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.

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

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

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

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)

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

The Duke of Austria and His Bloody Belt

Today, storytelling has become just another buzzword. But if we look past the social media fluff, telling stories is really one of the most beautiful traits humans possess.

Stories live along with our symbols, rituals, and beliefs. One of my favorites is the legend behind the Austrian flag.

Once up on a time, the Duke of Austria came home from battle covered in blood. His surcoat (originally white) and his sword belt were all red. When he took off his belt, a white stripe appeared. He was so struck by the symbolic power of red and white that he decided to use it as his banner.

 Photos by Philipp Haderer

Photos by Philipp Haderer

Half-A-Century-Old Typo

When we think about old cultures, we often idealize their achievements. Ancient symbols engraved in stone or glyphs drawn on parchment arouse our imagination. We tend to forget that they were created by people like us – human beings who are prone to make things up or to make mistakes.

A nice example of this is the story behind the old seal of the medieval city of Stochulm (Stockholm). The words around the symbol are misspelled: They read “Stochum” instead of Stochulm, and “cicicum” instead of civium (council). There is no hidden meaning, no mystery to be solved; it’s just a simple typo. What is more, it took almost 50 years to be corrected! The first mention of the seal in wax was in 1281 (the oldest visual is dated to 1296), but the new seal with the correct spelling didn’t appear until 1326. Apparently all for a lack of funds.

Obviously, back then spell-checking was a big deal. Think about that next time you're mad at your smart phone’s autocorrect.