Open Mic

Comcast Has Already Bungled Its Takeover of NBC Universal, But It Can Be Fixed

Chuck Ross Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:59 AM

Right out of the box Comcast has taken it on the chin for its new NBC Universal logo, and rightly so.

And it actually matters. A lot.

First, here’s a picture of both logos, with the new NBC Universal logo on the bottom:

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The New York Times reported that “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams discussed the new logo with new NBC Universal CEO--and up untl last week, also Comcast COO--Steve Burke at a townhall meeting for NBC Universal employees last Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011.

According to the Times’ account, Williams, noting that the new logo no longer contained the iconic NBC peacock, said to Burke, “‘It’s our Coca-Cola. It’s our Apple. It’s our Ford Motor Company, that instantly recognizable thing.’ Mr. Burke answered, ‘Today we rolled out a new corporate logo, which is actually going to be used in a very limited way for corporate things.’ He added, ‘The consumer’s not really going to see this logo.’ He said he liked combining the ‘NBC’ and the ‘Universal’ because ‘a hallmark of this company is going to be individual businesses working together.’ ”

I’ve had an interest in corporate logos most of my adult life, and I’m a huge fan of two graphic designers who designed some of best: Saul Bass and Paul Rand.

Unfortunately, both men are no longer with us. They both passed away in 1996. Bass, who I met in person and interviewed occasionally, died a few weeks before his 76th birthday. Rand, who I didn’t know personally, was 83 when he died.

Among the famous logos designed by Rand have been iconic images for IBM, UPS, Westinghouse and the ABC Television Network.

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Bass, who also designed movie titles and movie posters, did the iconic logos for AT&T, United Airlines, Minolta and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, among many others.

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 So what’s wrong with the new NBC Universal logo?

Well, first, it sucks aesthetically.

Back in 1971 in the Graphis Annual of that year, Rand wrote that sure, you don’t need to market or represent products and services aesthetically: “The world of business could function without benefit of art--but should it? I think not, if only for the simple reason that the world would be a poorer place if it did.”

Even longer ago Bass, in 1958, said in an interview with ID Magazine, “The challenge in design is always to establish communication with human warmth--to create an emotional identification between the subject and the audience.”

Bass and Rand also had strong thoughts about what a logo is and is not.

Here’s Bass, from a 1986 interview in Art Direction magazine: “At first the logo has zero value, it simply has no franchise. It has to be absorbed, it has to develop recognition levels. As each year goes by, that mark becomes more valuable as it becomes more understood.”

Echoing that thought, Rand, in an interview on public access cable TV (“Miggs B on TV”) in Connecticut in 1991, said, “A logo becomes meaningful only after it’s used.” He was specifically talking about the logo he designed and then redesigned for IBM. Rand said that a lot of time clients don’t understand this, that they think a logo illustrates what the company does at the time the logo is first introduced. “Nonsense,” he said to that notion.

For example, he explained that people have always said part of what they like about his second IBM logo is that its stripes represent the speed of computers.

He said that’s not why he did it. The reason the IBM logo has stripes is that Rand said he was unhappy with the previous IBM logo--which he had also designed--because he thought its thick letters didn’t work aesthetically. So he was searching for some way to make the letters look less heavy, and he came up with the idea of doing them with stripes.

Rand's first IBM Logo (1956):                                        Rand's second IBM Logo (1972):IBMfirst.jpgThumbnail image for ibm secod.jpg

Noting that the IBM logo has been widely copied, Rand explained that, over time, a good design picks up the goodwill people have or associate with a company. IBM’s computers became popular, and thus so did the logo that was associated with them. At that point, if the logo had been a good design done using old English type, “then everyone would have” copied that, Rand said.

In an article Rand wrote that same year for the American Institute of Graphic Arts (now just AIGA), he explained what a logo does:

“A logo is a flag, a signature, an escutcheon.
A logo doesn’t sell (directly), it identifies.
A logo is rarely a description of a business.
A logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.
A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it means is more important than what it looks like.”

Continuing on that last thought, Rand wrote: “Should a logo be self-explanatory? It is only by association with a product, a service, a business or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning. It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes. If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate.”

The effectiveness of a good logo, Rand wrote, depends on these seven factors:

Distinctiveness
Visibility
Usability
Memorability
Universality
Durability
Timelessness

Then Rand specifically talks about design itself: “Good design adds value of some kind, and incidentally, could be sheer pleasure; it respects the viewer--his sensibilities--and rewards the entrepreneur. It is easier to remember a well-designed image than one that is muddled. A well designed logo, in the end, is a reflection of the business it symbolizes. It connotes a thoughtful and purposeful enterprise, and mirrors the quality of its products and its services. It is good public relations. ... It says, ‘We care.’"

The new NBC Universal logo fails by almost all of the measures Rand and Bass talk about.

And for Burke to say that it’s OK because the public won’t really see it misses the point. First, we have seen it and will continue to see it. After all, it’s the corporate logo. And though he’s right when he says it won’t be as visible as the on-air logos the company’s networks use--or the one Universal uses on its movies--that’s beside the point.

It WILL be seen a lot by those who work at NBC Universal, both now and in the future.

Let me ask you something. If you wanted to be inspired by where you work, would you rather keep seeing the new NBC Universal logo on the memos and reports you and your colleagues do, or, let’s say, the Apple logo?

Fortunately, it’s not too late for Burke and Comcast chief Brian Roberts to correct this misstep.

My suggestion? Send the new NBC Universal logo to the recycle bin.

What to do then? Reinstate the old one? Not a bad choice, but not one Mssrs. Burke and Roberts may cotton to.

So how about this: Hold a contest among all the good folks at NBC Universal to design a new logo.

As for the guidelines, let me be so bold as to suggest the examples and thoughts about logos as articulated by Bass and Rand in this blog.

To narrow the entries down to a manageable final list of a half-dozen or so, I’d suggest a judging panel made up of some non-management NBC Universal employees, some management ones, a professional, well-respected graphic artist or two, plus Burke and Roberts, all with equal voting power.

Then you post the finalists on a company web site and let all the NBC Universal employees around the world vote for the new logo. Each employee who wants to vote has to register and can only vote once. Whichever logo gets the most votes wins, with a pledge from upper management that it will not override the decision.

Picking a new logo this way would  be a great beginning to the new Comcast-NBC Universal relationship, and go a long way to saying to those thousands who work at NBC Universal what the logo revealed last week does NOT say: "We do, indeed, care."#