When Bad Things Happen to Good Logos
When bad things happen, even the best-intentioned designs will suffer. Logos are judged good or bad by the deeds or policies they represent. Although inconceivable today, during the early 20th century the swastika—or hooked cross, an ancient symbol of good fortune—was adopted as a commercial mark for such products as Good Luck Jar Rubbers, Fresh Deodorant, Swastika Fresh Fruit, Swastika Cigars, Swastika Matches and even Coca-Cola. In 1922 it was, however, adopted by Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Workers Party (the Nazis), and in 1935 was elevated to the national symbol of Nazi Germany. From that moment its symbolism went from benign to toxic. The possibility that the swastika can be cleansed of its dreadful connotations in Western culture is improbable for the foreseeable future.
Paul Rand's “E” for Enron (top) and the recently retired Circuit City logo (above).
This is the most extreme case of bad things happening to good logos, but the list goes on. Take the Enron “E” designed by Paul Rand. Prior to the massive corruption scandal that brought down the energy company and wiped out billions in employee pensions, the three horizontal bars on the “E” simply represented three pipelines meeting at a central distribution repository—an elegant way to represent the company's primary asset. While this was not necessarily Rand's best corporate logo, it was an effective mnemonic. Until, that is, the public learned of Enron's corporate malfeasance, which eventually brought its executives to trial, jail and suicide, and the “E” became a scarlet letter, the butt of stinging satire and vitriolic condemnation.
Rand warned that logos are like “rabbits' feet,” imbued with mystical and magical properties not always rooted in the rational. He further noted, a logo is only as good as the entity it stands for. The Edsel automobile was a commercial failure, so the Edsel name and trademark became forever associated with folly. Recently, Circuit City, the big box electronics and appliance store, went belly-up, and I'd wager that red circular logos like theirs won't be repeated by other retailers in the near future lest they brand themselves a failure. Although the recession triggered Circuit City's demise, the logo will doubtless be blamed. The logo is the face of a company, institution or state. It embodies the good, bad and ugly aspects of what it brands. It is either lucky or unlucky, positive or negative, depending on the context in which it exists. Context is just about everything in logoland.
Consumers were outraged by Arnell Group's 2009 Tropicana redesign (right), but it was a far cry from the racially offensive Tropic-Ana trade character of the 1970s (left).
Much criticism has been heaped on the Arnell Group for its bland design of the Tropicana package and logo, which, following an unpredicted popular outcry, was returned to its previous, less generic state: the orange and candy-stripe straw motif. But few remember that, before the emblematic orange, the juice package was graced with a racially offensive trade character named Tropic-Ana. She was a slightly pot-bellied topless little girl in a skimpy grass skirt, carrying a basket of oranges on her head, a variation on the Minute Maid girl and Chiquita Banana lady. Cuteness was used in the same way one might view a baby bear. Innocent given the conventions of the times, Tropic-Ana symbolized a widespread view of superiority over indigenous peoples the world over (she was apparently a native to Florida) that underscored the colonialist/manifest destiny idea that “the natives” exist only to serve the American way of life.
Could this tasteless Pronto Pups campaign have ever been considered a good idea?
Many trade characters have been retired over time for their offensive depictions. Around a score of such questionable characters are collected in the new book, Ad Boy: Vintage Advertising with Character (10 Speed Press) by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain. Included among the mostly benign, silly and cute characters are the more tasteless: a sombrero/poncho-wearing hot dog for Tasty Pronto Pups; the Indian River maiden, an Indian “squaw” with the head of an orange and the va-va-voom body of a femme fatale; and of course, the Frito Bandito, the Mexican bandito (as if all Mexicans were outlaws) who is always pilfering corn chips. Analysis is not necessary because these characters speak for themselves—we know they're wrong when we see them. Racist trademarks were once copious on labels and advertisements for American products (and many foreign ones too), in part because minorities had little or no voice in mainstream society, and their otherness gave them curiosity value. Some of these characterizations still exist, however, in the sports field. Others, including Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and the Cream of Wheat chef, were so positively ingrained in the public's consciousness (in the trade press they were referred to as “friendly characters” that housewives welcomed into their homes) that, rather than retire them, they were refined to reflect the times. Aunt Jemima, who in the late-19th century was actually a real-life African-American pitchwoman who performed around the country, was transformed from a plantation house slave into a benign aunty. Uncle Ben, the happy house servant, has not changed much to this day (incidentally, the product was originally produced by an African-American entrepreneur, Gordon L. Harwell).
This Archdiocesan Youth Commission logo, designed by Gerry Kano in the early 1970s, is not so black and white.
A logo is designed to activate positive recognition. There's nothing worse than a logo that sparks indifference, except perhaps one that has no redeeming value at all. Failure—a product that fails to appeal—is one such valueless attribute. Designers who have created logos for failed or sluggish businesses are wise to remove such work from their portfolio. On some occasions, logos are more than marks of failure or malfeasance; sometimes they unintentionally illustrate the foibles or folly of a company or institution all too vividly. Take the Archdiocesan Youth Commission logo, designed three decades before the sex abuse scandal broke out in the Catholic Church. The unfortunate pictorial relationship between the priest and the child, given our collective awareness in 2009, suggests a much too ironic interpretation. It's a challenge to see what this positive/negative image once suggested, a guardian protecting the innocent, since the benevolence of its subject matter is no longer black and white. When a good design signifies bad deeds, the result is, well, a really unfortunate logo.
About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com