Company logos aim for the personal touch
BY ALICE RAWSTHORN
LONDON — Anyone braving the hordes of Ayia Napa-bound batchelorette parties and tearful toddlers thronging Gatwick Airport today might find it hard to believe that London's second largest airport was once hailed as a model of modern design. But back in the late 1950s, Gatwick was renowned in design circles for the intelligence and ingenuity of its graphic design.
Every element of Gatwick's late 1950s graphics was designed to be as clear as possible. The signage, developed by the British designer Jock Kinneir, was meticulously planned and positioned to ensure that Gatwick's passengers, many of who were first-time fliers, could always tell where they were and where to go in the labyrinthine, often confusing airport buildings. All of the typefaces chosen for the signs and Gatwick's logo were modernist in style. Each letter and number was clean and uncluttered in shape so that it could be read quickly and easily, even by people who were hurrying to catch their flights.
The system was so effective that you can still spot its influence at airports, railway stations and shopping malls all over the world. But Gatwick itself now sports a logo that could not be more different in style from the one chosen in the late 1950s. The word ''Gatwick'' is depicted in ''handwritten'' letters, as if it were someone's signature, in the new logo, which looks as though it belongs to a 1930s hat shop, not a frenzied modern airport.
Gatwick isn't the only company to have recently adopted a logo in that style. Little Chef, the British chain of roadside restaurants, has done so too. Like Gatwick, it has picked a ''handwritten'' font to replace the spruce, Modernist-style of lettering that has dominated corporate identity design for decades.
Signature logos aren't new. Many of the earliest corporate symbols were handwritten, or looked as though they were, especially ones belonging to companies that dealt directly with the public. Up until the late 19th century, most people bought goods from local suppliers, shopkeepers or artisans whom they knew personally. Even tinkers and traveling salesmen tended to be familiar to their customers because they returned to the same routes.
Once companies started shipping their goods farther afield on the expanding network of roads and railways, they needed to find ways of persuading people they might never meet to trust them. A logical solution was to help their customers to recognize their products by literally branding them with the company's name or symbol.
Some organizations chose emblems in a heraldic style to evoke the power and authority of a coat of arms. Mercedes-Benz's three-pronged star is an example, so is the ''meatball'' motif of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, in which a spacecraft orbits a cluster of planets in the night sky. But others tried to replicate the intimacy of traditional local trading by emblazoning their products with a signature, so it looked as if someone, generally their founders, had personally endorsed them.
In some cases the signature was genuine. When W.K. Kellogg started the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1906, he found himself competing against 42 other local cereal makers. Mr. Kellogg printed his signature on each packet of his Toasted Corn Flakes to distinguish them from the competition. The Kellogg Company (as it was renamed in 1922) has used slightly modified versions of that signature as its logo ever since.
Other companies like Coca-Cola chose fictitious signatures. Its original recipe was concocted in 1886 by Dr. John Pemberton, a wounded army veteran turned pharmacist in Atlanta, who was hoping to sell it as a headache cure. When it went on sale at a local soda fountain, his bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, suggested calling it Coca-Cola, inspired by two of its ingredients, coca leaf extract and cola nuts. He also wrote out the name in the then-fashionable ornate style of lettering called Spencerian Script.
Like Kellogg, Coca-Cola still uses a variation of its original signature logo, but most companies abandoned theirs years ago. By the mid-20th century, ''handwritten'' fonts not only looked old-fashioned, but lacked the clarity of the individual letters in modernist-style logos like those of I.B.M. and American Airlines.
Why have signature logos become popular again? The main reason is that their owners' aspirations have changed. Fifty years ago, companies like I.B.M. and American Airlines wanted to look like powerful, efficient international operations. These days we associate those qualities with bland globalization, and businesses like Gatwick Airport and Little Chef prefer to create the impression of being distinctive, idiosyncratic and sensitive to customers' needs.
Gatwick and Little Chef are pursuing new strategies under new owners, and they briefed their design consultancies — Lewis Moberly for Gatwick and Venturethree for Little Chef — to develop new identities reflecting those qualities. They wanted to convey what Jeremy Fletcher, brand communications manager at Gatwick, called ''the personal touch,'' just as Kellogg and Coca-Cola did over a century ago.
Signature logos tend not to appeal to design purists, who consider them to be sentimental, even cheesy, but they do look friendly and welcoming. There is a downside though: poor legibility. Digital printing technology is so precise that the new ''handwritten'' fonts look clearer than their predecessors, but they are still harder to read than separate characters, especially on computer and phone screens.
Gatwick and Little Chef each tested different forms of their new logos for legibility. Gatwick was particularly concerned about the clarity of its new symbol when stitched into the fabric of staff uniforms, and Little Chef is still trying to make its logo look clearer on the pole signs outside its restaurants.
''Those signs are massively important to the business,'' said Stuart Watson, creative director of Venturethree. ''A lot of people make an instant decision to go to a Little Chef when they see them. But you can't read a signature font like this clearly at distance or speed. We've tested it, and it doesn't work. But it feels so right in every other way that we'll try to solve the problem.'' ◼
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