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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
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.
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