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“Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws.”
In the early 1900s, advertising pundits devised
pseudo-scientific assertions rooted in psychology and sociology to
convince American industry that an ancient practice—identifying
products with distinctive marks—was a modern innovation that would
forever change marketing strategies and increase profits. The cited
epigram—taken from the title page of The History of Trade
Marks by Clayton Lindsay Smith, a 1923 booklet exploring the
origins of America's most familiar commercial icons—is just one of
many quotations speciously appended to promotional tracts by early
graphic design propagandists seeking to validate their burgeoning,
though not yet officially labeled, “branding” profession.
Dredging up those supposed words of wise old Confucius (551–479
BC) was rather gratuitous since his wisdom had little contemporary
relevance. However, in this case, he did state the obvious: visual
language reigned supreme before the invention of writing and by
controlling their communication systems prehistoric image-makers
did indeed rule their caves, if not their worlds. Yet certainly by
the early 20th century images shared the stage with other mass
media. Invention of the printing press had insured that
civilization was predicated on “words and laws.” Nonetheless, the
thrust of Smith's treatise—which by all accounts had a sizeable
readership and said that signs and symbols implanted messages in
the public's consciousness, thus swaying mass consumption—supported
his zealotry and that of other design advocates who sought serious
Trade calendar illustrated by Roy Best, c. 1930.
Smith fervently promoted image over word, in part because the
advertising industry retained a Calvinist adherence to The Word.
During the late 19th century, American advertising was largely a
Protestant profession, serving Protestant businesses, in a
Protestant nation. Pictures were not entirely shunned but words
were certainly preferred. Since many American consumers read their
bibles, most print advertising pitches were akin to Sunday sermons;
strongly worded messages were easier for the public to understand
and, therefore, believe. Yet by the end of the 19th century it was
clear to advertising and business leaders that the capitalist
religion demanded more vivid pictorial proselytizing than
old-fashioned, word-based evangelical ads could achieve on their
own. With advancements in low-cost black-and-white and color
printing, reproduction of images precipitously increased in many
nationally circulated periodicals. Businesses that had relied
solely on brand names and clever slogans sought new visual icons
for salvation. Older pictorial trade characters evolved into
contemporary mnemonic logos. Industry turned to signs and symbols,
some abstract and others with human characteristics, to gain the
But these trademarks did not simply spring like butterflies from
cocoons, happily fluttering into the American consumers' eyes,
hearts and minds. They sprung from centuries of graphic art
traditions dating back to antiquity. Like the heraldic signs and
coats of arms that represented royalty, the scions of industry
sought similar trappings of tradition. Some contemporary marks also
owe a debt to those functional though elegant merchant's brands
that were emblazoned on sacks and barrels.
Flagg's personification of Uncle Sam, 1917.
Uncle Sam, the premier symbol of America's manifest destiny, is
the most recognizable American icon ever created. It began as a
quaint commercial trademark around 1812, based on the
self-proclaimed “Uncle” Sam Wilson, a real life Troy, New York,
merchant, who owned E. & S. Wilson, which supplied provisions
to the American army fighting against the British. As legend goes,
Troy's residents assumed that the “U.S.” stamped on his shipping
sacks and barrels stood for “Uncle Sam,” and Wilson exploited the
illusion because patriotism and profit were happy bedfellows. His
trademark portrait, in which Wilson wears a stovepipe hat, both
presaged and influenced the typical Uncle Sam image. By the
mid-19th century, however, various artists had radically
reinterpreted and transformed Sam's face, so little remained of the
original. In fact, during the American Civil War the clean-shaven
Sam grew a beard, which bore a curious resemblance to President
Abraham Lincoln. Uncle Sam continued to appear in various
iterations until 1917, when illustrator James Montgomery Flagg
enduringly codified the character with his distinctive rendering
for the Army's “I Want You” recruitment poster (which was a copy of
earlier British, German and Russian propaganda poster motifs).
Flagg used himself as the model, thus insuring his own
Aside from the ubiquitous dollar sign (the overlapping initials
“U.S.” with the bowl of the U cut off), no other symbol telegraphed
the American essence more instantaneously and unambiguously than
Uncle Sam. Neither of his two sister icons, Columbia or Liberty,
which personified the essential ideals of American life, suggested
America's ever-expanding global diplomatic and military influence.
As un-modern as his calcified visage may appear today, Sam's craggy
features and scraggly goatee spoke directly to the American myth of
a classless society baptized in the blood, sweat and tears of
grassroots pioneers. Sam was also a composite of the U.S.
forefathers, and more. Because he was old (or ageless, in a
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel portrait-of-god sort of way) he
represented the legacy of Americanism: strength, fortitude and
honor. He could also be comical and serious, fatherly and
brotherly. Oh, what a guy!
Uncle Sam ornaments from a Cobb Shinn printing cuts book, c.
Multinational corporations in today's global economy pay
branding specialists (whom some critics might argue provide the
same pseudo-scientific, rhetorical mumbo-jumbo today as they did a
hundred years ago) billions of dollars to create icons as
unmistakably recognizable as Uncle Sam, and then legally protect
them from potential infringements. Which is why it is so curious
that no single government agency or political entity actually owns
the trademark registration rights to this valuable American
“intellectual property.” Any American—or foreign—business wanting a
patriotic pedigree may freely use Uncle Sam in whatever political
or commercial, silly or profound, context and for any purpose they
desire, legal or extralegal. An unwritten law guarantees free and
easy access to democracy's symbolic trappings to any individual or
institution that desires them. If the government held licensing
rights, then the profits from royalties they would generate could
pay for major social programs. But no one receives a dime from the
countless Uncle Sam reproductions once sold through type catalogs,
clip art books and printers' stock catalogs, and now widely
available on the internet.
Conversely, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, Minister of
Propaganda Joseph Goebbels decreed through the Protection of
National Symbols act that reproducing the NSDAP's logo, the
swastika, was limited to state- and party-sanctioned materials.
Strict rules were enforced to insure that Germany's most charged
icons were not trivialized through wanton commercial schemes. Adolf
Hitler's image was also prohibited from being used in any
commercial enterprises, though his face was licensed for postage
stamps from which he received a generous royalty for each and every
purchase. Surely this iron fisted retention of exclusive image
rights served them well during their reign in power.
Chromolithographic postcard, c. 1910.
While America is no less respectful of its cherished icons, it
is more laissez faire when it comes to their widespread
usage. The American colors, for instance, have long been an
effective and ubiquitous marketing tool. During the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, red and blue were among the most popular
printing inks after basic black. Whatever the image—even if it had
nothing directly to do with patriotism—printing it in these primary
hues produced an unmistakably American style. Today, red, white and
blue, stars and stripes, and the American flag itself continue to
be used any time patriotism can generate profit—which is not to
imply that red, white and blue does not evoke a real sense of
national pride. In fact, using these colors effectively in posters,
packages and advertisements exploits that pride. The application of
national icons in advertising and design is not only a privilege:
it is something of a requisite.
Only one resolution ever really governed the American flag's
design. After Independence on July 4, 1776, the U.S. Congress
resolved that “the flag of the 13 United States be 13 stripes,
alternate red and white: that the union be 13 stars, white on a
blue field.” The color symbolism was straightforward: white
signifies purity and innocence, red exemplifies hardiness and
valor, and blue equals vigilance, perseverance and justice. Aside
from a few conventions dictating how a flag must be hung (i.e., it
must never touch the ground) and various Army and Navy rituals, the
U.S. government has never imposed Constitutional restrictions on
how to use the basic form or colors, because every citizen has a
basic right to “own” a piece of American style. Even when the South
seceded from the Union, launching the bloody Civil War, the same
color scheme was used for the Confederate flag. Congress has never
even been able to agree on a viable flag desecration act either,
because it seems antithetical to democratic principles. While many
other nations view as treasonous the desecration of their national
symbols, when democracy and capitalism wed, expedience rules. So,
as long as Uncle Sam and the stars and stripes are boons to the
economy, they will forever remain unregulated.
Corporate U.S. flag by Adbusters.
American business and industry, however, are not as libertarian
regarding their so-called trade dress icons. Trade characters,
trademarks and logos have long been shielded from misuse by
trademark registration and copyright safeguards. Even parody, which
is allowed under law, has come under fire by eager, litigious
intellectual property attorneys. The Disney Corporation, for
example, reflexively issues cease and desist injunctions virtually
anytime Mickey's mouse ears pop up without authorization. Coca-Cola
and Nike have their respective waves and swooshes locked up tighter
than Queen Victoria's chastity belt. Moreover, defiling the likes
of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Betty Crocker would be tantamount to
vandalizing George Washington's (and even his horse's) tomb.
In a nation that allows widespread, and often trivial,
dissemination of its national symbols this veneration of its
commercial ones is a bit paradoxical. It would seem that high
visibility of commercial marks only aids popular recognition, and
sales. But branding experts long ago realized that controls must be
vociferously maintained or they lose legal rights to their
cherished marks. Also, to be a bona fide American icon demands that
a graphic image is somehow beyond reproach. A couple of decades
ago, for example, UPS's big brown delivery trucks, known as Queen
Marys, routinely blocked urban streets, so they did not affix their
mark to the backs of these vehicles lest they become publicly
reviled for causing annoying traffic jams. Since marks trigger a
wide range of responses and memories today they are usually tested
and retested to make certain that all the composite elements have
positive recognition factors.
“The world is managed and its people controlled by
influences—simple, elemental influences—of which we are steadily
gaining more knowledge,” wrote Clayton Lindsay Smith in his
aforementioned booklet. Although forgotten today it was one of the
key documents of its time in the advancement of commercial icons as
holy artifacts. “So the trade mark persists and in its modern
improvements it has become the World's Great Salesman,” he
continues. “You stop when a red light or red flag commands. A
picture of Santa Claus makes you think of Christmas. An arrow
points direction and guides you. A striped barber pole asks about
your tonsorial needs and bids you enter. And with the same forceful
authority the Campbell Kids make you hungry for soup and cause
you to buy this particular brand.” (Italics are Smith's.)
The “forceful authority” of Uncle Sam caused citizens to buy
into the American brand of democracy, just as the Campbell Kids
caused citizen-consumers to buy into a decidedly American brand.
Loyalty to Campbell was by extension loyalty to the American way of
life. Hence an American graphic icon had to stimulate national
pride and consumer desire all in one fell swoop—and what could be
more apple pie than retail consumerism? Of course, the greater the
American trappings imbued in an icon, the greater the urgency of
the message for Americans.
Early Campbell's Soups ads featuring the Campbell Kids, from
1918 (left) and 1923.
Yet not every trademark or logo has an Uncle Sam or flag on it,
so they had to symbolize American values in other ways. “In the
dominion of the mind”—as Smith so quaintly refers to the mass
consumer's cranial cavity—the leading American icons are those that
promote the biggest brands, which exemplify American capitalism.
Control the “public consciousness,” he continues, “keep [the icons]
alive and active in the Buyer's Memory,” and America, American
commerce and Americans in general will triumph.
Uncle Sam's iconic visage is no longer as viable today as it was
a generation ago. His antiquated image has been usurped by a slew
of dynamic corporate logos. Nike's swoosh, the Microsoft Network's
butterfly and McDonald's golden arches, among others, do not
overtly exude nationalism but are rather signposts (even
ambassadors) for businesses that provide American services and
collect American profits. Nonetheless, vocal “no logo” critics in
the United States and elsewhere around the world charge that
American commercial icons today symbolize this country's
excessively domineering global reach and, like Uncle Sam, they
force materialistic American values down the world's throat. Others
argue this is simply anti-American claptrap. Yet one thing is
certain—whether political or commercial, American icons trigger
strong emotions and in this way at least one part of that
epigram—“Signs and symbols rule the world”—has validity today. Or
as wise old Confucius might have also said: “Man who sits on tack
gets the point.”
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, a local design studio sought to make sense of the chaotic sequence of events. Using iconography to tell the story, here is the book they created: 102 Hours.
Section: Inspiration -
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Section: Why Design -
advertising, communication design, environmental design, experience design, graphic design, marketing, nonprofit, print design, user research, Competition, mass communication, posters, print advertising, signage, culture, diversity
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Section: Inspiration -
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When I look back on periods in my life where I struggled to prove myself, and reach the next rung on the ladder of my career, it's amazing to me to discover how much of what I went through then, I am still going through today.
Section: Inspiration -
advertising, corporate design, personal essay, mentoring
Weekend Heller: What is Vigital Arts? What is Alternative Printing?
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melissapaige65 (Melissa Paige)
HE always keeps us apprised! <3 Psalm 32:8 #Design #Faith
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