Keep Calm & Carry On

In the beginning of January, news slipped out into the netting of the world wide web concerning a new trademark filing on behalf of DC Comics and DC Entertainment.

And the fans responded – cheering could be heard in the streets, supportive comments about the evolution of brand and informed opinions about contextual design abounded. People who had been reading comics for years agreed to renew old subscriptions and purchase everything that DC had to offer. It was handshakes and back slaps all around.

Just kidding. The initial reaction was much the same as any nerd-centric announced change to the status quo; like Facebook introducing Timeline or changing how pages work, the casting change of Dr. Who, or perhaps, god forbid, a new Star Trek movie – a viscous and vehement outcry akin to having ones eyes burned out with hot pokers.

Brands, however, cannot remain to stagnate forever. Every brand goes through changes over the course of it’s life – sometimes it’s to update with the times, sometimes it subtle changes to improve visual iconography, and sometimes it’s because of a shift in business. Some are disastrous fails, like the Gap’s venture last year into uninspiring Powerpoint-referencing blandness.

I’ll forgive the fans for some of their criticisms of the visuals of this logo, and hope they were made when they only saw the template, because that’s all it was – a template. The basics. The foundation of something much larger. I’m not the only one that recognized there’s a lot more to this branding excercise.

“It doesn’t say superhero!” you might’ve been the one to whine, clutching your flash t-shirt as though your heart were ripping out of your chest.

Guess what? DC comics publishes more than just superhero comics. A lot more. By and large the core of their business is built around the characters in the Justice League, but even I know (and my nerd cred is far from fanaticsim) that DC houses a lot more than just a bunch of self-righteous sociopaths in tights. And it needs to, if they’re going to survive another 75 years.


However, for such a dramatic shift in branding, DC’s logo promises quite a bit. If one waits for the depth and breadth of this rebrand to sink in. The interesting thing about trademark filings is that it’s usually a barebones template – usually black & white, colors only if you’re going to narrow your brand down to a few pantones. Generally shape and layout are what matters here. What we have here is a logo loaded with potential. It doesn’t look that way at first, but wait for it.

For starters, it’s clever. That clever touch is what a majority of logotype designers strive for in their work – incorporating iconography and verbiage in a way that conveys a memorable pictogram that represents not just the company name, but what it’s about, or what it means, or where it comes from. There are layers (pun that I will dickishly explain in the next paragraph, intended) of meaning and symbolism built into this template – intentionally or not, there’s an incredible amount of depth to this logo.

Firstly, DC’s explanation of the D peeling back over the C “symbolizing the duality of the iconic characters that are present within DC Entertainment’s portfolio” (link), is a perfectly adequate explanation of the symbolism. I don’t really need to say much more about that, unless you’ve forgotten that under Batman’s serious crime fighting visage is the playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne. That Duality.

Secondly, Let’s not forget that ‘DC’ also stands for ‘Detective Comics’, a moniker they don’t really use anymore, but it’s what it stands for. That was actually my initial interpretation – a throwback reference to the idea of detectives ‘peeling back the layers to discover the truth’. Which in itself is a tip of the hat to the 75 years of publishing history under the moniker of ‘DC’. It’s a departure from where the brand has been evolving from for three quarters of a century, and that progression is pretty clearly readable when you look at the summation of it.

And in paying that homage, we hit the third bit of symbolism I pulled out of it – as DC is shedding its past anchored solely in superhero iconography and is moving into new realms based on the creations of it’s book publishing business, there’s a nice little nod to the ‘page-turning’ of comics, and of their companies next chapter as they begin to manoever into the digital age. The internet has changed how the game is played not only in comics publishing, but music, film, television, books and news (along with everything else). To me, this brand says they are stepping forward into a new realm as they are expanding their brand to incorporate more media outlets.

“It’s boring!” You growl, indignant at my refusal to endorse your opinion on this matter. “I liked the ‘Spin’ logo better! It’s eye catching!”

First of all – you didn’t like ‘Spin’ logo. People had this exact same reaction in 2005 when Brainchild released the Josh Beatman’s ‘Spin’ logo, the modernization and dimensioning of the 1976 ‘Bullet’ designed by Milton Glaser. And although you may have come to embrace the spin as the newest icon, let’s not retcon the fact that everyone got up in arms over what was tantamount to cleaning up just another chest emblem. ‘Spin’ was a modernization of ‘Bullet’. Bullet was a development over 40 years that is a clear evolution as branding began to matter more and more. Slap them on to the torso of a masked crime-fighter, and you’re done. ‘Bullet’ was a classic look that lasted nearly 30 years, and that’s an admirable run but a-typical for the life of a logotype. The ‘Spin’ was a needed change.

Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with the ‘Spin’ logo. Although in comparison to ‘Peel’, it feels rather uninspired. If the rumors are true about some legal foul-ups on behalf of DC Entertainment and a GFY move from DC shoes, then they had to get rid of it. In a business that’s changing as dramatically as print publishing and digital media consumption are, paying someone else annually for the ability to continue using your because of a legal snafu is as dumb as using glasses and a stutter to cover for the fact you are the most powerful being on the planet. And if it continued because the fandom was so attached to that logo, it could’ve meant the end of certain titles, or that great works might never see the light of day because of funding issues.

Perhaps the template logo doesn’t scream ‘SUPERHEROES’ anymore. It shouldn’t. You’ve got a litany of other logos that carry that burdern – Superman’s “S”, Green Lantern’s lantern, Batman’s stylized bat silhouette.

The new logo so much more than that. It’s subtler, smarter. And before you start shaking your head look up the definition of dynamic and then look at all of the suggested usages that Landor Associates came up with to exemplify the power and versatility of this logo. And that’s where I’d like to point out that not only are versions of this logo more eye catching, they’re on fire.

 

Which is the point where we really see this logo shine.

Seeing the variety of ways they were intending to customize and blend the logo with their array of titles that I realized that there was finally another major brand out there that was going to fully embrace the flexibility and variety that our digital age offers. So far, I can only think of Google whom has capitalized on the instant and variable opportunities of the digital age with their ‘Doodles’.

One of the myths around branding is the idea of ‘locking down’ a logotype with brand colors, contexts, proper spacing around the logo – having guidelines a mile long that basically give you three or four different ways to use the logo. Personally and professionally, I think that if a logo can’t be recognized when it’s been blended into new areas and unforseen contexts, then that is a design fail. Google has displayed their name as an interactive guitar, paintings, muppets and so much more – and you’d never be confused about being on the Google page – that’s strength in branding. Branding isn’t a locked down design in a vacuum. It requires support, integration and flexibility.

“But they have some of the best artists in the world working over there – they can’t possibly be happy about this! …Because I’m not!” You rally for one final rebuke.

In the same vein, DC has given their designers a template that they can adapt with few restrictions to the comic they are publishing, the movie they are making or the apps they are developing. Here we’ve seen at least four different types of adaptation with the C taking on characteristics that are relatable to characters, the peel taking on colors that relate to character branding, the peel being used as consistent brand placement tool, and using the C as clipping mask for other imagery.

Not only have they shown examples of it’s ability to cross media borders, but character and story borders – and that’s where this logo really shines. Not only are they able to merge more iconography for characters, novels or story themes in there (as seen in the examples) – but everything remains identifiable as relating to the company and the character, and nothing is sacrificed.

Think about it – before, the artists couldn’t touch the logo. They were stuck with trying to fit that blue swoosh and wonky star in, no matter the kind of publication the were working on, or whatever the cover art might be. It might work, it might not. But now, with this peel, there’s opportunity. To blend it in. To fit it in – to play with it. If anything, this logotype actually answers the criticism of involving the talent in the branding. I bet there are not a few current DC artists that are looking forward to sinking their teeth into doing a ‘version’ of the logo for their comic.

From a design perspective, this logo is brilliantly constructed. It’s striking enough to stand on it’s own two feet. It’s cleanly built. It has defined lines and has clever design elements. Most importantly, its forward thinking, flexible and open, a perfect example of an umbrella brand that houses so many other brands.

My only criticism of it is the use of the new ‘Helvetica’ – Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s Gotham. It’s not that it’s a bad font. It’s a great font. It’s just the seventh or eighth company I’m aware of that’s adopted it into it’s brand standards. But even I’m willing to dismiss my own criticism in the face of what I deem to be a cutting edge rebranding of a very old brand.

 
 

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