From Mobil to Chase Bank, 6 Iconic Logos and How They Came to Be

The three principals at legendary design firm Chermayeff & Geismar talk about their favorite creations and what makes them so significant

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Chermayeff & Geismar, one of America's most historic design firms, has touched so many businesses and institutions with its signature brand of graphic modernism that New York's streetscape wouldn't be as vibrant had it never formed over 50 years ago. It is impossible to walk down a midtown Manhattan sidewalk without seeing its logos, posters, shopping bags, and other commercial and cultural brand identities, like Chase Bank and Mobil Oil. Along with hundreds of other familiar graphic marks, the firm's individual and collective contributions are indelible signposts -- some are even landmarks. A new book, Identify: Basic Principles of Identity Design in the Iconic Trademarks of Chermayeff & Geismar, to which I contributed a brief foreword, assembles many of its most recognizable creations. Still, I wondered, what are their favorite favorites? So I asked Ivan Chermayeff, Tom Geismar, and Sagi Haviv, the principals, to answer the following: Which two logos do you believe have the most impact? Why? What about the design and concept of these marks is different or more significant than others? And, what "secret" went into these marks that made them function?

Arriving at the best solution sometimes involves making what might be quite complicated look simple -- even if it isn't.

IVAN CHERMAYEFF #1: HARPERCOLLINS

When two institutions or businesses, both with long histories and both with considerable equity, join forces, and neither one dominates the other in their common marketplace, the new company's visual identity can either take a little from each, start over, or present itself in an entirely new way.

In the case of HarperCollins, we did two things. We took Harper from Harper & Row and Collins from Wm. Collins & Co. and put the two names together with no space between them, making one word. To read well, each of the two names had to always appear with a capital and lower-case letters.

Research into their century-long pasts revealed that Wm. Collins's symbol was a fountain, and that of Harper & Row was a burning torch -- two images which seemingly could not co-exist comfortably.

Returning to their individual, basic roots, however, seemed a possible direction from which to develop an original symbol. The main ingredients of each -- fire and water -- graphically presented as a single unit and became a memorable trademark. The image appears in red and blue where color can be incorporated, in just black in newspapers or in rich white foil stamping on the spines of books. Anyway, the compact and communicative symbol has proven to work well for this major publisher and has lasted now for many years.

IVAN CHERMAYEFF #2: SHOWTIME

Showtime is recognized by its cable network management as a powerful presence amongst the leadership of broadcasting services, but it is saddled with a very generic name. The cable network needed a logo to help give distinction to its title.

Len Fogge came to us to design a logo that could be original in the busy environment of broadcasting. What we observed was the very basic fact that all TV networks are listed by three-letter acronyms. CBS, NBC, PBS each stand for three long words. To use SCN and expect the audience to work out its meaning would be ridiculous when SHO, pronounced identically even without the W of "show," would immediately resonate.

Our solution to communicate the meaning of Showtime was to put a spotlight on SHO, the shorthand acronym for the network. The reversal of these three letters in a red circle within the logotype in condensed type enabled the letters to be as large as possible. The space outside the letter O is in fact also the space separating the W, thus making the type arrangement even larger. This detail goes almost unnoticed, but keeps the full name together, compact, and very special.

Arriving at the best solution sometimes involves making what might be quite complicated look simple -- even if it isn't.

TOM GEISMAR #1: MOBIL

For Mobil, the evolution to a spare, modern look emerged from a distinct change in personality and the recognition of a significant business opportunity. In the 1950s and '60s, Americans were immigrating to the suburbs in increasing numbers. Oil companies, such as Mobil, found that they were being zoned out of new communities because of the less-than-graceful look of their service stations.

In recognition of this problem (and opportunity) and the desire to establish a single, unified global brand, the company decided in the mid-1960s to retain architect Eliot Noyes to design a modern service station concept and Chermayeff & Geismar to develop a new graphic identity for the company. Together we undertook a comprehensive design program, initially focusing on developing a radically cleaner, more modern, and attractive service station and related signs and packaging that would help Mobil become the station of choice for newly developing communities.

The idea of the red O came about partly to reinforce a design concept to use circular canopies, pumps, and display elements for a distinctive and attractive look. It also served to help people pronounce the name correctly (Mo-bil, not Mo-bile), and, of course, to add a single memorable and distinctive element to an otherwise very simple lettering style.

When the concept worked, and Mobil began consistently winning choice locations from local zoning boards, all the major competitors initiated their own programs. Mobil's design program, which affected all visual aspects of the company, continually evolved over time. But throughout, the graphics remained consistent, based on the bold, simple "Mobil" trademark, a limited color palette, and a single, specially designed font.

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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