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

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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.

It is the clarity, simplicity, and memorability of this design that has made it work so effectively for over 47 years.

Story continues after the gallery.


TOM GEISMAR #2: CHASE

When Chase National Bank merged with the Bank of the Manhattan Company to create Chase Manhattan Bank, the new company became the second largest in the United States. The new organization needed a new graphic identity to represent it effectively. The plan was to launch the new identity together with the opening of its new headquarters, a 60-story skyscraper then under construction in Lower Manhattan.

Banks at that time generally used trademarks that grew from their initials or an image of the bank's headquarters building. Chase Manhattan briefly used an awkward combination of a map of the United States, a representation of the globe, the name of the bank, and the phrase "world-wide banking."

We became convinced that the bank would benefit from a simple symbol that could not only unite the two newly merged corporate cultures but also come to stand in for the company's long, unwieldy name in the public mind. However, there is no symbol that really means banking, and no symbol that represented Chase. We turned to the idea of using an abstract symbol, since we knew that Chase Manhattan had tremendous advertising resources that could quickly establish the symbol in the public mind.

Using an abstract design as a corporate mark was very unusual at the time -- 1961. But it worked very successfully for the bank, with its extensive public exposure. But subsequently, thousands of other organizations adopted the same approach, whether justified or not. The result has been a glut of barely distinguishable identifiers.

While the mark is essentially abstract, the 45-degree angles and offset breaks between the elements give the design a sense of motion and dynamism, and even give a hint of three-dimensionality.

When describing the criteria with which we judge an effective graphic identity, "meaningful" is actually not on our list.

SAGI HAVIV #1: CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL

Conservation International, a leading worldwide conservation organization, came to us for an identity update following a critical shift in their mission: from working to save biodiversity for the sake of the environment -- vegetation and animals -- to working to save the environment for the well-being of people. In other words, instead of focusing purely on environmental conservation, they would focus on environmental issues that affect humans, such as fresh water, food, and climate change.

Their existing mark -- an illustration of a patch of forest/vegetation -- was therefore no longer relevant as a representation of their mission and the scope of their activities.

The new symbol we proposed -- a blue circle representing the totality of the Earth and emphasized with a green underscore -- was immediately more inclusive and broader in scope. Laura Bowling, director of communications at Conservation International, described it as "our blue planet on a green, sustainable path." It can also be seen as an abstract representation of a human head and shoulders.

But the immediate impact of this new trademark was also in its radical departure from its illustrative, pictorial predecessor. This is one of the simplest marks we have ever designed, and it replaced one of the most complex marks we've ever been put in charge of updating. The disparity between complex and simple, illustrative and abstract, literal and symbolic, naturally made adopting this new mark a challenge for the organization -- but its ultimate impact on their communications was remarkable.

The design and eventual adoption of this mark by the client was a result of our constant striving to create the simplest possible form that is also distinctive enough to persist in the mind and be remembered. In this case, we recognized an opportunity to go very far, and the result is a new image for Conservation International befitting a leader in the environmental movement.

SAGI HAVIV #2: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world and the national library of the United States. This iconic national institution had been using a representation of the dome on top of the Jefferson building as its trademark. This didn't make much sense to us: As magnificent as this domed building is on the Washington Mall, it happens to be is situated right across the street from a building with a much more famous dome -- the Capitol.

But there was an even more significant issue: The architectural silhouette did not convey anything about the substance of the entity it represented. We felt that the national library and the oldest federal institution deserved a symbol that would embody more of its meaning and significance.

When describing the criteria with which we judge an effective graphic identity, "meaningful" is actually not on our list. We are careful not to promise our clients a "meaningful" image as an identifier, because a trademark must be simple in form so that it can work effectively and flexibly in a wide range of sizes and media. It is generally difficult to design a mark that communicates much about an institution or company, and at the same time is uncomplicated in form. So instead of striving to create a mark that is "expressive" or "meaningful," we generally work to create a trademark that is appropriate in form and character to the field or industry of the entity represented.

However, in some cases, we recognize an opportunity to create a mark that conveys more about the client. The Library of Congress was such a case. After exploring numerous conceptual directions, many of which were inspired by the idea of light or flame (as traditional representations of knowledge), we ended up with an ultimately more focused design for the national library: a combination of a book and the American flag.

This trademark succeeds in representing its institution in a meaningful way by combining two familiar icons -- a book and an American flag -- into a single symbol whose meaning is broader than the sum of its parts. It embodies the mission of the library as a source of knowledge and information, as well as its national authority and stature -- thus exclusively symbolizing the National Library of the United States. No other institution can claim this mark.

Image: Chermayeff & Geismar.

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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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