Archive for the ‘semiotics’ Category

Being too literal in logo design

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Cross posted from my other blog:

In one of my lectures, on visual communication, I use a little exercise to illustrate an aspect of semiotics.

I give the students a brief: they are to design a logo for a law firm that specialises in family law, dealing with families who are facing some form of legal entanglement. I tell them they have two minutes to come up with an idea.
Two minutes later I stop them and ask them all to stand up. I then start eliminating them by saying things like “sit down if you drew a police badge”. That usually gets rid of about half. A gavel gets rid of several more, as do jail bars, a law book, a police light and so on.
Before long we’re down to the last few students and I can usually get rid of them too with ‘hands’ or ‘cut out people’. I also eliminate anyone who used just words or initials (words aren’t so bad of course, I’m just being mean, but initials for firms always bemuse me – IBM and a few others aside, of course).

If there’s anyone left standing it’s either because I’ve missed a really obvious one (last year it was a bird, this year it was a court house) or because they’ve done something quite abstract – this year it was a square with four circles around it. Nice one. We have a winner.

(Just remembered, Orlando Weeks now of The Maccabees, “won” this a few years ago when he did a logo of “a unicorn jumping over a rainbow”. Mmm…)

The point I’m trying to make in that exercise, other than it being a bit of a break from them listening to me drone on, is that when faced with a quick challenge like that, students (everyone) tend to to think not in cliches (I happen to think cliches are good things – they’re how we communicate) but in too literal a sense. The last thing, I say, someone who is facing juvenile court on a shoplifting charge wants to see is a logo for a lawyer that screams “you’re going to jail!”.
Look at supermarkets – how many of them have logos that show a basket of shopping? (I seem to be the only one who thinks the Lidl logo looks like someone pushing a trolley)


I came up with this little game (which makes more sense in the context of the lecture than it does here) a few years ago when some graphic design students at a previous job were asked by a local law firm to come up with a logo for a similar brief. The winner was a half open door with light coming through it. The tutor loved it, the clients loved it. I hated it. They thought it said “there is hope”. I thought it said “you’re doomed”. But then, that’s me for you.
It did, however, make me look anew at logos to try to find the overly literal. And while there are a few, they’re pretty rare and almost universally poor. I won’t link to any here – look for yourself you lazy git.

All of which brings me to something that amused me. A couple of years ago, after I’d done this exercise with them, some students came in to my office with something they’d found in the Yellow Pages. An ad for a law firm which fell in to exactly the trap I’d laid for them (click on the image for a larger version). I think this is a pretty amazing/bad piece of advertising – I’ll have to add prison tattoos to my list for next year’s lecture.

Lawyer ad.jpeg

Spot the difference

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008


Yes, that’s right. There’s a disembodied knee in the bottom picture.

What the New Yorker teaches us about visual literacy

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Richard Adams on the New Yorker cover ‘scandal’ makes a valid point:

John McCain can say that he doesn’t know much about economics and later deny it flatly, then have one of his top economic advisors say it will take one term for a McCain presidency to balance the budget, only to turn on a dime and say it will take two term, and almost nothing of it gets reported in the media. But hey, Jesse Jackson gets overheard using the word ‘nuts’ and it’s time to break out the ink.

If that’s what the ‘mainstream’ news media can do when left to their own devices, a cartoon is nothing.

Seems to me, as one of the commenters on this article says, this is another example (like the ‘nuts’ episode) of the media reporting on itself rather than on the stories.

But it also suggests something else: when we start summing up complex issues in illustrated form the scope for misunderstanding is huge.
At the New Views conference it was asked why critiques of design have to rely on words, why can’t we use design? (Similar arguments are made in favour of letting students create ‘visual dissertations’) Because writing depends on redundancy – it contains clauses, clarifications, opportunities to go off on tangents or rehearse devil’s advocate positions. Create a design to critique a design and you can’t guarantee that the message will be decoded correctly. The irony here is that I’ve just read several thousand words explaining what the New Yorker cartoon is supposed to be saying.

I think the New Yorker cover is a brave attempt to highlight the way the media and others pick apart minutae like the Obamas’ fist bump, unpicking images (often because there’s not really enough real news to fill a 24 hour news ‘culture’) but falls foul of precisely the same problems: images have no redundancy. The article that accompanies the cartoon is a few thousand words long and makes it clear what it is saying. The cartoon has no words and is consequently translated differently depending on who reads it, or (importantly in this case) reads about it. If the cover had instead been a cartoon alongside the article it might have made sense. As a cover, it doesn’t and simply exacerbates the problem it seeks to analyse.

Barthes famously said that images are polysemous, they have multiple meanings. Text, he said, fixes meaning.
I don’t think we’ve yet reached a level of visual literacy (or ever will?) where images like this can be divorced from the textual context.

‘Modern’ Arabic typefaces

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

A couple of years ago a Korean student of mine explained to me how the Korean writing system worked – it was very ordered and logical and made a lot of sense. I noticed she had a few tourist leaflets with her for Brighton and London, in Korean, and that the typefaces were quite different on each. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that you could have serif, sans serif, modern and antique Korean typefaces before (because I’d never really thought about it) and I began to realise that I’d only ever seen ‘foreign’ type on documents intended for western audiences -hence Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic always looked ‘traditional’ (the way ‘ye olde’ English is always rendered in illegible Germanic type, I suppose.)

Anyway, the world of non-western typography is a rich one worth looking in to. Gill Sans for Chinese? Helvetica for Urdu?

The image above is from an interesting project, the Khatt Network for Arabic Typography:

The Typographic Matchmaking project was initiated by the Khatt Foundation (Amsterdam), in April 2005. The Khatt Foundation selected and invited five renown Dutch designers and matched each one of them with an established and upcoming Arab designer.

The aim was to facilitate a collaboration bewteen the Dutch and Arab designers in order to design Arabic typefaces that match and can become part of the font family of one of the Dutch designers’ existing font families. The main thrust of the project is to address the modernisation of Arabic text faces that can provide design solutions for legible Arabic fonts that answer the contemporary design needs in the Arab world (namely for publications and new digital media applications).

This project raises some interesting issues, in particular the one of how the symbolism of an ‘exotic’ or ‘alien’ language rendered in an ‘exotic’ or ‘alien’ way contributes to the alienation of the community that uses it. (The matter of ‘modernisation’ might also be another issue for some.)

Could rendering Arabic in western typefaces really be such a simple way of breaking down cultural barriers? It’s an interesting idea.

What does ‘Save the Children’ do?

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

The British design group Johnson Banks have been working on an interesting project for Save the Children.

The basic problem faced by the client was that, despite the name, no one really knows what they do. Added to that, their corporate identity is a little, er, dull, and their corporate guidelines are quite strict about the use of Gill Sans as their typeface. (Guidelines do that – that’s the whole point – but the problem here is that they maybe take ‘corporate’ too far, and make the charity appear less than friendly).

The idea they came up with was to give outlines of the font, in several weights, to children to get them to fill them in. Then the best were chosen, digitised, and are now being used in Save the Children publicity – the guidelines are adhered to, but with a little creativity they also manage to make Save the Children a little bit more childlike without being childish.

Here are some images from the project. You can see the whole story at Johnson Banks’s blog (which is worth subscribing to). Of note is the fact that they had to get permission from Monotype, who ‘own’ Gill Sans, to treat the typeface in this way.

Chewing Gum Wars

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

From the BBC’s Money Programme site comes this article about the chewing gum market, and the recent entry in to the UK of Cadbury’s new ‘Trident’ Brand.

NB The programme on which this article is based was broadcast on BBC2 on Friday 25 May 2007.

See also ‘Big Gum Battle’ and ‘Gum campaign branded racist’.

Chewing gum is at the centre of a retail battle between Wrigley, the dominant player in Britain for decades, and Cadbury, the world’s biggest confectionary company. At stake is the £250m a year the British spend on gum.

Cadbury launched four Trident products in Britain in February. They appeared on newsagents shelves alongside the 32 gum products sold by Wrigley.

Cadbury’s campaign hit the headlines two months later when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned its TV advertisement for Trident featuring a “dub poet” enthusing about Trident on stage in a nightclub.

The ASA received more than 500 complaints that the ad was racist in its stereotyping of the over-excited, Jamaican-style character.

Now Cadbury Trebor Bassett’s managing director, Simon Baldry, tells the Money Programme that he wants to apologise for the advert.

“It was never our intention to offend anyone,” he says.

“If we have offended people then clearly we would like to apologise for that.”

But he denies the campaign was intended to stir up controversy.

“Let me be very clear, controversy was never part of launching this brand. Many consumers love this ad and it’s been a great vehicle for us to communicate to the nation about a great new gum experience.”

Fun race

Five years ago, Cadbury bought into gum with its purchase of Adams, an American gum company, which, like Wrigley, has its roots in the 19th Century.

Adams products, such as Trident, Dentyne and Certs, were big sellers in the US and elsewhere, but were not sold in Britain.

The attraction of Adams for Cadbury was that gum sales are growing at three times the rate of chocolate, a Cadbury staple.

Changing tastes key to gum war

But the UK was a market out of step with global growth.

“Britain had been chewing below its weight,” says Cadbury’s Director of Global Gum, Jim Cali. Here, gum sales had actually fallen by 4% in the past two years.

Wrigley says it anticipated Cadbury’s move into its territory. “We’ve been expecting it for a number of years, since they’ve been buying gum companies around the world,” says Gharry Eccles, managing director of Wrigley UK.

And Mr Eccles says he would relish the prospect of increased competition.

“If you’re running a race, running it on your own is actually no fun,” he says.

“When you’re running against someone it becomes a whole new ball game, and a lot more fun.”

Pleasure and indulgence

Cadbury does not appear to have been harmed by its controversial campaign.

According to the latest market figures from AC Neilsen, Trident is taking a 12.5% share of the market, leaving Wrigley with a still-dominant 86.3%.

The good news for both companies is that the £12m total gum market is up almost 20% on this time last year and Wrigley itself has grown its sales by 5%, with new products such as Orbit Complete.

Both companies have been seeking to differentiate themselves.

Cadbury wants to stress how it is bringing its confectionary experience to the chewing gum business.

“Pleasure and indulgence is what we know best,” declares Mr Baldry.

“It’s our expertise in our total confectionary field, and we’re bringing that to the gum category too.”

Agrees Mr Cali: “Gum is fun.”

Health benefits?

Wrigley is anxious not to be painted as the functional alternative to the indulgence of Cadbury, but nevertheless has set up a research programme under the title The Wrigley Science Institute.

Based in Chicago, its head, Gilbert Leveille, sponsors research at universities around the world, looking for health benefits of chewing gum.

So far, they have established that gum can help reduce tooth decay, but have yet to confirm some of the newer claims, such as that chewing during learning can improve memory.

Mr Leveille is hopeful, explaining that “chewing gum increases blood flow to the brain very significantly, and that could be a plausible explanation for why some of these mental benefits seem to be associated with chewing gum”.

The irony is that Trident, whose name in Britain today reminds people of missiles rather than mastication, was originally named in the 1960’s because it contained three ingredients that were supposed to be good for your teeth – hence “tri-dent”.

Fighting litter

For all the competition between the two companies, on the question of chewing gum litter, Wrigley and Cadbury are united.

Both companies want to keep regulation at bay and are cooperating with a government initiative to control litter.

Under the auspices of Defra (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), the companies are represented on the so-called Chewing Gum Action Group.

The Group, with a budget of £600,000 provided by the manufacturers, helps local authorities publicise anti-gum litter messages.

Defra minister Ben Bradshaw is responsible for dealing with the litter problem, and says his department has been “working very closely with the chewing gum manufacturers”.

Mr Bradshaw accepts the manufacturers’ argument that the problem lies with consumers, rather than being the direct responsibility of chewing gum makers.

“We don’t want to penalise a legal product that the public enjoy, but we want to try and change people’s behaviour when they use that product,” he says.

But anti-gum campaigners such as Westminster Councillor Alan Bradley, are unimpressed, describing the Defra group as “dancing to the manufacturers’ tune”.

He points to a similar group in Ireland that has a higher budget per capita, and will be active in all local authorities, rather than in just the 15 a year in the UK that the Defra group is targeting.

There is no sign of a limit to the global consumption of gum. Indeed, Wrigley’s sales worldwide are up by almost 30% in its latest figures.

When William Wrigley settled on gum as the way to make his fortune in Chicago at the end of the 19th Century, he had no idea that the brands he created – Juicy Fruit, Spearmint and Doublemint – would still be growing, more than a century later.