Category Archives: Graphic Design

Don Blanding, An Artist Turned ‘Vagabond’ Poet

Vagabond's House 2I’m willing to bet most people have never heard of Don Blanding—the early 20th century poet who illustrated his own work with elaborate pen-and-ink drawings—but I grew up in a household filled with Blanding’s books, prints, and snippets of his verse running through my head. My dad was a fan from my earliest memory and spoke of the poet’s richly woven tableaux as if the places he wrote of might actually exist in the real world and not just in the imagination. All Blanding’s poetry depicts highly romantic and idealized locales—South Sea islands awash in color, the scent of jasmine in the air; jungle temples choked in vines and brimming with treasure; Oriental ports of call populated with mysterious characters in exotic dress, much in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling and W. Somerset Maugham.

Blanding portrait 2Unlike many modern artists and writers who spend considerable time cultivating a public persona to enhance their image, Blanding never had to invent or embellish his “street cred” as a bohemian world traveler. Serving in two world wars, traveling to Europe, Central America, and throughout the United States, he tasted the life he captured in verse.

Donald Benson Blanding was born in 1894 in the Oklahoma territory. After graduating from high school in 1912 he spent two years at the Art Institute of Chicago studying art with the plans of becoming a commercial artist, what today might be called a graphic designer. He earned his way partly by teaching drawing and working as a theater usher. In 1916 after seeing a play called Bird of Paradise he was so enchanted by its depiction of Hawaii that he left for the islands a month later, arriving in Hawaii “with five dollars in his pocket.”

Hula MoonsIt was in Honolulu that he landed his first job as a commercial artist, working as a cartoonist and spot illustrator for a local newspaper, and painting portraits on the side. He returned to the mainland the next year and served a short stint in the army. Blanding traveled to Europe in 1919 to study art in Paris and London but his love of Hawaii lured him back to the islands in 1921 where he got a job working at an advertising agency. At one point he was given a temporary assignment as a copywriter, which led to a weekly column in the Honolulu Star Bulletin. To differentiate himself he wrote his copy in rhyme and over the next two years his writings became so popular that the editors suggested he compile his work into a book and in 1923 he published Leaves From a Grass House. After two additional books he submitted a collection of poems, complete with his own pen-and-ink illustrations, to New York publisher Dodd, Mead & Co. who in 1928 released his book titled Vagabond’s House. The book met with immediate success and became Blanding’s most famous work. By 1948 it went into its 48th edition, selling more than 150,000 copies. His long poem “Vagabond’s House,” for which the book is named, is about an imaginary retreat filled with exotic mementos collected from years of traveling the world’s back streets and seaports.Blanding Samples

In subsequent years Blanding wrote over a dozen more books of poetry, all illustrated in his signature style and all dealing with the themes ofBlanding signing adventure, travel, and wanderlust. He toured and lectured extensively throughout his career and appeared on radio and television programs. Despite living for lengths of time on the mainland, he always returned to his beloved Hawaiian Islands and is often called the poet laureate of Hawaii. In 1927, he suggested and founded Hawaii’s annual holiday, Lei Day, on May 1st.

art deco-art nouveauTo a modern audience his illustrations may appear quaint and outdated but one must keep in mind that his artistic style is rooted in the art nouveau and art déco traditions of his era, like the examples pictured to the left. Blanding was a classically trained artist who became a master of blending art nouveau’s sinuous lines and plant forms with art deco’s bold and geometric motifs.

studioMany would consider Blanding’s poetry excessively sentimental. Literary academics of the time characterized him as a poet in the “popular genre,” a derisive term meaning that he wrote poems that appealed to the tastes of the general public rather than highbrow society — a way to distinguish between a hack, who turns out fluff for popular consumption, and poets of true talent such as his contemporaries Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams—much like one would compare J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis to J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. Point taken but to that I say, sometimes I like Masterpiece Theater and sometimes I like Desperate Housewives.

my collectionHis books can still be found at second-hand bookshops. Blanding’s poems and artwork still exercise their charms over me, even after all these years; they possess the ability to transport my inner vagabond to those imaginary, extraordinary places.

Some Lines Scrawled on the Door of Vagabond’s House
by Don Blanding

West of the sunset stands my house,
There…and east of the dawn;
North to the Arctic runs my yard;
South to the pole, my lawn;
Seven seas are to sail my ships
To the ends of the earth…beyond;
Drifters’ gold is for me to spend
For I am a vagabond.

Fabulous cities are mine to loot;
Queens of the earth to wed;
Fruits of the world are mine to eat;
The couch of a king my bed;
All that I see is mine to keep;
Foolish, the fancy seems
But I am rich with the wealth of Sight,
The coin of the realm of dreams.

To read Don Blanding’s long poem Vagabond’s House click here.

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Filed under Book Recommendations, Creativity, Graphic Design

Visual Shorthand

Symbolic pictograms have been around for thousands of years—a few ancient ones still survive to this day—because they possess the power to communicate complex ideas at a single glance, a type of visual shorthand which affords us a simple way to say complicated things. In fact, they are so much a part of our popular culture and commerce that we usually don’t give them a second thought.

el-castillo-handsArt is a form of symbolic thought, the earliest examples of which were found in caves in Northwest Spain. Paintings on the cave walls, dated at 40,000 years old, depict animals and even stenciled hand prints of the artists. These are what I would call icons, images with a physical resemblance to the thing they represent—different from symbols, images with no relation to the thing they represent. An icon depicts a thing, a symbol depicts an idea.

caduceus asclepiusOne of the oldest symbols still in use today is the caduceus, or staff of Hermes, which dates from the time of the ancient Greeks. It is often mistakenly used as a symbol of medicine, Asklepios Epidaurosespecially in the U.S., instead of the Rod of Asclepius, due to their similarity. The Rod of Asclepius is actually the proper symbol for medicine, being the rod wielded by Asclepius,star of life Greek god of healing and medicine. Statues, friezes, and coins depicting Asclepius with his staff date from the early 4th century BCE. The symbolism of the serpent has been interpreted in many ways, one being the snake’s shedding of its skin symbolizing rejuvenation. The caduceus, in contrast, properly symbolizes trades and occupations associated with Hermes, notably commerce and negotiation, two realms in which balanced exchange and reciprocity are recognized as ideals. Additionally, the printing trades can also be added to the list of trades due to Hermes’ role as a messenger.

barber pole

The barber pole, with its familiar helical stripes, is a bit more modern and dates only as far back as the Middle Ages. Also associated with the medical profession, barber-surgeons performed all manner of surgery, and because they were the ones with the sharp instruments, also cut hair and beards. The red and white striped pole, representing blood and bandages, was an easily recognizable sign for a mostly illiterate populace.

When the professions of barber and surgeon were officially separated in the 17th century the pole, sometimes using red, white and blue stripes, became the barber’s official symbol. barbasol can graphicIn fact, the mere use of a striped graphic motif can be enough to communicate anything barber-related, a powerful example of the use of symbols to communicate ideas.

skull and crossbonesThe skull and crossbones is another symbol with origins in the distant past. Some of the earliest uses of skulls and crossbones was to denote the entrances to cemeteries and may also have been a warning not to enter for fear of contracting diseases like the Black Plague.Cemetery_Entrance The practice dates back many centuries, first with the use of actual skulls and bones and then with carvings of the same. Universally associated with the concept of death, the symbol began to be used to label poisonous substances in the early 19th century and by the 1880s was adopted around the world as the symbol for poison. safety_sign_poison 2It is still used today. The symbol is so ubiquitous that this humorous Hello Kitty design is an instantly recognizable homage.

Jolly RogerThe Jolly Roger pirate flag has a different origin. The flag was often flown to encourage the pirates’ victims into surrender without a fight. Having the reputation of fierce cutthroats gave most pirates the edge when it came to attacking a ship, and flying the flag on their mast aided in striking fear into their prey. etchingThe origins of the flag are a mystery. Pirates originally used a red flag, which was also common in naval warfare, to signal that no quarter, meaning no mercy, would be given. This red flag was called Joli Rouge (pretty red) by the French, and may have been corrupted into English as Jolly Roger. The term was already in use by the 1720s. The black flag of quarantine and disease, combined with the universal symbol for death, the skull and bones, may account for its evolution, as depicted in this etching from 1724. The skull and bones was also used in captains’ logbooks to indicate the death of a sailor.

pawn symbolThe universal symbol of pawnbroking is three gold balls suspended from a bar and is one of the most recognized in the world. Oddly though, no one I asked in my informal poll seemed to know what the symbol was. This is an example of an antiquated symbol that survives in modern times but holds no currency, perhaps because of pawn shops’ unfair association with crime.

3 pawn shopsThis business model of loans being offered to people who traded their personal property as collateral existed in China 3000 years ago and is no different today. One of the most famous pawns in history is that of Queen Isabella of Spain, who is said to have pawned her jewelry to finance Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. The Medici family banking empire in Florence, Italy, in the 14th century, along with the Lombards in England, were the moneylenders in Europe. pawnshop 1920The “three balls” may have originally symbolized coins and were used as signs hung outside moneylending establishments.

Pawnbroker symbolSt. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and pawnbrokers—an interesting mix of characters. The pawn symbol has been attributed to the story of Nicholas giving a poor man’s three daughters each a bag of gold so they could get married.

comedy tragedy masksAnother symbol dating from ancient times and still in use to day is the comedy and tragedy masks. The origins stem from ancient Greece when actors on stage wore masks with exaggerated facial features in order to be easily seen in the large, open-air amphitheatres. Their use also allowed them to play multiple roles, including female characters, since only men were actors. The sock and buskin are also two ancient symbols of comedy and tragedy. In Greek theatre, actors in tragic roles wore a boot called a buskin, that elevated them above the other actors.Thalia and Melpomene The actors with comedic roles only wore a thin-soled shoe called a sock. Thalia, the muse of comedy, is often depicted holding the comic mask and wearing socks. Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, holds the tragic mask and wears buskins. Some people refer to the masks themselves as “Sock and Buskin.” This colorful mosaic from Hadrian’s villa shows comic and tragic masks.TragicComicMasksHadriansVillamosaic

Our modern word hypocrite comes from the Greek hypokritēs, a stage actor who wears a mask, hence one who pretends to be what he is not.

mortar & pestleThere are two symbols most commonly associated with the pharmacy profession. One is the mortar and pestle. Pharmacists would use the mortar and pestle to crush and mix ingredients to cure diseases. The other is the Rx symbol. According to most sources, the Rx symbol originated in medieval apothecary manuscripts as an abbreviation of the Latin word recipe, meaning “to take.” Apothecary Sign 1841Medieval prescriptions invariably began with the command to “take” certain materials and compound them in specified ways. ℞.rx sign

Many who have traveled in Europe will recognize the Green Cross as the symbol for pharmacy. The Green Cross was first introduced as a pharmaceutical symbol in continental Europe in the early 20th century as a replacement for the Red Cross. farmaciaThe Red Cross, previously used by some medical institutions and pharmacists, french pharmacywas adopted by the International Red Cross in 1863, necessitating the need for an alternative. The Green Cross was not used in Britain until 1984, when it was adopted by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain as a standard symbol for British pharmacy.

Grim ReapersThe concept of Death as an archetype or sentient entity has existed in many societies since the beginning of history. In English, Death is often given the name Grim Reaper and, from the 15th century onwards, came to be shown as a skeletal figure carrying a large scythe and clothed in a black cloak with a hood. He serves to sever the last ties between the soul and the body and to guide the deceased to the next world. In some cases, the Grim Reaper is said to actually cause the victim’s death, leading to tales that he can begrim-reaper bribed, tricked, or outwitted in order to retain one’s life. Ancient Greeks found Death to be inevitable, and, therefore, he is not necessarily represented as evil. His name is Thánatos and is often portrayed as a bearded and winged man, but has also been portrayed as a young boy. Death is personified as female in many cultural traditions such as Śmierć from Poland, Pesta from Norway, and Mictecacihuatl in Aztec belief.

humorous reapersBecause of our natural aversion to death, he is often portrayed comically in popular culture as a way to divest him of his power. These images from The Simpsons and Family Guy show that, even as a comic character, his persona and what he represents is unmistakable.

Film-StripA 20th century symbol that just recently lost its reference to its original meaning is the film strip. Film as a physical medium is now almost extinct. Historically depicted with its iconic sprocket holes, camera and movie film has gone the way of other casualties of the digital age like vinyl records and cassette tapes; however, the film strip symbol’s cultural references continue in the collective psyche even though they no longer represent any real film, it all being digital information.

Marilyn film stripFilm photography as a discipline is now taught in college as an artistic novelty and motion pictures are now shot digitally and delivered to theaters on hard drives, not in film canisters. So even though no one uses film with sprockets anymore, the symbol endures in advertisements for photo-related products, in logos for wedding photographers, on stock photo websites, and on posters for film festivals. It ironically retains its power as a visual shorthand even though the company most synonymous with photography, Kodak, has become an historical footnote.

NIKONRelated to this subject, the same is true for the sound that a digital camera or smartphone camera makes. The click-clack sound imitates the sound of a film camera’s shutter release, and the click-spin was the sound of an SLR camera’s autowinder, both sounds now artifacts of an analog age. But the familiar sound endures — it is what I would call an aural affectation and would argue that had the camera been invented today, its sound would no doubt be a simple beep or ping. If you ask someone today why the camera actuation sounds as it does, most would not know.

Cigar IndiansOne final and more esoteric symbol from the past that remains in use today is the cigar store Indian or wooden Indian. As with many symbols from the past, the cigar store Indian was used as an advertisement because of the general illiteracy of the populace. Early store owners used descriptive emblems or figures to advertise their shops’ wares; for example, barber poles advertise barber shops, mortar and pestle advertised apothecaries and the three gold balls represent pawn shops. American Indians and tobacco had always been associated because American Indians introduced tobacco to European settlers, and the depiction of native people on smoke-shop signs was almost inevitable. As early as the 17th century,CigarStoreIndian European tobacconists used figures of American Indians to advertise their shops.

These figures are still used outside many tobacconist shops today but have fallen out of favor due to cultural and racial sensitivity.

All these graphic symbols have survived, many for millennia, because they share a common characteristic — their ability to communicate a complex idea in a simple way, a way that transcends language, culture and even time, just as modern-day company logos function to symbolize that company’s image, philosophy, and identity. But these symbols are different in that they will continue to exist long after many companies fade into history.

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Why Do Some Logo Redesigns Succeed While Others Fail?

starbucks1I commented to a few friends recently that Starbucks had changed its logo. They changed their logo? No one noticed, but yes, it no longer says Starbucks Coffee. It no longer has to. The iconic logo is so ubiquitous and recognizable that the company name is superfluous. Similar moves have also been made at Target, Nike, and Shell, all of whom have dropped their company names from their logos.TergetNikeShell copy

Several other companies have also tweaked their logos to varying degrees of notice or fanfare, notably, eBay and Microsoft. I think both solutions lost some of the memorable qualities that made each logo distinctive. They are both now more generic and less unique.ebayMicrosoftlogo

None of these changes qualify as what I would call a full-fledged redesign as I’m using the term for the purposes of this article. What I’m talking about is a radical design departure from the original identity. You might ask why companies would spend millions of dollars and risk damaging their brand identity by embarking on a logo redesign. Many factors can contribute to this decision.

deltaUnited1. Company mergers. When two companies merge, it’s often a debate which logo to use for the new conglomerate. In the case of the Delta and Northwest Airlines merger, big boy Delta simply ‘refreshed’ their logo and dropped any pretense to a combo solution, its thinking being that the Delta brand had a more powerful consumer recognition. In the case of the United and Continental Airlines merger, the new logo is a corporate-inspired mashup — I use the term derisively — of the two. This new logo looks like it was designed in a boardroom. Gone are the days of engaging the services of such graphic design legends as Saul Bass, who designed both the original United and Continental logos, or Paul Rand, who designed the ABC, UPS, and IMB logos.

ups-logo2. The company grows beyond its original identity. In the case of UPS, the original logo, designed by Paul Rand, gestured to the company’s roots of package delivery. The new logo emphasizes its expanded worldwide business operations but deftly nods to UPS’s heritage by preserving the shield, keeping its lighthearted lowercase letters, and leveraging the color brown. Referencing elements of the old design is often the most successful approach to logo redesign.

jcp-logo3. Company revitalization. Sometimes a brand, like JCPenney, needs a desperate rebranding overhaul, which includes a logo redesign. Penney’s new CEO says they are “fundamentally re-imagining every aspect of the Company’s business,” which includes their new logo. Whether they will be successful is a question to be answered in the future. A too radical departure from well-known imagery often ends up confusing consumers, and losing the brand familiarity they’re trying to achieve.

8946000-large-300x159Which brings me to the focus of this article, which is why some logo redesigns fail. Probably the most memorable recent blunder was the 2010 GAP logo redesign debacle. Going against received wisdom that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the GAP inexplicably decided to change their logo to a generic and insipid who-knows-what. After an avalanche of public outcry, not only from consumers, but also from the design community — who also objected to the company’s use of crowdsourcing the logo, a term that means work that is completed without any promise of compensation — the new logo was scrapped in less than a week. Probably its most withering criticism being that it “looked like someone did it in Microsoft Word in 5 minutes.” Apart from being a bad design, the new logo served no corporate purpose as outlined above. There was no merger, identity problem, new company direction or outdated look. Without any clear purpose, it failed.

UC logoPerhaps less well know but more timely was the announcement last week that the University of California was changing its 144-year-old logo in an effort to remake its image to reflect the “innovation and character of California, and to portray a more modern, user-friendly look.” Here we go again. However, the university did have a greater purpose in mind: the original logo, with its intricate detail, did not reproduce well when used small or on websites, smartphones, or tablets. This is an example where technological changes drive design considerations.

Well, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but the university received over 50,000 signatures from an online petition to scrap the new logo design, saying that the monogram looked cheap, corporate and unworthy of a prestigious institution of higher learning. The story even earned a spot on NPR’s All Things Considered on Dec. 13, 2012. As of this writing there are no plans to scrap the new logo. Again, time will tell. This may be another example of too radical a departure from the original and not referencing elements of the old design.

So what DOES and DOES NOT make for a good logo design? There are 5 Principles of Effective Logo Design. Compare all the above redesigned logos and see if they meet these criteria.

nikesmall1. Simple. Keeping in mind the idea that less is more, or K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid), simplicity makes a logo easily recognizable, versatile and memorable. Remember, a logo needs to be recognized on a freeway at 70 MPH, on a package on a crowded store shelf, on a vehicle or on a business card. Simple carries the day. Example: Nike.

mcdonaldslogodesign2. Memorable. Related to Simple, Memorable means unique and distinctive, something that looks like nothing else. Resist the urge to copy an existing idea. Example: McDonald’s.

UndergroundLogo3. Timeless. Trends come and go. Leave fashion to the runway. There is no faster way for a logo to look outdated than to follow a hip new trend.  Think how the design will look in 10-20 years. Timeless: London Underground. Already dated: AAA and Capital One.

apple_logo_evolution4. Versatile. An effective logo works across a variety of mediums and applications, both large and small, in color and black and white. Billboards to business cards to boxes, websites to newspapers to advertising. Example: Apple.

toysrus5. Appropriate. A logo has to be appropriate for its intended audience. A law firm logo would look very different from a toy company logo. But keep in mind that the subject matter of the logo need not bear any logical association to the product, and in many ways should not. Starbucks logo is not a coffee cup, McDonald’s logo is not a burger, Nike’s logo is not a shoe. Example: Toys R Us.

For more on this subject, read my articles How To Design A Logo and A Logo, Redesigned.

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Filed under Brand Identity, Graphic Design