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Shaping the corporate image, 1970
Ben Rosen on the corporate search for visual identity
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The following is the first part of a three part introduction to The Corporate Search for Visual Identity written by author Ben Rosen. If you enjoy articles like this, and would like to support the project, subscribe to Logo Histories.
As if they did not already have enough to worry about, corporation managers in recent years have been called on to make decisions in an area that is too seldom covered by their experience and training, an area that seems remote from the profit-and-loss picture. That area is effective corporate communications, and good design is one of the main means by which it may be achieved. In a busy, crowded world, with an increasing trend toward similarity of product or service, a corporation must pull its visual elements together in a dynamic way or lose out in the competitive struggle.
In the board rooms and the executive suites, managers discuss the design programs of the great companies like RCA, Westinghouse, Mobil, Xerox, and the pioneer Olivetti. They see venerable symbols being discarded, fresh and modern logotypes springing up, bright color schemes unfolding. And they wonder if they should not be addressing more attention to the way they look in relation to the way they are and wish to be.
Every corporation does identify itself, every moment. The question is how it is identified, and the company that decides not to bother about "the image thing" can be sure that its corporate identity is already apparent and, very possibly, bad.
It might be added that the company that summarily decides to go out and get an image for itself--something that will make the public gasp in admiration -is not seeing things too clearly. It is true that a fresh suit of clothes will at least temporarily improve the appearance of a sick man, but it will not hide the pallor or the palsy. The best design programs are those that accurately reflect the health, vigor, and drive toward responsible performance that must begin at the top levels of corporate authority. In other words, most often a vigorous corporation and a dynamic design program go hand in hand. Thus, IBM, a company that looks like the most advanced electronics company in the world, can lay considerable claim to being just that.
For a corporation, as we are discussing it, is not merely a profit-making business enter-prise. The word means, according to the Random House Dictionary: "An association of individuals created by law or under authority of law, having a continuous existence independent of the existence of its members, and powers and liabilities distinct from those of its members." A secondary definition is simply "any group of persons united or regarded as united in one body." Thus your local PTA has a "corporate image," and so do the Red Cross and the Archdiocese of New York. And, so did the Woodworkers' Guild of the early Renaissance, the Senate of Rome, and the Peloponnesian League.
A concern for forceful, positive identification is becoming one of the central facts of what might be broadly termed American corporate organizational structure. Business organizations, labor unions, governmental entities at every level, church and secular charitable groups, hospitals, educational in-stitutions, artistic and cultural groups, nonprofit organizations -all have become, in recent years, more and more "public relations conscious."
All of these corporations have good reason for concern about how they handle problems of visual communications. Most of the corporations to be discussed in this book are of the business community, for these are the corporations that shape and color the life and landscape of America. They wield the power of persuasion in an affluent society, and they compete with one another for visual familiar-ity. It has been estimated that the average American encounters about two thousand sales messages a day, including advertising and all kinds of visual and verbal communi-cations. Indeed, 83 per cent of all the information a human being acquires is acquired visually. Thus, the company that is visually ineffective recedes into the mass, becoming, perhaps, a candidate for one of the two hundred mergers or acquisitions that currently take place in the country every month.
As a corporation increases in size, its problems increase as rapidly as its advantages. First, there is a single unit of small or moderate size, perhaps family-owned. Then, fre-quently, come a series of acquisitions, the issuance of common stock, and finally there may result a vast conglomerate, with divisions operating within many industries, sometimes at cross purposes. The public relations problems alone are staggering. How, for ex-ample, can the home office control the actions of all company people everywhere to make sure they give the best possible impression of the company in all their actions? It cannot, of course. And often there are complexities on top of complexities. In the oil industry, for instance, the consumer product is ordinarily sold at the retail level by dealers who are not even company employees, although the public often assumes that they are.
In the natural flow of events, a company cannot, and indeed should not, control the personalities of its employees. But if the spirit of the company is strong, it will carry over to company employees and associates. Then, too, its visual projections will tend to reflect that strength.
America's managerial class probably works as hard as any group of human beings ever did in history, and most of its concerns are very material things like assembly lines and balance sheets. It is easy to lose touch with the intangibles that can make an important difference.
This is true for small companies as well as large ones. If the company deals with people, as of course it must, then it is subject to the need for unified and continuous design efforts. Even a very small office must give thought to its environment, the reception area, the work area; the product or service rendered; the appearance of personnel; correspondence techniques; advertising, sales promotion, and exhibition materials; and other means of bringing the product or service to the attention of the public.
To be visible is to be halfway home. The company that captures public imagination is the one that can induce the best people to come to work for it. This is the way it has always been. For example, gifted engineers, technicians, architects, and artists of Italy began to gather, many years ago, under the banner of Olivetti. So great is that company's aura of excellence that, it is said, even the red tape of the Roman bureaucracy gives way beneath it. Routine dealings with the endless government agencies, so agonizing to many Italian industrialists, are less of a problem to Olivetti. Even the most blasé minor official is anxious to help. And this is because the Olivetti image is so well known and respected in Italy. Its superb visual identity program did much to help.
Olivetti's public image is probably the best example of the fact that the design involvement of any company quickly moves out of the realm of symbol or logo alone. In the case of the larger company, it reaches into environ-mental, social, and basic communications concepts. Design represents more than a method of solving selling problems. It also signals an attitude, a way of dealing with responsibilities in the broad spectrum of human and social involvement each corporation faces.
The traditional attitude of business, "I'm just trying to make a buck," is, of course, rapidly changing in America. It is worth noting that those who voiced it in the past did not always mean precisely what they said. Few businessmen have been totally insensitive to the needs of the individuals and the community with which its affairs were con-ducted. And in the age of automation those needs have become even more pressing.
For years it has been fashionable to bemoan the increasing impersonality of the world. Anyone who is not alienated, it is widely believed, simply has not thought the matter through. People fear automation on many levels. The idea of computers turning their electronic beams on federal income tax returns is enough to chill the national blood. Some worry about the disintegration of human motor skills and suggest that in a few generations people will be born without thumbs. What seems clear is that automation causes humanity the most trouble when it does not work; few people complain that the banks seldom make mistakes in their monthly balances.
Automation does, however, increase the responsibility of business to pay attention to human values. And many of the leading corporations in this country are responding. Is it a coincidence that in most cases these are the same corporations that have taken the lead in the development of sophisticated corporate identification systems?
"The corporation cannot refuse to take a stand on public issues of major concern," declared Joseph C. Wilson, the chief executive officer of Xerox, as early as 1964. And he meant it. Xerox spent a year's advertising budget on a series of network television programs about the United Nations, and persisted despite almost 15,000 letters of de-nunciation, believed to have been inspired largely by the John Birch Society. Interest-ingly, Wilson has repeatedly called the program sponsorship "good business" rather than idealism. At the same time, Xerox has committed itself to the "one-percent pro-gram," under which corporations agree to give 1 percent of pretax income annually to educational institutions, in addition to other donations.
Wilson once explained the management thinking at Xerox to John Brooks in the New Yorker: "The whole matter of committing the company to taking stands on major public issues raises questions that make us examine ourselves all the time. It's a matter of balance. You can't just be bland, or you throw away your influence. But you can't take a stand on every major issue, either. We don't think it's a corporation's job to take stands on national elections, for example - fortu-nately, perhaps, since [former president] Sol Linowitz is a Democrat and I'm a Republican. Issues like university education, civil rights and Negro employment clearly are our busi-ness. I'd hope that we would have the courage to stand up for a point of view that was unpopular if we thought it was appropriate to do so. So far, we haven't faced that situation --we haven't found a conflict between what we consider our civic responsibility and good business. But the time may come…
In July, 1966, the business section of the Sunday New York Times cited recent speeches of corporate leaders from Dupont, Goodyear, First National City Bank of New York, and others, and concluded: "Public affairs, or what might be termed business beyond the profit motive, increasingly have captured the attention of executives. In speech after speech in recent months, executives have urged their colleagues to take a more active role in politics and civic affairs, to join the war against poverty, to improve relations with government, academic circles and students. The social responsibility theme seems suddenly to have gathered a steamroller momentum. A new generation of corporate managers - - many of them self-critical of past performances - envisions a wider role for business than has been traditional."
It must be added that there are those who believe much of this is sham; that, in the words of sociologist Michael Harrington, "what is menacing about this sudden outburst of corporate conscience is that satisfy. ing social needs and making money are two distinct and often antagonistic undertak-ings. . . . America, whether it likes it or not, cannot sell its social conscience to the highest corporate bidder. It must build new insti. tutions of democratic planning which can make the uneconomic, commercially wasteful and humane decisions about education and urban living which this society so des. perately needs…”
Nobody thinks that profit-making organizations can do everything required to rid the nation or the world of its social ills. But they can do a great deal, and what they do need not be incompatible with the profit motive. IBM can afford to build a facility in New York's tortured Bedford-Stuyvesant district. Leaders of many blue-chip corporations can ally themselves with New York City government in a long-term effort to help solve the crushing problems of the burgeoning mega-lopolis.
Again, much of this is discounted by some critics, but it seems that we are still suffering from a hangover from the Depression in our feelings about the motives of business. Many are simply dyspeptic about all business and all businessmen. It is easy to hold the corporations responsible for the evils of the world, and certainly businessmen are easy to satirize in novels or on the stage. But, although business has its share of idiots, it also can lay claim to a large number of responsible, capable leaders.
Theodore C. Sorensen, hardly considered an ally of the entrenched business interests, wrote in an article in the Saturday Review: "It is still possible and even popular to quote Sir Edward Coke's declaration of 1612 that corporations 'have no soul.' But certainly today they can have hearts. They can understand value as well as prices; and they can make sacrifices as well as profits.
"This is not merely a change of public relations image. Nor is it merely a response to the growth and maturity of the stockholder public. It is an evolution in the role of the corporation as an institution - a recognition of its social and other unwritten obligations as a central bulwark of our society. . ..
"Forty years ago Calvin Coolidge could make his famous remark that 'the business of America is business.' Today the business of business is America."
Various groups have formed for the promotion of responsible performance in the business world. Improvement in visual communications is often a key part of this effort. Ralph C. Gross, President of the Commerce and Industry Association, has stated in the Times, "Along with its obligations to be a profit-maker for its owners, the modern business corporation has an obligation to be a good citizen in the community. As a basic part of this obligation, the corporation must examine carefully its responsibility to support the arts."
For there is really no serious question but that the concept of enlightened self-interest is sound. Management people must have the vision to see and the initiative to act on hard facts. The large corporations that support higher taste levels and corporate efforts to subdue poverty, prejudice, and civic decay are in fact serving self-interest and the national interest at the same time.
The desirability of such a constructive and responsible attitude came home forcefully in a recent shred of scuttlebutt. Chairman of the Board Michael Haider is rumored to have remarked that the total assets of Standard Oil Company are substantially in excess of the total gold deposits in Fort Knox. Besides raising very interesting acquisition possibilities, this statement dramatizes the power and influence that certain segments of American business are beginning to wield and the excellent judgment exercised in the writing of both state and federal tax laws that make this attitude of enlightened self-interest more palatable to more firms, both large and small.
Even so, it is not easy for many firms to take the bull by the horns, move dramatically, and set the pace for others. But there are first steps being taken, steps that hold a measure of promise. An awareness of objectives beyond the profit motive is emerging with heartening regularity at the front ranks of American corporations. There are no instant solutions to these problems. Witness IBM's current Bedford-Stuyvesant pilot plant, which will stand as an example for some time to come of an imaginative and constructive answer to the question "What can be done?" If the company has been widely publicized and greatly lauded for its efforts - the decision to make this move was made well before the outcome was known. This is clearly a case of putting your money where your mouth is.
Another outstanding example of a different kind of direct action (from an individual prominent in the business world) is William Paley's vest-pocket park on Fifty-third Street in Manhattan, dedicated to the memory of his father. The warmth that flows from that well-taken decision attached itself to CBS as well as to Mr. Paley.
Little known is the role of the Equitable Life Assurance Society in sparking the urban redevelopment program in Pittsburgh with seed money and support for the Urban Redevelopment Authority as early as 1946. The emergence of the Golden Triangle and a still-growing urban renewal program accomplished independent of State and Federal funds is the better-known part of that story.
Olivetti Underwood, following the lead of Adriano Olivetti in Italy, has a new plant under construction in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The coverage on its design program will show the careful attention to visual detail typical of this fine company, where innova. tors in Italy began early in this century. The American branch is now bending every effort to maintain their traditional standard of excellence. The securing of profit is by no means the whole story at Olivetti Underwood.
But all is not milk and honey. In its sometimes frenzied efforts to obtain the largeness of size and sphere of influence through which broadly significant goals can be pursued, large corporations at times run roughshod over public interest. If a concern for the national landscape, conservation of natural re-sources, and great efforts for urban renewal are part of the emerging conscience of the elite management corps of some of the leading corporations of our time - we are also aware that air and water pollution, civic de-cay, profound problems of Negro dislocation, and the demise of a sense of personal visible accomplishment are still rampant. Many of these wounds inflicted by intense industrialization in America may never heal.
J. K. Galbraith sees "The New Industrial State" as an extensively planned economy in which technocrats in huge corporations are in command. He predicts a general merging of the public and private sectors in time. Supply and demand will give way to the synthetic creation of markets. If one accepts these premises, the need for broad responsi bility in the business world becomes increasingly urgent as a basis for survival.
What are the goals of a mature corpora-tion? Certainly they vary from firm to firm. An attempt at a listing might include:
Growth and profits
Economic independence of employees
Freedom of thought and action for it. self and its employees
Development of each employee's full potential
Social and economic safeguards
Development of mutual reciprocity with the communities in which it
A framework of general excellence of performance throughout the ranks
An abiding respect for human needs at an aesthetic level
These are the challenges of responsible performance. There seems little doubt that meeting them will extend and increase corporate power and influence. Failure to meet them will bring the structure of our society down around us. The choice is between responsible performance and chaos.
It is therefore heartening that there is every evidence that the ranks of companies committed to high standards of excellence of performance are swelling daily. Some critics have diminished the value of their accom-plishment, calling it a front to obtain federal tax favor. Some laud the government tax policies that encourage such corporate activities. Take your pick.
It is more than theoretically possible, of course, for a company to exhibit excellent design and yet lack any real sense of responsi bility in its dealings. Yet, the responsible and successful companies, almost inexorably, are the companies that display consistent, strong, and unified design. Their architecture, their products, and their ideas, through good design concepts, proclaim their virtues to the world -and become virtues in themselves.
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About Logo Histories’ Extra Issue
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.