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MARKS OF EXCELLENCE
A commissioner in the city where I live decided it was time to revamp the identity of our bus system. Rather than turn to a professional design team to create a new trademark, he decided to save money and held a contest at a local art school. The winning entry, with its aviation motif, looked like it should be emblazoned on the wing of a World War I fighter plane rather than a modern bus. The poorly redesigned logo and the controversy it inspired, shared the front page of the newspaper with important world events. Although they often appear smaller than a postage stamp, trademarks can be big news.
Until now, reference material on the subject has been limited to books that catalog clever logos, or volumes that clarify the legalities of copyright protection. Marks of Excellence is one of the first thorough explorations of the trademark--a look at style, classification and theory--that is both erudite and engaging.
Marks of Excellence spans the 5,000-year history of trademarks, which evolved from the simple shapes branded onto horses in ancient times, and the symbols carved by craftsmen on the bottom of their wares. In our complex consumer society, it is easy to overlook such humble origins. The book reminds us that the primary functions of the trademark--to signify ownership, origin or social identity--have changed little through history. However, the role of the contemporary trademark is changing rapidly. As corporations expand their markets, for example, a trademark must communicate across increasingly vast geographic areas. The medieval, swash-script logo found on a bottle of Carlsberg beer, for example, has been redrawn to read in Thai, Arabic and even the Cyrillic alphabet. Yet it still maintains the graphic integrity of the original brand name.
The core of the book is a comprehensive taxonomy--a scientific classification--of trademarks. This is appropriate, since the modern-day trademark owes much to the sciences. Psychology, linguistics, anthropology, sociology and even geometry have all played roles in the development of many of the logos we see on a daily basis. The final section of the book presents an index of the most effective and intriguing international trademarks. The examples are a good balance between ubiquitous logos such as BMW, Coca-Cola and IBM, and obscure selections from throughout the world.
Marks of Excellence is an excellent reference volume for anyone interested in a better understanding of the history and function of trademarks in contemporary society.
This review originally appeared in Communication Arts Magazine, August 1997, © 1998 Coyne & Blanchard, Inc.
Philip Krayna is the head of Philip Krayna Design in San Francisco and publisher of Type-High.