Ian Dury, much-missed musician, painter, illustrator, RCA alumnus and Blockhead, had a bit of an eye for design. So it’s no surprise that one of his final videos with the Blockheads, for Sueperman’s* Big Sister, employs one of modernism’s most stirring stages as its backdrop.
As the band lark about inadvisedly with petrol pumps and air pumps, the circular, uplit canopies of the Mobil filling station are clearly on display. They even provide the final, poignantly lingering image in the fade-out.
It’s a reminder not just of a fabulously space-age breed of filling station but of a hugely influential corporate design programme and visual identity that mark their 50th birthday in 2014. The canopies, tapering central pylons and gleaming black-and-steel cylindrical pumps may have vanished from UK forecourts, but the Mobil brand lives on. Here, it remains the name on a range of engine oils. In the US, Mobil filling stations are still commonplace.
The project helped put New York identity giants Chermayeff & Geismar on the map in the mid-1960s. The logotype started as the height of simplicity: the name rendered in a bold sans-serif font. An added twist turned it into the height of cool, modern, memorable sophistication.
The red ‘o’ in part reinforced architect Eliot Noyes’ design concept, in which the disparate forecourt furniture that had made Mobil’s existing stations such a jumble – canopies, pumps, display elements – were transformed into a single, highly distinctive family of discs and cylinders, which in turn echoed the imagery of wheels, hubcaps and engine parts shared by the vehicles pulling up to Mobil’s pumps.
But there was another, more verbal reason for making the ‘o’ stand out. There were concerns that customers would be unsure of how to pronounce it correctly, and whether to make the ‘o’ long, as in ‘mobile’, or short, as in ‘mob’. Highlighting the ‘o’ seemed to harden it in people’s minds and mouths.
C&G’s initial presentation to Mobil’s management put forward the four elements that have remained the brand’s visual bedrock ever since: the logotype; the flying red horse on a white disc; the Mobil type style, used for all product names, promotional signs and even the grade designations on the pumps; and a restrained colour palette that allowed important information to stand out.
Drop into a Mobil station in the US and you’ll find not much has changed. The incredible longevity of the brand is down to the simplicity and clarity of these four cornerstones, according to Tom Geismar, ‘and because the management of Mobil made sure that the programme was given priority and the resources to see it properly implemented.’ For 35 years, until Exxon bought Mobil in 1999, C&G kept guard over a continually evolving and expanding range of signs, packaging, promotional material, vehicle and equipment markings, safety signs, and colour schemes. A giant red ‘o’ provided the entrance to Mobil’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, and a tower of them was erected outside a research centre (‘ooooooooo…’) in Princeton. The programme represented a milestone in the development of identity design and branding in a highly commercial context.
Here in the UK, all that’s left of the Noyes system is a set of circular canopies at the Grade II-listed Red Hill filling station (now run by Esso) on the A6 near Leicester. And a rather fuzzy Ian Dury video on YouTube.
*Deliberately misspelt to avoid copyright issues with DC Comics.