Famous Fails

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Some may think the Seven Deadly Sins of Logo Design in this blog are just my arbitrary opinions, and as such, may be either accepted or easily dismissed. The whole purpose of this blog has been to let you see with your own eyes that violating these principles can and will break an identity. We have seen that dozens, even hundreds of companies have paid incalculable sums over the years, some of them repeatedly, to fix their identities because they just didn’t work.

If I don’t know about the law of gravity and I trip, I will still fall. It never fails. If I
accidentally back into a hot stove, I will get burned. And if a toddler eats something that will give it a tummy ache, it doesn’t matter that the child didn’t know.

Ignorance of immutable laws gives no immunity to the consequences of breaking them. A person who does not comprehend a principle will not avoid the outcome of breaking that principle.

You can run, but you can’t hide from unalterable, bedrock principles. It doesn’t matter whether you are a famous designer or a beginner, a national or international corporation; if your identity is guilty of one of the Deadly Sins of Logo Design, it won’t work, at least not consistently.

Here are three examples of large, world-class corporations that changed their identities to new designs, identities that committed one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins of logo Design and, as a result, their logos did not work.

The excellent AT&T identity designed by Saul Bass was changed in 2005 after a corporate restructuring. Many identities have been replaced at such times, but not always for the better. The new AT&T design may have been an homage to the original Bass logo, but it was a much weaker version of it.

The progression of the AT&T identity with the Saul Bass logo in 1993, which was improved by him again in 1996. Then they adopted an inferior logo in 2005.

As with so many designs that start from the 3-D color version instead of a plain, solid form, the shapes are less than esthetically refined. The design can’t work when printed in a single flat color, which means that ALL printing for this company’s identity must be in full color.

This is particularly noteworthy when vehicles and signage are considered. Instead of the more durable cut vinyl in solid colors, ALL vehicles and signage must be done in printed vinyl. It looks cool, but it only lasts about one third of the time of cut vinyl, meaning quicker replacement times. This is a massive extra expense for a company that has many thousands of vehicles in its fleet. Besides, the darkest parts of the new logo are barely a 40% value (minimal contrast), and most are much lighter, giving the overall logo poor contrast.

Also, changing the signature from all caps to all lower case letters makes it look weaker.

When you render the new AT&T logo stripes in black you see the clumsy nature of some of those shapes. On vehicles and signage, the logo can not be made of solid color vinyl and has minimal contrast. After a few years, AT&T recognized the contrast issues of their logo and even refined some of the shapes a bit. Note that this slightly improved variation only works in reverse. It was a stop-gap measure and, apparently, did not have a positive version.

I am not privy to what AT&T paid to Interbrand to create this new identity, but you can be sure it was over six figures. Add to that the cost of implementing this identity, which must be in the millions of dollars. Even if you ignore the cost of rebranding their stationery, invoices, their employee uniforms and hardhats, just the cost to put this on the thousands of vehicles in their fleet and on every building they use would be a staggering sum. And all for a logo that doesn’t work.

Here are the Deadly Sins of Logo Design committed in the 2005 AT&T identity:
• Does not work in solid black.
• Unrefined shapes
• Poor contrast

Sounds like three strikes and you’re out.

United Airlines
Saul Bass also designed excellent logos for United Airlines and Continental Airlines. They were classic logos that could have lasted forever, but Continental replaced its logo in 1991. Then in 2010 Continental began a merger with United Airlines, which was completed in 2012 with the new combined entity keeping United’s name but Continental’s logo. In effect, both airlines traded two superior logos for one inferior one.

The different corporate identities of Continental Airlines.
The long history of United Airlines identity up to 2012.

The new Continental/United logo commits the deadly sin of too-small elements and lines. As a result, it doesn’t reproduce well in a myriad of applications. The fine lines in the logo even get deformed when printed on the company’s own boarding passes. How many thousands of passes were given to customers every day?

I flew on Continental during the last year they went by that name. The flight was OK. The seats had individual movie screens on the back for watching in-flight movies. Nice. But on the plane’s start-up, for quite a while before the airline had any movies, they only showed the Continental identity. The screen was good enough for movies, but the logo’s lines were so small there just weren’t enough pixels for each line to be either pure white or pure blue. It looked horrible. Pixel mush.

The Continental Airlines identity as it appeared on the screens of the company’s own plane seats. The logo parts are too small for individual pixels to be either the correct blue or white.

You can be sure that Continental paid Lippincott & Marguiles a pretty penny to have its new logo designed. But that is just a drop in the bucket compared with the expense of implementing the new identity. When you consider the size of the graphics that go on airplanes alone, the cost to put the identity on every plane is shocking. And how many planes do the two combined airlines own? In addition, there are other vehicles, signage, and so much more. What a monstrous expenditure made to implement a broken logo.

When you think Xerox, you likely think photocopiers, right? Now the company has graduated to earning the bulk of its revenue in higher-end printers.

It is particularly paradoxical, then, to see this 2007 identity from Xerox.

Its fancy 3-D ball logo doesn’t print well.

Xerox paper comes in nice white cardboard cartons labelled with the new Xerox identity. Most printing on cardboard is done with Flexography. This amounts to a giant rubber stamp mounted on a drum. Look at the fine lines that crisscross in the middle of the logo (A). Notice how deformed they are. Why? Because those lines are too fine to print properly from a raised rubber printing plate.

Inside each Xerox paper carton are several reams of paper, and each of those has a printed paper wrapper. The wrappers appear to be printed in letterpress so that the plates can hold up to the millions of wrappers printed. The logos are black and red (B). In addition to the black being slightly out of register with the red–a reason to avoid two-color logos–the lines are blotchy, a function of the lines being so thin. Remember, this second example is not on crude cardboard as on the box, but on fine, semi-gloss paper. Still the reproduction is poor.

Lastly, when you go to use a Xerox printer, the machine has a color touchscreen control panel. But even here, on their own machine, the logo does not reproduce well (C). The light gray crisscross lines in the middle are supposed to get lighter in the reflected light on the logo’s spherical surface. But on the Xerox screen, the lines look totally bleached out.

How ironic to have a company whose bread and butter is printing reproduction with a logo that reproduces so poorly. Isn’t that the definition of abject failure for whoever was involved in that identity design?

Deadly Sins of Logo Design committed in this new identity:
• Multiple colors in the logo
• Thin lines, tiny elements
• Poor contrast

Is There a Lesson Here?
Again, these three rebrandings were not without cost, but this was not wasted money. The money spent on the previous flawed identities, designed contrary to the Core Principles, was the wasted money.

The saddest thing is that there is no need for weak identities like this in the first place. The principles we’ve spoken of here are bedrock and immutable. They do not move aside for fad or fashion. They remain true whether you believe in them or not.

The good news is that these principles can be learned by anyone with the clarity of thought to recognize them and the discipline to practice them.

Superior design awaits.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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