The hidden, the obscure and the unexplained
I was reading recently that Jack White trained as an upholsterer prior to worldwide fame as one half of the White Stripes. Much of the interview contained the obligatory rock musings, but what really stood out was White’s fondness for hiding poetry upholstered inside any particular chair he was working on at any time. Just imagine, some big American bottom somewhere is sitting on a first draft of ‘Seven nation army’. Bizarre.
It struck me as an extraordinary thing to do, to create, then to hide. Obviously in the design business we’re generally trained to communicate, and quickly. It’s virtually impossible for me to think of anything I’ve designed in the last 15 years that wasn’t intended to explain itself in some way, as fast as possible.
That doesn’t mean to say that design is free from the obscure, or the unexplained. One classic example is the pack for Lyle’s golden syrup, featuring a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees. Apparently this is a biblical reference (obviously an allegory much discussed in the Johnson family as we drip the golden goo onto our pancakes). It’s remained on the tin for over a century, seemingly oblivious to those who would enhance it with their 3d Photoshop filters and a couple of shadows (or maybe both).
History seems to help some of the odder designs that surround us. Spend any time at all in Italy and you’ll spot Agip’s petrol station dog, and wonder about its meaning. What you may not spot is that said fire-breathing dog has 6 legs. True.
It apparently came about after a poster design competition in 1952 when the winning design was selected to be the symbol. It’s alleged that its real designer entered under a pseudonym and died before being discovered, never having to offer up an explanation for his creation. Popular theories are either that the dog is Wagnerian in origin, or based on Greek or African mythology. The official explanation at the time was that four of the six legs represent the car, the other two its driver. Obviously.
What’s clear is that Agip’s dog remains fantastically memorable, so hang the consequences and put those ‘fire and petrol don’t mix’ reports from health and safety back on the cupboard please. Of course if you walked into a modern design presentation with a packaging idea based around a dead lion surrounded by bees or a six-legged fire-breathing canine, you’d be swiftly shown the door, or locked up. But there was a trend some time ago towards ‘invention of tradition’, so perhaps this kind of approach will eventually come full-circle?
Some symbolic solutions remain forever a mystery to their users. How many yummy-mummy’s on the school run have ever paused to contemplate that the three prongs of the Mercedes symbol on their bonnet reflect Gottlieb Daimler’s desire to show the aptitude of his motors to land, sea or air? How long did it take the fact that NatWest’s symbol is technically a diagram of the merging of three banks (the National Provincial, the Westminster and the District) to become irrelevant? Both have become simple visual shorthand for their organisations, their true meaning almost completely irrelevant.
Do Toblerone eaters see the swiss symbol of the Bern bear when they guzzle their triangles? Do CND marchers discuss the precedents of their flags (the semaphore for the ‘N’ and ‘D’ of Nuclear and Disarmament)? I suspect not.
Modern designers still can’t resist the occasional bit of sleight of hand. The much discussed FedEx logo only reveals its hidden arrow to about half of its viewers.
I’m sure 99.9% of people see the smile, or the arrow in Amazon’s logo, but how many get the reference of ‘from A to Z’? Both of these organisations have chosen to leave these as devices to be discovered, not plastered on 96 sheets on your local highway. The designers of the Amazon logo, Turner Duckworth, have experimented in sleight of hand before – this stamp design from 1997 doesn’t give away its secret too quickly until you see the face of the Spitfire’s designer (Mitchell) in the clouds behind the plane.
Our unwillingness to unpick corporate symbolism means that some corporations can play fast and loose with their identities with no apparent change in their fortunes.
BT’s adoption of a one-footed piper ruffled a few feathers due to its hefty implementation bill (allegedly 60 million pounds) but few seemed to pick up on the idea that it symbolised one person listening and another speaking. (In fact more time seemed to be spent alleging that the red bit of the pipers body is actually a snake – look closer and you’ll see it). The ‘listening/speaking’ idea was briefly animated into end-frames but hastily shelved by the ad agencies keen to relegate the logo back to a simple end-frame.
The grandest conceit happened only recently, when the proposed logo for BT’s ill-fated international arm, Concert (a ‘C’ made up of coloured spinning discs) was simply recycled and shipped in to replace the piper. So what started as a ‘C’ logo ended us as a sort of ‘world’ blob, and the truly awful bit (that out-of-balance typography) remained unchanged. Shame.
Even trained professionals can miss some of these ideas. Many art directors would have enjoyed the historical pastiche of these recent Peeterman ads for Stella, but remained oblivious to the hidden USP, that the beer’s alcoholic strength (4%) is typographically buried into every application.
None of these designs would be seen as failures, many would be heralded as successes. The ‘aha’ factor when a consumer ‘gets’ the hidden message might well work in a design’s favour – they’ve managed to unlock the code and give themselves a psychological pat on the back by doing so.
And perhaps eat more Toblerone, send more Fedex parcels, order more books on Amazon and drink more of that beer. Yes, perhaps.
By Michael Johnson