Symbol: from Pan Am to the Pompidou

Symbol, a new book by Angus Hyland and Steven Bateman, celebrates the beauty of the purely visual mark. We have two extracts from the book that focus on the classic symbols designed for the airline Pan Am and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris

Symbol, a new book by Angus Hyland and Steven Bateman, celebrates the beauty of the purely visual mark. We have two extracts from the book that focus on the classic symbols designed for the airline Pan Am and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris…

“The idea behind this book,” Hyland writes in his preface to Symbol, which is published by Laurence King (£22.50), “is to explore the visual language of symbols according to its most basic element: form.” The collected symbols are categorised by visual type, either abstract or representational designs, and include 1,300 examples using circles, dots, crosses, stripes, loops and curves; followed by those that are versions of flowers, objects, animals etc.

“They are laid out for view divested of all the agendas, meanings and messages that might be associated with them in their own customary contexts. Arranged this way,” Hyland continues, “the symbols are essentially isolated so that the effectiveness of their composition and impact can be assessed without distraction and so that the reader can enjoy them as a pictorial language in their own right.” More information on Symbol can be found on

To coincide with the launch of the book, Hyland will also be presenting a talk on symbols at the Design Museum in London on May 18. Details here.

The following extracts make up two of several extended case studies on some of the most celebrated symbol designs.

Pan Am by Edward Larrabee Barnes/Charles Forberg/Ivan Chermayeff, US, c.1955; redesigned by Chermayeff & Geismar, US, 1971

Pan American World Airways was founded in 1927 as a scheduled airmail and passenger service operating between Florida and Havana. With its refined image and famous flying boats, or ‘Clippers’, the airline soon became synonymous with the romance and glamour of 1930s air travel.

In the mid-1950s the company announced the arrival of America’s first commercial jets with a revamped identity courtesy of New York architect Edward Larrabee Barnes (appointed as Pan American’s consultant designer in 1955) and his associate, Charles Forberg. Barnes and Forberg in turn asked Ivan Chermayeff, then on their staff, to redesign the airline’s logotype and symbol.

They replaced the existing symbol, a stylized wing and globe motif, with a simplified blue globe overlaid with parabolic lines: a symbol of the drive and ambition that continued to define Pan American’s pioneering spirit.

When Najeeb Halaby became chairman in 1970, his desire to breathe new life into the airline prompted an invigorating yet short-lived design programme. Patrick Friesner, Pan American’s head of sales and promotion, commissioned work by the period’s finest designers including George Tscherny, Rudolph de Harak and Alan Fletcher.

At the core of the programme was a new visual identity designed by Chermayeff & Geismar, the most important element of which was a change of name from Pan American World Airways to Pan Am. A refreshed globe and a new logotype set in Helvetica Medium promoted a cleaner, more modern tone, with the airline’s signature colour palette of royal blue still firmly in place.

The most acclaimed applications of Chermayeff & Geismar’s identity are the promotional poster series designed in 1971 and 1972: the marriage of evocative photography and minimal type communicates a unique and sophisticated sense of adventure.

Above image from

Halaby was forced to resign in 1972, and his successors wandered away from the clarity of Chermayeff & Geismar’s identity, but Pan Am retained the iconic blue globe until its demise in 1991.


Centre Georges Pompidou by Jean Widmer, Switzerland, 1977

One of the French capital’s finest cultural attractions and one of its most striking architectural landmarks, the Centre Georges Pompidou was the brainchild of French President Georges Pompidou (1911-74), whose ambition to create an original cultural institution in Paris was fulfilled by this groundbreaking endeavour.

Known locally as Beaubourg because of its location in the city’s 4th arrondissement, the Pompidou Centre focuses on modern and contemporary creativity, encompassing the visual arts, design, architecture, theatre, music and cinema.

Construction of the centre’s idiosyncratic home, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, began in 1971 but wasn’t completed until 1977, three years after Pompidou’s death. Officially opened on 31 January 1977, the Pompidou offers a radical design – with its exposed structural and service elements – and a diverse programme of events and exhibitions that have proved a huge draw to visitors: around 9 million people pass through its doors every year, amounting to over 190 million visitors in just over 30 years.

The architectural treat served up by Piano and Rogers also provided the inspiration for Jean Widmer’s symbol: a bold and distinctly modern interpretation of the building with six horizontal stripes intersected by the Pompidou’s famous exterior stairway, zigzagging from left to right across the facade. It is an incredibly simple illustration of the building and yet, in capturing the creativity and dynamism of its exposed structure, Widmer expresses the values that led to the foundation of the Pompidou Centre and to its continuing success.

As part of the preparation for our recent Top 20 Logo issue, designer Philippe Apeloig also selected the Centre Pompidou symbol as one of his favourite ever logos. Read about his take on the design, here.

If you missed out on our April Top 20 Logos issue but would still like a copy, we have a few left. Just call +44(0)207 292 3703 to order one.

All images (except for the Pan Am posters) taken from Symbol and republished here with permission. Here are two other spreads from the book:


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