Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
United Status of America
It's extraordinary how post-war American corporate identity embedded itself into the culture.
For the citizens of the United States the 1950s and 1960s were not simply a period of incredible prosperity, despite emerging from a multi-billion-dollar war, but also incredible technology. Massively wealthy companies fed and fed from a consumer boom, creating a virtuous circle that was unbroken for decades. Indeed poised, as this time was, in opposition to a radically different philosophy in the Soviet Union, the US government had a stake in keeping it so, and made its own contribution.
All this was distilled by designers Charles and Ray Eames into Glimpses of the USA, a multi-screen experience created for the American exhibition in Moscow in 1959. A kaleidoscope of seductive consumerist imagery produced a kind of benign brainwashing, a positive version of the Parallax Test sequence that would, years later, signal the end of the innocence when it featured in The Parallax View, Alan J Pakula’s dazzling indictment of corporate/government conspiracy released in 1974.
But before that, American corporations reached gently into the hearts, minds and pocket books of the fifty one states, and their logos became as familiar as consumers’ own signatures.
And without in any way discounting the excellent work of, say, Massimo Vignelli (New York Subway signage, American Airlines’ eagle), it is astonishing how many of the very best American corporate logos from these years originated with just three men: Saul Bass, Raymond Loewy and Paul Rand.
Only the French-born Loewy actually designed products – a huge range, from locomotives to cars to pencil sharpeners – but Bass’s work on film title sequences and posters and Rand’s covers and layouts for magazines ensured all had involvement in designing the widest aspects of American life.
This article, which mostly lets the images do the talking, sets out three examples of logos by each. The differences and similarities are fascinating.
Many demonstrate the impact of the three-letter abbreviation that comprises the client’s name, perhaps a subconscious nod to the name of the country itself; others rely on shape and symbol. One uses only the client’s name.
Rand often favoured the universality of the circle as a basic form – see also his logos for Yale University Press and Westinghouse. Bass, too, used circles frequently, as well as more angular forms but still with softened corners. Loewy, though, moved freely across geometries, possibly arising from his maturity (a Frank Lloyd Wright-like career that began with refrigerators and ended with space station interiors for NASA) and extensive pre-war practice.
The logos are presented here in monochrome. This might be considered a little perverse. In many cases it undermines the carefully-considered messages conveyed by the designers’ colour choices, such as the blue and red in United Airlines, the green tree in Spar and the colour that gave Big Blue (IBM) its nickname. But it does allow the pure geometry of each to show through. And importantly it makes little difference to their recognition value; all would have been designed to work equally well in black and white.
One indulgence is to tell you my favourite: UPS, arguably one of the best company logos ever designed. The shield connotes strength and solidity and trustworthiness, but this is brilliantly tempered by the lower-case lettering and the homeliness of a parcel tied with string, an image even a child would respond to.
Taken together, these logos represent most of the business areas that drove the phenomenal expansion of the American dream after the war: computing, telephony, air travel, oil and gasoline, communications, supermarkets. One obvious omission is defence, another, its close ally, aerospace.
But shown here are the corporations that became as synonymous with the USA as Liberty, the dollar and Old Glory, thanks to the triple brand of Bass Loewy Rand.
Saul Bass (1920-1996):
Bell 1969 United Airlines 1973 Warner Communications 1972
Paul Rand (1914 –1996):
American Broadcasting Company International Business Machines United Parcel Service (UPS) 1961
(ABC) 1962 (IBM) 1972, from Rand’s 1956 original
Raymond Loewy (1893-1986):
Shell 1971 Exxon 1966, implemented 1972 Spar 1966
Images copyright/trademark their respective owners and sourced from:
Bell (uploadimages4free.com) UA (larryfire.wordpress.com) Warner (thetechherald.com)
abc (bubblecalendar.com) IBM (enterprise.mtu.edu) UPS (designlessbetter.com)
Shell (toomuchquestions.wordpress.com) Exxon (bdb-dismantling.co.uk) Spar(betterretailing.com)