How long does a logo last?

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Well that sounds like a daft question doesn’t it – ‘˜Forever, stupid’ used to be the simple answer.

But it’s becoming blindingly obvious that as the world stops talking about ‘˜identity’ and replaces it with ‘˜branding’, we’re all equally adept at talking about ‘˜rebranding’ as well. It’s becoming a marketing tactic, to re-brand for short-term purposes, to re-position, to wipe the slate clean and start again.

A famous creative director once explained to me that ‘˜advertising is tactics, design is strategy’ and I thought at the time that he had a good point. I’ve repeated the quote several times when a client was trying to get me to do something for short term gain (i.e. tactics) rather than the long-haul (i.e. strategy). But now all bets are off – companies are just as likely to create a brand then change tack 5 years later and hang the cost implications. You get the feeling that branding is becoming more and more tactical.

British TV stations Channel Five and BBC Three both started with one identity then switched within a few years (the latter changing only recently, prompting a bizarre rush of people pretending to like a bit of distorted type and some plasticine figures).

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In some respects this flies directly in the face of what many of us were taught. We admired all our modernist masters, we ooh’d and aaah’d at the typographic sleight of hand of logos in old Japanese symbol books, and deep down, hoped to add a classic to the canon. We watch the Fedex van fly past and deep down wished we could do something that good, that timeless, that irrefutable.

Trouble is, it’s tough to match up to the masters. Do something timeless, classic and kind-of-Swiss and it’s as likely to look as kind-of-time-locked as anything else – as Wolff Olins’s current creative director told me recently, ‘˜so much ‘œtimeless’ design reminds me of Switzerland in the 60s or America in the 90s’.

It’s true that a design stands a better chance of lasting if you try, however hard it may be, to avoid the graphic tics of the time. Paul Rand’s UPS logo lasted 4 decades before they finally cut off those strings and hit the refresh button (they had, it’s true, stopped accepting parcels wrapped with string several years previously). Having lasted 40 years with such a simple graphic (and seemingly starved of anything exuberant) they opted for many current trends – let’s have a fin de siΓ¨cle typeface, let’s make it lower case, and don’t forget those Photoshop light effects. If this lasts another 35 years it will be a miracle.

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But what logos could last for 40 years? North’s logo for the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) ruffled quite a few feathers on launch and is deliberately modernist, as is much of their work, but who can predict when or if force majeure will strike or a boardroom coup will remove it in the way that politics removed Time Warner’s eye/ear symbol. It’s an interesting game to play, pick symbols around you and predict which will be re-designed first.

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Here’s a handful of logos off our own website. Now ask me which one will need updating first and frankly I have no idea – I would hope that our Shelter logo could last for decades, but whether it will or not is a different matter. I was worried that More Th>n would look too of its time but it seems to have settled into its design surroundings.

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One of those logos (for Dimensions, an exhibition design company) is about 13 years old – it looked just ‘˜there’ when we did it, and just looks sort of ‘˜there’ now. Should we have done something a bit more ‘˜out there’ back in 1994? Perhaps not.

One of them has already been re-designed, as Yellow Pages have cut the umbilical chord that held them to Futura and opted for one of those ubiquitous humanist soft sans serif solutions. Paradoxically, by opting to hit the more modern button they’ve traded long term stability for short-term refresh, but if that notches up a few better points in tracking, that may be deemed a success. There’s also a wry typographic twist there, as the typeface named after the future (Futura) is dumped for something of the present.

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Some identities, even if they reek slightly of a particular time, have proven able to withstand the brand buffeting. British TV channel Channel 4 has remixed its 4 symbol countless times but it’s still true to the exploding bricks logo designed nearly 3 decades ago by Lambie-Nairn. MTV’s actual logo is frankly awful but they have managed to surround it with enough distractingly great stings to divert viewers’ attention. When Investors in Industry (a firm of British venture capitalists) decided to shorten their name to the much snappier 3i, they chose a design solution that reeked of eighties brushstroke vernacular, but it’s stood the test of time.

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And then there are the script-based marks that frankly don’t stand up to any sort of logical analysis because they just ARE, and no-one dares mess with them. So Boots, GEC, Coca-Cola and Ford get gently tweaked every decade but no-one really dares take away all that heritage. (Although I have to say I always thought Paul Rand’s proposed Ford re-design was genius, shown below).

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So what are the options facing us? One is to design ‘˜classically’ and face the paradox that it may take decades to feel new, and may never. Another way is to use or tweak some dodgy old script logo. Another approach is to design something so fundamentally of its time, so quintessentially zeitgeist and be the first to market and a hex on all you copyists. This of course is a high risk strategy – what works for one sector may not work for another (think Tate and Abbey) and you can be left picking up the pieces. I always watch the Parcelforce vans go past and wince slightly – I know it was designed just as computer warped typography was in its infancy but it stills looks just a bit, well, wrong to me.

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There may be a middle ground – design something intentionally simple which is allowed to flex and modulate, make new friends, hang out with a different crowd but still come ‘˜home’ when it wants to. I think we’ll see more and more of this, but it needs a lot of control, and a group of like-minded individuals prepared to push an idea but before returning to base.

The much-discussed 2012 logo may be looking to a brave new world but without interesting applications it will just end up as a hard-to-read squiggle on the end of the line of balls on the TV lottery page.

In fact, in terms of Olympic graphics, there’s an interesting parallel here. The logo for the LA Games was actually designed at the end of the 70s and ticks all those seventies modernist boxes – go-faster lines, clean, sharp, slightly op, etc etc. But essentially dull.

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What graphic designers remember is Sussman Prejza’s temporary graphics which encapsulated that whole Californian post-modern day-glo thing just perfectly, or Arnold Schwarzman’s famous cycling poster. For each, the logo just sits near the edge, either overshadowed by the noise around it, or acting as a subtle signature, depending on how you look at it.

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Perhaps because we rarely try to overtly design something absolutely up-to-the-minute, we tend to shy away from ideas which are completely in knowing they’ll soon be out. Maybe we should wise up to a digital universe where branding will be followed by re-branding as a matter of course. Expecting (and designing) identities to last less time could well be a good way to guarantee repeat business, after all.

But I won’t be able to stop myself, for a little longer, designing things that might last. Is that OK?

By Michael Johnson