Did you ever wonder about a brand and why that brand grabbed you? It may have been something about the business proposition, or it might have been the way that idea was communicated in the brand’s logo. So why don’t we kick things off with a column about logos?
My name’s Ed Catto and this is the first “With Further Ado”, my new column for Pop Culture Squad. I’m an entrepreneurial marketing guy and long-time comics fan. I’ve recently joined the faculty of Ithaca College were I teach business, with a focus on entrepreneurism, to MBAs and undergrads while I continue with my management & marketing consulting. In this column, I’ll be covering the crossroads of comics, entrepreneurial business and geek culture. I’m so happy you’re here.
Logos have long been an important part of the comic experience. The iconic Superman logo has been one of the most copied, and parodied, logos ever. But in a medium that’s about story as much as it is about art, a strong logo reinforces what a brand is while doing the necessary work of grabbing a customer’s attention and helping make the sale.
There’s been so many talented folks involved with this important part of Geek Culture over the years – everyone from the legendary Ira Schnapp (he refined that Superman logo we were just talking about) to the brilliant and talented Todd Klein.
Rian Hughes is more than just another talented logo designer. He’s created a staggering number of imaginative and fresh logos over the past several years. I think the phrase, “Wow, he did that one too?” was invented just for him.
Korero Press has just published a book that should be on the coffee table of every ad agency’s waiting room. (It’s certainly going to be on my coffee table.)
Logo-a-gogo: Branding Pop Culture by Rian Hughes is a visual romp through a myriad of modern age logos. All your recent favorite comic logos are here, as well as logos for T-shirts, magazines, ad agencies, music brands and even a rental apartment developer. It’s easy to see that Hughes is one hard-working guy. He pulls it all together for this very readable book.
One happy customer is Kelly Sue DeConnick, one half of the geniuses behind the hit comic series, Bitch Planet, who provides an unequivocal, if pithy, endorsement. “He’s a fucking genius,” said DeConnick.
This massive book presents all the logo choices that Hughes served up to his clients. It’s fascinating to see the breadth of thinking and to imagine the thought that went behind the selected logo. Each project’s final logo is featured, accompanied by a brief background. The reader can’t help but quickly start to play a mental game of evaluating if the winning logo was the best one after all.
You’ll see how Hughes creates new logos, but he also has an obvious respect for all the historical efforts and branding that went into classic brands too. “I was happy with what Rian came up with: he took a pre-existing logo designed by Will <Eisner> and modified it for a fresh look, still reminiscent of Will’s trademark,” said publisher Denis Kitchen discussing The Spirit’s logo. “ It worked well for DC ’s series—allowing stark contrast when the cover design called for it, and versatile enough to permit interior logo color when that complimented or contrasted with the cover art colors.”
As a longtime ad agency guy, I learned the lesson that you must never present an option that you don’t want a client to choose. Hughes seems to be a such a big talent that I’m not sure if that was ever even an issue for him. So many of the unchosen logo options are just brilliant in their own right.
I caught up with Rian and he provided these great insights:
ED:CATTO: Showing all the “other choices”, the logos that were not selected by the client, is brilliant. Can you tell me how you came to that decision and how you feel about it now?
RIAN HUGHES: I thought it was important to show the design process. Finished logo designs aren’t arrived at just like that, out of thin air.
Logos that weren’t used generally fall into one of three categories: not very good, good but not appropriate for the client, or good and entirely appropriate but (for some unfathomable reason) not chosen by the client. I hope that the reader can see how all of these instances pan out on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes I was way off the mark, or just couldn’t get a handle on what was required, in which case it was entirely my fault; other times the client was an arse. Either way, I think it’s instructive to lay bare the process, as many logo design books simply present the final version with a bit of explanatory puffery that draws a veil over the sometimes convoluted and painful route the designer had to take to arrive at that final version.
EC: There must have been many times when you were frustrated that a certain design wasn’t chosen. Which times come to mind?
RH: Any designer will tell you this happens. Logo design is a conversation between the client and the designer, it’s a process of batting ideas back and forth, of refinement and articulation, and so the client has to get involved. The vacuous “We’ll know what we like when we see it” is about as useful as the prescriptive “use this font”. Neither grapple with the much deeper and more important ideas that a memorable logo should encapsulate. Where projects went nowhere, or were compromised, it was often down to this lack of constructive feedback. The other disaster waiting to happen is finding you’re dealing not with someone who has some sense of where they would like to be, but with marketing departments who aren’t really after something original and appropriate at all, but are after ‘supermarket own-brand toothpaste’ design – something that resembles what other mayor players in an industry are doing, but not so closely they’ll sue. This is often described as “positioning” and as with many other marketing terms, looks not inward to the clients’ product for a solution, but outward to a perceived audience. I think most audiences can tell when they’re being patronised, whether that be with generic comic book movies that have been concocted in focus group meetings or companies that have no vision other than to replicate some existing company’s success. “Me too” logos never date well. Mentioning no names here, I do discuss several such cases in the book.
EC: How might your design approach differ from other designers working today? How does your approach differ from comic logo designers from the past?
RH: I’ve no idea. Like I say, this is how I work, but it could be that other designers work entirely differently. I know that some designers simply show one option only – while I have done this, it’s a risky strategy, because you may have completely missed the mark for some legitimate reason that was opaque to you. On the other hand if I find I’m delivering dozens of alternative ideas, it may be because I’ve not understood the question I need to answer, and am thrashing around. Or that the client is not sure what they want, and I’m trying to elicit some meaningful response. There is, as with most things, a happy medium.
EC: It seems like you have deep knowledge of comics and what makes certain properties special. How do you channel that into your design development?
RH: I have a love of the medium, and being that I’m also an illustrator and comic artist, try and involve the cover artist in the process. I’ll mock up covers with the logo in situ so we know how it’s working. It’s a team effort, and a logo shouldn’t overpower the art. I also have fond memories of many characters – Batman, especially, or the Fantastic Four – that mean I approach these logos with some trepidation and not a little awe. I try and produce something that honours the history and the essence of the character while not being simply a retro period piece which regurgitates past tropes. Even though sometimes the project calls for precisely that, I’d rather move things forward if possible.
EC: What are consumers looking for now in comic logo?
RH: I have no idea. Like I say, I work from the inside out, not the outside in. If I can sum up something about the comic – the character, the themes, the mood – that’s the way to approach it, just as you would try and encapsulate the tone of a music album you were designing. I’m sure whoever designs Bowie or Jay Z albums doesn’t prioritise the imagined expectations of some putative audience over the vision of the artist.
EC: :What are retailers and publishers looking for?
RH: I would hope: originality, craft, unbridled creativity. The next big thing.
I sometimes suspect: tired and derivative regurgitations of things the competition have done that have sold well.
EC:What are some of your favorite logos from the old days of comics?
Gaspar Saladino’s spooky logos for early ’70s iterations of DC titles like The Unexpected, The Spectre, etc. The classic version of the Bat-logo where he’s holding up the cape. I tend to like more illustrative designs, just as I like more ‘designy’ illustration.
EC: Is there a logo that you think should never be changed? Or is there a comics logo that is long overdue for a refresh?
RH: While the Batman logo has been through many iterations, for some reason the Superman logo has remained pretty much unchanged. I’m not sure why this is – maybe Superman is a harder character to design a logo for, or maybe the fact that it’s remained the same for so long just means we’re familiar with it, and like the Ford for the Coca-Cola logo, has reached that “classic” status where it’s unassailable. If it ain’t broken…
EC: Thanks Rian!
I hope your local comic shop carries this book, but if not, I’m sure your local book store can get you a copy. It’s on sale now.