August 6, 2013 8:33:45 AM
There is no more concentrated form of human communication than a trademark. Symbols like the Golden Arches, the script of Coca-Cola, the swoosh of Nike communicate (and often do it without words or letters) not only the name of the company, but emotions connected with the company and its products. You see hundreds of trademarks every day, and so does almost everyone else worldwide (and even if letters and words are used, the trademark symbolism transcends language barriers). Fifteen years ago, design consultant Per Mollerup brought out a volume about trademarks, and now it is enlarged and expanded in a second edition, Marks of Excellence: The History and Taxonomy of Trademarks (Phaidon). Large format, with illustrations on every page, this is a graphic text as befits its subject; but Mollerup has included text and notes about the origins, semiotics, purpose, and more, of trademarks. The marks themselves are the show, and the book is a satisfying display of graphic design.
Trademarks are so universal, Mollerup says, that kids can look at the logo and say "Coca-Cola" before they can read, and adults can read the logo faster than they can read the words typed out. Trademarks are visual identifiers permitting fast identification. They also allude to the nature of the product or the manufacturer; a Jaguar car wears a jaguar trademark to suggest speed. Although lots has been written about the legal status and protection of trademarks (and written for diverse laws in different countries), the vast stacks of legal tomes are barely touched upon here. This is rather an appreciation of trademarks and how they do their business.
Why mark objects? Perhaps the first such marks were simply for ownership: "This is my adze (and hands off)." Branding is covered here, with a picture from an Egyptian tomb of 1900 BC, and an ox whose flank sports a hieroglyphic brand, "Royal Agricultural Administration, 43." There is a two-page spread of American picture brands as applied to cattle which are "humorous, sentimental, illustrative, or risque." Another page shows how domestic animals were given earmarking and tattooing for the same purpose. Marking things with coats-of-arms did something more; a knight covered by armor could himself be identified from his arms, and the marks placed him within his family and society. You can get a quick guide to heraldry and its delightful symbolism and vocabulary; to separate two divisions on a coat-of-arms, for instance, you might have a straight line between them, but also the line could be wavy, invected, embattled, dovetailed, rayonne, and more. Coats-of-arms have been incorporated into modern trademarks; Porsche and BP have a trademark in the shape of a shield, and the shield-shaped Chevron trademark has chevrons on it with which any herald would be familiar.
Marks which do not denote ownership or identity are the main ones in this book; they show origin. The urge to put some sort of maker's mark on things goes back to craftsmen like stonemasons or furniture makers. Roman lamps are an example of early industrial production. Manufacturers like Straboli or Fortis would stamp their names at the bottom of a lamp, and Mollerup says, "Lamps carrying their trademarks are found in the most distant corners of the Roman Empire. It is also possible, however, that trademarks were widely copied; there was no legal protection for trademarks at that time." Gold and silver in England have borne hallmarks since the fourteenth century. A hallmark was a stamped mark from the Goldsmith's Hall in London, and it indicated purity of metal and date, as well as the mark of the individual maker.
The section on semiotics is pretty dense, with its discourse on such things as channels, formats, the transport of meaning, and so on. Mollerup succeeds in keeping a lightness when he can. "In terms of semiotics," he writes, "a motivated mark is one that is understood without strong convention. You do not need much learning to know that a fish sign outside a shop means 'fishmonger.' The fish outside the fishmonger's shop is a natural mark. On the other hand you must learn that an owl sign outside a shop means 'bookseller.' There is no immediate relation between owls and books (we are not talking about booksellers specializing in books on ornithology). The owl sign outside the bookseller's shop is an arbitrary sign. A strong convention is required to understand it, either by agreement or by habit."
The most extensive part of the book is the one on motifs, and there, on the pages about the bird motif, you will find an owl, to be sure; a stylized one for a Danish bookseller, but widely adapted by other booksellers. Birds have a more motivated meaning when they illustrate airlines. There is the Lufthansa bird in flight, of which Mollerup says, "This bird was the result of a competition held in 1919. It was first used on an aircraft in 1920 and has never been grounded!" There are birds of different design for Singapore or American Airlines, but there is a penguin for books and one for clothing. There's a dove for soap, a peacock for NBC, and a happy, chattering blue bird silhouette for Twitter. It is fun to see on these pages just how many ways a bird can be drawn as a symbol and how simplified a design can be and still obviously be a bird. You can find many other living things used as starting points for trademarks. "Who would choose a scorpion for a trademark motif?" asks Mollerup, and answers by showing the shield-shaped trademark for a firm of racing cars, whose founder was a Scorpio, "and he thought that nobody would copy a scorpion." Of course the camel of Camel Cigarettes is here, not only in his picture on the package, but in his photo. There was a real camel, named "Old Joe," owned by Barnum & Bailey whose picture was taken in 1913. R. J. Reynolds himself drew the camel from the photo.
If you are looking for graphics with no origin in nature, check out the pages on arrows. Arrows are used in trademarks for things going places, like British Rail or Amtrak. There is a famous hidden arrow within the letters that spell out FedEx. Amazon has an arrow, to indicate everything from its A to its Z, a smiling arrow (and does no one but me appreciate how phallic it is?). Crosses, too, are here, and are not exclusive to the Christian faith. There's one on Swissair, for instance, and on all those Swiss Army knives. There's a cross with a zipper down it, halfway opened, for Richman's Zipper Hospital. And then there is the crossed logo of Bayer vertical and Bayer horizontal. If you like stars, you can find them in the Texaco logo, and the one for Converse shoes. There is also a company called Star Semen, which sells semen from star bulls. Their star looks for all the world as if it has, stylized and not anatomically correct, testicles.
A simple graphic is powerful. The logo for Pirelli does not depict a tire, but the bowl of the initial P is pulled out over the rest of the word, to show elasticity. Among the most interesting pages here are the ones that show a firm's trademark through the decades, with a strong tendency toward simplicity and force. Shell Oil got its name in memory of the founder's father's business in sea shells; the shell itself has nothing to do directly with the business it names. The earliest Shell trademark was a picture that looks like a real shell, and it became more stylized as time went on, until now it does not say "Shell" on the shell, and it might not look like a shell at all except that we are used to seeing its predecessors as one. Similarly, the 3M company used to be the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, and original trademarks crammed all those words into a circle. When it became just 3M, the circle remained, occasionally festooned with laurel branches. It has become the simplest of trademarks, just the two characters in a bold Helvetica, barely touching each other. "While society tends to become more complicated," Mollerup says, "trademarks seem to have become simpler." It's good business - simple trademarks are simpler to produce and use, and they get the communication done efficiently.
Part of the fun of looking at these pages is how familiar so many of these trademarks are, and realizing how effortlessly they register within the beholder's consciousness. Part is seeing how an infinite variety of trademarks can be generated given the limited graphic canvas on which they must be constructed. Another part is to realize the power of image, with all the questions it raises of style versus substance. Marks of Excellence is good-looking, thoughtful, and thought-provoking.