Making a Mark: Visual Identity with Tom Geismar

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
You’ve seen a logo that Tom Geismar has designed. You probably saw one today. Xerox, Mobil Oil, NYU, PBS, Univision. The Boston Public Transit System’s mark is a T in a circle. Tom Geismar did that. But his work and that of his long time business partner, Ivan Chermayeff, who passed away in late 2017, is truly fused into the DNA of most modern logos you see today, whether they designed them or not. In 1961, the logo for Chase Bank that he designed, the blue octagon with the square in the middle was introduced. It’s still used everywhere and it’s considered one of the first of its kind in the U.S., an abstract dynamic shape representing a giant company. The logo was a real sea change for Chase.

Tom Geismar:
Well, Chase – at that time – was really Chase Manhattan Bank because it was the merger of two giant banks, Chase National Bank and the Bank of the Manhattan Company. And they had a logo which featured a map of the United States, a globe of the world, the wording Chase Manhattan Bank and a few other things. It was quite a mix. And they were in the process of building the first modern skyscraper in the Wall Street area because a lot of the financial firms were moving up to Midtown at that point.

Tom Geismar:
David Rockefeller was in charge of that process though he was only third in command at the time at the bank, and he felt that it would be appropriate to have, also, a modern contemporary looking mark for this newly formed, basically a merger of these two banks. And we discussed with him the idea of maybe we could just do something abstract because no one had any idea of a symbol of banking other than the dollar sign, and Chase was so big. I mean, they were going to be either the number one or number two, I don’t remember, largest bank in the country. They had advertising in the newspapers every day. Certainly around the New York metropolitan area you couldn’t miss their branches. They were everywhere. So the idea that you could establish something relatively abstract as their mark, much as the Red Cross or Mercedes, Chevrolet, I mean there were some around, there were some at the time, but not many at all. And that was the idea anyhow, that we could do that, establish something that was bold and that would be recognized as representing the bank.

Roman Mars:
Right. So how did you come up with this shape? Like what were the drawings like? What were you thinking when that shape was applying to Chase?

Tom Geismar:
Well, we wanted something bold, something that would stand out, something that could be reproduced in various materials, something that could work at a small size, and at the time it was very important also something that could work in black and white in the newspaper. There was no color printing in the newspapers at that time. Something that could work on television but also on a letterhead or a formal announcement. So we tried to keep all those things in mind. We looked at a number of different designs. This particular one is also quite similar to old Chinese coins. They were rectangular. They had a hole in the middle and so on. And that was helpful in terms of rationalizing why that particular design.

Roman Mars:
So Rockefeller was kind of on your side in this. But did they expect something quite so dynamic and radical and revolutionary, or were they expecting something more akin to the map of the United States and the globe and the world banking word on top? I mean, what were they expecting?

Tom Geismar:
Well, you say they, David Rockefeller certainly went along with this idea, but the two people above him – John McCloy, the chairman, and George Champion, the president – were pretty shocked when we showed it to them. Champion said, “Well, why can’t we just have a picture of the building, or the sculpture we’re going to have out front?”

Tom Geismar:
We tried to persuade them that was a bad idea. And then McCloy eventually said, “David, we’ve given you this project. If you want this for the retail bank, you can do it. But I don’t want to see it on my letterhead. I don’t want to see it in my office. I don’t want to see it. I really don’t understand it and don’t like it.” Soon thereafter they adopted it and the bank went ahead and did it.

Tom Geismar:
And it was only, I think six months later that we were down there and ran into McCloy in the hallway. And there he was with a tie with the symbol on it with cuff links with the symbol on it, with a pin in his lapel with a symbol on it. So it was a great lesson to us because suddenly someone who couldn’t understand it as an abstract design, now really accepted it greatly as a representation of his company.

Roman Mars:
You mentioned the lessons of McCloy fully on board with the mark as soon as it became the mark of his bank. Could you expand on what some of those lessons are and how you use them to think about your work today and how you deal with clients?

Tom Geismar:
Well, I think the big lesson that we learned then was that what people react to is not the mark. What they react to is the institution that it represents.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Geismar:
So if you ask people, what do they think are good marks, they will almost inevitably mention companies or institutions or whatever that they think highly of. So they’ll often say Apple and they’ll say Nike and others that they think highly of. They’ll almost never say Enron for example. Even though Enron had a very good mark designed by a famous designer, Paul Rand. So it has nothing to do with the quality. Pretty much it has to do with what it represents.

Roman Mars:
Right. So the Chase logo was something that’s from the ground up, just a brand new invention. But you’ve also done a number of adaptations and updates. And I was wondering if you could talk about the PBS logo, which is something that I think a lot of people are familiar with. What that process was like and what you were trying to do there.

Tom Geismar:
Yeah, very often we will try and build on something that’s there if it has real, real value. And in the case of PBS, there was a problem that they and the stations – the various public broadcasting stations – had at the time. People presumed it was the public broadcasting system, the way CBS is, the Columbia Broadcasting System and so on. At CBS, they have a number of own stations and whatever. And the issue was that actually the stations had complete responsibility for raising their own funds to keep in business. And PBS is not a conglomerate that supplies funding and so on, provides some programming but not funding. And people misperceived what PBS was, and their logo was a very clever PBS where the P was a person, sort of a silhouette of a man. And the idea was could we do something that makes it clear that it’s public television, not some kind of a network.

Tom Geismar:
So our thought was actually at the time to take that P that they had out of the PBS, turn around, sort of gave them a lobotomy and fixed them up a bit and then repeated it so that was the idea of multiple people, that it was public TV. But that was the whole reason to do it. But again, it got built on something that existed, a part of the letter. So it was no great radical change at the time, but it was something more appropriate and something to solve the problem.

Roman Mars:
So how do you steer a client to select the shape and the idea that in your heart you really know is the right one? Like how many options do you give them? How many variations do you present? Is there a psychology in presenting a logo to a group like this?

Tom Geismar:
Well, today we do often present options. We almost always do because there is not necessarily one right answer for these issues. It’s just you’re having to make a decision and go ahead with it. But we explain what the pluses and minuses are of the various options. And we often have a favorite, which we try to push if we have. But there’s not necessarily the obvious right answer.

Roman Mars:
And when you have a favorite, do you plainly state that it’s your favorite or do you just present it first or present it last? Is there a gamesmanship in this at all?

Tom Geismar:
There may be a little bit, but not that much. And we don’t usually state which one we favor if we’re showing options, but we encourage them to ask us later and we try to also get their take on it. And one of the first things we say actually before we present anything is it’s never love at first sight. The thing is, if you can imagine what it might be like in actual use. And that’s what we try to show when we’re showing designs to be marks, what it might look like in various appropriate kind of uses.

Roman Mars:
So I see the Chase logo on my iPhone. It works really well as an app icon. Is that a coincidence? Is it something that has made it endure over 50 years and works on a tiny screen as well as a print ad and as a tie tack and everything?

Tom Geismar:
Well, it is a coincidence, but it happens to have worked very much in our favor because we’ve always tried to do things that are very clear, very simple, and that can be reduced to a small size.

Tom Geismar:
Suddenly today it’s a requirement really of almost every mark that has any kind of social exposure and it does work well and it just happens. I think maybe our approach was the right approach. We were lucky that it’s certainly applicable today. In fact, a lot of work we get today is because people have marks that can’t work as an app.

Roman Mars:
So has the approach for creating marks changed over 60 years and because of this or are there other things that are more fundamental in the change in the work that you guys do?

Tom Geismar:
You know it actually hasn’t changed that much. At least our approach to it hasn’t changed that much, because as I mentioned, we try to really get down to the basic thing, a basic mark that can identify whatever the institution is that we’re identifying in a clear way. And we have three criteria really, which are the basic criteria. One is that it be appropriate. You would do something for a sports team that would be quite different for something you would do for a bank, for example. It’d be appropriate to the client and to what they do.

Tom Geismar:
The second one would be that it’d be distinctive – that you can see it, you can remember it, you can recognize it, maybe you can doodle it quickly after having seen it a couple times, that it will stand out and be recognized.

Tom Geismar:
And then the third thing is just that it works in all kinds of sizes, different materials and so on, if that’s appropriate, and it often is. So if it can meet those three criteria, then we’re doing pretty well.

Roman Mars:
How do you balance the concept of being appropriate towards a certain institution and it being abstract enough to be this empty vessel that people pour meaning into?

Tom Geismar:
Well, it doesn’t have to be an empty vessel at all. It doesn’t have to be abstract. For banking, we couldn’t think of anything that properly represents banking, but that’s not always the case by any means. I mean, if there is something real that’s appropriate, then you try to work on that and make it understandable. That’s a lot easier for people to understand.

Tom Geismar:
The other thing is that once we did the Chase Bank mark, then banks all over, in fact people all over started using, making abstract marks, but it didn’t necessarily make sense because they didn’t have anything like the exposure that Chase had. That kind of thing only works really well if you have enough exposure that people come to recognize it.

Roman Mars:
Right, right. Oh, that makes sense. Like, for example, I know that your group is responsible for a lot of aquarium logos and those are, they have nice shapes to them and they’re abstracted in certain ways, but they often have waves and fish and things that you recognize as the things that it represents as an aquarium.

Tom Geismar:
Yes. And actually all those aquariums, they all have different emphasis in terms of the concept of the building and the exhibits and so on. And so we’re even trying to represent that. Obviously fish and water are key part of all of them, but some are about the oceans and some are about fresh water and so on.

Roman Mars:
Could you talk about how you decide when you are sort of in the very beginning stages of working with a client, whether or not you’re going to do some kind of word mark that uses the company’s name or something more abstract or pictorial, how do you make that type of decision?

Tom Geismar:
Well, that’s always a key decision. And often we don’t necessarily make the decision. We might show both options for example, and what the pluses and minuses are of those two things. And a lot of that depends of course on what the name is to begin with. But generally if the name is short, and by short I mean maybe five letters or something and is distinctive, then we would start with the idea of making that word distinctive.

Tom Geismar:
We’ve been doing a lot of work for a lot of technology companies recently, and what they’re doing is pretty hard to understand and certainly very hard to represent in any meaningful way. It’s not as if they’re harvesting apples or something and you can do an apple or whatever. It’s extremely difficult to find something that’s appropriate, meaningful, but also distinctive.

Roman Mars:
So is there a certain thing that you listen for when somebody describes, when a company describes what they do that is a key into your process of beginning to design something for them? Or is it just different every time?

Tom Geismar:
Well, we go through a whole process of trying to interview a lot of people, really trying to understand the culture and what they do obviously. And to understand the competition and who they are seen with or against and really to get a pretty in depth understanding of what the situation is. And in the process of doing all of that and interviewing people, often ideas from funny places come up, might be just a wisecrack in a conversation or something. But that’s where a lot of the ideas come from.

Roman Mars:
So in 1961, you can introduce an octagon and have it be pretty simple, be bold and be associated with Chase because Chase is so big. Now the octagon, it’s closed off. You can’t put an octagon out there as an abstract mark for a company. Is it harder to have a bold graphic that’s simple today just because of the number of shapes are just limited in the world?

Tom Geismar:
Well, it is hard. Yes, there are so many. And now with little icons and emojis and whatever, there’s just so much around. So yes, it is difficult. What we do now is before we show anything to our clients, we have done a preliminary legal search. So we try not to show anything to a client that hasn’t at least past the initial, what they call a knockout search, because we don’t want them to fall in love with something and then find out they can’t use it.

Roman Mars:
Have you ever fallen in love with something and found out you couldn’t use it?

Tom Geismar:
Oh sure. We just don’t show it. No. Yes, I mean very much. One of the complications is, of course, things are registered as marks within a certain area of business.

Tom Geismar:
For example and one example we gave is the red star. I mean, obviously it represents China, but it’s also Macy’s, it’s San Pellegrino, it’s Heineken, it’s many different things. And they’re all doing it legally. They all have the right to use it in one way or another. It’s not quite so simple.

Tom Geismar:
So you might have something you come up with it maybe similar to something in a very different field and you have to register the mark in particular, whatever area of business you’re in. And so then there’s that decision, do you go ahead presuming it’s going to be okay because there’s not going to be confusion because you’re in a completely different world or not?

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Has this method of introducing things to the public… That’s really changed in the time period while you’ve been working. How do you approach that now and what do you think of the sort of bloodsport of introducing logos and reactions online and that kind of thing?

Tom Geismar:
Well, our usual recommendation is don’t say a word. Just do it. I think if you look at it more broadly, I think people are much more visually aware today. Everyone’s looking at their phone. They’re looking at icons. They’re looking at apps. They’re looking at all these things. And so it’s much more part of the culture.

Tom Geismar:
So I think the desire to do something good, which from our point of view is certainly a positive thing, is part of that, the idea of being a critic is another part of it. But I think overall it’s great that people are much more conscious and aware and critical of these things.

Roman Mars:
Tom Geismar, the co-founder of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. As I mentioned at the beginning of the show, Tom’s longtime partner, Ivan Chermayeff, died in December of 2017. They worked together for 60 years.

Roman Mars:
An expanded text version of this interview will be included in a new book about the firm that will be published by Standards Manual in May of 2018. We’ll have a link on the show page.

Comments (2)

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  1. Andrea

    Great interview, I’m a big fan of logo design and have attempted a few myself. According to Feng Shui principles the Enron logo portends disaster!

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