They don't make logos like they used to

January 05, 1994|By Philip A. Lieberman

GROWING up in the 1950s, I accompanied my mother on weekly treks to the local A&P. It was an old store, with wooden floors and globe light fixtures. By today's standards, it would barely qualify as a supermarket.

But unlike today's Muzak-filled, cinder-block behemoths, that A&P had character. Even the large metal sign over the front door displayed an unmistakable emblem: a perfect circle with a puffed-up "A" and "P" neatly inscribed within.

On the way home, we'd sometimes stop at the Mobil filling station, where a winged Pegasus adorned an acorn-shaped sign. There I would place a dime in a big blue cooler which dispensed a 12-ounce glass bottle of Pepsi-Cola, whose ornate etched design made me feel important.

Everywhere we walked, in fact, I encountered signs and emblems which exuded the friendliness of a less sophisticated era. The large cat's paw on the shoe repair window; the "Little Nipper" dog cocking his head to an RCA phonograph in the TV store; the paint store displaying the Earth covered by Sherwin Williams paint. . . each gave me a secure sense of place.

Today, all of these trademarks -- known technically as logos -- have been swept aside, replaced by simpler, more stylized designs geared to a slicker, faster-paced society.

But there is more to the old logos than mere nostalgia. We can learn something by examining how they have changed.

Let's start with something we have all used: the telephone. In 1961 the Bell System logo was a sharply defined bell with little notches and points inside a circle. Words in the perimeter of the circle informed you about the company.

By 1983, before the company was splintered into "Baby Bells," its logo had become a simple line drawing, which a rank amateur artist like myself could have reproduced on paper in about a minute.

Just as the Socony horse has disappeared from Mobil signs, so has the beautiful seashell from Shell Oil.

Through a number of shaded lines, the artist of the old logo created an accurate rendering of a seashell. The modern emblem is stylized and nondescript.

Murine eye drops kept its traditional logo until the 1970s. The "M" and "E," coupled with the winged "Y," were soothing to the eyes, which is what the product is supposed to be. The new logo, borrowed from computer graphics, is uninspired and conveys no feeling at all.

Canada Dry did not scrap its pleasant old map of Canada, with latitude and longitude lines and a handsome eight-point crown. But it relegated the emblem to a small corner of the ginger ale bottle, overshadowed by brash bold type.

Without much effort, you can probably recall a dozen other friendly old logos no longer in use. In nearly all cases, you will find that they have changed from complex illustrations requiring considerable artistic ability to simple, easily imitated basic forms. Perhaps it is because reading skills have declined.

More likely it is the advent of the freeway and the two-car family, which have made fast recognition imperative -- at the expense of art.

The saddest outcome is that, when every company strives for simplicity in its trademark, they all begin to look alike. My 7-year-old daughter, while learning to read, mistook a Texaco sign for an Agway emblem. When you look at the two side-by-side, it's easy to see why.

Simplified logos irk me, as do people who claim that electronic media will some day replace newspapers and magazines. The familiarity that readers develop with their hometown paper derives from a unique combination of paper stock, typeface and format. No doubt we can get the same -- and better -- raw information from a computer terminal, but in doing so we sacrifice the sensory variety that gives everyday life zest and appeal.

So it is with logos. Pepsi-Cola refreshes me just as it did when I was a child, but I no longer pause to admire the bottle (or throwaway can). When my daughter first recognized the A&P sign in our town, she had little trouble copying a facsimile on paper.

She couldn't have done that 30 years ago.

Philip A. Lieberman writes from Tunkhannock, Pa.

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