Corporate Identities from Big Brand Agencies and Studios

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

We have seen that single–or pairs or trios–of visionary designers can distinguish themselves in the field of corporate identity design. There are also big branding consulting firms and larger design studios that have executed many of the brands we recognize today. Typically, there are many designers at work in these larger firms and often their work is a team endeavor instead of the work of a single or small group of principals.

Many of those identities have withstood the test of time and were kept for decades, while other identities were replaced after only a relatively short life.

Some corporations rebrand themselves after a restructuring or merger. A few companies erroneously seem to think it is good business to change their identities regularly, even if their identities are working well. But the majority of companies that change their identities have discovered through experience that their identities are illegible in certain situations, or that they cost more than they should to reproduce or that they begin to look dated. In other words, their identities just don’t work like they should.

Most identities that are replaced fall into this latter category. The biggest reason why identities don’t work is that they don’t conform to the core principles of identity design as explained in this book.

One might expect, given that these large branding agencies and studios have specialists the smaller individual designers or studios of the previous chapter didn’t have, that these bigger agencies would have a better track record for their work lasting longer. Sadly, this is not the case. In spite of having brand positioning specialists, brand strategists, consumer researchers, brand ideologists, or other marketing gurus, the logos that come out of these agencies have no better track record, in fact, it’s a bit worse overall. It really does come down to the design core principles. No one is exempt. If a logo does not conform to the core principles, it is crippled at best.

I encourage you to come back to this section and review it after you have learned about the core principles and to see that correlation for yourself.

Unlike preceding examples, where possible, I have placed not only the year of the identity’s adoption, but also the year when the identity was replaced by another identity that was substantially different or had significant refinements. While those replacements were not always improvements, it is an indication of those clients’ dissatisfaction with the identity as it was. Single dates show when the identity was adopted, indicating that it is either still in use, or was used until some corporate change, such as a merger.

Walter Landor, (1913-1995) and Landor Associates
Born Walter Landauer, in Munich, Germany, he moved to San Francisco in 1939 and founded Landor Associates in 1941. Educated in London before moving to the States, he became, at age 23, the youngest Fellow to date of the Royal Society of Arts. His company has designed identities for hundreds of entities, including a number for airlines. Many of Landor’s designs have lasted for two to five decades and most of those conform to the core principles in this book. Other identities were rather short-lived, perhaps because of the company’s earlier tendency to use current or trendy typefaces, which soon become dated. The company has offices around the world and many designers. Lindon Leader began his career working for Saul Bass, then came Landor where he designed the FedEx identity. He now heads Leader Creative.

Donald R. Dohner and J. Gordon Lippincott founded Dohner & Lippincott in 1943. It has become one of the world’s most successful brand strategy agencies. Based in New York, this firm has also been known as Lippincott & Margulies as well as Lippincott Mercer in the past.

Lippincott has done more solid design work that conforms to the core principles of identity design than any other agency in this entire chapter, and as a result, have had longer lasting brands .

Logos by Lippincott

Wolff Olins
Michael Wolff and Wally Olins founded Wolff Olins in 1965 in London. Since then it has grown to be a large brand consultancy firm with offices in London, New York, and San Francisco.

While they have produced many fine identities that have lasted a long time, they have regularly produced work that has been controversial. It is noteworthy that those identities that have been replaced the quickest are invariably ones that don’t conform to the core principles.

logos by Wolff Olins

Pentagram (NYC)
Unlike most of the other companies in this section, Pentagram is not a corporation where designers are hired to work for the firm, but a group of individual designers who operate independently but collaborate with each other, especially on big projects. Designers in this studio have come and gone. When there is a vacancy, the remaining designers will collectively invite a new designer to join their ranks as a full partner, among whom no seniority is observed; it is a collective of equals.

Founded in London, Pentagram has four offices worldwide, with its biggest studio in New York.

John Murphy and his wife opened Novamark in 1974 in New York and changed its name to Interbrand five years later. Now the company has offices in five other cities around the world.

Of their brands shown here that are over ten years old, over half of them have been replaced or modified.

What it the Take-away from All This?

These companies employ a wide variety of professionals, from brand strategists to social media masters; from positioning experts to retail and consumer goods specialists. They offer motion graphics and video and packaging and copywriting. And, of course, they have graphic designers who specialize in branding.

But if all of that auxiliary skill is applied to a brand design that does not conform to the core principles, they are building on a flawed foundation.

These companies want to be known as innovators. That may prod them to try things that ought not be done to an identity. What could work beautifully as an app icon, may not work as a brand design. Corporate brand designs may share some characteristics with certain app icons, but they are not the same thing.

This is a book on corporate identity design.

When you consider the logo designs of these companies, there are many excellent ones to point to. There are also some really problematic ones. Each one of these agencies have had designs that just didn’t work as identities.

It’s seems to be hit and miss.

How can that be in what should be among the most capable branding design firms on the planet?

Because they do not understand the core principles of identity design.

Adapted from Logo DesignTheory: How Branding Design Really Works

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