How do you decide if a client needs a wordmark or a symbol?
When we take on a client, this is one of the first questions that has to be addressed. And there is rarely an ambiguity. Basically I start off with the premise that there has to be a good reason for a symbol. Examples of good reasons for a symbol include: a very long name (like Chase Manhattan Bank); a need to bring together different entities, sub-brands, or divisions (like the Smithsonian Institution or the Library of Congress); or a need for a visual icon as a shorthand (like NBC). Without a good reason such as these, the focus should be on the name of the entity represented.
What are the most cherished successes and failures in your design career, and what did you learn from them?
When Georgio Armani was first shown the new A/X logo we designed in 2008, he rejected it outright. However, we found out that the new mark had been presented to him between meetings in a rush on a white piece of paper. The A/X people then suggested approaching him a second time (which they almost never do) with our entire presentation showing the logo in applications such as magazine ads, store fronts and billboards. He then immediately approved it. This near-failure taught me that in our business, presentation is everything.
What’s the difference between logo design and other graphic design disciplines? Many design portfolios have good editorial and graphics work, while great branding seems to be rare. Would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.
I see this myself all the time — great portfolios with terrible logo work. Here’s why I think this happens: it is very difficult to boil things down to their absolute essence. It is also a tremendous challenge to walk the line between simplicity and distinctiveness, ultimately creating something unique and memorable but simple enough to work as an effective identifier that is appropriate for the client. These parameters are very demanding and are not necessarily the same skill-set required to create effective editorial or information design.
How would you describe a good client? A bad client?
A good client treats you like a doctor, and therefore defers to your expertise, which ensures a good result. A bad client wants to focus-group your designs.
What do you like to read?
Some of my all time favorites are Crime and Punishment because it encapsulates great complexities, and in spite of its length, is incredibly simple and iconic; Alice in Wonderland because of its elevation of fantasy; and Waiting for Godot, in which Samuel Beckett disguised his critique of religion so perfectly.
In this day and age of loud, busy visuals, how do you convince a client to go with something simpler, something of the Chermayeff & Geismar tradition?
Good question. What helps is when we tell the client that our time-tested principle is that choosing an effective logo is not about what one likes or dislikes: it’s about what works. For a logo to work — and work for a long time — it must be simple. We also remind our clients that a logo is not the totality of the communications of the company, and also that if the mark is simple and distinctive enough, it can take on any treatment or filter. So there is definitely a certain degree of identity design education that comes into play in getting a client to make the best (and you might say, educated) decision.
What is it about graphic design that attracted you and made it your life’s work?
I certainly have an attraction to visuals. Perhaps that’s genetics. But I think the passion I have for my profession is not so much about graphic design as it is about problem-solving. I think a personality type who is fascinated with a problem being presented and can not rest until it is solved adequately is a natural corporate identity designer. That’s me.
How important a role does animation play in logo design?
It does and it doesn’t. It is very important in today’s digital world that a logo lend itself to being animated. But there is a risk involved: the mark has to work in a static form and cannot be a mere “freeze frame” of a great animated sequence. We have found that as long as the mark is simple and memorable, it will inevitably be suitable for animation. This is why, when I created Logomotion — an animated portfolio of Chermayeff & Geismar’s trademarks — I found that the marks our firm created in the 50s and 60s before animation was even considered (Chase, Mobil, PanAm) were as easily and naturally set in motion as any of the later marks.
If you could design an identity for a particular someone or company, who would it be?
Capital One Bank: This half-Nike, half-Citi mark is too complex, is not particularly memorable, and ultimately looks like a boomerang which is not a very appropriate image for a bank.
Do you use a pencil and paper before a computer when designing?
Always. The computer will not help you connect with your creative impulses. A pencil will.
What are your favorite movies or TV shows?
Blue Velvet (David Lynch) because it’s a perfect representation of dark and light in the most profound sense; Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polansky) because the suspense is built not by what you can see, but by the actions that are hidden from the viewer; After Hours (Martin Scorsese) because to me it is the ultimate depiction of crazy New York characters; When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner), which is the only romantic comedy I care to admit that I love; Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme) because it is deliciously gory, and finally Alien (Ridley Scott), because the art and the gore are practically the same.
Many thanks to Sagi for taking the time, and to everyone who sent questions. More from Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv.