In 1974 Ian Dennis spent a year as a designer at FHK Henrion’s London studio, HDA International. While there he came up with the logo for the National Theatre, which is still in use today. The mark was unveiled when the theatre opened on the South Bank in March 1976 and, until recently, references to its design were usually credited to Henrion. While the German-born designer did pitch one of his own concepts to the theatre, it was Dennis’s clever stencil that was eventually selected. Henrion, a little non-plussed at having to inform one of his design assistants that their work had been chosen over his, was pleased enough that the firm had won the pitch (against Pentagram) to give Dennis a £50 bonus.
“Henrion had been working on a design but had to go to a conference, so he asked us all to have a go,” recalls Dennis, who runs Indent Design in Reading. “He’d created a Union Jack design made up of triangles and I could sort of see a ‘NT’ in it, but I worked up something at home in Letraset, then developed it by hand after suggestions from Henrion.”
Dennis’s letterforms originally had a curved outline but, as this proved tricky to reproduce when hand cut in vinyl, the logo morphed into one with straighter lines, giving it a more brutalist appearance which gradually became the ‘official’ version. As a result, it was long thought that the ‘Béton brut’ architecture of the National Theatre had been the primary influence on the logo’s design but, Dennis explains, he only ever visited a building site on the South Bank prior to the theatre’s completion. The mark, he says, came more from a feeling that it “shouldn’t be pompous, or a sans-serif, but made in the spirit of the times. The first time I saw it in use,” he adds, “was on the cover of The Sunday Times when the theatre had opened. It was stenciled large in white on a red door.”
Michael Mayhew, the National’s art director up until 2009, used Dennis’s mark extensively having come to the theatre as a freelance designer when it opened. “The ‘NT’ logo was great to use,” he says. “Roughly square, it worked well in both landscape and portrait formats and looked good due to simple, happy shapes.” Its simplicity also meant it could be transferred to a range of other media. “It was used in a variety of ways,” he adds, “projected on the building itself, or in an engraved style on glass. At different angles, or with cropping, it could be used to generate a variety of display forms.”
To date the ‘NT’ device remains in use across the theatre’s publicity material, though largely in connection with the main South Bank site as its design still works so well with the building, suggests the theatre’s current art director, Charlotte Wilkinson. “As the theatre has grown as a global brand and expanded its audience with the National Theatre Live broadcasts in cinemas, we felt we needed to write our name in full, since the letters alone might not sufficiently convey who we are and what we do,” she says. The conjoined ‘N’ and ‘T’, in essence just five black chunks of type, certainly has a resonance that would be hard to replicate. “It has stood the test of time,” says Mayhew, “because it is so beautifully simple, as are all the best logos.”