The art of the logo

Artists have been responsible for some of our most memorable logos and symbols: is it time to involve them again?

Would you let an artist near a corporate identity? A poster, possibly. The cover of an annual report, maybe. But a logo?

The question came to mind following the unveiling of a British Airways airliner livery to celebrate the Olympics and all things 2012. It’s part of the airline’s Great Britons PR push, which presents projects in different creative fields by ‘rising British talent’ mentored by leaders in those fields. The dove-inspired, whole-body livery being applied to nine passenger jets was designed by artist-designer Pascal Anson, whose mentor was that veteran of corporate identity and aircraft livery design, Tracey Emin.

The dove-style paint job stirs up memories of Newell & Sorrell’s sadly short-lived ‘Utopia’ tail-fins from 1997, which applied art from Cornwall, the Kalahari Desert and places in between to the rear-ends of BA’s fleet. Among other things, the scheme came to represent the hazards of incorporating art into corporate identity schemes. Few have attempted it since.

As art has shifted away from image-making towards other modes and media of expression, the opportunities to apply art in the context of corporate or brand identity have diminished. There seems to be little appetite among artists to get involved in the design of corporate symbols or logos. If the posters encapsulating the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games are representative, today’s artists are either unable or reluctant to express an idea, time or place in a single, reduced, memorable image.

It wasn’t always this way, of course; the much closer union between art and design yielded some of the most durable, widely recognised symbols and logos of the last 50 years. The bright yellow banana that Andy Warhol stuck on the cover of a then-unknown New York band’s first album ended up becoming the abiding motif of the Velvet Underground. The white dove’s association with the peace movement has its origins in Picasso’s humble line drawings of the bird, which themselves were triggered by his use of the dove as a symbol on a poster for the World Peace Congress of 1949.

The banana and dove became unintentional icons. Some artists, though, designed symbols with every intention of making them last. They were given the chance by clients unburdened by reams of market analysis, who were ready simply to put their trust in makers of their era’s memorable images.

When Renault wanted a more modern emblem to accompany the launch of the compact Renault 5 in 1972, it turned to an artist known for his complex, optically-challenging abstract paintings, Victor Vasarely. His wordless, trompe-l’oeil rhombus lasted for 20 years.

Still in use today and still as fresh as when it was painted nearly 30 years ago is the mighty Joan Miró’s red, black and yellow sun for the Spanish tourist board. Spain, still recovering from the Franco era and desperate to shed associations with violence and repression, was ahead of the game: it was the first time any country had attempted to convey its identity through a single symbol.

The symbol, which perfectly conveyed heat and rustic simplicity, was Miró’s final work and, arguably, the most recognisable of his entire oeuvre to millions of holidaymakers. Similarly, the most reproduced creation of Miró’s fellow Catalan surrealist Salvador Dalí is not The Persistence of Memory but the daisy that has been part of the Chupa Chups lollipop logo since 1969.

It was not a Spaniard, though, but a German who most successfully integrated his artistic principles into the craft of logo design. For Anton Stankowski, there was no separation between art and design. His exploration of geometric visual forms and grids on canvas led directly to the numerous corporate symbols he produced later in his career, many of which are not only still in use by German businesses, but held up as paragons of the form. The logos for Viessmann (1960), Munich Re (1974), the German Design Council (1960), BKK (1988) and Deutsche Bank (1974) – number two in CR’s recent logo poll – were all Stankowski’s work.

All of which does make one wonder: aren’t there still imagemakers in our galleries and art schools whose ideas might just as successfully transfer to the realm of logo design? Wouldn’t the art of symbol-making benefit from an injection of real art?

Michael Evamy is the author of Logo, published by Laurence King.

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