A Brief Overview of Branding History

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

A Brief Overview of Branding History


Branding design is not just a modern pursuit; it has been practiced from the dawn of civilization. Many different approaches have been used, some in media or materials that are not commonly used today. Each method and medium imposed certain constraints on designers.

Cuneiform is the oldest form of writing on earth, dating from about 3000 BC. But even before that—as much as 500 years before—Mesopotamian cylinder seals were in use. These seals were a major inspiration for the development of writing. They were used to identify goods and to sign contracts, and were considered so important that they accompanied the dead in their tombs. Skilled craftsmen made them from hard stones, even gemstones such as hematite, obsidian, steatite, amethyst, lapis lazuli and carnelian. When rolled on soft clay, they left an imprint that was the owner’s brand. Their use was legally binding, much as signatures on legal documents are today.

That means that branding is even older than writing.

Sumerian Cylander Seals, the earliest form of branding we have.
Cylinder seals and the impressions they made in clay. Courtesy of the Louvre

Egyptian Cartouches
The Egyptians enclosed the names of their pharaohs in cartouches. These encapsulated names can also be thought of as the precursors of modern logos.

From ancient cultures as diverse as Egypt and China, royal seals not only signified royalty, but also were used to authenticate royal edicts, treaties and laws. This tradition has continued to modern nations, which use them the way corporations use logos.

Royal seals
1. Royal Seal of Pharaoh Sahure, c 2500 bc. 2. Egyptian Royal Seal Ring. 3. Imperial Royal Seal of the Great Han Empire c 200 BC. 4. Impression from the Royal Seal of King Henry VIII of England. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Japanese kamon are family crests, and many have been unchanged for centuries. They were used as patterns on armor, flags, swords, clothing and other personal articles. By the 12th century AD, crests were widely used by aristocratic families, and since then have been increasingly adopted by common folk. Many kamon embody principles of modern logo design. The logo for the Mitsubishi Group is a combination of the family kamon of the founder’s family and the kamon of his first employer’s family.

Japanese Kamon
Examples of Japanese family kamon (family crest symbols). There are more than 5,000 such kamon on historical record.

European medieval heraldry provided identification on the battlefield, where helmets covered knights’ faces. Specific symbols and color combinations were placed on helmet decorations, tunics and shields. Elaborate coat of arms designs evolved from these original, simpler designs. Only a single heir legitimately inherited the coat of arms.

Non-inheriting sons had to create a new one, often variants of the original. Coats of arms were used like modern logos.

Medieval Sheilds

Because few people could read in medieval times, signage often had to communicate without words either the nature or the name of a business. A blacksmith sign might show a hammer and anvil; a potter’s sign, a mug and pitcher. People who ran taverns and inns tended to choose names that could be illustrated on a sign. This is another centuries-old branding tradition.

Medieval Signs
Photos by Roger Medley

Guilds gained strength in various trades by about 1000 AD and enforced quality standards of work among their members, who marked their work to identify it. This is the origin of the term “trademark.” Trademarking is still practiced for almost all consumer goods.

Producing trademarks in crafts such as silversmithing required considerable mastery. In all cases, it was specialized craftsmen who created identifying devices down through the ages, such as cylinder seals or seal rings.

Silversmith Trademarks

Silversmith trademarks, like trademarks from many different trade guilds, were protected by law, with severe penalties for misuse.

It is conceivable that apprentices to these craftsmen in each age balked at the stringencies of their respective crafts and wished they could perform their jobs without first mastering such hard-won disciplines. For instance, we can imagine that an apprentice for a cylinder seal master might propose making seals out of wood instead of the typical hard and unyielding stones.

Unfortunately, a wooden seal might not release the clay. Or perhaps a new apprentice might want to employ a fine-lined design “just to be different,” only to find that the clay stuck in the little lines and didn’t remain in the impression.

There is no getting away from the discipline of each craft. So it is with modern identity design. All around us, people are “designing” unsuitable logos and selling them to unsuspecting business owners, who soon find out that the logos don’t work when printed in a single color, or that printing costs are double what they could be with a better design. Some logos can not be perceived clearly from a distance and are therefore useless on a sign. Some can’t be shown small on a computer screen because, when rendered through the screen’s grid of pixels, they become “pixel mush.”

There are ways to avoid these and other pitfalls. The first step is learning the solid principles of branding design.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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