The Rainbow Flag

A month ago, Gilbert Baker died. Baker was the creator of the rainbow flag, one of today’s most well-known LGBT symbols.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

A flag is probably one of the most challenging symbols to design. Whether you are approached to do it for a corporation, a sports club, or a country, it is always a touchy issue. Choosing the wrong symbols or inappropriate colours can have immense consequences. Besides, even the best design may be misinterpreted. The Canadian Maple Leaf is a good example: Initially ridiculed and rejected by veterans and conservatives, the flag had to go a long way to be publicly accepted.

Flags are symbols of affiliation and belonging and that’s why the intended audience needs an appealing narrative to accept them. I have written about how a shirt covered with the enemy’s blood became a national flag.

Baker’s original flag design had eight colours with a particular meaning: hot-pink for sex, red for life, orange – healing, yellow – sunlight, green – nature, turquoise – art, indigo – harmony, violet – spirit. Gilbert Baker was not a designer. He was an activist with a clear understanding of what the flag should stand for. And his lack of formal design training was actually an advantage: He didn’t explore complex shapes and patterns; he conveyed a powerful message through plain colours and stripes.

The flag went through modifications over time: hot-pink was removed due to an unavailability of hot-pink fabric, turquoise was dropped to get to an even number of stripes, and indigo was replaced with blue.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Baker never patented the design or made any money from it. But he will be remembered as the creator of one of the modern world’s most iconic symbols.

Hamburg’s creative light pole design

It’s very handy when your in-laws live in such an aesthetic treat like Hamburg: You can explore its architecture, history, and heritage in detail. Here is a great example of how a clever approach can support a city’s story and create a memorable scenery: The design of the light poles in Hamburg’s new urban development in an old part of the harbour is mimicking the shipyard cranes in the distance. As a result, the poles and cranes merge in one coherent and impressive canvas. Kudos for the outstanding approach and great attention to detail.

Rooms for Rest at Minneapolis Airport 

In the U.S., public toilets are called restrooms. I guess that the term was adopted as a sort of euphemism for activities we do in toilets. Certainly nobody goes there to rest.

Photo: Cintas

Photo: Cintas

The stereotypical ideal of an airport toilet is to be clean, bright, and spacious (hopefully). It is probably the last place where you would expect to see innovation. Yet, the interior designers of Minneapolis Airport took a different route: Instead of delivering another cliché, they played with colours and light. The outcome is a calm yet vivid design. A restroom indeed.

Photo: Cintas

Photo: Cintas

Photo: Cintas

Photo: Cintas

Underground Branding

Location branding is in high demand. Cities are especially keen to launch superb visual styles to attract tourists. These styles reflect as well as promote certain (often idealized) self-images. Visual styles are usually based on heritage, local culture, or acclaimed landmarks. They play a key role in our perception of places.

Recently, cities have started to pay more attention to their subway systems – not traditionally seen as attractive sites for image-making. But underground stations with their signage, themed interiors, and vintage layout can sometimes be better brand ambassadors for a city than overrated, polished tourist traps.

Here is a comparison of two subway systems I visited recently. It’s clear at first glance that their concepts and desired perceptions are completely different.

 

Washington, DC

The Washington Metro, planned in the 1950s and built in the 60s and 70s, is monumental: Huge brutalist concrete blocks make you feel insubstantial. Stations are built to impress. The whole interior could be easily mistaken for an atomic bomb shelter or a hidden underground runway. You are immediately reminded that you’re visiting the capital of a superpower.

 

Stockholm Metro System

stockholm_2.jpg

The Stockholm Tunnelbana is quite different, especially its Blue line (19 stations). There’s no trace of imperial ambition. Its core concept is the commuter experience. Stations feel spacious, well- thought out, safe, and warm. The first impression is that you’re crossing through a gate into a different world, or a newly discovered vanished civilization.

 

Location branding can be a very touchy affair. The visual identity I did for the city of Ivano-Frankivsk was off to a controversial start; it needed time to grow on people. Recently, it has been officially adopted as the city’s visual identity – almost three years after the initial launch. 

Eustace Vladimirovich Tilley

The cover of the New Yorker’s March 6 issue was in Cyrillic. Every year around its anniversary (February 21), The New Yorker displays its mascot Eustace Tilley on the cover. His outfit and the context varies; typically, it reflects the magazine’s content and is a commentary on the times. This is an excellent example of supporting a brand through a familiar face.

In the March 6 issue this year, Eustace Tilley is shown as President Putin and his butterfly as President Trump. This hilarious play on the two leaders’ relationship is emphasized further by displaying the magazine’s masthead in Cyrillic. In the upper left corner, in a small black bar, we find the original logo; maybe the editor feared that the cover could be mistaken for a Russian magazine.

The story behind Eustace Tilley dates back to the first number, released almost a century ago. At that time, The New Yorker was a rookie. It was conceived as a gossipy periodical, what today we would call tabloid journalism. The founders didn’t have enough ads, so humorist Corey Ford came up with an ironic Victorian-style dandy character to fill the empty pages. Eustace Tilley was featured on the first cover (drawn by the art editor Rea Irvin who also designed the iconic New Yorker font) and in a couple of playful stories about making the magazine. Incidentally, Tilley, with his ironic appearance, intensely curious about a butterfly, became the perfect face for the magazine’s future voice: intellectual, yet humorous.

Hygge - The Danish Way of Happiness

Happiness got its unofficial brand name. It’s called Hygge. This unofficial branding comes from the officially happiest* people in the world: the Danes.


According to “The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well” written by Meik Wiking, the CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Hygge is the Danish secret behind a happy life.


The book doesn’t provide life-coaching fluff for instant happiness. Wiking doesn’t presume that you’re an accomplished individual seeking that meaningful ‘something’ in your life. Quite the opposite, Hygge is simply about spending valuable time with your family and friends.
Hygge teaches that happiness is not just about you: Let go of your ego for a bit and embrace empathy. Hygge is natural: That’s why plastic is not Hygge. But memories are. Share your memories and cherish precious moments with your closest ones, advocates happiness ‘brand evangelist’ Meik Wiking. 


Hygge is so irresistibly Scandinavian that we can soon expect it to flood our everyday lives. Be prepared to search for Hygge food, Hygge clothes, Hygge conversations topics, and so on. Don’t take it as just another fashionable trend. Trends are ephemeral. If something is ephemeral, then it’s definitely not Hygge.


* Update: second happiest. In the latest version of the World Happiness Report from March 2017, Norway has upstaged Denmark: http://worldhappiness.report/
 

We’re No Angels

Street art is often perceived as vandalism. Here is one quirky example that I found in Washington, DC. Does it distract drivers? Endanger pedestrians? Or does it add a bit of much-needed flavour to our lives driven by strict rules? You decide.

The Power of Pink

Yesterday’s Women’s March was one of the most impressive events in recent history. Triggered by bigotry and machismo during the American presidential campaign and its outcome, the event attracted almost three million people all over the United States and the world. The March’s mission statement clearly pointed out its goals: “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families - recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

A pink knitted hat called “Pussyhat” became the March’s signature item. According to its creators, the intention was to “make a unique collective visual statement which will help activist be better heard.” In another paragraph, they explained why pink: “Pink is considered a very female colour representing caring, compassion, and love – all qualities that have been derided as weak but are actually strong.”

Historically, the colour pink has long been associated with boys, however: Victorian fashion designated red for men and pale red (pink) for boys. It may sound funny, but at the time pink was seen as a masculine colour. (Imagine today’s macho conservatives in pink tank tops or pink suits!) It wasn’t until the 1950s that this changed. Some studies say that boys simple like blue more and girls pink, even though neuroscience claims that humans generally prefer blue to pink.

That said, a common-sense conclusion would be that our perception regarding gender and colour depends more on the dominant cultural model than on genetics.

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Toblerone - A Dragon’s Sweet Tooth

In an earlier post, I mentioned that some designers avoided using the colour purple, and how Milka embraced it as a signature brand trait. Today, I am going to tell the story of another chocolate champion – Toblerone – and about another signature brand trait – the product shape.

People crave exciting narratives as much as chocolate, if not more. And if the stories around our objects of desire are not mouthwatering enough, we tend to invent better ones. Toblerone’s iconic triangular shape is so distinctive that has generated various theories about its origin.

One very common hypothesis is that the shape is a stylized version of the famous Matterhorn mountain peak, which is also depicted on Toblerone’s packaging. (The image of a bear, Toblerone’s hometown of Bern symbol, is hidden within the mountain.) 

However, the company’s website states that the chocolate’s design was inspired by a pyramidal figure of dancers at the Folies Bergères in Paris. According to this story, the founder’s son was so impressed with the show that he shaped his product after what he saw. This sounds a lot like marketing in hindsight to me, though.

Maybe the most imaginative theory is about “dragon’s teeth:” The story goes that the origin of Toblerone’s shape is connected to World War II and the anti-tank emplacements common in Switzerland at the time. These concrete wedges known as “dragon's teeth” were placed in border areas to protect Switzerland from a possible Nazi invasion. According to this theory, the chocolate bar’s shape is much more meaningful, symbolizing powerful guardians of freedom. However, Toblerone trademarked its triangular shape in 1909, well before WWII and even before the first modern tanks were in operational use. In fact, the dragon’s teeth in Switzerland are colloquially known as the Toblerone lines because they resemble the shape of the chocolate bar, not the other way around.

Source: wallpapersdsc.net

Source: wallpapersdsc.net

Source: logodatabases.com

Source: logodatabases.com

Toblerone Lines, photo by Alistair Scott

Toblerone Lines, photo by Alistair Scott

JR - Can Art Change the World?

His work is described as street art or conceptual art, but it could pass as contemporary photography, environmental design, or even charity advertising. JR's art is visually appealing, and at the same time easy to understand. The lack of deep, hidden meanings accessible only to an initiated minority doesn't make his messages trivial, however. Quite the opposite: His work’s simplicity conveys powerful emotions to the spectator. 

One of my favourite JR projects is his unauthorized outdoor exhibition Face2Face where his intention was to break down prejudice among ordinary people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through silliness and laughter.

He pasted giant portraits of Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life side by side on the West Bank separation wall, asking his 'models' to make funny face expressions. They were school kids, teachers, grocers, security guards, rabbis, or sheiks, for example – and they all took their assignment to be silly very seriously. Whoever saw these portraits couldn't help but burst into laughter. Suddenly, the difference between enemy and friend did not seem that essential: They were all just hilarious faces.

The exhibition did not end the conflict, of course, but for a moment it made hatred a bit more absurd.

To learn more about J.R.: http://www.jr-art.net

 

Yellow Stitches

I was 16 when I got my first Dr. Martens. Unfortunately, they were shoes not boots, and they didn’t have the iconic yellow welt stitching. My friends questioned my shoes’ originality and accused me of wearing cheap knockoffs. In my teenage universe that was a serious offense and I risked being shunned.

Putting aside the scariness of how brands influence our social behaviour from an early age, I have always been curious why my teenage villain, the yellow welt stitching, was such a big deal. A decade later, I learned about “Brand Attributes,” a set of traits which support the narrative behind a brand and shape its personality. Understanding the importance of these traits can be crucial in brand development and decide on its further success. In other words, we fall in love with brands because we are seduced by their attributes. If we can’t identify them, we question the brand’s authenticity. For example, a red Ferrari is always going to feel a bit more authentic than a black one. In my case, the yellow welt stitching was the key attribute that I was missing.

Dr. Martens, with its yellow stitching and other attributes, won the hearts of young people and became a symbol of rebelliousness. The story goes that its durability and firmness appealed to workers in Britain’s blue collar suburbs. But the real breakthrough came when the early ska-loving skinhead youth embraced them as an inevitable mark of their style in the 1960s.

To learn more about the history of Dr. Martens visit:
http://www.drmartens.com/us/history

Source: stuartslondon.com

Source: stuartslondon.com

Source: stuartslondon.com

Source: stuartslondon.com

Source: stuartslondon.com

Source: stuartslondon.com

Houndstooth Pattern

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one meaning of a pattern is: “an artistic, musical, literary, or mechanical design or form.” 

Humans have always been mesmerized by patterns. The first visual patterns were ‘designed’ by nature. However, people quickly found ways to ‘plagiarize’ nature’s artwork and add narrative. Patterns became spiritual symbols; ancient cultures used them to mark taboos or stigmatize renegades. In medieval times, patterns on clothes and flags were symbols of power or belonging. Today, brands display them to win their customer’s attention or show the status of the bearer.

One of my favourite patterns is the houndstooth pattern. It doesn’t have any deep spiritual meaning; it was born out of a weaving technique. Yet, its timeless simplicity is a sign of great style.

Source: Pixabay.com

Source: Pixabay.com

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Intuitive is the New Cool

How many times have you heard that some app or website is not intuitive enough? Among designers, “intuitive” has become the new holy grail of design. It successfully dethroned “unique,” the long-lasting champion of cool. Perhaps, unique was not intuitive enough?

If you dive deep into design history, you’ll see that the concept of intuitive is not new, however, and that it is closely tied to context. In Just Follow the Arrow, I wrote about how hunting provided the context to arrows and made them one of the most intuitive symbols ever. 

Today’s context-savvy audiences require very little to understand most messages. But some designers tend to miss this fact. They seem to be seduced by aesthetic trends and neglect the context. For example, a few years ago, UI design moved from skeuomorphism to flat design, and the (design) world became flat again. Blindly insisting on a design trend when the context requires a different approach, however, is not only counter-intuitive – it’s deeply ignorant.

Here are some examples of past and present intuitive design.

Pictograms for the Munich 1972 Olympics, designed by Otl Aicher. Source: olympic-museum.de  

Pictograms for the Munich 1972 Olympics, designed by Otl Aicher.
Source: olympic-museum.de

 

Material Design by Google (2014)

Material Design by Google (2014)

The Purple Cow

Among the millions of colours on the colour spectrum, purple has always had a special symbolic place in human history: It was commonly perceived as the colour of energy and spirituality; Romans believed that only emperors could wear purple; medieval heraldry borrowed that meaning, and purple became the colour of royalty. 

In graphic design, however, some saw the colour purple as rotten rather than royal: They believed that the colour was suggestive of spoiled meat and as such shouldn’t be used for food packaging. The supposedly scientific explanation for this was that purple had been coded into our genes as a colour of poison during our hunter-gatherer past. Fortunately, the designers of the German chocolate manufacturer Milka didn’t know or didn’t care about the science, and so one of the most memorable all-purple packaging designs was born and crushed a myth in its wake.

Source: milka.de

Source: milka.de

Gerd Arntz, Infographic Design Pioneer

Gerd Arntz was a German modernist artist best known for his black and white graphic art. His design of over 4000 symbols for the Isotype project in the late 1920s and early 1930s was probably the first attempt at a comprehensive collection of pictograms and small illustrative forms in the history of graphic design. The artwork, which today we would categorize as icon and infographic design, was commissioned by Otto Neurath of the Vienna Circle.

The Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) project was conceived as a visual method aimed at making data and statistics more accessible to a broader population, especially to poorer and often illiterate members of society. Apart from the project’s scientific and societal value, the pictograms designed by Gerd Arntz are visually so well-thought-out that they could easily be used in a lot of today’s infographics.

If you would like to learn more about Gerd Arntz, visit: http://www.gerdarntz.org

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Photo: Gerd Arntz Web Archive

Crowned with Laurels

On October 13, the Nobel Prize committee announced that Bob Dylan would be this year’s Nobel laureate in Literature. Some praised the decision, some mocked the committee, like Irvine Welsh who tweeted: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

The word laureate comes from Latin, meaning “crowned with laurels.” A wreath of laurel was given to the winner in the Pythian games in honour of Apollo. In Christianity, it became to symbolize the triumph of humanity. 

What is so exceptional about laurel that it is reserved for and signifies the highest achievements? 

Bay laurel leaves never decay. What a perfect way to crown winners, suggesting the timelessness of their accomplishments! The laurel wreath’s symbolism has its roots in the myth of Apollo and Daphne.

According to Greek mythology, mighty Apollo ridiculed Eros, the god of love. The insulted Eros shot an arrow with a golden tip at Apollo that made the son of Zeus fall passionately in love with the nymph Daphne. But Eros shot at Daphne with an arrow with a lead tip, which caused her to reject Apollo’s love. Apollo wouldn’t stop following her, so Daphne begged her father, the river god Peneus, to save her from the stalker by changing her form. Peneus turned her into a laurel tree. From that day onwards, Apollo decided to wear a laurel wreath made from the leaves of his love.

2004 Summer Olympics Logo (Wikipedia)

2004 Summer Olympics Logo (Wikipedia)

Architectural, Art and Design Fantasies of Yakov Chernikhov

This is a small tribute to a fellow freelancer who achieved amazing results in a harsh Soviet dystopia where any kind of individualism was denounced and persecuted. 

Yakov Chernikhov was an almost forgotten member of the Russian avant-garde. His Architectural Fantasies are impressive creations which blur the boundaries between art, architecture, and design. His own art studio, Research Pilot Laboratory for Architectural Forms and Graphical Studies, founded in the late 1920s, managed not only to survive the post-revolutionary days, but also to produce some of the most original multidisciplinary artwork in 20th century.

More about Yakov Chernikhov: icif.ru

Photo: The Charnel House

Photo: The Charnel House

Photo: The Charnel House

Photo: The Charnel House

Photo: ICIF

Photo: ICIF

Photo: ICIF

Photo: ICIF

Photo: ICIF

Photo: ICIF

Just Follow the Arrow

Admit it, without arrows you are lost! Arrows are probably the single most used symbol ever; they are omnipresent: The cursor on your computer, the exit sign on the highway, the ‘back’ or ‘play’ buttons on your phone. How come? Is this another phenomenon of globalization? 

No, in fact, arrows point to a much more distant past. One leading explanation is that the arrow’s popularity is owed to our hunting ancestors, especially the archers among them. The arrow was the perfect sign to show a fellow hunter the way or to point out danger. Over time, it became the universal symbol for direction and movement. 

Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldaña

Photo by Pablo Garcia Saldaña