Marks on paper

Visualising a company’s heritage needn’t be a nostalgic act; the new identity for GF Smith just reflects its original vision

Paper companies just never give up, do they? Like the slightly creepy flatmate who dresses exactly his like hip co-lodger, they’re always there, reflecting back at designers whatever’s hot on the blogs, in the effort to win the loyalty they crave.

My own introduction to this came in the early 1990s, when I reported on a calendar that 8vo had designed for Zanders, the German paper company. Taking on a not inconsequential subject – the history of time – over 12 oversize pages, it was a big, shameless blowout of special paper stocks, scientific photography, fluorescents, metallics, die-cuts and the designers’ trademark visible grids. It wasn’t 8vo’s best moment and I’m not sure how many designers it converted.
Since then, the paper promo mountain has grown and grown.

All of this splashing out on flashy collateral – as well as exhibitions, competitions, sponsorships and lectures series – makes the lack of investment in distinctive, engaging brand identity seem puzzling. Take a paper promo from any of the leading paper brands – Fedrigoni, Robert Horne, Howard Smith etc – and you’d be hard-pressed to identify whose it was, without peeking at the tiny, unprepossessing logo on the back.

GF Smith is attempting to change all of this with an identity by Made Thought intended to set a clear, unambiguous tone for all the company’s communications, and, at the system’s centre, a wordmark that alludes to the no-nonsense craftsmanship, honesty and integrity for which the best paper makers have always been known.

Made Thought’s Ben Parker: “We wanted to firmly re-link the brand back to the ‘origin’ and where it all began: with the founder’s name of George Frederick Smith.

“We liked the idea of the mark being the simple initials that identify a gentleman’s belongings, like a suitcase from the late nineteenth-century. This reference was important as George travelled extensively in the early years of the company, away for often months at a time, forging partnerships with suppliers in Europe and America.”

‘G’ and ‘F’ are positioned above either end of ‘Smith’. “We played around with the spacing of the ‘G’, the full point and the ‘F’ in many combinations,” says Parker, “but felt this relationship was the least fussy and most idiosyncratic.”

The full stop between the initials falls neatly above the ‘i’ of the surname, in a skilled piece of vertical alignment that calls to mind the ‘N’ and ‘Y’ of Steff Geissbuhler’s 1981 logotype that he designed for Barneys New York while at Chermayeff & Geismar, now Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. (If there’s one full stop there should, technically, be two, but it’s a small point.) There’s perhaps a stronger kinship with Farrow’s wartime kitchen-inspired identity for British bakers Peyton and Byrne.

The GF Smith mark utilises a bespoke font developed (by Colophon Foundry) in one weight only, to reflect, says Parker, “a certain English ‘backbone’ and sensibility prevalent of the great English typefaces from the early 20th century.” The font is one of very few visual assets; the intention is to allow the product – paper – rather than graphics to provide the necessary expression.

The brand’s fashionable air of austerity and authenticity will win the brand admiration among younger designers in particular. To call it nostalgic would be an injustice. There is, as Parker says, an interesting tension generated by the “sense of past and progression” – a respect for the vision shown by the company’s earlier generations and their work in “inspiring” designers, and an ambition to keep helping today’s creatives push the boundaries.

Just don’t hold your breath for any history-of-time calendars.

Michael Evamy is the author of LOGO and Logotype. See, @michaelevamy

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