Our Q & A with Angus Hyland, whose new book, Symbol, examines everything from Apple's apple logo to the CBS eye
Angus Hyland's new book, Symbol, is 300-plus pages of pictures. It's not a picture book, per se, but it contains about 1,300 images. Hyland, a designer for international design firm Pentagram, has compiled and organized a comprehensive anthology of pictorial logos, from the World Wildlife Fund panda logo to the CBS eye. Hoping to present company logos apart from their agendas, meanings, and messages, Hyland, along with his co-editor, Steven Bateman, organized the symbols not by the company type or era but by form. The book separates the images into two groups, abstract and representative symbols. Then within those broad groups, it breaks them down even further, arranging each logo by its shape (circles with circles, lions with lions).
Hyland and Bateman present the symbols without much text, hoping readers (viewers?) will appreciate the logos for their forms, without distraction. Hyland spoke with The Atlantic about why he and Bateman chose this peculiar organization, his thoughts on branding, and what drew him to commercial art (hint: it has something to do with Pink Floyd).
How did you come up with the concept for a book of symbols?
I had this idea: there are lots and lots of books on trademarks and logos, but no one had specifically concentrated on pure symbols, trademarks which are made out of pictures more than words. Unlike, say Coca-Cola, think Apple. And then I thought, actually there must be quite a few [symbols] in the world. And, if we edited a survey of them wouldn't it be great if they were categorized based by form.
Symbols, your logo, are the crucial part of an identity system. Some may say that they're dead, but I take the view that it's like the cherry on the cupcake; it's emblematic, it's signature. A lot of branding agencies would say that contemporary branding allows you to be so immersive that you can put your finger over the Apple and you know you're still in Apple. But if you take away the mark all together, then it's bereft—it doesn't have that final signature, that full stop, that mark of excellence.
The modern contemporary view on branding is that it's a fully immersive nose-to-tail experience, so that means it's not just your logo, but it's actually the entire visual application of the identity. It's the colors you use, the material, even the sound of the door on the car. It's a more sophisticated discipline than just creating a mark. I would say, this is perfectly true, but the signature has to be somehow visualized in some form or another. Otherwise all of that good will is not channeled into one focal point.
I noticed that the book is organized by symbol type--circular logos are
with circular logos, bird symbols are with bird symbols, etc. Why did you
decide to arrange them like that?
There are a lot of symbols in this world that use a circle as their basis. There are all different types of companies doing different types of things, but their symbols share something in common—they're all derived from the circle, or the square, or the triangle, or a flower, or a tree, or a dragon. Wouldn't it be great to get all of those together so when you see them gently amorphous across the pages, you see these shapes, which have something in common?
And then, it was basically done by type. Section one was abstract shapes, really basic, platonic—circles, squares, etc—until we'd run out of basic shapes, and the second section was representational. Say, trees or birds or faces or crowns.
They are all done in black and white, so you concentrate the reader on the graphic quality. It unifies them and it concentrates them in a pure graphic form. And punctuated between these pages of thousands of symbols are case studies of ones that are sort of very established and enduring.
Also, in terms of their pure aesthetics, one thing you can say about any trademark is that they're judged as much by their associations. We tend to have good feelings about the World Wildlife Fund panda bear because we associate it with doing good. Likewise, with Apple, we associate it with quality products. Those marks become part of our fabric, of our everyday. And we do have an emotional attachment to that. But, if you took away the associations and looked at them purely from the point of view aesthetically, they have another kind of function. We don't tend to look at them in those terms. So it's kind of an interesting exercise to put them on a page and kind of remove them.
Even looking at the logos as they're laid out in your book, can we ever see them as just shapes?
Nope, it's very hard to actually disassociate. My argument would always be that they carry brand equity. The best ones are solid, candid, and memorable containers of good feelings we have about a company. Those are the ones that work.
I liked the idea of multiples; I didn't like the idea of actually producing one painting and selling it. I liked the idea of being much more present in the world and in the vernacular. So I was drawn to commercial art.
In truth, I got drawn to graphic design through a combination of two things. One was I love Tintin books. I didn't come from a reading family. After getting my comics, I realized that this character Tintin existed, I loved him, and for some reason I still do to this day.
Second, we had these letter-set catalogs—they're little lettering catalogs for transfers, specimen catalogs. It was the combination of those two things and my record collection. You know getting records which were heavily packaged—you get stickers, and posters. I thought this is great, I want to do that. I can't play the guitar, but I can maybe make the artwork.
How many logos are in the book?
I think about 1,300. It took six months of research. We were just trying to get as many quality marks as we could get.
The book mentions you couldn't use every symbol you found. Did you struggle with some companies?
That's true, because quite often they were registered trademarks. You can't separate out the symbol from the logo type, and the point of this book was to kind of try to take the words away, and to look at these purely in terms of the visual language.
The thing is that organizations are incredibly protective of their trademarks. Organizations don't really think too much about their mark on a day to day basis. But, for whatever reason, whether it's a merger or acquisition or change of name, or just a re-brand, when it comes to redoing your identity, it suddenly becomes an incredibly important part of their thinking. Suddenly it's like your signature is going to be changed, you realize just how much is wrapped up in that. When I do talks I always talk about the power of identity. If you were given the opportunity to give away A. either the secret formula or B. the actual rights to the brand, to the logotype, where do you think value is?
They acquire value. These things become these vessels which so much is poured into over time—there's a hell of a lot wrapped up in these things. They're quite mundane, they're part of our every day visual furniture, but take it away and whoof! That's why it's an interesting subject area.
Images: Courtesy of Laurence King Press