steady flow of new and often beautiful products and rebrands, FMCG packaging design seemingly only evolves through a glacially-slow process; any slight innovations that improve the success of one product are adopted by them all until they’re all exactly the same again.

Returning to the design of pharmaceutical packaging, it seems that for branded consumer drugs, the category has a checklist that all packaging must follow. It must scream from the shelf with bold and oblique sans-serif type, bright oranges and reds against dark blues and greens (or silver metallic, if you have the budget) and have at least one swoosh, arrow or starburst, but preferably all three. If you can squeeze an airbrushed diagram of the body in there, then so much the better, especially if you can put a warm orange glow on the medicine’s intended body part. Before you know it you’ll have something perfect for any discerning pharmacy shelf, and there’s no chance someone will mistake your box of headache pills for ground coffee. That’s your brand-name drugs anyway.

Similar enoough

Most supermarkets have a range of common remedies with deliberately plain and understated packaging, and like any range of products identifies itself to the consumer from the shelves with its own signature characteristic; usually a blaze of unadorned white semigloss cardboard. Own-brand stuff can be gloriously simple and often highly compelling, especially when some real thought has been put into it, as in Target’s ClearRx packaging system for example. Other times, own-brand stuff just looks like the brand-name product, type styles, layout, colours and all. In the UK, Boots had a beautifully simple and clear packaging style for its range of own-brand medicines, but recently its ibuprofen has taken on the red-on-silver-with-a-swoosh look, very similar to the brand-name version, Nurofen. From a designer’s point of view it’s disappointing, but there is a very good reason for it in that for most people branded products simply work better. In making their ibuprofen look like the brand-name version, they’re actually boosting the analgesic effect:

In a British study, 835 women who regularly used analgesics for headache were randomly assigned to one of four groups. One group received aspirin labeled with a widely advertised brand name (“one of the most popular” analgesics in the United Kingdom that had been “widely available for many years and supported by extensive advertising”). The other groups received the same aspirin in a plain package, placebo marked with the same widely advertised brand name, or unmarked placebo. In this study, branded aspirin worked better than unbranded aspirin, which worked better than branded placebo, which worked better than unbranded placebo. Among 435 headaches reported by branded placebo users, 64% were reported as improved 1 hour after pill administration compared with only 45% of the 410 headaches reported as improved among the unbranded placebo users. Aspirin relieves headaches, but so does the knowledge that the pills you are taking are “good” ones.Annals of Internal Medicine

And, to make it clearer that this is a more of a symptom of being human rather than a modern result of sophisticated marketing practices, how about this quote (from the same page) from Socrates:

[The cure for the headache] was a kind of leaf, which required to be accompanied by a charm, and if a person would repeat the charm at the same time that he used the cure, he would be made whole; but that without the charm the leaf would be of no avail.Socrates, according to Plato

Returning to the original example of bathroom cleaner, could this cultural placebo effect apply to more than just pharmaceuticals? I think it most certainly does, and that we usually suspect it when we compare the prices of brand-name and own-brand products on the supermarket shelf, and yet, and I include myself in this too, we so often end up buying the big brands. If a style of packaging, labelling and use of colour identifies the product category, then surely the one that is most identifiable, most familiar, has the best marketing, is the acme of that category, the best one? So unless we have a strong reason not to, and reasoning implies some analytical thought, we buy it.


Extending beyond groceries, we can see this culturally-imposed brand conformity in almost any market sector. Something that I had in mind when thinking of this article in 2007 were the Abbey National rebrands of 2003 and 2005. In September 2003, Abbey National adopted a soft, squishy, pastel-coloured brand identity created by Wolf Olins, and started trading under the all-lowercase moniker ‘abbey’. The new tagline, “Turning banking on its head” signalled the intent of the dramatic change in the brand, and the whole process certainly got Abbey a lot of media attention, but:

In marketing terms, however, the rebrand was a clear disaster. Last year, pre-tax profits in Abbey’s core retail business shrank by 20% to £814m compared with 2003 and there was another big slump in market share. New mortgage lending is also down year on year from 9.9% to 3.1%, reducing its overall mortgage share from 10.7% to 8.6%.Ian Fraser

Of course, it is unlikely that the rebrand caused all of that. The rebranding itself came about to a large extent because the bank was already in trouble, but it’s pretty clear that it didn’t turn banking on its head, and more importantly it didn’t bring them any of the kind of success they needed. In fact, it was only a year and a half later that Abbey was bought by Spain’s largest bank, Santander, and the whole brand identity was unceremoniously ditched. The Abbey name is now set in Santander’s typeface and style, placed next to Santander’s flame logo, with Santander’s colours, and soon, I suspect, will be itself replaced with Santander’s own name too. For various reasons, Abbey did a lot better after being bought out, but the thing about the Santander brand is that it looks like a bank, and that’s important. If a bank looks like a bank, we treat it like a bank. I would say we trust it like a bank, but this is early 2009 and the word ‘trust’ and ‘bank’ don’t seem to go together very well anymore. But still, the principle holds - things need to look like what we expect them to look like; there’s a contract of trust associated with brands and you break that contract at your peril.

London Shop Fronts

I think I saw this one on Coudal Partners, an ongoing photo study of London shop fronts. What fascinates me is the range of type and typography on the shop signs. Some are good, some are strange, some are very strange, and there are quite a lot that are pretty dreadful, all making up what I suppose you could call London Small Shop Vernacular.

Nice bit of signage archaeology on this one.

From time to time I’ve thought of doing this in Brighton, there’s quite a range of shop fronts, and they seem to change quite frequently too. I saw a lovely roundel on the window of a burger takeaway announcing the availability of halal meat, and it got me wondering whether there are any sort of recognised marks for halal and kosher, and it turns out there are. Quite a few of them in fact, and not really very consistent. I guess if you’re sure no-one is actually going to out-and-out lie, these are all consistent enough:


The idea of being ‘consistent enough’ reminds me of other logos for food labelling. There’s the ‘v’ for vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, food - something you see a lot in Brighton. There’s also the Vegetarian Society logo which often gets used by food suppliers whether they have permission to do so or not, but again, no consistent mark for the whole thing. Perhaps with some things there’s no need for consistency because the truth of what the symbol claims can be easily checked, but with other things there definitely is a need. For example, the demand for fairly traded products has led to the development of an official Fair Trade logo. However, there are lots of other ones that imply lovely, fair, environmentally and socially responsible origins, but have so few checks and balances as to be essentially meaningless - greenwashing in other words.

Chocolate Research Facility

This caught my eye a while back, on NOTCOT, and it turns out there’s a whole range of packaging with it which is all pretty nice. I prefer these ones though, they’re like some cross between newspaper wrap and utilitarian shopkeeping units - it reminds me of how supermarkets sometimes design their own-brand ‘basics’ ranges, which (almost) always end up looking far better than the non-basics stuff. I’m not sure about the treatment of the two Os though, the counters look more like funky bullets somehow. Have a look at the rest of the Asylum site too, there’s plenty of interesting stuff on there.


Branding Polaroid

Just saw a link to this site on Coudal about the rebranding of Polaroid, written by Paul Giambarba, who did the rebrand. It’s a fascinating read, and I might post more about it, but the bit about the pre-1957 logo caught my attention. I was looking at the old logo, and wondering why they’d done the ‘a’ like that, and that with the kerning on the other letters it made it look like two words: “Pola roid”. The ‘r’ is a bit odd too. Seems that those weren’t the only problems with the logo identified by Giambarba:

Polaroid is reversed, or dropped-out, from a red patch in a mangled version of a typeface called Memphis. The true Memphis lower case “a” has an upper serif to distinguish it from an “o,” but close inspection will reveal that the upper serif has been removed from the Polaroid “a.” Thus the brand name could be easily misread at quick glance as Poloroid. Of all the counterproductive things one can do in commerce, this was outrageously stupid, especially when spending considerably to launch a new line of products. Paul Giambarba
At top, the pre-1957 Polaroid logo, in the middle, the word typed in Memphis and kerned tightly and at the bottom the same word, but with the upper serif of the ‘a’ removed.

I think that the word looks a load better with the serif. Still, Giambarba had already dismissed the typeface as ‘unreadable’, so the logo was clearly up for bigger changes than the reinstatement of a serif and the demangling of the ‘r’. Go and read the rest of it, it’s worth it.



The FontFeed linked last week to The Dieline’s exclusive on the Pentawards competition results. There are some lovely examples of packaging in there, with some really innovative packaging shapes and structures too, rather than just nice labels on standard packs.

I often wonder when looking at things like this where the incentive came from - it can be hard persuading a client to go with something custom, with all the implications of cost and lead-in times that implies. It (obviously) happens, though I wonder whether any of these agencies might have been simply lucky to have a client bounding in, scattering wads of cash hither and yon, full of enthusiasm for creating something new, exciting and different. I’d like a client like that. Or two. Or three.

Back to the awards: The Gloji bottle at right is lovely, and different, and I imagine it would feel nice in the hand, like a cognac glass. I don’t care for the logo very much though, unlike the Steinlager logo below. More specifically, the ‘S’ in the Steinlager logo. Looking on the company’s site, I see that the version used on their other products is more traditional, and it’s just on this bottle that the blackletter has been pared down, trimmed and shaved to give it that clean, sleek, modern simplicity. I love it. Hard to trace from a picture of a bottle though, but I think I have it about right.


Underappreciated Logos

I came across these two logos recently, the Guild of Food Writers one via NOTCOT, and the Victor one via an Engadget link to this deadly device. The Food Writers one is beautiful; simple, clean and clever - something any organisation would be proud to call its own. The Victor one has a few issues, like the strangely discordant ct, but the V is entertaining and nicely done. So there we go, two nice logos.

So what’s the problem? Well, to look at the websites of these two organisations you’d think they were ashamed of them.


On the Food Writers site I didn’t immediately recognise the logo as being the same one - it’s disguised with that nasty gradient, the cheap glow and the atrocious lettering next to it. I can’t quite reconcile the motivation that commissioned such a great logo from 300million with that of allowing the website to end up looking (and working) like that. Maybe it’s a supplier issue. Maybe they’re working on a new site? Maybe I should pitch a new site to them.

The Victor logo isn’t treated quite as badly, so while it has completely unnecessary bevels and shadows applied at various sizes and angles on the site and other materials, on the product itself it’s used cleanly and simply. If you look closely at the Victor® Multi-Kill™ Electronic Mouse Trap (!) the power indicator is a glowing green version of the V from the logo, so there’s hope. It’s such a shame that in every other application, it’s smothered with cheap, lazy effects.

T-Mobile, Vodafone and Santander

Johnson Banks posted this quick (but effective) re-do of the T-Mobile logo on their Thought for the Week site. Despite a deep and abiding fondness for the colour pink, I’ve never liked the T-Mobile logo - the whole thing looks like something an ’80s financial recruitment firm might have used - changing the typeface to, say, Rotis would only complete the effect.

Before and after, by Johnson Banks.

Now for a thought of my own: I was wondering about the other major (UK) mobile operator logos, and released that I was starting to confuse the Vodafone logo with the Santander one. Maybe it’s because I’ve got a bit of a cold at the moment and my brain is addled but what with Santander advertising heavily (and buying UK banks at rock-bottom prices) and Vodafone not having any strong campaign on at the moment, is the central-white-symbol-on-red-ground space at risk of being usurped?

OK, I’m not being entirely serious, but there is a point where a company gets so large that it is no longer associated in people’s minds with its original economic sector, but more the category known as Huge Multinational Mega-Corporations, and this is where brands can really start to get confused in the marketplace. The logos are of course different, but in this case (in Europe) we’re used to banks bought by Santander having their brand (but not their name) changed to fit the parent company, so the potential for confusion grows, “Oh, it must be another company Santander bought…”


More Tribute to Lubalin

Peter Gabor’s gallery of Herb Lubalin’s work has been linked to from lots of places as the Tribute to Herbert Lubalin, and if you’ve not seen it yet, it’s worth a look.  However, that’s just the gallery for a whole category of articles by Gabor about Lubalin, so that’s worth a look too (it’s all in French, mind). While the gallery does have plenty of great examples, the pages don’t have any background information or titles for any of the pieces of Lubalin’s work; it’s not so much of a tribute as a teaser, or a portfolio that really needs the artist there to explain each piece - at least to say what it was for.

Victoria and Albert logo, by Alan Fletcher, 1989.

The case in point for me is the “VA” logo below. Who or what was it for? Searching for it online gives a list of everything Lubalin did in Virginia, but nothing that appears to explain this. It’s a mystery. And yes, it does remind me of the Victoria and Albert Museum logo by Alan Fletcher, at right.


Mysteries aside, I just like this one: