A major bank has decided it needs a new corporate identity. It invites eight renowned designers from small studios to submit ideas for which it pays them. To choose a winning logo, the bank appoints an independent jury consisting mostly, not of bank executives, but of designers and a magazine editor. And it promises to abide by their decision.
This is how Deutsche Bank chose its new logo in 1973. A blue square with an oblique line, the company name written in simple Univers type, Deutsche Bank’s logo is the epitome of modernist rationalism. Introduced in 1974 for a bank at the heart of the West German economic miracle, the symbol remains virtually untouched today as it represents of one of the world’s largest financial services providers.
It was created by Anton Stankowski. Born in 1906 in Gelsenkirchen, Stankowski was an apprentice painter doing decorative work for churches before studying at the Folkwangschule in Essen. After a spell at the Canis Advertising Agency in Bochum, he worked at Max Dalang’s influential ad agency in Zurich. This was to be an important time in his development as he fell in with a group including Max Bill who became known as the Züricher Konkreten or ‘Zurich Concrete’ artists. Here Stankowski devised his personal theory of graphic design – his Gestaltungsfibel. It informed his life’s work and its influence can be seen extending directly into the Deutsche Bank logo. The emphasis was to be on a clear, functional approach with Constructivist-style photomontage and oblique angles to the fore. The oblique line itself is a recurring theme in the many paintings that Stankowski produced until his death in 1998. In fact, he refused to make a distinction between his work as a graphic designer and an artist, the one informing the other.
By the time of the Deutsche Bank identity, Stankowski had become one of West Germany’s leading graphic designers. After being released as a prisoner of war in 1948, he set up his own studio in Stuttgart in 1951. Major commissions followed including an innovative identity system (the first of its kind) for Berlin while, from 1969 to 1972, Stankowski served as chairman of the Committee for Visual Design for the Olympic Games in Munich where Univers played a prominent role.
In July 1972 came the opportunity with which he will forever be associated. For the previous 50 years, Deutsche Bank in its many incarnations had done business under various symbols – from a forbidding ‘imperial eagle’ through to the simple monogrammed shield that it had been using since 1957. But, as the firm’s 1973 annual report declared, “even a trademark can grow old. The Deutsche Bank has therefore decided on a new sign.”
The way in which that sign was decided upon was, compared to how such things are conducted today, quite extraordinary. Karl Duschek, who had become a partner at Stankowski’s Grafische Atelier that year and still runs the Stankowski + Duschek studio today, remembers that each participant was paid 3,000 Deutschmarks, with 20,000dm going to the winner. And to make matters even more remarkable, this was the third time Deutsche Bank had tried this approach, two previous limited-entry competitions having ended “inconclusively”, according to Duschek.
Leading German designer Erik Spiekermann, however, remembers that Deutsche Bank’s process was quite common at the time. Choosing a new logo, he says was “treated more like an architectural competition. There weren’t really many designers in Germany at the time who could have done this so the jury often had to find people in the first place.”
Stankowski’s studio sent in eight concepts which the jury, chaired by the designer Jupp Ernst, examined alongside rival entries from designers including Armin Hofmann and Coordt von Mannstein, who drew the 1972 Olympic logo for Otl Aicher.
Among Stankowski’s proposals was an idea to set the letters D and B astride a horizontal line, another with a B inset within a D and a simple wordmark with Deutsche in regular lower case and Bank in bold upper case. The most radical was the eventual winner – although the company name was added alongside Stankowski’s original submission of the symbol on its own. Univers was chosen for the type as it was considered timeless, aesthetically perfect and very legible and, with his involvement with its extensive use during the Munich Olympics, a typeface that Stankowski knew well.
In confirming Stankowski’s radical winning design, Deutsche Bank in its annual report said, “By virtue of its relative simplicity, the new sign is both extremely eyecatching and easy to remember. The square framework can be regarded as symbolising security and the upward stroke as portraying dynamic development.”
When it was unveiled, Duschek remembers “the public reactions were mind-blowing, but,” he claims, “the bank’s 27 staff took about two years to accept [it].” The Stankowski + Duschek studio is currently working on a book charting the logo’s history where it’s noted that questions were raised over the logo’s strict form, its lack of an explicit reference to the bank itself and its symbolic value.
And a story in the Bild-Zeitung newspaper will be depressingly familiar to many designers today. It was headlined, wrongly, “A painter receives 100,000 marks for five lines” and captioned a picture of the 68 year-old Stankowski with him saying “sometimes it only takes me a second” to come up with a design.
Spiekermann recalls “the usual public outcry: ‘That much money for a simple line? My child could have done it’ etc.” But there was also criticism from designers: “This was the 70s, there was lots of expressive, US-influenced typography, it was the heyday of ITC in New York. So this clean thing was seen as boring, Teutonic (on-brand, one would say today) and as going back to the 60s,” he says.
The majority of press however, Duschek claims, was positive and the logo soon became one of the most recognisable symbols on West German high streets.
Duschek attributes its longevity to the fact that “it was new, distinctive and [that word again] timeless”. Last February, with pleasing circularity, Deutsche Bank announced a new brand and visual identity concept (developed with David Shalam and 2br) in which it would employ the symbol on its own, without the accompanying wordmark, just as Stankowski had originally intended all those years ago. The symbol now forms part of a modern brand identity system which will, the bank says “meet the needs of today’s media convergence where clear iconic symbols are essential”.
“I hated it at the time,” Spiekermann says now of the logo’s introduction, “because it was so unemotional and perpetuated an image of Deutsche Bank as being unapproachable and arrogant. Now I love it, exactly because it has no meaning. It’s just a great painting. But only a brand with as much clout as Deutsche Bank could have pulled it off. It needs repetition and took at least ten years to sink into the public conscience. I bet now its recognition is up there with the Mercedes star.”
More on our Top 20 logos here.