Imagine you’re a newbie fresh out of design school (and I don’t mean one of those faux-accredited hipster schools where all you have to do is turn up, swagger around with your fixed gear bike and strike pretend nonchalant-poses with your strategically positioned dirty-fake tatts showing).

You’ve studied hard, you’ve got the principles down, and you feel like you can easily navigate how to tactfully deal with clients and the intricacies of what to charge, so as not to be viewed as a slap-happy rip-off merchant. You’ve managed to blitz a first meeting with the perfect client, during which you’ve delicately pitched your ideas for a mind-bendingly awesome logo redesign.

During that meeting, you’ve even managed to trot out your gorgeous leather bound notebook with hand-sketched logo prototypes thrown in for that retro feel – all done with authentic 6B lead, obviously. You’re sure you’ve nailed it. Your revamp ideas are solid – complete with a bold new colour palette, a delicate twist on the original logo with just the right amount of zing to make sure the subtly is actually noticeable, and a font choice that would make mothers weep with joy , including your own (if, after paying your ridiculously high tuition fees she actually cares about anything other than you scoring an authentic job with dollar signs attached).

You’re absolutely, definitely positive the client is about to contact you with a sublime barrage of confirmation like “When can you start?“ or “You’re a designer queen who positively drips brilliance, you’re hired!” and “We want you to have our design babies, right now, on this couch!”. This uber-grateful praise (understandably, as the redesign is completely awesome) is to be accompanied by massive amounts of Square-swiped credits and a big-green-lit-go for the logo redesign to commence.

Right?

Wrong. If history (and actual working examples) proves correct, the process of designing logos – whether that’s through modifications to an existing design, or a brand-spanking-falling-off-the-newness-shelf type – is far more hairy and much more complex. Take, for instance, the stories of serendipity, underhandedness, and censorship that pepper the histories of world-famous logos. From ultra-recognisable tech icons to global coffee house branding, each logo comes with a distinct bubble of intrigue that makes designing logos look more like a train-wreck than a picnic.

Android: Cute, green and un-appropriated

Let’s ease into the juicy world of logo design histories by first looking at Android, a logo that seems to have bypassed all the nasty rivalries and blood-feuds that drench other creations we’ll be examining later.

It seems as if the only dirty design laundry that needs airing when it comes to the origins of the Android logo is whether it was, in fact, appropriated creatively adapted from another design source. There’s been speculation regarding the inspiration for the Android logo since the initial logo release, with the cute l’tle green guy even being likened to a simplified R2D2.

The real stab at the originality of the Android logo is the allegation that the logo had in fact been lifted from an Atari video game called ‘Gauntlet: The Third Encounter’.

Luckily, Irina Blok – the Android designer who thought up the logo – clears up the question of what actually bought the little bugdroid into existence:

This logo is designed to be international symbol for Android, and it is open source, just like the platform itself. There are no cultural references to any other characters or cultural icons… The process was very simple – we talked to the founder of android and did a research on the whole android/robot theme. It was clear that the logo needed to relate to the name, and the first step was to create a huge mood board with all kinds of droids, robots that were inspired by the android operating system. Next step was to explore a variety of visual languages and directions – ranging from pixel based, realistic to cartoony. There were 2 designers working on this – but at the end my sketch was selected…it is ironic that the most basic symbol was chosen. In fact this was my first sketch that I created in 5 minutes, and after that we spent weeks ideating and sketching more. I think the simplicity of this mark really made a statement, this became an international symbol of android (just like airport signs: men, woman, android)…

Blok also provides copies of the original “visual representations” involved in the finished logo’s construction, which do show a fairly diverse range of visual approaches (including a large hat tip to robot nostalgia).

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“Visual representations” involved in the finished Android logo construction (Image Credit: Irina Blok)

Blok says that the original Android design objective was to generate a representation that completely captured the product (including the open source angle), as well as a strategy for forming an emotional connection with the brand. Initially, the logo was aimed squarely at developers, and was intended to have the same weighting as the Linux Penguin.

As it turns out, the logo resonated strongly with both consumers and developers. Blok says as Google considers “…anything that resembles traditional marketing [as] cheesy and unworthy of attention…”, a typical officious presentation just wouldn’t cut it, so Blok and her team came up with a mischievous display method to ensure the logo made its covert way into the right hands.

This guerrilla scheme involved leaving a sheet of paper containing the logo on a particular table in the Google offices, where they knew it would get noticed and leave Google boffins positively foaming at the mouth. Sure enough, it did: so much so that Blok says the logo went viral. She knew it had hit critical success when she spied a huge Android statue whilst driving to work, thinking: “…This is cool, how something you create has a life on its own.”

The next step in the Android logo evolution was the release of the source design within Google, so engineers could sit and waste their precious grey matter and time doodling cartoony fat stick figures modify and adapt the design to create their own versions like those below. These versions produced by assorted Google engineers seem a tad clumsy, especially the grey-blue versions that looks a little like an unfortunate blind and catatonic stumpy-legged-nightshirt-wearing granny with a mixing bowl stuck upside down on her head.

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Google Engineers Practice Their Design Skills (Image Credit: Irina Blok)


Blok says for the green colour employed in the Android logo (non-design nerds look away now) the standard print colour value is PMS 376C with the hex colour being #A4C639, and it: “…was selected because it reminded (us of a) nostalgic code color, and it would stand out against dark background.”. Nice.

Apple schmapple: The original Apple logo designer has never owned an Apple product

Next up on the logo history dissection table is (you guessed it) one of the most famous tech icons in the history of – well, tech.  Unlike Android, the origins of the Apple logo tick all our intrigue boxes: it has skulduggery and pathos laced right through its evolutionary veins.

First up, let’s take an analysis squiz at the original logo, designed by Apple co-founder and designer Ronald Wayne in 1976. This logo was produced by Wayne back when he was a co-founder of Apple for a grand total of 11 days, before selling his share for a measly $800 (ouch). The design, which is reminiscent of a Victorian wood-cut or engraving, shows Sir Isaacc Newtown plonked directly under an apple tree, with one as-yet-gravity-defying-fruit hanging directly above him.

The logo also contains an extract from a work by William Wordsworth running around the picture-frame border that says “Newton… a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought…alone”, with another banner with the text “Apple Computer Co.” completing the picture. It’s been rumoured that Jobs never really took to the logo, thinking it too intellectual and not accurately symbolising Apple.

This first logo produced by Wayne showcased a more antiquated company angle than Jobs was looking for – in fact, this incarnation of the logo only lastly a mere blip on Apple’s design radar, before Jobs took his minimalist razor to it when bringing Rob Janoff on board for a redesign – which replaced Wayne’s within the same year of its creation. Wayne blurted out in a CNN interview the fact he’d never, ever purchased an Apple product, confirming that fact that old wounds do in fact run deep, even those related to design. Considering this, it’s no wonder Wayne hasn’t bothered to give Apple any of his hard earned cash in exchange for devices that, when used, would probably be the emotional equivalent of frequently jabbing yourself in the eye with a red hot fork.

Janoff was the first Apple logo designer to push out an actual Apple silhouette rendition, complete with rainbow banding and the now infamous bite which was used to indicate scale, not as a tribute to Alan Turing as urban myth would suggest. In an interview with Revert To Saved in 2011, Janoff shows the influence of Jobs again in the design brief specifications:

I didn’t have much of a formal brief on the logo assignment, other than “don’t make it cute”. But I did know the selling points of the Apple Computer, and one of the biggest was colour capability. To me, that looked like colour bars on a monitor, which became the stripes in the logo. The order of the stripes, I’m sorry to say, had no particular grand plan other than I liked them that way. And, of course, the green stripe would be at the top where the leaf is…The bite is really about scale and the common experience of biting into an apple. It was a happy accident that ‘byte’ is a computer term.

Interesting, then, that the next incarnation of Apple’s logo was simply a minimalist version of Janoff’s redesign. These changes to the logo came shortly after Jobs rejoined Apple, who stripped Janoff’s version of its trademark colour and replacing that with an aqua tint that complemented the release of the iMac. The latest glass-tint modification that is in use to our present day (and which can be seen, repeatedly, in suckful gratuitous product placement) was implemented in 2003.

Starbucks: From bare-breasted seductress to sanitised mermaid

We’ve all seen the latest form of the Starbuck’s logo: green (designers seem to just love green) cartoon-stylised, and mermaid curvy  – though unlike in the video below, the up-to-date logo version has dropped the text and circular border completely.

You’d think butter wouldn’t melt in the depicted sea-gal’s mouth: she’s family friendly and oh so tastefully rendered, with her modesty ensured with no chance of her troublesome-girly-bits being exposed to voracious consumers the general public.

This, however, hasn’t always been indicative of Starbucks overall design philosophy: for the very first execution of ye olde Starbucks logo, the original was actually (and ironically) a valid artistic interpretation which involves tasteful nudity related to mythology and history fairly racy by today’s censorship standards, complete with naked breasts and (shock! terror!) a FEMALE BELLY BUTTON (the horror…the horror). All jokes aside, the first brown logo did definitively portray a bare-chested siren in a Norse woodcut style, as seen here in a Starbucks promotional image illustrating the logo’s evolution:

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Starbucks: An Illustrated History (Image Credit: Starbucks Propaganda Machine)

In his book “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time”, Howard Schultz describes this original logo as a: “…siren, encircled by the store’s original name, Starbucks Coffee, Tea, and Spice. That early siren, bare-breasted and Rubenesque, was supposed to be as seductive as coffee itself.” Whether Schultz is correct in his interpretation, the fact still remains that the very first rendition of the Starbucks logo shows a defiantly nude mythological siren, or Melusine, who traditionally seduced men while being able to shape shift into a serpent/dragon (can anyone say “Calling Doctor Freud”?).

Did the content of this first Starbucks logo – containing such naughtily precocious material – survive through subsequent updating over the years? You betcha it didn’t. Redesigns that occurred in 1987, 1992, and 2011 all stripped the Melusine image of any controversial sexualised characteristics via the removal (or coverage) of nipples and belly button, as well as extensive cropping  and re-positioning of the revealing leg pose to the point of viewers needing to ask “What-the-freak-are-those?”. You’d think changes could have been implemented that both contemporize the logo and retain some of the original designer’s vision.

Let’s face it: if a company can’t handle associated implications of exposed breasts and female belly buttons on their logos, how the hell could they let an uncensored image of a fully leg-spread half-woman/ half-beast represent them? The symbolic implications for any company would be tough to navigate in our current regressive political, cultural and economic dark ages  business climate, despite any artistic merits of such a portrayal. A dumbed-down, visually palatable mermaid-like figure devoid of any artistic nudity so as to fit a “visual identity system” is fairly sad to contemplate, but that’s the precise iconic reality of what the Starbucks logo is today.

NASA logo flip-flops: The worm vs the meatball

We all love a juicy story about the triumph of the underdog, even if in this particular tale it’s a bit murky as to precisely who the underdog is. Both underdog contenders in question have produced radically different designs angles for NASA, with somewhat surprising consequences.

In the late 1950’s James Modarelli modified a pre-existing NASA logo to what’s commonly now referred to as “The Meatball”.

The Meatball Android, Apple, Starbucks & NASA: What inspired these four world famous logos?

“The Meatball” (Image Credit: NASA Archives)

At the time, Modarelli headed up NASA’s Lewis’ Research Reports Division. He stylised the then-current NASA seal by simplifying the imagery and adding the white text as shown above. Unfortunately for Modarelli, the logo was difficult to replicate, with colours that proved problematic when printing.

The second NASA design team – Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn – addressed these problems in 1974 when they produced a new logo that (even today) is known as “The Worm”. The Worm consists of a line of red text – with embellished letter “A”s – spelling out the word NASA. In his memoirs published in 2011, Danne says the logo was conceived to replace:

…the NASA Insignia (nicknamed the “Meatball”) with a more useful new Logotype. The meatball was complicated, hard to reproduce, and laden with “Buck Rogers” imagery. Clearly it was born out of the classic airman syndrome where hype and fantasy dominated over logic and reality. Our Logotype was quite the opposite: it was clean, progressive, could be read from a mile away, and was easy to use in all mediums.

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NASA Graphic Standards Manual. showing multiple uses of “The Worm” from 1975 and 1984 (Image Provided by Richard Danne)

Danee and Blackburn’s logo version was used widely through the organisation, including NASA manuals (see above) and actual spaceships (which awesomeness prompts such random quotes such as “Dinosaurs on a spaceship!”), until Danne received news in 1992 that The Worm was being canned in favour of the design that preceded theirs – The Meatball was back.

From a design perspective, the choice is an interesting one: replacing a logo with a previous one that’s seriously dated by an antiquated aesthetic is a bold move for any organisation. The Meatball does have a definite vintage feel that may just slide towards the retro, but it’s unclear if that was the intention of those who reinstated The Meatball as the official NASA logo.

The flip from NASA’s ditching of The Worm and reinstatment of The Meatball still proves tender for Danne:

The NASA project remains very joyful, and very painful, even after all these years. I’m almost worn our from talking about it. I doubt if there has even been a program this good, published and honored so widely, that was abandoned! The only vindication for Bruce and I, is that designers and journalists around the world continue to campaign and keep our program alive.If nothing else, it’s a feel good thing. And the logo is still out there… on vehicles floating in deep space!

Condensing the essence of a concept or company into a single visual icon is a definite challenge which requires an enormous amount of skill on the designer’s part.  Having the whizz-bang talent to knock out kick-arse logos is only half the battle: when it comes to developing a knack for client negotiation during design creation, it seems as if massive amounts of tact, diplomacy, and vision really help. So future newbie designers beware: ready yourselves to deal with such scenarios similar to those spelled out above, but also remember the following (sweetly divulged by Irina Blok) if you’d like your design experiences to resemble picnics over train-wrecks:

The creative process is about discovery. It is critical to learn as much as you can about the product you are promoting, and it is important to understand…the value proposition. How does the product compare to competitors? What does make it unique? From there…start exploring visual language on how to communicate this. It can be colors, metaphors, or typography. Basically design is about moving elements around the page that helps to tell a story. :)