Michael Bierut | From Our Archive

The Mysterious Power of Context

Label for Chanel No. 5, Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel, 1921

A while ago, I was designing the identity for a large, fashion-oriented organization. It was time to decide which typeface we'd use for their name. Opinions were not hard to come by: this was the kind of place where people were not unused to exercising their visual connoisseurship. But a final decision was elusive.

We decided to recommend a straightforward sans serif font. Predictably, this recommendation was greeted by complaints: it was too generic, too mechanical, too unstylish, too unrefined. I had trouble responding until I added two more elements to the presentation. The first was a medium weight, completely bland, sans serif "C." "Does this look stylish to you?" I would ask. "Does it communicate anything about fashion or taste?" Naturally, the answer was no.

Then I would show the same letter as it usually appears as the first in a six-letter sequence: CHANEL. "Now what do you think?"

It worked every time. But how?

The answer, of course, is context. The lettering in the Chanel logo is neutral, blank, open-ended: what we see when we look at it is eight decades' worth of accumulated associations. In the world of identity design, very few designs mean anything when they're brand new. A good logo, according to Paul Rand, provides the "pleasure of recognition and the promise of meaning." The promise, of course, is only fulfilled over time. "It is only by association with a product, a service, a business, or a corporation that a logo takes on any real meaning," Rand wrote in 1991. "It derives its meaning and usefulness from the quality of that which it symbolizes."

Everyone seems to understand this intellectually. Yet each time I unveil a new logo proposal to a client, I sense the yearning for that some enchanted evening moment: love at first sight, getting swept off your feet by the never-before-seen stranger across the dance floor. Tell clients don't worry, you'll learn to love it and they react like an unwilling bride getting hustled into an unsuitable arranged marriage. In fact, perhaps designers should spend less time reading Paul Rand and more time reading Jane Austen: after all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a corporation in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a logo, isn't it? Finding that one perfect logo is worth its own romantic novel.

All of this is compounded by the fact that designers themselves have very little faith in context. We too want the quick hit, the clever idea that will sell itself in the meeting and, even better, jump off the table in design competitions. More than anything, we want to proffer the promise of control: the control of communication, the control of meaning. To admit the truth — that so much is out of our hands — marginalizes our power to the point where it seems positively self-destructive. This is especially true in graphic design, where much of our work's functional requirements are minimal on one hand and vague on the other. "The pleasure of recognition and the promise of meaning" is a nice two line performance specification, but one that's impossible to put to the test.

Yet all around us are demonstrations of how effective a blank slate can be. It's just hard to learn from them. I'd like to think, for instance, that I'd see the potential of a red dot in a red circle if I was designing a logo for a company named Target. But in truth I'd probably say, "What, that's all?" and not let it into the initial presentation. How, after all, could you guarantee that the client would invest 40 years in transforming that blank slate into a vivid three-dimensional picture?

Appreciating the power of context takes patience, humility, and, perhaps in the end, a sense of resignation. You sense it in this account of designer Carolyn Davidson's disappointing presentation for her first big ($35) freelance project:

After sifting through the stack of drawings, Knight and the other men in the room kept coming back — albeit with something less than enthusiasm — to the design that looked like a checkmark.

"It doesn't do anything," Johnson complained. "It's just a decoration. Adidas' stripes support the arch. Puma's stripe supports the ball of the foot. Tiger's does both. This doesn't do either."

"Oh, c'mon," Woodell said. "We've got to pick something. The three stripes are taken."

That was the trouble, thought Davidson. They were all in love with the three stripes. They didn't want a new logo; they wanted an old logo, the one that belonged to Adidas. Davidson liked [them] but found it disheartening to go out on her very first real job and get this kind of reception.

We all know the ending to this story: the client grudgingly accepted Carolyn Davidson's chubby checkmark, and the rest, as recounted here in Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There is corporate identity history. The swoosh has proven durable enough to stand for the company's dedication to athletic achievement, its opponents' resistance to the forces of global capital, and a lot of things in between. Sometimes, the client is smarter than we think. Give Nike founder Phil Knight credit: he had the vision to admit, "I don't love it. But I think it'll grow on me."

Maybe he believed it. Or maybe he was just tired of trying to decide. Either way, context did the rest.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [34]

Paul Rand was absolutely correct about logos representing the quality of the product. Target's logo is such a great example. The bullseye brings meaning of quality, value and design to mind when I see it. And yes, it's taken years to get that. I would venture to guess that's what has Wal*Mart redoing their advertising with a stronger concept of shopping instead of a hard sell.

But the author is right, would you show that to the client today? The not so whizz-bang logo lends itself to a company to make it strong mark that it is now.

Excellent post, Michael.

I was once doing a logo for a client who -- though they liked my proposal -- wanted to add more visual elements to literally represent everything they did as an organization.

I suggested that they think of a logo -- not as an object which will tell every detail of their organization -- but as a lens through which people will see them. (And I used the Nike symbol as an example.)

It worked. They understood the importance of context.
Daniel Green

I do agree with Michael wholeheartedly. In context and representational is what makes a good logo, a great logo. I'm young to the business, but I am realizing that if a logo achieves simplicity it also achieves "lack of thought needed, but somehow I remember it." I agree that the target logo achieves just that. The little I've dealt with clients though, fewer and fewer clients give in and believe that the designer has a vision as to what the logo, even though simple, could ultimately do for that company. I guess all we can do is, push forward, giving great options to clients and backing up the reasons why they should believe in our work. Just as Cynthia Davidson did.

Thanks for the thought-provoking article Michael.

Apt citing of Jane Austen.

A simple logo is so hard, but done properly, so powerful. And isn't context and usage such an important part of that. Not just the Chanel "C", but also the open letter spacing, floating in a white square, floating on a squarish bottle, not to mention the linked double Cs, all part of the same Gestalt.

As with the previous post on "The Road to Hell", trust is a critical part of the success of a design. The client getting off of the "I don't know nuthin' bout design but I know what I like when I see it" soapbox, and the designer really listening to the client in the first place.
Marty Blake

Thanks for a inspiring post.

Information by itself is meaningless. I think your're right in that information only has meaning in relation to its context. Design can be seen as a tool for controling the context that surrounds the information. If you control the context, you control the meaning. Good design makes a specific meaning stable - a stable brand-attitude for example. And STABLE is the word. The meaning of the message will never be static - there are to much uncontrollable elements swimming around in the context.

Much of what we like are dependent of the context. A context in the form of values, opinions, memories, personality etc. We live in a sea of context making us as blind to the context as fish is to water. As you writes, we tend to forget about the context.

Maybe we should sell our designs as potentual meanings. Instead of saying: this represent that or that represent this, we could frame it as: this design has the potential to represent your company's values.
Daniel E

I suspect that we contribute greatly to the "swept away" problem. They really want a little piece of art. We really want to do a little piece of art (and maybe even a little piece of Art.) It's hard to get everyone (including the designer) to remember that the mark is a tool. In fact, it's a tool that should be used for making a tool that will in turn be used to do something real.
Gunnar Swanson

I truly agree that context and time play important roles in logo design. Initially, the logo is a simple identifier, a symbolic representation, the visual support of an organization and it's values. As Michael put it "accumulated association" allows the logo to inherit in time the meaning of the organization totality.
I was once told that a logo must say or acheive 3 things in order to be succesful, which I totally disagree. I believe a logo must be clear, simple, and create a memorable folder in your mind to create a connection to the overall concept of the company. Great post.

Coco Chanel designed the bottle for No. 5 herself - insisting on that sans-serif face and simple black and white. This was 1923, five years before the publication of The New Typography. This must have been a bold, super-modern move. I had the pleasure of seeing an original run of the bottle design at the Met's Chanel exhibit last year. To apply Thomas Hoving's "which thing would you want to have" test - I wanted that bottle. I would give it to my wife and ask her to keep always on display.

The Nike swish I have always found ugly, as an aesthetic object (only a matter of taste). The way it is used calls to mind a cattle brand - it harvests its chic from the athletes who wear it: Michael Jordan, et al.

One mark demands to be a special object, when gaudily displayed like a painted lady (a la Karl Lagerfeld) it seems cheep, like it's own knock-off. The other draws power from multitude and dominance. But when you get right down to it, it's just a fat check.
P Niemeyer

many a slick symbol are added last minute to elegant type-only solutions in as an apologetic, nervous accessory by corporations who want to tell a peppy story. business "leaders" are often-too scared, unwilling, or impatient to consider the power of subtleties in context and staging. so we get stuck with a kindasorta clever lowest-common denominator logo that's sort of like hearing the same Henny Youngman joke every day, forever.

Joe M

Great Post!

I love the fact that the best logos transcend their own aesthetic quality (percieved or otherwise) - it really doesn't matter whether the Nike Swoosh is ugly or like a cattle brand. It just is.

The best logos work because they say so little, not because they say so much. To me, it's a bit like reality TV. (stay with me) The appeal of, say Black Sabbath or Ozzy Osbourne was the mystique - you could only imagine how a guy like that might live and thus, you would willingly buy into the fantasy. When the whole story-behind-the-story is spelt out and shown in warts-and-all-detail, the mystique is gone, and so is the appeal - there is no room for the audience to infuse the product with anything that means anything to them. I think logos work the same way. The good ones become a vessel for the experiences surrounding the brand - good or bad.

I like to think of logo design as the making of a mark that will essentially disappear over time, leaving only the accumulated experiences of the brand/company. Oh!, to be able to have that long-view in the early part of the process and design accordingly - or better, to be able to convincingly inspire the client (or the comittee) to share that vision.
Mr. One-Hundred

As mentioned, trust is huge. Also add respect and knowledge. As a collector of old identity books, i like to think i know something about different types of businesses (I don't). But what I can tell you is books aren't cheap. Which may or may not add to the dilemna we're in.
felix sockwell

show some idiot client aka shit for brains with money a famous hi falutin' logo like chanel and they second guess themselves because they haven't the guts to be smart, the wit to be clever. high brow designer wins out with some probably not so great design.

lame post by overrated designer. hey michael why don't you show us the genius work you made?
johnny ryan

Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point is a great read about pyschology and the power of context. This might not relate directly to Michael's post but it's definitely relevant as far as analyzing the importance of context in our daily lives. I would really recommend it to anyone in a creative field, especially other designers.
Keith Harper

Great post Michael. Being from the top tier design firm this makes sense. A strong mark that will gain equity with time by association. But how does these ideas work in the world of blanding?

I refer to the large branding firms owned by the big 5, who consistently churn out this colourful, swooping garbage that is devoid of anything of merit. Check out this new one for the province of Manitoba by Interbrand:

Very disheartening. It makes me question the validity of my traditional design/identity sensibilities in this post millenium, globalized, Wal-mart world.

I realize all us designers bash these big branding pieces (see the uproar over Toronto Unlimited last year) and with good aesthetic reasons, yet the work continues to appear.

Ben Hagon

I come to this discussion from the verbal side of branding--specifically name development--where context is equally as important. I tell my clients that choosing a corporate or product name is like entering an arranged marriage: if its prospects are good and it has a solid lineage, you'll learn to love it. When they tell me they want "a name like Microsoft," I ask whether they really want a word that means "small" and "limp." What they want is not the word Microsoft but the context of Microsoft: the balance sheet, the brand equity, the staying power.
Nancy Friedman

a word that means "small" and "limp."

[Big laugh.] This is so true, and I have to say it immediately makes me think of the non-designers' reaction whenever I happen to mention Pentagram. What to us is The Name in design, evokes visions of devil-worship in those who have never heard it before. "Their name is Pentagram?" they always say, disbelieving, and I know ... oh yes, I know the vision of the logo they have in their head.
marian bantjes

context can also be defined by the graphic system in which the mark exists. i agree with marty blake, its not only the C, its also the white square, tracking, centering and the bottle itself, the usage of the mark. there is also the association with the monogram, as well as the fact that its black and white.

i dont think all designers hate branding. i dont. branding really is only an extension of identity design. do all designers hate paul rand, chermayeff and geismar, and wim crouwel? large corporations need robust systems that go beyond just the mark. not that all branding projects are great, but it is a part of design.

also, just my $.02, but are the adidas stripes actually the logo? i think they belong more to the 'visual language' part of the adidas identity. the logo is actually either the wordmark/stripes lock up or the wordmark/leaves markup, no? correct me if im wrong.

Ben --

The problem will always be the client in the end.

And part of that is whether the client is in the end visually literate and brand savvy. There are an awful lot of people -- many of them holding the purse strings -- that are neither.

It's all fine and wonderful to say that we as designers must learn to present the right idea, or turn down the wrong clients. But at the end of the day is that always likely? Or even possible?

There's no accounting for taste, as they say, and I certainly don't think they teach it in Business school -- if they did would we have all those horrible subdivisions of McMansions in our suburbs?


Manuel, in the Nike book I reference, it says that Carolyn Davidson was brought in to design not a logo but the "stripes" for the new shoe. Adidas was so dominant then that any proprietary sneaker identification was called "stripes" even if it had no stripes in it.

Nike evidently did not know what they had until retailers started calling back asking for more of "those shoes with the swoosh on it." I believe it was Portland agency John Brown & Partners who created the swoosh/type lock up that Nike began using as an advertising signature. Chiat Day, and then Wieden & Kennedy, began using the swoosh alone, with no identifying company name.

It was an arrogant move and, thanks to plenty of advertising, it worked. I'm sure I'm not the only designer who remembers client after client back in the 90s asking, "Could you give us a swoosh?" — meaning an abstract mark that could wordlessly provide immediate identification. Almost always, clients and designers underestimated the amount of money it takes to establish such a thing — and almost everyone was inclined to project qualities onto the Nike symbol that it certainly did not seem to possess at that first meeting with Carolyn Davidson.
Michael Bierut

Anyone involved in the production of some thing - logos, perfume, sneakers, etc. - is usually reluctant to view themselves as actually in the business of something a little slipperier like social connections, alliances and relationships. But that's most of it. It's hard to pin down exactly what people need. But everything that people want, all of those things people desire whether desperately or casually, are based more on relationships than the thing itself. This is context - all of those human and mercurial associations and understandings. But being in the business of context will usually get you the label of charlatan. We'd rather believe it's the thing itself that really matters.
Trent Williams

Thanks for this article. Much to my frustration, my company has been playing with the use of a triangle. As a designer, it has been frustrating to say the least trying to work with this mandated element, but this article has made me at least think of it in a different sense. I don't believe we are implementing it the best we could be, but just having a good understanding of context is a good place to start.
objectforward >>

Nice read. Thanks.

Quoting Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. from the intro to Mother Night ...

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

And another quote, this time from Bob Dylan...

"But even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked ... "

Am I going Crazy?
Joe Moran

True..so true.
Madalin Matica

If we agree that everything is so strongly reliant on context this should lead us to confirm that all signs are contestable social constructions. As Micheal has demonstrated in this post, isolating the "C" away from the atmosphere of the Chanel brand renders it a fairly undistinguishable san serif character.

This raises an interesting question. Can the same sense of neutrality (commonality) be achieved with other, overtly devisive, design elements? If not, why not, and moreover what are the mechanisms of power being employed that resist or disallow contestation?
Marcus McCallion

Wieden & Kennedy, began using the swoosh alone

this may be true in the purposeful sense, but I believe the whole thing was an experiment/ accident given its first seed at Wimbledon on the crest of a basebal cap (forget the guy's name, the blond guy). Correct me if I'm wrong but I thought this was popular knowledge.
felix sockwell

How's this for context?

Joe Moran

Or this?
Joe Moran

As I suggested earlier, Joe Moran has pointed towards a symbol that appears to convey an excess of meaning-even when viewed 'outside' of its original context. But what is it that is deemed the original context? Does a neutral or objective position exist, or are all signs inter-subjective social constructions formed by historical, social and political power struggles? What are the operating devices that govern our understanding? Or if you prefer, who owns the strings and who is pulling them?

Is it not possible to view Chanel itself-and not the design-as "out of context"? When, where and how did Chanel become the context? Can we inverse this idea (as P Niemeyer in an earlier response began to do) and suggest that this design of 1923 took modernist ideology and applied it-out of context-to a fairly innocuous product, in order to appropriate meaning, and confer depth? If so, we can begin to see how notions of ownership (and by implication, theft) have infiltrated the design discourse, to such an extent, that it is now difficult to perceive of creativity in any other way (see the D/O posts on plagiarism).

Two recent appropriations may demonstrate this point better. Both coca-cola and mars have recently reworded their identities to read as Love and Believe respectively. Produced in a style that follows the rational of the logos helps to reinforce a self-policing strategy surrounding notions of intellectual property (trademarks and the like). Indeed, we find ourselves in a situation where the futility of appropriating corporate design in attempts to make political statements is bought full circle. That is, our belief in the association of these designs (i.e. we recognise them from their branding style rather than by a specific logo) is so entrenched that it is now possible for brands to appropriate themselves. This pursuit of saying nothing while branding everything erodes our very notions of truth and meaning. It no longer matters what is being said (Love what? Believe what?) as long as it fosters positive associations with the brand. This working methodology furthers our acceptance of their rights to own these designs and/or meanings and the cycle deepens. Now, not only can corporations control their identity, they can begin to own the context too.

Is there anything, we as a creative community, can do to counter or resist this dogmatic approach to human inventiveness?
Marcus McCallion

Marcus makes some very heavy points. And my brain isn't big enough to get all that he's saying. ( Man you're smart Marcus. )

However, reading Mr. McCallion's comment made me think of something I heard ...

The old Coke vs. Pepsi challenges. When people were "hooked up" to a brain reading machine and asked to taste Pepsi and Coke ( which were actually both Pepsi and Coke ), in a blind taste test -- people most often thought Pepsi tasted better. Here's the scary part. When they were given two cups of Pepsi, but told one was Coke -- they're brain's registered "pleasure" at the notion of drinking Coke. Not Pepsi. And even though they all "liked" the taste of Pepsi better -- their pleasure centers didn't react.

The guys point was that the notion of drinking Coke was more "pleasurable" than the notion of drinking Pepsi.

So -- context? All their advertising over the years? The "tribe" mentality? i.e. People who drink Coke have more fun, so I want to be like them and glam onto that "some enchanted evening" feeling, too? Maybe so.

Just another thought to put out there.

What can we do? No answer.

Some people I know just want "stuff" because they like it. Others I know want said stuff because they want to be liked for "owning" (or drinking, eating, wearing) it. To which tribe should I subscribe?

Joe Moran

Royal Dixi Iris

I enjoyed reading Paul Rand quoted here and I agree that as time passes brands take on more meaning through the collective context of people's lives.

When I'm charged with the task of creating a brand new logo (this rarely happens) I try to create some initial meaning through communicating a concept. Otherwise, the only initial context relies exclusively on stylistic qualities of the mark and that is a weak design solution in my estimation.

Ryan Smythe

I head the largest design consulting company company (Idiom) based in India. Recently moved in (after 20 years in the domains that design companies cater to)as the CEO. This is my first interaction with design as a "creator" & not as a "recipient" of design, when i was a marketing person on the other side, evaluating concepts presented by the agencies and probably making the same errors as most of the others of my ilk. We in India operate in a context that is so complex where sciences like "vaastu shastra" -the spiritually-based sacred space design system from the Vedic tradition in India , "graphology" etc play a key role in Corporate Logo designs. Corporate India is superstitious!! For us to keep things simple gets a little complex, but my take has been that ultimately its "interpret-ability" (in the context of the market the client operates in), the "simplicity" , "clarity" & "applicability" of the logo that clients buy into.
Shantanu Saha

The more confidence an organization has in its brand, the less concerned it should be with its logo. Does that sound about right?
Sholom Sandalow

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