European Union's 50th anniversary logo, design by Szymon Skrzypczak, 2006
Late at night, after seeing a particularly vapid, unlikely or just plain idiotic television commercial, I'll often turn to my wife and say, "Can you imagine being in the meeting where that idea was presented?"
I've taken part in a few such meetings myself, especially during a ten-year stint working in advertising. Often a bad idea is made worse in such gatherings, as people attempt to improve on a concept by adding their own needs and biases, layer-upon-layer, until everyone is happy. But such committee solutions cannot overcome the fact that if the original idea is weak, the result is merely a weak idea with everyone's name on it.
Occasionally, the same thing happens in design meetings, especially with logos that, for whatever reason, must represent multiple nationalities, disciplines or facets of an organization. How can one single piece of graphic design be expected to accomodate all of these needs?
Last week, the European Union announced the winner of a logo competition for the Union's 50th Anniversary, celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957 that initiated the European integration process.
The winning entry was designed by Szymon Skrzypczak, a 23 year-old Polish student who won 6,000 euros and beat out 1,700 other student entrants. The goal was to create a logo that "encapsulates the idea of European co-operation...and the future of Europe in particular." Skrzypczak's design "gives a graphic interpretation to the voice of all Europeans, especially the new generations."
So why do I hate this logo so much?
This is what I call Silk Road design: you let each letter represent a particular entity or aspect of an organization, not unlike the cumulative culture acquired along the Silk Road from China to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. This design model is instantly recognizable because it always looks like what it is design by committee, design that addresses (too many) multiple interests.
Ransom typography by Darren P. Millar, 2006
It is easy to rationalize this kind of mix-and-match typography against the backdrop of design history. It is in evidence in everything from the hyperbolic drama of 19th-century broadsides to the schizophrenic whimsy of the Futurists "parole in liberta" to David Carson's Raygun, April Grieman post-modernism or any of a number of examples from British Punk graphics. Michael Bierut has referred to such logos as "ransom note typography" (an accurate, if slightly chilling physical description), while younger designers might simply chalk it up to the same sort of "mash-up" mystique that characterizes everything from multiple fonts on a poster to mismatched clothes on a runway. Anything goes, so everything goes. Or does it?
Protest sign for Red Rag by Robert Corr, 2005
Another piece of Silk Road Typography's provenance comes from the raw, unedited aesthetic of the city, as seen in those playful store signs documented so flawlessly by Herbert Spenser's Typographica back in the 1950s and 1960s: here, you get a sense of designer's seeing, for the first time, the richness of "the street." The vernacular, such as it was, owed quite a bit to all those found signs: like children's blocks, they quickly became letters to be pulled apart and reconstructed into something novel, eventually migrating into logos that could cheerfully service a new postwar economy, a new kind of pluralistic culture.
Book cover design by Chermayeff & Geismar, 1961
Finally, the source that most readily comes to mind is the work of Chermayeff & Geismar. Perhaps it started in the 1960s with Ivan Chermayeff's outstanding cover for the book The Art of Assemblage. However, the idea of a word constructed of variegated letters, so integral to the subject of this particular book cover, would appear again and again in Chermayeff & Geismar's work and not always with the same successful results. There are logos for Brentano's, Truc, Museum of Contemporary Art (and the Temporary Contemporary), First New York International Festival of the Arts and the Downtown Alliance all of which play with a variety of letterforms to form a single logo.
Banner for New York Public Library centennial, design by Chermayeff & Geismar, 1995
Logo for New York Public Library centennial, design by Chermayeff & Geismar, 1995
The ne plus ultra of this direction, though, came with Chermayeff & Geismar's logo for the 100th anniversary of the New York Public Library in 1995. Here, the subtext might have gone something like this. We've got a letter for each and every constituency. We don't just have old books, we're digital. Our heritage is not only cut in stone, it's pixilated. We're not just William Morris, we're Reuters. And we're online @ NYPL 24/7. While I deeply respect the work of Chermayeff & Geismar, I remember feeling particularly troubled with this logo as the chosen mascot for the centennial of such a venerable New York institution.
As a work of graphic design, it has a cheerful countenance. Yet it takes all that's rich and complicated about this institution's history and offers a quick fix: if logos were food, this would be tapas. This is the Silk Road at its worst: a kind of PC 1990s where each and every interest has to be fairly represented a letter for every voice. The result is Babel, seven discordant voices singing in the wind. The same is true for the new logo for the European Union's 50th anniversary: it's inclusive, colorful and spirited. There is the playful spray-painted letter to symbolize youth, the ® mark to encompass commerce, and sufficient accents and umlauts to symbolize international cooperation. These are nice strategic goals, but not qualities that can be counted upon to create a great logo, a recognizable and memorable mark.
Oboist Jaime Gonzalez and kayagum player Jihyun Kim, Silk Road Project concert. Photograph by Bruno le Hir de Fallois, 2001
Recently, my family was fortunate enough to see Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project at Carnegie Hall, debuting a collection of new works by international composers, (with Chinese, Balinese and Korean inspiration) performed by musicians from as many countries playing both ancient and modern instruments. There's something about music, as an international language, that allows for a natural fusion of cultures into something new and original and modern. Graphic design, in general (and logo design, in particular) faces rather a different problem: how to distill singular voices into an blended, coordinated whole? It seems possible, even likely that multiple-choice letterforms, as static, representative tokens of individual agendas, sing rather a different tune one that almost defies the kind of symphonic integration we appreciate, at least in an orchestral setting. Just think about it: accents, umlauts and ® signs in a single logo? Can you imagine being in the meeting where that idea was presented?