Great design is timeless, with many classic brand identities still resonant today. Mary Cowlett reports.
Transport a housewife from the 30s to a supermarket today and she might be baffled by bar codes and regulatory information. Many of the names and packaging, though, would be strikingly familiar. Brands such as Guinness, Cadbury and Kellogg date back to the 19th century, and many designs, such as Brasso's distinctive sunburst and Guinness' harp, are still in use.
The power of design was understood in the 30s. The decade spawned a design icon in Penguin books, whose logo, designed by Edward Young, was matched by a distinctive colour-coded system for its covers, allocated by the series the book belonged to: orange for fiction, green for crime fiction, maroon for travel and dark blue for biography.
The 30s and 40s also saw an influx of continental emigres. Artists such as FHK Henrion (who created Surrealist-inspired Ministry of Information posters in World War II and identities for companies including KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and BEA), Hans Schleger and the typographer Jan Tschichold brought a bit of Bauhaus to the UK. 'Their style was clean and geometric, with asymmetric layouts that still look good and feel modern,' says Atelier Works creative director Quentin Newark. In the US, this was matched by the work of Raymond Loewy, who developed the Lucky Strike and Shell logos.
It was not until the 60s that the idea of design and branding became mainstream. The impetus for this shift came from figures including Terence Conran, whose Conran Design Group launched Habitat in 1964, introducing the idea of stylish, affordable and practical design to the mass market.
Other influential figures include the late Alan Fletcher, who, through Fletcher Forbes Gill and later Pentagram Design, transformed the practice of visual communication from a decorative add-on to a key element of corporate thinking. His work encompassed Pirelli posters, Phaidon Press book jackets and identities for organisations including Reuters and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
In the corporate identity arena, in 1965, Michael Wolff and Wally Olins set up their eponymous agency to create distinctive identities for companies as diverse as building firm Bovis, with its humming-bird, and venture-capitalists 3i. 'It marked an understanding that companies could project an image of themselves by the consistency of their looks, buildings, behaviour and people,' says Olins.
Ever since, business has taken the idea that design and branding are not just product-related, but directly linked to the intangibles of the customer experience. …