Logo Design and the Rewards of Doing Real Journalism
Why it feels good to give credit where due (even when attribution isn’t required) and to tell stories that matter
Any article about logos is sure to get shared, but rarely do those posts that litter the web offer anything more than a visual show-and-tell. Sites like Brand New do a consistently good job of covering logo design from a critical standpoint. But music logo roundups are usually more of the eye-candy listicle variety. Maybe that’s just fine, since these aren’t logos in the truly professional sense; they’re not part of an identity system that has to communicate a brand from something as small as an avatar or business card to as large as the tail fin of an airplane. A band logo doesn’t have to work nearly as hard — it mostly needs to look good on a t-shirt and other merch — but it does need to feel genuine and resonate with fans. How much of that connection is the result of the designer or the impact of the band is hard to say. They become inseparable to the point of invisibility. We stop being aware that there was ever a person who drew that thing. The design seems so obvious that it couldn’t possibly have been anything else. Or could it?
I recently wrote 18 of 22 stories about some of the most iconic music graphics to come out of New York. The reason for 22 was purely practical: each of these articles originally appeared in an issue of The Daily Note, a daily paper of the Red Bull Music Academy held in New York throughout this past May. Now each of the logo stories has been compiled into a single web page, under the headline “22 Iconic Music Logos Explained,” which could at first glance be mistaken for any number of other click-baiting slideshow-driven posts. Except that my fellow author, Laura Forde, and I actually did explain these logos, doing real research to find out who made them and how they came about. Now that they live on the web and not just in a column on newsprint that only New Yorkers would have seen, I’ve been thinking about why providing substance online is hard but worthwhile, and why creative people working behind the scenes deserve credit, even if they don’t expect to get it.
Why does it matter who designed a logo
Like most any teenage music fan, I used to draw band logos on my notebooks and on the sides of my sneakers. Even if I didn’t know what anarchy actually meant, it felt good to draw that circle-A. Although I did listen to the Dead Kennedys, I probably drew that DK logo more for the fun of it and the message it sent than out of a true allegiance with the band. Something about those icons that are so strong and definitive is so appealing, particularly at an age when we care the most about forming tribes and signaling to the world what we stand for. I didn’t used to wonder who made my favorite album covers and graphics, but now that I’ve been writing about creative people for most of my adult life, and since the web makes it so much easier to find information, I’m intrigued by these mysteries and have been amazed by how infrequently they’re researched.
Designers, unlike artists, often go uncredited when they take on work for hire. Eric Haze, one of the most renowned rap logo designers, plainly stated that he maintained his independence so he could retain authorship over his work. If done in-house, his work would have belonged entirely to his employers,with no credit due to him.
Clearly I’m not the only one craving this type of journalism and storytelling, though.The Sunday New York Times magazine devoted most of its pages to solving maker mysteries in this past weekend’s Innovation issue, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is launching a three-part YouTube series on the Art of Punk, about the artists behind imagery for bands such as the Dead Kennedys and Crass (tomorrow, June 11, is the premier episode featuring Raymond Pettibon, artist and designer behind Black Flag’s oft-imitated logo).
Excavating the stories, honoring the memories
Although we were able to solve most of the logo mysteries in our roundup of 22, a few remain unsolved. The people who would have known best have died, and no one thought to document such marginal work. Most turned out to be solvable because we did not rely on the web for answers. We emailed people, we picked up the phone and met people in person. We dug as far as we could within the time we had to research and write, and drew the best conclusions we could.
For every logo we could have probably said much more (and perhaps we will at a later date), but these three in particular stood out for me, for a variety of reasons:
This was probably my favorite to work on, and not because I was especially into Anthrax — I had only one of their albums in high school, but always knew their logo better than their music itself. It was a delight purely because of the insights about logos and typography that Mike Essl, a design educator at Cooper Union and metal fan, shared with me, and because of its designer, Kent Joshpe, who was so kind and humble. He got the opportunity because he knew members of Anthrax from when they were teenagers on summer breaks from school, and he was the kid who would always be drawing them and their friends. Kent spoke about typographic influences such as Roger Dean’s artwork for Yes and Rick Griffin for the Grateful Dead. He cited his community college design teacher Tom Ambrosino as an inspiration who made him aware of custom type design. He studied with Peter Corriston, an award-winning album designer, for a short time at the School of Visual Arts. At the time when Anthrax asked him to create their first cover, he was enrolled at Rochester Institute of Technology, and recalls spending the summer laboring over that hand drawing in his wife’s parents’ garage, in Buffalo. That logo and the artwork it was part of, for Fistful of Metal, were all he did for Anthrax, but he completely nailed it. He says he just got lucky, but I’d say it was much more than luck. It was the right logo for the right band, and it simply worked.
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see some variation of this logo on someone’s t-shirt. The Franklin Gothic all-caps type sandwiched between two thick red bars has been so widely copied, there’s even an online Run-DMC Logo Generator. I spoke to two of hip-hop’s most prominent designers — Cey Adams, who worked for Russell Simmons’ Rush Artist Management, the band’s representation; and Haze — and both said that no one knew who’d designed it. It had been done in-house by the group’s UK label at the time. I tried emailing anyone I could find who might have been working in art direction at the major labels at the time, searching for clues. A lot of those messages went unreturned. I came close to leaving it at that and writing the story as an unsolved mystery. Fortunately, a former boss of mine, from the start of my career when I worked in record promotion, knew just the right person to ask. Within three hours he wrote back to me with the scoop I’d been looking for, letting me know that Ashley Newton, then-head of A&R at Island Records in the UK and the current CEO of Columbia Records, commissioned it from the in-house design team.
Newton identified the designer responsible as Stephanie Nash, now co-principal, with Adam Michael, of the London design firm Michael Nash Associates. I might have shrieked (and I know I got up and did a little dance) when she wrote back to me, saying, “I designed the logo whilst I was an in house designer at Island Records in the early 1980's. I worked as part of a team and we did not take individual credit for any work. As I was an employee the copyright of the logo lies with Island Records.” I hoped to interview her by phone, but she let me ask more questions via email. I wondered if she felt a sense of pride whenever she sees it on a t-shirt, either legit or copied, but she didn’t express that to me. Instead she gave all credit for the popularity of the logo to the band, and the strength of its typography to Franklin Gothic’s designer, Morris Fuller Benton. After the story was published, Cey wrote to say that I’d “cracked the code to one of the great mysteries in hip-hop history.” To hear that as a journalist feels incredible. (Of course it’s no PRISM story, but it’s still a reminder to never stop questioning.)
The Ramones logo story has been well documented, since the designer of that logo, Arturo Vega, was practically a member of the Ramones and he maintained the fansite, telling his story there as well as in many other places. Back when the Ramones were forming he took in Joey and Dee Dee when they needed a place to live,and he took on their visual communications from the start, too. I didn’t speak to Arturo, although I tried.When he didn’t reply to any of my messages, I nearly stalked him at his studio on East Second Street, renamed Joey Ramone Place (now I wish I’d been brave enough to ring his buzzer). There were plenty of other sources for me to cite, but I felt like I failed to do the story justice by not getting my quotes directly from him. This past Saturday morning Arturo Vega passed away, at only 65, joining Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone in the hereafter. The cause of death hasn’t been made public, but from everything I’ve read about him he was a steadfast supporter of the Ramones to the end, devoting two thirds of his life to helping the world recognize their greatness. I’d like to think that if he had been able to, he would have spoken to me. Thankfully, he’s shared his story with so many others (including Legs McNeil) and the legacy of his Ramones logo will live on forever.
Each one of these logos turned up something unexpected and intriguing, giving voice to a side of the story that hadn’t already been documented. I’m looking forward to doing more of these quests on my own, and hope others will do the same. Not able to find what you’re looking for on the web? Ask someone in real life, and then share what you find with others. Paying tribute to people whose work has been meaningful to me and then realizing that that effort is valued by someone else has been the sweetest reward.