Logos on my mind

Ivan Chermayeff

“So these things that most people take for granted here in Nigeria are highly appreciated elsewhere?” This was the question that flashed through my mind when I heard the breaking news. It was about the death of a certain man in the United States of America. The man’s name did not ring a bell to me and I am sure to most Nigerians it wouldn’t either. He did not belong to the club of the very rich persons on earth before his death. He was also not a brother or a close relation of a rich and powerful leader like Donald Trump. These are the type of fellows most Nigerians would like to cultivate as friends or call uncles or just talk about. He was only 85 so he did not break any record of longevity that qualified him for a mention in the Guinness Book of Records. Worse of all, I doubt if anybody in Nigeria, including even me, knew that what he did for a living was recognised as a respectable occupation. But it was. So what was this man into that made a worldwide radio network such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to mention his passage as breaking news on December 4, 2017?

Mr. Ivan Chermayeff whose profession inspired this piece was described as an iconic logo designer (I will come to this shortly) on the breaking news. The announcement went on to mention a number of logos his company had designed some of which Nigerians must have seen without giving a hoot. I am sure to most Nigerians the man did not deserve all the publicity almost befitting a head of state or a super star that was given to his death in the western media. His profession must have been seen by many in Nigeria as obscure. But count me out of those that hold this view. For, the man was doing something that I cherish and sometimes indulged in secretly as a pastime.

I think my fascination for logos started as a primary school pupil. Like a few other boys, I started creating my personal stamp by carving my name on the bark cut from a certain tree found in our forests. I graduated from carving on wood to real rubber when I entered the secondary school. Instead of writing our name in longhand on our books, we stamped our name on them. I believe it was a way of asserting our unique identity which is what logos are all about.

In the 1970s when I started buying the long playing (LPs) records which were like collectors’ items in those days, I printed my initials in a specific way on the jacket of each record. It was from this stylistic printing of my initials on records that I began to dream of designing a fantastic logo for the company I was going to float in future. I began to put down my sketches for my dream company in a notebook. It did not end with sketches of logos for my future company. I also assessed many logos that I see and when I feel one was not imaginative enough or just too crude, I usually start sketching (for my own consumption, mind you) my version on any piece of paper or even on sand if paper was not handy.

I got the opportunity to put into practice my love for logo designing immediately I was retired from the Nigerian Army in 1990. Though the restaurant business I went for was different from what I have been sketching different logos for, I designed something I considered fantastic all the same. Exuding pride at my design, I showed it to a Briton who was then my friend. The man glanced at it for a few seconds and without hesitation, he told me that the blue wavy lines on the background of my design symbolizes oceans or seas and so was not proper for a restaurant logo. He went on to educate methat such a background was good for any business that has to do with water!

On my return to my hometown a couple of years later after the collapse of my restaurant venture in the North, I designed a signpost for my residence to differentiate it from the others. Apart from my birth name that I decided to use on it, I also drew what I regarded as a house in the centre of the miniature signpost. It had a tailless arrow pointing to my house on each side. I became very proud of it whenever I heard neighbours using it to describe their houses to their would-be visitors on phone. But one day a boyhood friend who always faulted almost everything I did, visited me. He told me that the arrow of my signpost was pointing skyward and went on to ask mockingly if my house was in the sky! My explanation that what he called an arrow was in fact a stylistic representation of a house did not impress him! He dismissed my tailless arrows with a wave of his hand. Fearing that other visitors or even passers-by might have mistaken the houseof my signpost for an arrow as my friend had done, I grudgingly removed it.

But my inability to design a logo that became iconic did not stop me from being a critic of sorts. For instance, I am confused with the description of Ivan Chermayeff as an iconic logo designer. Since I heard those words, I have been asking myself what makes a logo iconic. Is it the designer or the product/company or the institution that owns the logo?

I think it is the popularity of what a logo stands for that makes it iconic and not necessarily the designer. The bird of Penguin Books became an icon for paperbacks many years ago not because of the designer but because the books became very popular. The fruitof Apple Computers has also become iconic today not because of the designer but because of the popularity of the products. It is mostly in coat of arms and other emblems of state that the designer has to incorporate things that the people could easily identify with or things that resonate with them. Some may even lack such things but still become iconic because of long use.

To me, for instance, our coat of arms has nothing that resonates with Nigerians apart from the Y shape that is a representation of our two major rivers. It is too imitative of that of our colonial masters. The two horses that seem to be supporting a shield may look majestic to British oriented individuals but they are meaningless as far as our culture is concerned. It is true we have horses in some parts of the country, but they are not used for unnatural roles like those in a circus as the pair in our coat of arms seems to be doing. That apart, it is also so crammed that one needs a magnifying glass to recognize all the items at the base. But it has become iconic today because we have stuck to it since Independence in 1960.

Chermayeff might have also churned out logos whose owners were either too obscure or whose businesses packed up after a few years and so could not become iconic. He must have also designed logos that were even rejected by those who commissioned him. To describe him as an iconic logo designer seems to belie this – it seems to give the impression that his logos have a magical quality that makes everything they represent to become iconic! Call it mere semantics or being Catholic more than the Pope if you like, but I think the BBC should have described him as a designer of many logos that have become icons.I stand to be corrected.

Maduku, a retired Nigerian Army Captain (Infantry) and novelist, lives in Effurun-Otor, Delta State.

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