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

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.