On Logophobia

melbourne-new

This essay was first published in Meanjin Quarterly vol. 69 no. 3 in 2010.

In July 2009, the state of Victoria held the annual State of Design Festival. The festival is a ten day celebration of local design, an initiative of the Victorian State Government which in its own words ‘aims to strengthen community appreciation for design and place Victoria’s design excellence in the international limelight…(to) drive growth across the Victorian economy.’[1] Also in 2009, Robert Doyle, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne decided the city’s image needed sprucing up. According to him, its old logo, an amalgam of a sun, a serifed M, and a Doric column reversed out of a giant gumleaf, designed by Richard Henderson, was a hangover from the 1990s.

Organisations usually choose to redesign their visual identities to indicate a new era in their development or to maintain the loyalty of their patrons during times of change. Such was the case in 1992 when after the $2.6 billion collapse of its merchant banking arm, the State Bank of Victoria was sold to the Commonwealth Bank; and it was also the case in 2001, when the Australian mining giant BHP merged with a London group to become BHP-Billiton.

According to the Melbourne City Council, Melbourne’s new graphic identity should dispense with references to history and traditional Australiana for a logo which would represent ‘modern, vibrant, cool’ city Melbourne has become.[2] On July 22nd, after months of work and research, in the middle of the state’s annual design showcase, Melbourne unveiled its new signature: a chunky M of squat proportions divided by intersecting lines into gradated planes of blue and green, a logo which the council had commissioned from the Sydney office of a foreign owned, multi-national branding agency.

The unfortunate irony of the logo being produced in Sydney was not lost on Melbourne’s general public. The new logo, instantly identifiable with the multifaceted, break-the-grid architecture for which Melbourne has become known, immediately attracted ire in the mainstream press. One media personality thought it looked like ‘a three on its side’ or ‘a 1990s rave party.’[3] Another person likened it to ‘the Westgate bridge as it’s collapsing.’[4] Melburnians from all walks of life wrote into the city’s blogs and daily newspapers complaining of hypocrisy. ‘What a disgrace,’ wrote Olga Howell of Greensborough. ‘So many talented local designers could have done as well or better. How generous people are with our money.’ ‘Hey, Robert Doyle,’ wrote Alison Baker of Elsternwick, ‘clearly you’d be happy your philosophy about having to go overseas to get the best doesn’t apply to the selection of lord mayors.’[5]

Australia is no stranger to the practice of logo-bashing. The yellow diamond displaced by a black wedge — the points of which were inspired by the constellation of the Southern Cross — designed by Ken Cato for the Commonwealth Bank endures to this day on almost every main street of Australia. It did not take long, however, after it was introduced for it to enter the Australian lexicon as the ‘Kraft cheese single’ or the ‘Sao cracker dipped in Vegemite’.[6] Similarly, when FHA Futurebrands replaced BHP’s stylised, angular map of Australia with a sequence of metamorphising organic shapes, the result was immediately mocked as the ‘coffee spill’, ‘an ink-jet print gone haywire’[7] or ‘four burnt peanuts’.[8]

Despite the impulse to cultural protectionism, and our national propensity for irreverence, the name-calling is telling. The metaphors may change but where graphic design and quotidian visual culture is concerned, the tone of disparagement never does. While the reaction to the City of Melbourne logo was negative, it was often not clear whether the object of scorn was the logo, the fact it wasn’t home grown or the discipline of communication design itself. Peppered among the attempts to defend the local industry, were the conventional objections usually levelled at minimalist art and aesthetics. The logo was instantly compared to the Melbourne City Council’s most infamous and controversial commission from the 1980s, the yellow angular Vault sculpture by Ron Robertson Swann. The oft-heard refrain ‘my four year old could do this’ appeared in the city’s tabloid newspaper, the Herald Sun.[9] As well as instantly equating the simple with the facile, people also balked at the price-tag. The Melbourne broadsheet, the Age, published the comment ‘At $240 000 M stands for Madness,’[10] among many others of a similar vein.

Such comments are indicative of communal values. Together they belie a kind of antiquated materialism and the curious expectation that each iteration of the logo show evidence of old-style craftsmanship. They underscore the view that the monogram be valued at its weight in gold. They also reveal a collective reluctance to pay for anything as nefarious as an idea. Never mind the fact that the identity was not the work of local designers, the implication is that even if it was, they should not have been paid much for it anyway.

In the daily press the only columnist to come out in favour of the logo and of the design enterprise itself was Eddie McGuire. He insisted that the ‘commissioning of…a logo isn’t as simple as sitting down and getting out the Derwents and a piece of paper.’[11] Despite the experience and training of professionals, graphic design tends to be seen as a domain not requiring expertise, a view which has gained more momentum since the 1980s when digital design software became widely available.

Ignorance of the design process is partly to blame for the wide scale denigration of the Melbourne M. While its simplicity means the final incarnation of a logo may be easily and quickly recreated, the process of inventing it is often long and considered. This point is made evident on Landor’s website, in a photo which will be familiar to most designers who are trained to be rigorous in their approach.[12] The image shows a pin-up session, a wall full of many typographic iterations and variations on a visual theme in front of which stand two designers apparently considering the impact of each. Quoting on a design job involves estimating the time (and money) needed for an imprecise creative process. Since logos increasingly have to communicate an ethos rather than represent something figurative or literal, the designer’s task is to give form to abstract values, concepts and attitudes in a single mark. When he/she casts them into visual form, he/she has the history of visual codes of communication to consider as well as the effects of composition, colour and materials, for instance, on the act of reading, not to mention the practical limitations of scale, media, budget and format. Sometimes inspiration strikes. More often than not, however, alternatives must be tried and tested, and visual rules for its application must be devised in order to maintain its distinctiveness in a complex visual environment. Then, once a design for an individual application has been approved more work is required to prepare it for production.

None of this was mentioned in the ensuing discussion about the logo, nor did anyone ask exactly on what the $240 000 was spent. In the face of the criticism, Landor — the agency responsible among other things for formally putting the ‘coke’ into Coca-Cola and the red bat wing into Levis jeans — remained silent. For his part, Lord Mayor Doyle basked in the publicity. He defended the decision not to hire a Melbourne firm on the basis that he ‘wanted the best product and this work is not actually done very widely.’[13] Those within Melbourne’s communication design industry did not agree and the professional body representing Australian graphic design, the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA), made this known in an open letter to Doyle which attracted twenty-six pages of signatories from Melbourne’s design community.

In the ensuing discussion on AGDA’s website, the majority of designers were not concerned with the parochial Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, nor with a multi-national agency’s winning of the job which most considered a likely outcome in the age of globalisation.[14] The source of their outrage lay, on the whole, in the Lord Mayor’s ignorance of the skills of his own constituency and the fact that apparently not a single Melbourne-based studio was invited to tender for the work. It was also suggested that the designers of Melbourne had fallen victim to the very image the City of Melbourne is trying to promote; that their reputation as typical occupants of Melbourne’s celebrated laneways and as proponents of the urbane boutique culture there had precluded them from being considered for the management of a complex large-scale corporate project.

In the mainstream press one person who did speak up on behalf of the local industry, was Honours co-ordinator at the RMIT School of Design in Melbourne, Russell Kerr. Interviewed in The Herald-Sun he claimed ‘it was crazy that local designers were not engaged to create a new Melbourne brand.’[15] He then let his students demonstrate what they could do. Together with other readers’ submissions, the results were featured on the newspaper’s website under the headlines ‘Design students whip up Melbourne logos quickly and for free,’ and ‘Melbourne logos take an hour, cost nothing’.[16] Unfortunately a gesture aimed at defending the local industry contributed to the wide-scale devaluation of the profession and reinforced the idea that design is easy and should be cheap. If the student work only took an hour, however, it showed. Much of it looked derivative of Landor’s solution or of the original, and the readers’ submissions demonstrated a propensity to make use of default filters in Photoshop.

It is tempting to read the doubts about the City of Melbourne logo as symptomatic of an Australian predilection for sport and sun over any intellectual or indoor activities. Yet if designers expected support from members of other creative sectors, from artists or other patrons of ideas, they were wrong. From their firmly colonised space on the broadsheet, cartoonists Ron Tandberg and Michael Leunig shared their view of the incident, integrating the graphic rhetoric of the logo into the hand-drawn style of their cartoons.[17] Playing with the graphic style of the M, Leunig reconstructed it into different objects, including trousers, a tie, a collar, and finally a dunce’s hat. He thus reiterated the view that the logo is facile. Depicting two homeless people on a park bench above which hangs the giant monogram, Tandberg’s cartoon questioned the allocation of government funding towards activities such as identity design. An article in the Herald Sun, which envisaged the funds spent on the logo being reallocated to security, graffiti removal or food for the homeless, followed the same logic.[18] According to such thinking, there is no potential for design to be an investment rather than simply an expenditure.

One of the most scathing criticisms of the Melbourne logo came from Melbourne novelist, Anson Cameron. His article in the Age lambasting the cost of the Melbourne M when compared to the rate paid per word to Australian writers. According to him, the upshot of this comparison shows that the taxpayers of Melbourne should feel robbed:

Any Melbourne rate payer who doesn’t feel they have been swooped upon and laid waste by a band of brigands who are now dancing around a harbour-brasserie naked, dousing each other in white rum, is impervious to injustice and could be burgled thrice weekly for a decade without realising their chattels are thinning.[19]

This comparison is completely inappropriate. Words are the tools of a writer’s trade and Cameron makes his point plying the formal qualities of verbal language, including alliteration, an acerbic narrative voice and vivid imagery. Yet at no point in the article does Cameron acknowledge that the visual aspect of words has an impact on how we understand them or that design involves skills and literacies that are distinct from those of literary composition. While he has 600 words in which to convey his message, a logo designer has perhaps the duration of a glimpse to capture the audience’s attention and to etch that glimpse into their memory.

Cameron’s article is driven by a contempt for appearances. His piece implies that verbal language — and conventional high-culture forms such as novels — counts and that everyday visual language does not. He seems to adhere to a traditional view of images and their makers that holds both to be deceptive, unreliable and inauthentic. The conflicts of interest that became apparent in the process leading to the design of the city’s graphic identity and public responses to it reflected not simply those of the tension between local and multi-national interests but also that between the values associated with verbal and with visual culture.

For designers, words are often not the favourite mode of expression. It is nevertheless vital they make no bones about what they do. While Landor calls itself a ‘strategic branding and design consultancy’, the word ‘design’ is a rarity on its website. The website itself is text heavy. In the scheme of Landor’s self-promotion, the photograph depicting designers at work is thumbnail-sized and but a footnote. In order to promote themselves to clients  they have had to downplay their job as designers, as people who deal in aesthetics. Rather than focus on what they do, Landor couches its activities in the abstract language of free-market economics. ‘We’re not just brand consultants,’ they spruik, ‘we’re experience innovators.’ Yet the words they use to describe themselves such as ‘opportunity, strategy, experience, impact’ are so riddled with hyperbole and clichés that they seem divorced from any recognisable concrete or sensual experience, divorced from the essence of design.

Cameron and members of the general public also queried the intellectual property of the Melbourne logo and used this concern as a gauge of its worth. Writing to the Herald Sun Anna from Taylors Lakes remarked: ‘I feel a copyright dispute coming on.’[20] Cameron jibed: ‘And is our M protectable by copyright or patent? Might not the burghers of Munich and Mooroopna filch our M, just as Herr Hitler filched the swastika from Hindus?’[21]

Rather than discrediting the design by questioning this, they actually revealed a source of its under-valuation. Conventional models of authorship and the associated system of copyright, have never fitted well with the practice of communication design. Graphic design is often a complex and messy business. Designers, who are usually employed to create something — for use by third parties, find themselves at the crossroads of a network of interests and stakeholders. Their creative products are subject to the constraints of technology, budget and other people’s opinions. Since Western culture tends to privilege originality and the individual inspired genius, cultural forms that lack a clear authority figure are often dismissed.

Aside from the furore surrounding the Melbourne M and cynicism about the value of graphic design, there remains the question of whether or not the mark produced by Landor is any good. The bottom line according to bloggers Les Flaneurs is that it is not. ‘The problem really is that this new identity is not visionary…The “design local” issue arises mainly because the new identity conveys no feel for Melbourne’s unique soul.’[22] Metropolitan spaces are often valued for being hives of activity. The brief for the representation of Melbourne apparently asked for this aspect of the city to be made explicit. Although the quirky proportions of the Melbourne M lend it some character and its geometric form makes it look modern, the graphic style of the logo is undeniably slick and corporate. While the mark developed by Landor represents multi-facetedness in its iconography of gradated fragments, the syntax of branding suggests exactly the opposite. A logo is a unifying symbol and branding is concerned with the overall application of that symbol and its distinctive formal elements. Branding promotes an overarching concept using formal consistency. The representation of of variety and diversity in conjunction with branding as a mode of communication therefore results in an oxymoron.

The paradox of having to communicate diversity in a unified way has been considered by Dutch designers Mevis and Van Deursen in their unrealised proposal for the visual identity of Rotterdam. The duo designed a kit of geometrical glyphs to be assembled in different ways by each of the city’s organisations and departments which required visual representation.[23] In their speculative projects, the European graphic design collective Metahaven has also considered the conflict between the aesthetics of globalisation as exemplified by branding, and the demands of democracy. The collective argues that where the visual identities of countries are concerned, brands offer the illusion of consensus and are designed to bypass political differences in order to communicate in a global marketplace. From a graphic design perspective Metahaven aims for ‘the trangression of brands and concepts – their removal from the inherent tendency to represent consensus and suspended political practices.’[24]

In addition to the umbrella effect of branding, for the City of Melbourne re-branding involved a streamlining of the city’s identity carriers. While many have complained about the cost of the project, the new branding will save the council money by gradually replacing about fifty different logos the city uses to present and promote various services and functions. This means that Melbourne will present itself in a singular tone. Designer Steven Cornwell has been critical of such communicational whitewashing:

Is the City of Melbourne about beautification and tourism, or is it about governance, waste, welfare? How do you reconcile selling the City of Melbourne as a multifaceted city of laneways and diverse culture in a tourism sense and then receive your parking fine, welfare assistance and waste pickup with the same symbol strewn across everything?[25]

The local-global tensions that arose over who produced the logo therefore persist in the disparity between the city’s message, the visual rhetoric used to convey it and the city council’s apparently more centralised organisational hierarchy.

The Victorian Government has committed $15 million over four years in a comprehensive strategy to encourage design-led growth in Victorian industries through its establishment of Design Victoria, of which the aforementioned State of Design festival is a part. If there is a link between design and a healthy economy — and there are examples — clearly this link is yet to be made in the communal consciousness. If people are dissatisfied with the image of Melbourne presented by the city’s elected leaders, then perhaps they need to take the stuff they see and that surrounds them more seriously. A much richer discussion of our visual environment is possible, a discussion in which designers should join. In this instance, we could have been discussing how and when a city should represent itself, as well as who has a right to represent it and to whom. We could have been discussing whether the brief provided to Landor was appropriate, whether the mark embodies Melbourne’s ethos with any integrity or even whether a logo was the best outcome. We could have explored exactly how the $240 000 was spent before passing judgement with knee-jerk reactions.

In Australia as the manufacture of things moves off shore and people face the increased urgency of climate change, there is an urgent need to reconsider what we’re making here, and how. We have every indication that we cannot depend on material productivity as a measure of economic success. This argument alone should be enough to suggest that rather than mocking it, we should invest every M with as much significance as possible. 

1 http://www.stateofdesign.com.au (viewed November 2009)
2 Robert Doyle quoted in Inga Gilchrist, ‘Hip to be Square: Melbourne’s modern new logo a chunky move,’ MX, 22 July 22 2009, p.1.
3 Dave O’Neil quoted in Kate Lahey, ‘Shades of the Yellow Peril as Melbourne gets logo makeover’, Age, 23 July 23 2009, p.3.
4 Raymond Gill, ‘Our city must go for a song’, Age, 8 August 8 2009, A2, p. 7.
5 Age, 24 July 2009, p.12.
6 Tom Reilly, ‘In world of logo disasters, Melbourne’s far from worst’, Sunday Age, 26 July 2009, p. 7.
7 Sharon Kemp, ‘BHP spills the goods on new logo and its profits,’ Age, 21 August 2008
8 ‘Logo not a-go-go,’ Australian, 21 August 212008, p. 26
9 Bryan Lukas, Herald Sun, 24 July 2009, p.37.
10 Age, 24 July 2009, p.12.
11 Eddie McGuire, ‘Focus’, Herald Sun, 26 July 2009, p.70.
12 http://www.landor.com (viewed November 2009)
13 Robert Doyle quoted in Kate Lahey, ‘Shades of the Yellow Peril as Melbourne gets logo makeover’, Age, 23 July 2009, p.3.
14 http://blogs.agda.com.au/suite7/view/year/2009/month/7/post/an-open-letter-to-the-lord-mayor-of-melbourne.
15 http://www.heraldsun.com.au/story/0,668,25826493-2862,00.html.
16 Matt Johnston, Herald Sun, 24 July 2009, p.3.
17 Age, 24 July 24 2009, p.12.
18 Matt Johnston, ‘Madness…and they haven’t finished spending yet’, Herald Sun, 23 July 23rd 2009, p.7.
19 Anson Cameron, ‘Fancy a letter? How about this one for just $240, 000…’, Age, 24 July 2009, p.13.
20 Herald Sun, 28 July 2009, p.24.
21 Anson Cameron, ‘Fancy a letter?’
22 http://blogs.agda.com.au/suite7/view/year/2009/month/7/post/an-open-letter-to-the-lord-mayor-of-melbourne.
23 See Paul Elliman, Recollected Work: Mevis and Van Deursen, Artimo, Amsterdam, 2005, pp. 96;119–120.
24 Metahaven in Markus Miessen, ‘Secret Practices: Markus Miessen in conversation with Metahaven, Vinca Kruk and Daniel Van Der Velden,’ Zak Kyes and Mark Owens (eds.), Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design, Architectural Association, London, 2007, p.164.
25 http://blogs.agda.com.au/suite7/view/year/2009/month/7/post/an-open-letter-to-the-lord-mayor-of-melbourne.

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