Amid all the hue and cry over the new NBC Universal corporate logo, there are two voices actually worth listening to — those of Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, the designers of NBC’s beloved peacock. “I think the new one is terrible,” Geismar said in a recent interview. “Very bland.”
Of course, Wolff Olins, the firm responsible for stripping the peacock from the new NBC Universal identity, doesn’t see things that way. “I don’t think people quite understand the goal,” said Wolff Olins Creative Director Mike Abbink. “It wasn’t just, ?Let’s take this thing, rehash it and spew out something new.” It has a lot of purpose to it. But ultimately, I think most people misunderstand the intent.?
Who’s right? Well, that all depends on whether giving a client exactly what they ask for is always in their best interest. Is this a classic case of designers kowtowing to a client’s demands and ending up with a solution that’s under par? Or are we all missing something here?
A little context: NBC Universal is the conglomerate behind NBC, USA Network, Bravo, SyFy, and a slew of other brands. On the eve of the media giant’s merger with Comcast late last month, NBC Universal rolled out a fresh logo that’s supposed to both signal its new corporate voice and work as a versatile, largely internal tag for all its brands.
The old logo married the Universal globe and the NBC peacock. The new one does away with both (though the peacock will still be used on NBC networks) and instead opts for a white serif wordmark on a plain purple background, with “NBC” and ‘Universal’ smashed awkwardly together. Overall, the look? well, it’s no peacock. As one TV critic tweeted: “Let’s hope their programming isn’t that dull.”
Abbink, who designed the logo’s typeface, insists there’s a clear logic at play. After exploring many options, Wolff Olins settled on a typographic design solution, because “we knew from the onset that’s really what the client had in mind and wanted to see from us,” he says. After exploring the nuances in the Universal logo structure, as well as in NBC’s, they conceptualized a hybrid typeface that would appear as a modern interpretation of the silver screen’s golden era. They also drew inspiration from the Deco-style architecture of the company’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller and crafted the logo so that it ‘might look good chiseled into the side of the building.’ But the mark also had to be neutral, both in color and style, to look good alongside NBC Universal’s vast range of brands. “People are saying that it’s stripped of everything, but from our point of view — it’s not. We think a sans-serif would have stripped it of everything — the serif, for us, just gives it enough of a nuance.”
After the logo was established, they designed an entire typeface around the mark, which included a serif face for display purposes and a sans serif for text. “The system we created was really designed as ‘a comfortable pair of jeans,?’ Wolff Olins Head of Design Todd Simmons explains. ?It just goes with everything.”
But why no space between “NBC” and ‘Universal?’ After researching and showing the client every possible combination ” all lowercase with a space, all uppercase with a space, mixed — they agreed that merging the words sent the best message. NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke liked the idea that it reflected ?a gesture of unity that he hopes to bring across the portfolio,” Simmons said. (Simmons also pointed out that unofficially, within the walls of NBC Universal, everyone uses “NBCU” as shorthand.)
Which brings us back to Chermayeff and Geismar. Set aside, for a moment, their personal stakes in the logo. These guys know from corporate design. They’re the brains behind such iconic marks as Chase Bank, PBS, New York University, and of course, NBC. If anyone knows how to maintain their design integrity in the boardroom, it’s them. They say that the notion of larger corporations disassociating themselves from their networks is pretty common. But “it doesn’t always work out for the best,” Geismar says. He points to Time Warner. ‘They have a very bland all-type logo because all their brands have their own logos,’ he says. “It’s kind of a corporate speak that doesn’t get to be anything very good.”
Wolff Olins does have strong, solid rationale for every decision they’ve made along the way. But, the question remains: Is it visually any good? Does sound reasoning make up for lack of sex appeal? Should it even matter that this is a B-to-B logo, which customers will rarely see? Or that if we don’t really get the logo now, we will, according to Wolff Olins, once the brand and communication systems fully unfolds in all its parts? Shouldn’t a logo be able to stand on its own?
It’s worth noting that when Chermayeff and Geismar updated NBC’s logo in the 1980s, they presented one and only design. Because “it seemed so obviously the right thing to do.” We couldn’t agree more. These guys know what they’re doing. Sure, Wolff Olins does too — but in giving their clients exactly what they asked for… that was their downfall. ‘Just to do things for political reasons or to please somebody or another is really not something we can take very seriously,’ Chermayeff says, “and if asked to do that we discourage it and avoid it, if we possibly can — or just refuse to do it.”