Letraset and Mute Records

Letraset user, 1978

Letraset user, 1978

Some products are inextricably infused with nostalgia. Letraset is one of them. Sheets of film that would be rubbed with the end of a pencil to give way to beautifully formed letters—as long as you had a steady hand and the patience of a saint.

Letraset launched its dry-transfer lettering system in 1961, and graphic designers and architects embraced it with gusto. But so did amateur bedroom publishers, where Letraset became de rigueur for music fanzines and school magazines.

Simon Garfield, author of Just My Type: A Book About Fonts and an early adopter of the technology, writes, “The range included all the standard popular fonts, but there was a sort of anarchic freedom to the wilder designs, something indelibly linked to the 1960s and ’70s, and now much used in retro branding.”

Mute Records first release in 1978 by The Normal, T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette

Mute Records first release in 1978 by The Normal, T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette. Image courtesy Discogs.

With their DIY philosophy, young punk rockers embraced Letraset for their gig posters and record sleeves. One interesting example is the 1978 Mute Records logo, its “walking man” plucked from a Letraset sheet of architectural symbols. Daniel Miller formed Mute Records as a vehicle to release his own single, “T.V.O.D.”/”Warm Leatherette,” under the moniker The Normal. The label, once home to Depeche Mode and Erasure, continues today—with Mr. Miller as its executive chairman—under the EMI banner.

Letraset history courtesy BBC News
Mute Records history courtesy Ibiza Voice

Arro French Restaurant

Chef behind 24 Diner and Easy Tiger brings French-country restaurant Arro to West Sixth Street

Arro French Restaurant, Austin, logo

The Arro logo takes its inspiration from Bayer’s aspirin tablet (apparently)

Opening July 20, 2013 in Austin, Texas, is a casual French restaurant from the ELM Restaurant Group (24 Diner, Easy Tiger). Chef Drew Curren and his group have had great success with their mash-up bakery/artisan sausage/beer garden Easy Tiger on East Sixth Street downtown, and round-the-clock 24 Diner on Lamar Boulevard next to Waterloo Records.

They enter the world of French bistro food this week with Arro, located in between their two existing restaurants, at 601 West Sixth Street in the old Haddington’s location. The restaurant, which has undergone a transformation to open up the previously compartmentalized space, will open Saturday.

Arro French Restaurant, Austin, Texas

Their Facebook page displays some impressive branding imagery, including hand-brushed calligraphy (seen above) and the elegant script channel letter signage on the building (below).

Arro French Restaurant, Austin, Texas

Courtesy Austin360 and Austin Eater

Arro French Restaurant
601 West Sixth Street, Austin, Texas 78701
(512) 992-2776

The stories behind automaker logos

BMW's emblem denotes propellers against a blue skyThe How Stuff Works website recently posted an interesting article about automaker logos and the stories behind them. Many of the histories I was already familiar with, but many of them were surprising. For instance, I got that the Acura “A” is a caliper, a tool that suggests “precision engineering.” And that several badges feature coats of arms (Alfa, Buick, Cadillac, and Porsche). I was also aware that BMW’s center represents airplane propellers. But I was pleased to discover that the Chevrolet “bowtie” was inspired by French wallpaper.

Browse the article to find your favorites, though some—Ford and VW, in particular—chose not to participate. However, I can reliably report that Ford uses a variation of the hand-lettered script developed in 1912 for use on its Model “T” badge.

Starbucks changes logo

Starbucks logos through the yearsIn March Starbucks will celebrate its 40th anniversary and rollout a “new” logo  (not actually new—a stripping away of the word ring, leaving the familiar siren unchanged but now in green).

Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ chairman and CEO, writes in an announcement on the company’s website, “we’ve given her a small but meaningful update to ensure that the Starbucks brand continues to embrace our heritage in ways that are true to our core values and that also ensure we remain relevant and poised for future growth.” By removing text from the logo, “international ubiquity”  and an exploration into non-coffee business ventures must have been listed on the team’s creative brief. But overall, reaction from the rank and file has not been positive. A typical comment on the site reads, “This gold card user isn’t impressed!”

Mike Peck, senior creative manager at Starbucks and his creative team admitted modifying the brand identity “was the project of a lifetime.” The logo was broken down into four main parts—color, shape, typeface and the siren. Peck and his team found the answer in simplicity.

In 1971, the company began selling coffee beans and spices in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. By 1992, the company became publicly traded.

Scion vs. Sinclair

Compare logos of Scion and SinclairLeave it to a 14-year-old to point out to this “experienced” designer that automaker Scion has a logo very similar to the Sinclair computer, marketed to Americans in the early-1980s by Timex. He ought to know, he is my son—a gifted computer programmer—well-schooled with vintage computing devices. As of this writing, design bloggers have yet to take notice of the resemblance. While the Scion designer did add a nifty bit of flair by rounding the edges, the similarity is unmistakable.

I reckon my son has made a true discovery—and uncovered either an homage to a great-looking logo from the past, or a case of another sneaky corporate design rip-off.

As an ironic aside, Sinclair’s founder, Clive Sinclair, boldly told the Guardian UK, “I don’t use a computer at all!”

Urban Outfitters’ new “branding”

Urban Outfitters websiteHot on the heels of the Gap’s infamous lazy logo redesign (since withdrawn) comes another epic fail, Urban Outfitters. Usually reliable for being ahead of trends in clothing design, merchandising and communication, the apparel giant unveiled a clunky new look for its logo and website. The logo is a masterpiece of asymmetry and plainness, while the website’s sidebar navigation willfully mixes extended and condensed typefaces. Many critics have cited the logo’s similarity with Word Art examples found inside Microsoft’s Office suite, enabling amateurs everywhere to curve and bend type to create their own corporate logotype.

I would bet that by year’s end there will be an “emergency” logo design revamp, because this dog won’t hunt!

Since this was posted, UO has changed to a similarly bizarre branding scheme—at least for its website. This time round, clearly the same retail marketing team are conjuring 1991 with all its dots and squiggles. What do you think? Leave a comment below…

Urban Outfitters 2013 home page

Aol. Struggling to remain relevant

AOL "blue monster" logoAOL’s late-2009 corporate logotype redesign was its first move away from former parent company, Time Warner. The new logo is simply “Aol.”—upper and lowercase, and with a period, as if to state that it is the last word in online content—set in a sans serif typeface (perhaps a slightly tweaked Futura Bold?), and “revealed” through different backgrounds (the “blue monster” shown above being an example). Designed by Wolff Olins, the letterform remains fixed while the background will change continuously by the hundreds, ostensibly symbolizing AOL’s commitment to changing content. Other backgrounds include a headbanger rock fan, a fish, a beetle, a leaf, and a woman’s shoe. (Visit AOL’s site and click “Refresh Page” at the top navigation to see it in action.)

Maureen Marquess, chief of staff at AOL in New York, is wrestling with the monumental task of making the AOL service relevant again, as “having an AOL account” is seen as a nostalgic reminder of the early days of the Internet. “We have to give people a reason to care again” about AOL, Ms. Marquess said. The designer in me admits relief for the retirement of AOL’s frozen-in-time triangle logo. But despite the press release mapping the complex thought process behind the redesign, about remaining “flexible” while AOL sorts out exactly what services it wishes to provide, it is difficult for a critic to get past the laziness of the rebranding. I am immediately reminded of the children’s cable television network developed in the 1980s, Nickelodeon, who employed changing orange backgrounds (a blimp, a dog bone, a splat) with the “Nickelodeon” mark knocked out in white. Whether viewed in a promo spot or seen on a child’s toy, the logo was instantly recognizable in all of its guises.

However, an effective brand must start with an instantly-recognizable symbol—the brand identifier—to provide profound meaning. I doubt adding a colorful fish behind the simple typesetting of “Aol.” will help to allay the brand’s woes.

The logo is (not) in the bag

Bottega Veneta handbagAre you a patrician, parvenu, poseur, or prole? Old money or new money? A recent study by the USC Marshall School of Business examines levels of wealth, social status, and wealthy consumers’ desire to associate with those in their own caste. After studying preferences of luxury goods, the authors sorted consumers into four categories according to the subjects’ affinity for “loud” goods or “quiet” goods. The categories are:

  • Patricians — wealthy consumers who prefer quiet goods that only other wealthy can recognize. (The $2,000 Bottega Veneta handbag shown above is an example; the logo appears only on the inside.)
  • Parvenus — wealthy consumers who desire status and flaunt loud luxury goods in the face of the less affluent. (Many Gucci products sport screaming logos, as do Louis Vuitton’s.)
  • Poseurs — consumers who can’t afford luxury goods, yet buy counterfeit luxury goods to “emulate those who they recognize to be wealthy” (e.g., that “Rolex” watch offered for sale by the man on the sidewalk.)
  • Proletarians — those “not driven to consume for status’ sake”

These findings will present challenges for marketers of luxury goods. USC’s study reveals that shrieking designer logos may actually reflect a lower price point than their more subtle counterparts. The authors call upon manufacturers to develop subtle cues to distinguish the brand, such as Gucci’s use of bamboo rather than its insignia. Also, ubiquity may in fact tarnish the brand and promote loss in value. And finally, the study recommends marketers resist the “pyramid” approach to luxury and to consider marketing to all consumers.

“Off-the-shelf” logos

Your Name HereThe recent concept of prêt-à-porter or “shelf” logos involves the online offering of pre-designed corporate logos with exclusive ownership (i.e., the logo design may not be resold). A few companies have cloned the online business model, but the geniuses at South Africa-based LogoAnts.com appear to have perfected it, offering clean, perhaps generic-looking logos for those with a small budget. The customer browses categories such as swoosh, Christian, building, 3D, etc., then adds its organization’s name to its choice. Clearly, target industries are small-time entrepreneurs, startups, builders, and churches. Despite claims made to the contrary by the manufacturer, most of these logos are forgettable. But it’s hard to fault business owners wanting to explore these options, as the prices are astonishingly low (shelf logos start at $99!).

Pundits will argue that one’s logo should be a unique symbol of the brand and the people behind it, and working one-on-one with a graphic designer is the only way to achieve superior results. Indeed, some sites do offer graphic design consultation, and LogoAnts.com offers custom logo design services from $179. Professional graphic design firms specializing in corporate branding should prepare to lose a share of its smaller clients tempted by these budget services. And maybe, it will spur professional designers to produce stronger creativity (and avoid clichés).