Michael Wolff: “Why all the poor logos?”

Michael Wolff scrutinises recent logos which he believes have fallen short and offer little more than “visual nonsense” as he assesses where they’ve gone wrong and how they could have been designed differently.

unknown
Illustration by Charley Barsotti

I’m noticing an increase in ill-conceived and superficially designed symbols and logos. Harsh words, I know, but I’m also encouraged to see well-designed ones too, which makes the bad ones appear more obvious.

I always enjoy everything about Café Nero – the service, the comforting hot chocolate with frothy cream, the look, the colours and the logo. Itsu and its butterfly look friendly and inviting, and so does Hailo. It’s a great name, a fast and easy app, and a simple and elegant symbol.

The coarser looking Tate logo is a big improvement on the Wolff Olins original, the Co-op looks fresh and bright now that it’s restored its former simplicity. Muji, Pret a Manger, Waitrose and many others all look beautiful. The general standard’s always improving and that’s why bad work stands out so clearly. Unfortunately, some designers and their clients continue to inflict on us indiscriminate and poorly designed graphics purporting to be brands.

http-weareshootingstar-co_-uk-wp-content-uploads-2016-06-bs-logo-777x500

Recent examples are the trite British Steel symbol, the sad thin new logo of Addison Lee, the meaningless look of Newcastle Building Society and NatWest’s attempt at enlivening their existing symbol.

I believe the NatWest symbol was originally meant to illustrate the merger between the National Provincial and Westminster Banks, and maybe another. Hence the three shapes. But who on earth cared? It looked to me then, as it still does now, like the symbol of an aggressive and minor political party.

“They deliver no meaning or emotion”

The worst of all these symbols appeared at the recent Conservative Party conference, an absurd “shades of blue” concoction of an oak tree with the Union Jack, looking like an unappetising pudding.

logo-03-500x500

Addison Lee is a particularly superficial and conspicuously poor example of graphic design that’s now starting to pepper London’s streets. The company’s black vans with their ugly AL logo had looked dreadful for many years but now they’ve changed, unfortunately not for the better. What used to look amateur, possibly even the work of a proprietor and almost forgivable for that reason, has now been “designed” and the work is shameful.

All of these “looks” were paid for and approved by someone, and then plonked onto things with apparently little reason as to why or to what end. They deliver no meaning or emotion, they’re dumb in both senses of the word and I’m wondering why this ineffective rash of visual nonsense is happening.

nw_logo_still-755x500

Do the proposals for these third rate marks ever reach the agendas of the designers’ client’s boardrooms? Do the boards involved ever take them seriously? Do the people on these boards have the experience or the discernment or the interest to make effective judgments? In the case of British Steel, Addison Lee, Newcastle Building Society and NatWest bank, I doubt it.

Then whose fault is it?  Is it the designers, or the clients who brief them? The results are often so gruesome that the phrases that come to my mind when I first see them, and it’s usually from the corner of my eye as I’m driving, are that people who’ve clearly spent serious sums of money on these so-called ‘re-branding exercises’ are as ‘mad as hatters,’ ‘away with the fairies,’ ‘off their rockers’ and as ‘daft as a brush’. But there’s clearly more to it than that.

A misconception of what brands are

These superficial logos result from a misconception of what brands are – a misconception that exists both in the minds of many designers and in the minds of their clients.  They’re also the result of a lack of intelligent mediation. Without mediation, many impatient or less sophisticated organisations are far too easily persuaded by design companies to buy these relatively useless marks. Brands are not graphic marks or logos. Brand names and the graphic designs that come with them are only a part of what makes a brand.

In simple language, a brand is a result – the result of people’s judgments and impressions of an organisation’s behaviour. How an organisation chooses to look and represent itself is only one aspect of its behaviour. It’s the bus stop not the bus service.

The swastika and the Red Cross symbol

The Nazi swastika could have been a great symbol for a global life saving organisation, just as the Red Cross could have been a powerful symbol for a psychopathic National Socialist Party.

Symbols can be iconic and valuable shorthand for communicating meaning, or they can be vacuous and superfluous marks that can’t stand up on their own and have little relationship to reality.

Both the Red Cross and the swastika symbolised their respective realities brilliantly. So does London Transport’s (today’s Transport for London) timeless symbol, so did Paul Rand’s IBM logo many years ago and so does Apple’s apple today.

Why?  The reason’s simple – each one of these brilliant marks was mediated by a sophisticated, visionary and intelligent leader. Each leader understood what they were doing. Each knew how deeply integrated into the reality of their organisations these symbols or marks of identity needed to be. They knew how influential and iconic the marks that they created would become and they worked with the finest designers and craftsmen of the day. Their design wasn’t constrained by arbitrary budgets, it was seen as a vital and fundamental necessity.

What history has taught us

In the case of London Transport, as early as 1913, Frank Pick commissioned the beautiful Johnston typeface, which looks as good today as it did then. Pick was a visionary with a belief in the power of design, and the skill and discernment to work with the best designers.

Johnston designed typeface for Underground 1916
Johnston designed typeface for Underground 1916

He drove the design and the behaviour of every aspect of the business. He knew that it was its behaviour that would result in a strong brand and that design was one means of expressing and driving that behaviour.

Pick was an intuitive “service” and  “inclusive” designer many years ahead of his time. He led what it took for London Transport to become a great brand, and he set in place the backbone that’s ensured that the brand is as strong today as it was over a hundred years ago.

The rule of three

When design is seen as an integral part of the behaviour of an organisation that generates brands, sometimes it takes three to tango.

IBM’s founding president Thomas Watson, quickly said goodbye to the name International Business Machines and hello to the new name: IBM. He had no patience, like many do today, with the nonsense of two names: NatWest and the National Westminster Bank, BT and the long name British Telecommunications etc, and even Addison Lee with AL. This “belt and braces” approach, which always weakens brands, is an expensive dilution.

Because Watson knew he didn’t have the discerning eye of a Frank Pick, he appointed Eliot Noyes to guide him and mediate all IBM’s design – from the graphic design of Paul Rand to the design of all IBM’s products, its architecture and every tiny detail of its behaviour and style.

It was essentially a tripartite activity a dance of three –
the leader of the company, the design consultant and a curated selection of outstanding designers working in harmony. IBM’s self-expression was integral to the company’s behaviour rather than an exercise in cosmetic graphics.

Apple too, from the very beginning, had a founder and CEO who was passionate about design and had the genius, prescience and drive to use it to build the Apple brand into what it is today. Apple’s design was always led as well as managed, a crucial distinction. The comprehensive and coherent standard of design that sustains Apple’s brand today, is led by Jony Ive.

There’s no need to point to the horrors of the Nazi period. It’s now a grotesque reminder that only when design is integral to behaviour can brands become a reality in the minds where brands live. The Nazi brand was powerful, terrifying and evil. Hitler needed his design supremo Albert Speer, without whom it’s hard to imagine that the Nazis could have swayed and terrified so many people across Europe.

Pseudo brand: whimsy, bad choices and superficial briefs

Take the four pseudo-brands that provoked my attention: British Steel, Addison Lee, Newcastle Building Society and NatWest. I suspect that what happened to bring these four about, of which NatWest is the closest to competent graphic design, started with a pitch, a whimsical choice of designers, a series of fragmented and superficial briefs, followed by equally superficial work with no serious mediation and a hopeful launch by a board, or most likely a group of managers with insufficient knowledge and experience of what it takes to make brands real. The work was probably just managed and not led.

Not one of these four projects is substantial or integrated into a comprehensive, distinctive and coherent pattern of behaviour that could become a brand. So, regrettably all of them fail. They’re just cosmetic and, despite some of their parlous and no doubt expensive advertising, none have a discernible connection to other aspects of the behaviours that they could and should have represented.

The British Steel logotype seems to me, as a humble member of the public and so a potential maker of its brand, banal and trivial. It appears merely to be a way of marking vehicles and signs with a new way of saying British Steel. I can’t believe that the board of this former great and troubled company has put the thought and passion into this aspect of its rebirth as Thomas Watson or Steve Jobs did for IBM or Apple. They just chose some clothes and weren’t concerned with revealing the being.

A lack of pride

Addison Lee’s clothes are similarly superficial. How, for instance, does Addison Lee treat its drivers now? I don’t hear them talking with the same pride as a London cabbie.

I hope British Steel’s and Addison Lee’s graphics were cheap enough to be replaced one day with more effective and better-integrated design ideas. It may take time, but
as the Co-op has recently demonstrated, when something like its long and illiterate names didn’t work, it’s best to bite the bullet and start over again.

The look of Newcastle Building Society’s design can’t be taken seriously and the new NatWest graphic design, ironically called re-branding, does nothing to assuage the consequences of the many other aspects of the behaviour of this company and the entire financial sector. NatWest, like others, is tarred with the same brush. Changing the graphics, like the smile on a conman’s face, won’t change anything else.

A needless waste

Dancing with logos is a company changing the make-up on the face of who they are. Like make-up, it’s just a look and disconnected from the reality of other more important aspects of behaviour. It’ll do nothing to enhance its brand. And so, ultimately, it’s another substantial and needless waste of what in the end is our money.

When the leaders of great companies like IBM, John Deere and others know they don’t have the eye, they’re wise enough to work with design consultants. An effective design consultant mediates by making sure the companies he or she works with know how to buy design, and the designers the consultant works with know where they are. In that way vanity, willfulness, irrelevance and poor briefs can be kept to a minimum.

Addison Lee, British Steel, Newcastle Building Society and NatWest had insufficiently sophisticated design leadership and management. That’s why they should never have gone directly to design companies without mediation. With the mediation of a design consultant, they’d have realised that when design lacks integration with a company’s behaviour and service, the consequence will be shallowness of meaning and bad value. They’ll also find that buying design on its own will make it hard to build a brand of any real worth.

How to do it properly

An effective design consultant will achieve three distinct and valuable tasks. First they’ll ensure that there’s a palpable context from which all design will flow. Second, they’ll ensure that designers of the right calibre are chosen and guided. Third, an effective design consultant will enable the designers to get the best from their clients and the clients to get the best from their designers.

Companies like Pret a Manger get it right, and so can any enterprise of any size, even a one-man-band. But if they don’t have their self-expression intuitively led by their own leadership they should think twice before working directly with designers. They’ll be better off working with the guidance of a design consultant or adviser who understands and has empathy with them, their customers and with their own people.

An effective design consultant will understand his or her client and the designers chosen to work on projects, as well as the wider world of communications. Together, they will know that all design is service design and all design is an expression and revelation of an organisation’s culture, behaviour and ambition, and never design for the sake of design.

Hide Comments (26)Show Comments (26)
Comments
  • Michael LaRocca October 21, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    You can say a person is acting “out of character” if you know what that person’s character is. In the case of a company, we may replace the word “character” with the word “brand.” If the consumer has no idea what a company’s character is, its brand, that’s a problem. If a logo designer has no idea what a company’s character is, the results will be random, and if the brand exists, it might as well not because it’s disconnected from the logo.

  • John griffin October 21, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    I designed the Addison Lee logo helped by a staff member who remarked that although he lived in a squat in Addison Gardens everyone thought it was a very posh address. The new logo looks pathetic and proves that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it JG 07973601601

  • Paul Bailey October 21, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    Excellent!

    ‘a brand is a result – the result of people’s judgments and impressions of an organisation’s behaviour’. Although ‘result’ is a little finite for me, as judgements and impressions evolve over time, this is a great explanation of what brand really is.

  • Alexander Luckow October 23, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    As a connection between ,a sophisticated‘ leader an the swasticker could be read into this, I suggest a rewording.
    Otherwise great article.

  • Roger Mann October 23, 2016 at 5:43 pm

    I see the logic behind your statement but in many cases the resulting mish-mash of ineffective design will have been caused by a perceived economic benefit. Many years ago, the partnership I headed worked for a large international company and I acted as consultant for all their corporate branding and advertising. The relationship lasted for seven years whereupon they decided to do it all themselves in-house to save money using a trainee designer. A few years later I saw their management team at an exhibition and although information was being disseminated efficiently, they felt that the soul had gone out of their public face. How many other companies use their accountants to quantify the value of their brand? Possibly the ones without visionary leaders.

    • Robert Shelley November 2, 2016 at 12:22 am

      Bingo.

  • dm10003 October 23, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Poor logos have always existed but the problem we have in the US on top of poor symbol design is terrible typography.

    • Robert Shelley November 2, 2016 at 12:27 am

      And what logos are created are trendy, complicated by a huge investment in brand application, only to be redesigned sooner…and not latter.

  • Alistair October 24, 2016 at 10:23 am

    It’s interesting that you chose to write the article now. The fact you wanted to air this at the same time that it’s being discussed in my household (My wife has a degree in typography and was a designer for 20 or so years) and reflects rumblings among many friends who are designers or who run their own design practices, suggests poor logo design is indeed a current trend.

    You missed a recent humdinger by the way. This baffling Chaucer Direct rebrand to http://www.geoffreyinsurance.com or “Geoffrey the plumbing clown” as we refer to it at home.

  • DC October 24, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Michael Wolff replaces ‘visual nonsense’ with ‘written drivel!’.

    Rather than writing a critique of worth based on his extensive experience, he does nothing more than generate his own ‘facts’ from guesswork, suspicion and personal opinion; making this article nothing more than a badly written whine.

    • Michael Wolff November 7, 2016 at 10:49 am

      Good to hear someone’s view of my words who obviously knows me far better than I know myself. I better watch out for whining although, on this occasion, the comments I was making were based on my experience and the experience of many fellow designers who’s outstanding work shows up how dismal and vacuous the examples I was pointing to are.

  • Giles Calver October 24, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    I read Michael’s article with interest. It’s always good to see someone prepared to put their head above the parapet and express strong views. But having worked for nearly a year on the rebranding of the Co-Op to The Co-operative, before this latest iteration, I was a bit nonplussed to see the work which had a very specific goal over 10 years ago simply dismissed as ‘long’ and ‘illiterate’. The team at Lippa Pearce, of which I was part, was given a set of very clear objectives and the resulting brand identity realised what our client set out to not only achieve but measure. It may not have been the most exquisite of solutions but it did go a long way to reinvest the organisation with a coherent movement and business portfolio-wide presence. The fact it all went pear-shaped in the last decade is an indictment of certain individuals not the work. As I said, I like people who express strong opinions but it would occasionally be nice if those who expressed them delved a little deeper into the thinking behind the logo, not to mention the brand.

    • Michael Wolff November 7, 2016 at 10:55 am

      How can anyone deny that the phrase: “The Cooperative Food is anything but illiterate. We’re all capable of poor work Giles, I certainly have been. And that it was based on thorough thinking and effective collaboration doesn’t justify it.

      In the case of the Coop, the long titles were, in my view, cumbersome. The resulting signs so small they were hard to read, and the evidence that the new relaunched and refreshed symbol has suddenly made the Coop visible again after years of virtual disappearance is hard to refute.

  • Jim Kempster October 24, 2016 at 8:34 pm

    As much as I may agree with much of this article, I am disappointed with how vague the article is. The author uses phrases like “I suspect that what happened…most likely…probably” in an argument for a well-managed brand and visual identity, and tosses off logo references without diagrams. I would have appreciated specifics about what did or did not work about the brands in question, the visual interpretations, and the companies’ processes. I would have appreciated being able to use an article like this as a point of discussion with my staff and as guidance to my colleagues, but instead I merely bookmarked it, possibly to quote his brand definition or share the brilliant Charley Barsotti illustration at a later date. (I also think the DesignWeek editors failed the author on this one. Whether he was late for deadline or they were out to lunch, they missed the opportunity review and refine what might have been a substantive article.)

  • Peter Mills October 25, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    I was at an event at the RCA a few years back when Michael was talking about inclusive design. He entreated those there to walk in the shoes of their audiences, something I have endeavoured to do.

    While I am not sure about the practicality of adding a layer of cost in terms of design consultancy that most businesses would be unable to carry, laudable though that is, I certainly can see from the examples he has shown that if the designers and their paymasters had walked in the shoes of their audiences, they will not have designed (and signed-off) what they did.

    Michael points a finger at the commissioning process. The adage goes that you can choose quick, cheap and amazing, but you can only pick two. British Steel, a business with a turnover of £1.2bn, shared its new logo less than two months after the takeover by Greybull and announcing the resurrection of the British Steel name, but, sadly, not its exquisitely crafted logo.

    If I wanted advertising I would go to an advertising agency. If I wanted a brand identity, I’d go to… Yes! You’ve guessed it. Sadly, executives at Addison Lee didn’t know that, it seems.

    As a former employee of NatWest I certainly recall the purpose of the NatWest’s chevrons, but a trick was missed in bringing to the identity what the brand stands for today and could stand for tomorrow rather than half a century ago. The only way banks can truly differentiate is by standing for something meaningful and for this ethos to be translated into amazing customer experiences. Cubes don’t mean anything (and if they do, it’s not apparent). If I were a customer I’d prefer investment in better service than a new logo any day. As a client at the BBC once said to me, “it looks different because it is different”. Anything else is merely lipstick on a pig.

    • Michael Wolff November 7, 2016 at 11:01 am

      Absolutely. The quality of the bus service is far more important the look of the bus stop, but if you can’t find a bus stop easily, as was the case with the Co-op, or the symbols and logotypes are meaningless and trivial, as they are with British Steel and Addison Lee, then nothing is achieved except an indulgent and misguided waste of money and, for designers like me, disappointment.

  • RO October 26, 2016 at 9:45 pm

    You discuss 19 logos but only SHOW 3 in an article about visual media while criticizing several companies for their lack of design competence.

    • Michael Wolff November 7, 2016 at 11:08 am

      Yes.

  • Will Baxter October 31, 2016 at 11:03 am

    I agree with Michael entirely.

    Ironic of course that his surname is associated (he wasn’t involved I might add as he’d sold his shares in the company by then) with the most attrocious logo ever made. London 2012!

    • Michael Wolff November 7, 2016 at 11:06 am

      I wish I had sold them! I left in what was a pretty curt divorce with what I considered to be minimal compensation. Although I still have respect for some of the work and enduring affection for many of the people, especially former colleagues and present leaders, I now prefer to say that Wolff Olins left me rather than the other way around.

  • Tony Vernon November 2, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    I love the use of the swastika and the red cross as examples. Both are thousands of years old. Both appear in diverse, global cultures. Both are exceedingly simple. It is evident they were both nothing more than wallpaper until given broad context.

    My argument would be the examples shown in the article aren’t good, or bad. Those are totally subjective positions. Visual Language™ is the measure of value of all “brand” decisions.

    My favorite brand construct is “Target”, a large American mass marketer. They have been meticulous at creating and maintaining a distinctive language. They blend design, marketing, and product mix while using an identity which is hyper-conservative.

    It isn’t about the logo, but the power of the message supporting it, and the projection of what that symbol represents.

    • Michael Wolff November 7, 2016 at 11:08 am

      I agree with much of what you say, but the logo’s I’ve given as example are, at least in my view, profoundly poor, which is why they prompted the article and why I showed them.

  • Nate Marks November 4, 2016 at 12:09 am

    Wonderfully perceptive article. Compliments from across the pod.

  • Arlette Lee November 11, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Some companies fail to lack originality so intentionally or not come up with a logo very similar to that of an established luxury business. This company would do well to stick with their original logo rather.

  • David Thompson October 23, 2017 at 9:55 am

    I was very interested to read Michael’s views, although it seems to me that there has always been, and always will be, both good and bad examples of brand repositioning.

    What I was less interested in was the punchline… Hire me! I guess every contribution of this nature has an element of self-interest – but even for an industry specific publication like Design Week, this is quite brash.

  • David Thompson October 31, 2017 at 11:57 am

    Is my previous comment a bit too close to the bone??!!..

  • Post a comment

Latest articles