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Introduction: United States, 1973
An introduction to Symbols & Trademarks of the World Volume 1, United States Part 1 written by George Nelson.
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The interest that events in the U.S. have held for the rest of the world has been engendered, in part, by the explosive vitality of a new and seemingly unrestricted society, now simmering down as the limits of physical expansion become visible. It has also stemmed from the expressions of moral force in a country seemingly immune to the expansionist pressures and ambitions which provided so much of the energy of he older imperialist societies. This too has run its course. The world looks in dismay at Vietnam, and finds force but no morality.
Despite the disillusionments which follow discreditable adventures and economic difficulties, there remains one aspect of the American scene which continues to fascinate onside observers: this is the simple fact that the most advanced technological society is a kind of crystal ball in which others can discern outlines of their own immediate future. Whether the item examined is the superhighway or Pop art, mounting vandalism, space exploration, the supermarket or the proliferating suburb, it is fairly predictable that they will appear elsewhere when the local time is ripe and thus, for better or worse, The American society remains a phenomenon of profound interest to observers elsewhere.
A familiar contemporary example is the rapid evolution of industrial design. Germany was undoubtedly the place where the first significant developments took place, but by 1930 a new profession began to come into view in the U.S., evolving with such speed and vigour that the English word "design" has become as much a part of the international vocabulary as "jazz” and "OK".
Since designers today are less restricted in their activities than before, the rising prestige of industrial design has tended to encourage parallel developments in graphic design, whether in advertising, typography, informational signage, packaging, book design or the esthetic organization of the enormous range of literature used by governments and business. To some extent the activities themselves, formerly sharply divided between design in two dimensions and three, are now found merged in offices and studios which concern themselves with both.
Still, there are differences. Consumer products frequently depend on a very sophisticated technological base; graphic design is not similarly restricted, for the means required to apply ink competently to a piece of paper are not inaccessible to countries at a relatively modest level of industrial development. A mark on a page, generally a design in black and white, can be produced by the oldest or the newest methods without significant differences in quality. I am not talking about high-speed quality printing, but merely the ability to produce an effective printed trademark.
One might therefore expect that the competition - if this is the proper word for a comparison of one nation's graphic output with that of another - takes place on a more equal basis than, say, the production of tape recorders or dental equipment.
Sill, these differences must not be exaggerated. Design today moves rapidly toward an international rather than a regional expression, and such differences as do appear tend to be reflections of exceptional individual talents and, on occasion, of strong traditional cultural influences. One can still identify Japanese trademarks in some cases, but it is not so easy to find distinguishing characteristics in Europe, although regional styles - Switzerland is a case in point - do persist.
I am trying to arrive, in a rather round-about way, at some estimate, some identification of those qualities which might be said to isolate U.S. trademark design as American, and I suspect that the matter goes somewhat deeper than visible style.
It is a truism that no artist or designer can create effectively outside the gestalt created by his society, and this is as much a matter of time as of location. Even the rebel, a Goya or a Rembrandt, betrays his origins, his heritage and his time. No one would expect a Rodin to produce a Henry Moore, or a Delacroix to paint like Cézanne. Even if the modern works themselves had been pulled in from the future by some trick of science fiction, the earlier artists would have found them meaningless and probably ugly. Views of reality evolve in time and everyone, in one fashion or another, understands this. Historians of the future are not likely to attribute "Waiting for Godot to Ben Jonson or Congreve, even if vital documents are missing. It simply does not fit.
All this holds true for trademarks and other designs made at a given point in time, although the distinctions are more subtle and less easily identified, for a mark, no matter how beautiful conceived and executed, contains a minute fraction of the information displayed in a painting. Even so, the critically observant reader can see for himself that there is a quality in U.S. marks which is by no means alien to the country's dominant architecture, the extruded high rise slab for offices and apartments which appears from one end of the continent to the other in an extremely restricted range of variations. It can be pointed out that such buildings also exist in Sweden, Brazil, Africa and the U.S.S.R., and this is indeed true, and it again reflects the international charade of so much design today. Nevertheless, there are differences.
The characteristics of the American architectural expressions show an attempt - carried to the physically possible extreme - to present the building as a machine. The earlier playful attempts to decorate the tops of these buildings, such as the Chrysler Building in New York, are finished. The slab rises from the ground, and when it reaches the height judged economically profitable by the entrepreneurs, it is neatly sliced off exactly like an extrusion in aluminium or plastic. The surface materials also express the intensity of the effort: polished metals and polished glass dominate, and even when the architect makes an effort to “humanize" his creation with rough surfaced concrete, no illusion of hand labor is produced. In a commerce-obsessed society, it is inevitable that its best and most expressive buildings should be commercial, and it is interesting to see how these buildings will accept and tolerate their human occupants, but make no concession to them. I remember once passing the elegant Seagram Building of Mies van der Rohe at twilight, and feeling a real sense of shock to see a live body come to a window on the tenth or fifteenth floor, a genuine moving, organic form silhouetted against aluminum ceiling. It was a shock, because regardless of one's familiarity with the workings of the building, it never conveyed the impression of a structure designed for human occupancy; but rather the idea of a container for innumerable computers with their erratically whirling reels of tape, and for the terminals which permit the machines to talk with each other without human intervention, perhaps halfway across the country.
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It would be surprising indeed if such essential qualities of the American scene were not reflected in graphic design. In saying this one does not have to imply criticism or approval, but merely acknowledge the fact of a prevailing style, or styles, which have no way of being fundamentally different from the society's style.
The marks presented in this book are not entire typical in an overall sense, because the U.S. landscape abounds in graphic work which ranges from mediocre. This can be said for any of the other countries. What we are confronted with, therefore, is a carefully screened selection of examples picked to satisfy a highly critical, sophisticated taste. Excellence was the criterion rather than totality of regional expressions. These sharp limitations leave us free to concentrate on our search for qualities which might be identified as American. At first glance these elude us. The familiar gamut of devices, exploited by designers everywhere, are also to be found here. There are the ingenious combinations of letters producing a clear form, the letters merged with pictorial symbols which give clues to the identity of the sponsor, modernized serpents, borrowed from the caduceus for pharmaceutical applications, the pictograms, the abstractions of objects and all the rest. Presently, however, certian qualities make themselves felt.
One notes, for example, that there are very few marks which reveal the fact that they were drawn by hand. Like the skyscrapers, still built with human labor, the American marks seem, by and large, to aspire to a machine look. There is relatively little work one might describe as free, or whimsical or rough, and there is no significant acknowledgment of a once-lively and still-valid calligraphic tradition. This tendency to achieve the appearance of high precision is stronger than it was a couple of decades back, and there is nothing in the collection to suggest that any reaction is under way.
This quality is visible throughout: an extreme simplification of drawing, even to the point where lines show a generally uniform thickness. Pursuing the same thought, the work gives another impression: these marks are not made to be pored over, for there is rarely any content beyond the symbol itself. It is as if in the designer's mind there was a command to produce nothing that takes more than a tenth of a second for identification. The customer is always on the run, we feel. He will not stop and enjoy, let alone puzzle out an intriguing and unfamiliar pattern. These are marks for the instant society.
Curiously enough, there is virtually no evidence of any influence exerted by television. The mark in this medium could conceivably be developed as a dynamic form full of changes in shape and color. A few companies such as J.L. Hudson and Westinghouse offer interesting exceptions, but generally speaking, the marks are intended to be static.
Throughout the collection, along with evidence of a desire for extreme simplicity, there also runs the theme of movement. Arrows, twisting lines, snakes suggest high-energy movement on a minute scale. An observer from another planet might reasonably conclude from this display that the society represented, if not dynamic, was at leas frenetically mobile, which is not quite the same thing.
There is another characteristic, again related to the dominant commercial architecture: impersonality. Not only is the human hand conspicuous by its absence, but the human spirit as well. It could hardly be otherwise, for the clients and sponsors tend to be large and anything but personal organizations. In this sense the work is utterly truthful, fully expressive - and probably inevitable. We are all trapped in our own time.
This does not mean that these qualities are uniquely American or that I am reading meanings into this work which can also be found in other countries. What impresses me is the severe, self-imposed limitations. Like the buildings mentioned earlier, there are few basic variations.
It would be possible for the pessimistic to conclude, from an examination of this material, that the seeming rigidity of the style is an indication that the human spirit and its expressions are headed for another Ice Age. This is unnecessary and inaccurate: we are now in this Ice Age, and there are signs that a thaw may be coming. The same society that produced the extruded high buildings has also produced a vague, amorphous and confused series of movements we lump together as the "counter-culture"; and to the extent that the changed values these movements represent begin to seep through the body politic, the expressions already so visible in poster design, theatre, clothing and personal lifestyles will mast certainly find their way into the very special field of trademarks. The mechanical precision of so much American design, a fitting expression of an impersonal technological society, has probably reached its peak, and now the thing to look forward to is the reaction.
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Logo Histories’ Extra Issue 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.