Hitting the right note: Design Bridge on creating a new harp icon for Guinness

Design Bridge has worked with designer and illustrator Gerry Barney, letterpress studio New North Press and harp makers Niebisch & Tree to redraw Guinness’s famous harp icon. We spoke to creative director Tim Vary about the process and why the brand’s symbol needed an update

Guinness has used a harp in its branding since 1862. The icon is based on the Brian Boru harp, a famous instrument created in honour of the Irish king who fought against Norman invasion in the 11th century. The instrument was adopted as the emblem of the Irish Free State in 1922 and has featured in Irish heraldry for several centuries.

The redesign sees the brand move from a flat symbol to a handcrafted one with depth and shading. The phrase Estd. 1759 now appears on the harp’s sound board (its straight edge), in type inspired by metal-stamped lettering imprinted on ironwork at the Guinness Storehouse.

The instrument also features wavy lines representing the River Liffey which flows through Dublin (a similar device was used on early labels as an anti-counterfeit measure). A new word mark hand-drawn by Barney, meanwhile – who created the famous British Rail logo and drew an earlier version of the harp in 1968 – combines elements of letterpress type and lettering from John Gilroy’s famous posters for the brand.

06
A sketch for the new harp and word mark. Both were drawn by Gerry Barney based on sketches by Design Bridge

Tim Vary, creative director at Design Bridge, says the aim was to create an icon with a sense of depth and form while reflecting the brand’s history and the craft that goes into making its famous stout.

“We wanted to take it from something that we felt had become quite a flat logo and create something that felt like it had a three dimensionality to it,” he explains. “Over the years, a lot of the detailing had been stripped out – [Guinness] had done a great job of making it a distinctive and memorable icon, but it lacked any sort of storytelling. We wanted to make it feel like it had some depth and richness behind it … and create something which felt crafted but of the moment,” he adds.

Instead of looking to previous versions of the harp, Design Bridge worked with specialist harp makers Niebisch & Tree to create a new design from scratch. “The historical logos were detailed but they looked both old-fashioned and quite Celtic, and we didn’t necessarily want to go down a Celtic route – we wanted it to appeal globally,” says Vary. In Africa, one of the drink’s biggest markets, Guinness isn’t traditionally seen as an Irish drink.

HyperFocal: 0
The new harp and word mark

By working with Niebisch & Tree, Vary says Design Bridge was able to create an accurate drawing of a harp which would sound in tune if made into a working instrument. This dictated features such as the thickness of the harp’s soundboard and the shape of the harmonic curve at the top of the instrument. “We didn’t want to make one up and not have a true visual representation of a harp,” says Vary.

After devising initial sketches, Design Bridge had 3D models made of the harp to gauge where light and shadow would fall on the instrument. Barney then hand drew the logo and word mark based on sketches from Design Bridge and the agency worked with letterpress studio New North Press to create a physical impression of it. The physical impression was created by splitting the design into layers and overlaying different colours, textures and printing techniques, from metallic inks to debossing and foil blocking.

The design takes cues from packaging, lettering and adverts found in the Guinness archive, a resource Vary says Design Bridge often looks to when undertaking new work for the brand. “We wanted to root any of the details that came through [in the mark] in historical references and facts,” he adds.

08
02

The new harp retains distinctive features from previous designs, such as the circular curve seen in the top left corner, and the sound board remains positioned on the left, a distinguishing feature of the Guinness harp. (The 1922 Irish Free State harp, in contrast, features a sound board on the right – the symbol was allegedly flipped horizontally to distinguish from Guinness’s harp, which was registered several years earlier in 1876). By retaining these details and reintroducing the  Liffey waves, Vary says the design emphasises the brand’s Irish roots through subtle details rather than “overt Celtic references”.

Diageo meanwhile, says the mark is designed to appeal to a new generation of drinkers and convey the history that sets Guinness apart from younger brands. Vary says it represents the brand’s ‘Made of More’ positioning.

“Guinness has always [aimed itself at] people who want to carve their own path,” he says. “It isn’t like the massive brews, the Heinekens or Peronis, it’s not macro or micro either, so it doesn’t sit in that area of craft beers, it sits somewhere in the middle and does its own thing. We wanted this to feel like something only Guinness can do and by adding that sense of history and crafted detail, it starts to appeal to a younger generation who really appreciate the skill and the craft that goes into making something,” he adds. “At the same time, we didn’t want it to appear too crafty, using standard craft cues. We wanted it to be almost a timeless classic of an identity.”

03
09

The project is one of several Design Bridge has undertaken with skilled craftspeople of late – last year, it partnered with glass artist David A Smith to create some intricate bottles for Booth’s Gin and in 2014, it teamed up with Timorous Beasties to design new packaging for Fortnum & Mason (creative director Asa Cook recently wrote an article for CR about partnering with craftspeople on packaging projects). Guinness is also one of several food and drink brands which has updated its identity to emphasise its heritage in the face of competition from newer ‘craft’ brands.

Design Bridge group brand guardian Birgitte Woehlk says that, for companies like Guinness and Booth’s, the level of craft in projects needs to be of a particularly high standard to create designs that feel suitably ‘authentic’.

“There’s been so much almost pseudo-authenticity in design over the years, with lots of new products and brands that are made to look authentic – so when a brand has an absolutely true, authentic story it takes a little more to get that story across in a real way … it needs that little bit more to bring it out,” she adds.

“A lot of work has gone into [the Guinness project]. The 2D and 3D design teams have worked really hard on it, and finding the right way of working together with those external experts is really important,” she continues. “All of the vision and art direction has been from the team here, and we’ve been completely overseeing every element created by [Barney and New North Press].”

More from CR

Highlights from the expanded edition of In Loving Memory of Work

Craig Oldham’s In Loving Memory of Work: A Visual Record of the Miners’ Strike 1984-85 has been published in a second edition, complete with a range of new material. Here, Oldham selects some of the most interesting additions, including ex-miner Phil Winnard’s powerful photographs of the strikes.

Brownjohn rediscovered

The work of the late great designer and art director Robert Brownjohn has been gathered together in a new online archive by his daughter, Eliza

Lecturer Design Management

Kingston University

Design Assistant

Cultureshock Media