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Thoughts on Logotypes and Symbols, 1983
FHK Henrion shares his thoughts and experience on the design of logos.
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To discuss symbols and logotypes means entering a very complex - often even confused and confusing - territory. Communication and information theory, semiotics and semiology, psychology and psychoanalysis, all make pertinent references to this field; the deeper the study the more complexity and the less clarity.
For the purpose of this short article I offer these definitions:
1: A logotype is the name of a person, a firm or a product in initials or fully spelled out, designed in such a way that it can be legally registered and protected as a design bearing in mind that logotypes made up of letters from an existing alphabet will not qualify. Only a uniqueness of constellation and/or form of letters will result in a valid logotype.
2: A symbol according to the Oxford Dictionary is a 'thing regarded by general consent as naturally typifying or representing or recalling something by possession of analogous qualities or by association in fact or thought the colour white, the lion, the thunderbolt, the cross, are symbols of purity, courage, Zeus, Christianity; ... Mark or character taken as the conventional sign of some object or idea or process, e.g. the astronomical signs for the planets, the letters standing for chemical elements, letters of the alphabet, the mathematical signs for addition and infinity, the asterisk:…’
Logotypes and symbols are both signs. Roland Barthes, one of the most important writers on semiology, states 'Semiology postulates a relation between three terms, a signifier and a signified and a sign. The sign is the associative total of the first two terms.' The signifier expresses the signified by a sign. In communication terms: the sender signifier encodes the contents of the message the signified which is received by the target public to be defined from case, which - hopefully - sees it, understands it and acts on it.
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Target public means the people for whom the sign should mean something. Very often a sign system need only be understood by one group of people. There is no need for pedestrians to understand transport signs addressed to motorists. Railway signals need only be understood by train drivers and not by pedestrians, passengers or motorists. Signs on office or agricultural machinery need only be understood by those who use and maintain them. The general public is only being addressed for purposes of general information e.g. hospital sign systems, general danger warnings, etc. and for sales promotion commerce, industry, services. In every case the system has to be learned to be understood. R. Arnheim writes 'the three terms, pictures, symbol, sign do not stand for kinds of images. They rather describe three functions fulfilled by images ... as a rule the image itself does not tell which function is intended... A triangle may be a sign of danger or a picture of a mountain or a symbol of hierarchy.
… To the extent to which images are signs they can serve only as indirect media, for they operate as mere references to the things for which they stand..’
Rudolf Modley notes that a traffic sign showing a pedestrian in Western clothing may be puzzling or unwelcome to drivers in a non-Western country and that the picture of an old-fashioned locomotive may let a driver of the young generation expect a museum of historical railroad engines rather than a crossing..! Commercial trademark designers cannot make their designs self-explanatory. The taste and style of our time associates successful business with clean-cut, starkly reduced shape, and the disorder and rapidity of modern living calls for stimuli of split-second efficiency.'
Frequency of exposure helps recognition. Conversely an excellent symbol design, shown infrequently, is unlikely to be recognized and therefore adds to visual noise and makes for confusion. 'Identification can only be obtained by what the men in the trade call 'strong penetration,' that is, insistent reinforcement of the association of signifier and referent, as exemplified by religious emblems Cross, Star of David, flag designs Canada's maple leaf; Japan's rising sun, or the Red Cross. Therefore, to test the value of trademarks independently of the context that ties them to their owners is like evaluating a diagram on the classroom blackboard without reference to the professor's explanatory speech.?'
Earlier trademarks attempted to symbolise products or activities. As larger industries become increasingly diversified their symbols can become an obstruction to communication. Cigarette manufacturers may diversify into, for example, cosmetics, food and hotels so that a common visual symbol is no longer apt. This explains the quantity of abstract symbols of recent years of which the best are the basic circle, triangle, square and rectangle or a combination of them. There has been a proliferation of geometric signs adding to each other's confusion. Only those with the most frequent exposure have a chance of being recognised, this development led me to entitle an article in the 1969 Penrose Annual: "Semiotics or semi-idiotics”.
Another consequence of this development was the need to add a logotype or at least a word reference to each symbol. As a result, two elements had to be put across instead of one. As space and attention has to be bought expensively, it is easier for one element to register than for two, both in terms of perception and memory. Experienced communicators were quick to realise this problem and, confronted with the choice to do without logotypes or symbols, they had to opt for retaining logotypes at the price of abandoning symbols. This naturally led to the decision to make the name into a logotype/symbol: recognisable words or initials presented in a unique manner Olivetti, Siemens, RCA, Mobil. In the case of MOBIL the red pegasus retained only its colour as it was abstracted into the red O within the sequence blue M BIL. I realised the power of this abstraction, combined with its frequent worldwide exposure, when I deciphered Mobil's sign in Egypt: the logotype in Arabic, reading from right to left blue/red/blue/blue/blue, left me in no doubt of the message.
The exception to this rule are symbols for causes, charitable, political or cultural. when symbols have to have an emotional, dynamic appeal in order to function. They must have abstract qualities to make a first impact yet combine them with sufficient emotional associations.
Roch's proposal of an emblem for the Canadian World Fair 1967 and Bass's symbol for the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy reduces the objects they depict to simply defined visual patterns. Roch's design illustrates the exhibition theme Men and His World'. Bass shows protective hands trying to contain a nuclear explosion.
To conclude these few thoughts I feel that at all times the communication needs must be given priority over artistic, aesthetic considerations. For this reason I am convinced that, for instance, sign systems and symbols at international airports need to be identical rather than different - even if they achieve individual aesthetic results. Airports and their sign systems are for air travellers and taking off in Tokyo to land in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris or Rome what matters is that the same information is conveyed in the same manner in all these places rather than one or the other having better colour on their signs with a crisper alphabet or a more ingenious symbol system. The total airport information system, worldwide, must possess clear continuity of visual information This leaves plenty of opportunities for individual expression in architecture, it interior design and in imaginative handling of passenger areas. This may be bad news for the designers but good news for the travellers.
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Logo Histories' Perspectives unlocks opinion and insights lost to time, buried within the pages of rare out-of-print design books and magazines. Through this series, you'll come to understand the challenges and opportunities corporate identity designers of the past faced to help you better understand design practice of the present. For Logo Histories, click here.