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Tomás Maldonado on trademark design, Top Symbols & Trademarks of the World Volume 8, 1977 Annual
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The following is an introduction to Volume 8 of Top Symbols & Trademarks of the World written by Tomás Maldonado and offering an insight into the various forms of trademarks. If you enjoy articles like this, and would like to support the project, subscribe to Logo Histories.
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A trademark is a graphic sign with a symbolic-emblematic function. Its job is to draw attention to the special nature of one particular category of objects within a wider group of them. Often it is found to create spurious dissimilarities where in fact similarities exist. And this can be explained: in our present socio-economic order, the special nature emphasised by the trademark derives its peculiarity precisely from its relation with the object considered as a commodity, that is, as the main feature of our exchange system. It is fairly obvious that when the manufacturers are different and the products are more or less the same, as is in fact the case in today's exchange system, the trademark plays a role of decisive importance. Within such a context it is unlikely that the object itself can have sufficient power of self-identification to allow it to do without a trademark. Thus the trademark acts as a sort of prosthesis, used to make up for what is wanting in the object considered as a commodity. The trademark helps to underline the connection existing between an object and its owner, manufacturer or eventual user. Sometimes even that existing between the object and the place where it originated, was produced, or that to which it is destined. However, it is worth noting that trademarks have been used not only for the identification of objects, but often of men too. Coats of arms, seals, standards and fags are actually nothing other than trademarks whose task it is to reinforce the identification of the social groups to which men belong: families, castes, sects, churches, parties or countries.
What is more, men have also used trademarks on other men's bodies: to mention but a few, the women who were branded by way of sanctioning thermale property rights over them; or the slaves, thieves or deviants of antiquity, and, in more recent times, the concentration camp prisoners who were likewise branded, to facilitate discrimination, control or extermination.
But the trademark, over and above its being an economic, a social or indeed, as we have seen, even a political fact, is also a semiosical fact, that is, a sign vehicle which; as such, participates in a process of semiosis. First and foremost it is a graphic pattern which is able to assume a significant function through the nature of its particular structure. A scientific enquiry into the laws governing the productive process of graphic patterns and especially mith reference to their significant functions, is one of the main tasks of descriptive semiotics, that is to say, the part of the general theory of signs which deals with describing (as far as this is experimentally possible) how sign vehicles or collections of them are effectively built up and how they effectively carry out the function which, though often through pure convention, is attributed to them.
From the point of view of descriptive semiotics, a trademark can have a meaningful articulation which may be either simple or compound. Let us say that it is simple when it is made up of only one phonogram (Ph), pictogram (P) or diagram (D), and compound when it is made up of a combination of these. A phonogram is a graphic sign whose referent is an expressive element of a phonological type. For example, the written word STOP in the traffic sign. Another example, the written word which serves as a trademark for the firm Therma AG, Schwenden, Switzerland.
A pictogram is an iconic sign whose referent is an object or a particular class of objects, or even the particular quality or action designated by the class of objects. For example, the graphic representation of two children running, to indicate « school exit » in the traffc sign system. Or, by way of another example, the trademark used. by a firm manufacturing under the name Marineland Acquarium Products, Hollywood, California.
And finally a diagram is a sign which is either completely non iconic, or iconic to a very low degree. Generally a diagram is used to designate an event or a process, or the way, or maybe even the location, in which an event or process takes place. In the traffic sign system, for instance, a triangle is used as a generic sign for danger. However, a diagram can also designate an institution, or an institutional event. An example of this is the symbol used for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
The compound trademark is of a great interest for descriptive semiotics, being a model which allows a study, in very favourable conditions, of the main processes adopted in visual sign building. But unlike the case of the simple trademark, the process of building up a complex trademark may reach a level of considerable intricacy. Let us pause for a moment to examine the more common structural modalities of the compound trademark. There are those, for example, which amount to a mere collection, such as those whose make up is easily quantifiable according to mathematical combinatoric. If the sign components are Ph, P, D, we can have « complete combinations » of the following sort: P.Ph, Ph-P, P-D, D-P, Ph-D, D-Ph, Ph-P-D, Ph-D-P, D-Ph-P, D-P-Ph, P-D-Ph, P-Ph-D, where the different order of the elements from left to right expresses a hierarchical order, according to the greater or lesser perceptual predominance. In effect, these collections in practice presuppose a relative stability and, more particularly, a certain semantic autonomy on the part of the elements from which they are built up, and this happens only in the case of the less elaborate complex trademarks. In other cases, to the contrary, the syntactic relation between the elements is established through processes of mixing and even fusion among these elements.
In order to have a clear idea of the subtle workings of such a procedure, it is worth bearing in mind the technique used in grammatology - the semiotic discipline which studies writing - and called transfert: a technique fairly well known through its having been widely employed for the enigmatic rebus schemes, for recreational purposes. The transfert technique, despite its frivolous appearance, has played a vital role in the process leading from pictographic pre-writing to alphabetic writing. It amounts to a transposition from the plane of a pictogram to that of a phonogram and vice versa. A sort of process of osmosis, as it were, in which pictograms and phonograms exchange their semantic content without involving their respective graphic form. The classic example of transfert offered by French language grammatologists(M. Cohen) is the connecting of two pictograms of chat (« cat ») and pot (« pot »): by joining their corresponding phonograms, a new phonogram is achieved, cha(t) + po(t) = chapeau (« hat »), and hence the idea of a hat.
However it should be added that in the building up process of the compound trademark, only very rarely do we have a real proper transfert. A more frequent technique - which can be only partly absorbed by transfert is that in which the exchange of semantic content takes place through the fusion of the graphic form of the pictogram with that of the phonogram. A good example of this is to be found in the trademark adopted by the firm Arnold Neuweiler Ltd, Bern, manufacturers of railway track: the initial N resembles the form of a railway junction.
This process may appear to be the same as that used in the anthropozoomorphic alphabets. But there is a difference, since in these latter, generally speaking, the fusion of graphic form does not bring about an exchange at the level of the semantic content. The exceptions to this generalization are those anthropozoomorphic letters which, by way of their particular relation to the context, favour an exchange of this sort. A good example of this would be the illuminated capital letters to be found in medieval manuscripts, and which often anticipate the subject dealt with later in the text.
In the trademark, be it simple or compound, the pictogram is always built up from specific rhetorical figures. Ones such as allegory, allusion and periphrasis are often to be found, but the most frequent are those of synecdoche and metonymy. The pictogram of a chair, for a firm which makes furniture, is a synecdoche of the « pars pro toto » type; whilst an orange for a firm producing orange juice is a typical metonymy of the type «raw material for finished product».
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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.