Michael Bierut | Essays

The Smartest Logo in the Room

Paul Rand, logo for Enron Corportion in front of the company's corporate headquarters in Houston, Texas. Photo by James Nielsen/Getty Images.

After the 2002 collapse of the company under the weight of its fraudulent business practices, [Paul] Rand's "E" took on a whole new meaning. Rechristened the "crooked E," it inadvertently became the most powerful anti-logo of its time. No parodist of corporate identity could have devised a more startling outcome.

The Enron debacle created much soul-searching among the graphic design community, as artists pondered the ethical dimensions of their power to shape people's perceptions.

Of all the things I read in Stephen Eskilson's Graphic Design: A New History, this passage startled me the most. Let the soul searching begin!

Paul Rand took logo design very seriously, and his work in the field serves as the centerpiece of many of his books. Detailed accounts of the genesis of symbols such as Morningstar, Next, and Ideo appear in A Designer's Art, Design, Form and Chaos, and From Lascaux to Brooklyn; even rejected proposals, like those for The Limited and Ford, merit many pages of coverage. But Enron was designed too late in Rand's career to make any of his books. In Steven Heller's monograph, it's simply identified as one of Rand's last works, and it appears towards the very end, with no further comment, rounded up with a group of other, less notorious, logos.

Perhaps the only thorough account of the launch of the Enron logo appears in Conspiracy of Fools, Kurt Eichenwald's 746-page history of the company's rise and fall:

Despite the early hour — eight o'clock on the morning of January 14, 1997 — the mood in the room was jubilant. The big announcement was at hand. The planning had been very hush-hush, but now the employees were about to see the unveiling of Enron's new image for the world.

On the far side of the room, [chairman Kenneth] Lay and [president Jeffrey] Skilling walked across the stage, stopping beside a large object covered by a massive cloth. Lay held up his hands, making barely audible shushing noises until he had everyone's attention.

"Well," Lay said. "We've come a long was since 1985, when we were just a pipeline company with a vision — a vision of becoming the premier natural-gas company."

A smattering of applause.

"We have become much more," he said. "We're a force the world can be proud of, for everything we've been doing. Deregulating markets. Providing alternative services. Making markets more efficient."

Applause again, louder this time.

"So we tried to develop a new logo that would reflect the dynamic company Enron has become," he said. "It will be recognized as the logo of a company leading the energy industry into the next century, into the next millennium."

The loudest applause yet.

"It's a logo we can be very proud of."

Lay gestured to the covered object. "And here it is!"

Recorded trumpets blared. Lights flashed. Smoke enveloped the stage. Someone pulled a rope, lifting the covering cloth. On the stage rested a giant sculpture — a single titled E. Multicolored lights surrounded each prong of the letter. The crowd loved it.

They celebrated the logo's birth for an hour, then trickled back to the office where delightful surprises awaited. The logo was posted in hallways; new letterhead and business cards were at their desks. It was official: Enron had a cool new icon to show the world.

How sad the designer is mentioned nowhere. But maybe not! Because, well, wait for it:

Within hours, the world would laugh it off the stage. Houston faxed the logo to Enron's offices in Europe. But in transmission the middle, yellow prong disappeared, leaving the new design meant to celebrate Enron's triumphant ascension looking more like an electric plug. Worse, to the Italians it resembled an obscene hand gesture, one that meant about the same thing as shooting a middle finger at an American. The European executives roared with laughter: now they had a new way to win Italian customers.

Back in Houston, dismay grew: the yellow prong also vanished when run through the copying machine. Somehow, Enron had spent millions of dollars on a new business logo without bothering to check if it worked in business. Soon the hallway signs went down, the new cards and letterheads were shredded. With no fanfare, another logo was introduced, replacing the yellow prong with a green one.

The symbol meant to carry Enron into the next millennium hadn't lasted a week.

Embarassing, but not to its designer. Not only would he know nothing of Enron's ultimate collapse, Rand didn't even live to see the unveiling, having died weeks before in November 1997. It has yet to be revealed who performed the last minute yellow-to-green substitution that briefly snatched the design from the jaws of defeat.

Nonetheless, faxability aside, the new symbol was rated a success. Identity consultant Tony Spaeth, for one, was enthusiastic about what he saw. "Enron would be Rand's last logo (it is likely that he knew this), and he said it was his best ever. That is a tall order," reported Spaeth his annual assessment of new logo programs for the February 1998 issue of the Conference Board's magazine, Across the Board. "But it is a fine mark: bold, one big idea, but richer in layered ideas and associations than might appear at first glance. Like great names, great marks often have more than one layer of possible meaning; this one is of course a big E, but one can also see in Rand's Enron ideas of household power as in a plug, industrial power as in stacks or towers, and connectivity (whether pipe or wire) between the E and N."

There has since been some debate as to whether Enron was actually Rand's last logo; certainly it was his last of real consequence. I personally never cared for the way the "pipeline" met the top of the first letter of Enron; it works fine for the N, but really needs a letter like U to work well at the top end. Unron, anyone? Also, I bet I would have preferred the doomed red-yellow-blue version.

But all of this is entirely missing Professor Eskilson's point. The issue he raises is not the Enron logo's aesthetics, or metaphoric incisiveness, or suitability to xerographic technology. Instead, it's the "soul searching" that consumed the design community after the scale of the Enron debacle became known. Was one of our greatest practitioners complicit in legitimizing the activities of a massive criminal enterprise? Is Paul Rand our very own Leni Riefenstahl?

I actually don't remember any soul searching. I do remember a bit of hey-you'd-never-guess-who-designed-the-Enron-logo gossip, but the reaction to the news was either schadenfreude or a bit of perverse pride, depending on one's opinion of the late Mr. Rand. If anything, the fact that the same person had designed the Enron logo and the IBM logo seemed to say nothing more than good logos and good companies didn't necessarily go hand-in-hand. Rand himself implied as much in his 1991 essay "Logos, Flags, and Escutcheons," saying "A logo doesn't sell, it identifies...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." And for those seeking Riefenstahl parallels, Rand adds, "Design is a two-faced monster. One of the most benign symbols, the swastika, lost its place in the pantheon of the civilized when it was linked to evil, but its intrinsic quality remains indisputable. This explains the tenacity of good design."

So is this another instance where Stephen Eskilson's book gets it wrong? I'm afraid so. In fact, I would make a completely different argument: even if Paul Rand's logo helped legitimize Enron in its heyday, it played an even more important role in the aftermath of its collapse.

Enron's success was built on one fundamental trait: the fact that the way it made its money was essentially — perhaps intentionally — incomprehensible. Any resemblances to electrical plugs and pipelines in the Rand logo were, if not unintentional, then less than useful to Enron's management. They seemed much more comfortable with the completely abstract aesthetic of another iconic designer, Frank Gehry. "Enron shares Mr. Gehry's ongoing search for the moment of truth, the moment when the functional approach to a probelm becomes infused with the artistry that produces a truly innovative solution," wrote Jeff Skilling in his introduction to the catalog of Frank Gehry's landmark 2001 exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum, for which Enron was a lead sponsor. "This is the search Enron embarks on every day, by questioning the conventional to change business paradigms and create new markets that will shape the new economy."

Questioning conventions! Changing paradigms! New markets! Whatever it all meant, somewhere in there Enron was making lots of money. Sorting out how it all went down the drain was such a baffling exercise that when Malcolm Gladwell convened an online discussion to try to figure out what it was, exactly, that Enron did that was legally wrong, he got nearly 15,000 words worth of answers. You couldn't take a picture of Enron's crime: it all happened in the world of numbers and spreadsheets, of financial reports and affidavits. But there was something you could take a picture of, and that was Rand's logo. A company with a made-up name, incomprehensible business practices, and largely intangible assets suddenly had a vivid manifestation, a logo that once might have stood for nimbleness, balance and connectivity, now given new life as "the crooked E."

"The flip side of the power and importance of a brand is its growing vulnerablity," wrote the editors of the Economist in a riposte to Naomi Klein's No Logo titled "The case for brands" and subtitled "Far from being instruments of oppression, they make firms accountable to consumers." The editorial goes on: "The more companies promote the value of their brands, the more they will need to seem ethically robust and environmentally pure. Whether protesters will actually succeed in advancing the interests of those they claim to champion is another question. The fact remains that brands give them far more power over companies than they would otherwise have."

And indeed, the general public had no more convenient target than Rand's logo to express their feelings about Enron. A 2002 contest to redesign the Enron logo received entries that reimagined the crooked E as, among many other things, a sinking ship, tombstones, the shadows cast by tombstones, skidmarks, a flaccid penis, a dead Republican elephant, a toilet paper holder, and — perhaps as no surprise to Enron's Italian colleagues — a raised middle finger. Professor Eskilson got that part right: Paul Rand's creation was "the most powerful anti-logo of its time." Whether you believe this outcome was inadvertent or inevitable depends on what you think a logo is supposed to do. No one knew better than Rand, and I'm not so sure he would have been disappointed, or even surprised, by the outcome.

The value of a corporate identity is supposed to be hard to calculate, but in the denouement of its meltdown, the Enron logo proved far from worthless. In fact, at least one version of it — the three-dimensional, LED-illuminated, rotating sign from Enron's corporate lobby known as the "Disco E" — cost exactly $33,000. That's how much it went for at a liquidation auction in December 2002, sold for an unknown purpose to a mysterious stranger in a gray Ferrari who, ironically, has never been identified.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design

Comments [31]

> A 2002 contest to redesign the Enron logo received entries that reimagined the crooked E as [...]

Oh snap. Design submissions for the Enron logo was one of my failed attempts at gathering content for the very first edition of Speak Up. Good thing I can always count on Valicenti to help!

I liked the part about "the mysterious stranger in a gray Ferrari".
The "Big E" is a "Falling E" and Rand is a visionary.
Carl W. Smith

This is the most well-defined, relevant and engaging post I've seen on here in a long time. I guess it helps that I agree with about 99% of it. I think it was the author of "Marks of Excellence" who noted that the first thing airline officials do if one of their planes crashes is to cover up the iconic tail fin. It seems that all that "branding" doesn't do a company much good if they run it into the ground.
Daniel P. Johnston

Was one of our greatest practitioners complicit in legitimizing the activities of a massive criminal enterprise? Is Paul Rand our very own Leni Riefenstahl?

I was visiting with Rand shortly after the Enron logo was accepted. Back then I had never heard of the company, which Rand explained was a clearing house for gas and oil. He further noted that the logo was one of his more difficult assignments. In fact, to my eye it was rather ham-fisted. Rand's other marks were usually more conceptually and typographically elegant than this.

Nonetheless, he took pride in the notion that the E represented pipelines, and believed he had solved the conceptual problem of producing a mnemonic that abstractly defined the company.

He could not have predicted the corruption to follow.

I remember when Paul Rand: A Designer's Art was published a reviewer in a British magazine took Rand to task for designing the Westinghouse identity which contributed to the positive image of a warmongering company. Rand was outraged by the accusation.

While it is indeed relevant to critique design in relation to its end-use, the idea that that a designer can be held accountable for future corporate malfeasance is absurd.

What's interesting about the Enron logo, goes to the heart of one of Rand's maxims that logos are only as good as the business they represent. He also once said logos are like rabbits feet, in Enron's case the luck wore off pretty fast.
steve heller

Thanks for that great entry, I often read this blog but I took particularly great pleasure to read it.

Great essay, Michael. Thanks for bringing together all of these loose but related strands; the result is indeed engaging!
Ricardo Cordoba

He (Rand) could not have predicted the corruption to follow.
While it is indeed relevant to critique design in relation to its end-use, the idea that that a designer can be held accountable for future corporate malfeasance is absurd.

Still, from the outside, is this not at least in part, guilt by association?. Rand was the leader of his profession. Previous to Enron, Ken Lay had a known history of shady deregulatory moves. Did Rand do his research? Should he have even cared? Certainly If he had published that Enron mark in one of his many "monographs" he would've experienced blowback from other clients. Consider it public relations move. Rand didn't need this work. He should've turned it down.

Its worth noting here that soon after Rand completed this mark (which was spooled out via Rick Boyko at Ogilvy & Mather, NY- my alma mater) Brian Collins and I were hired to take out the rest of the trash. I escaped before they (some account execs) were nailed bilking millions from the governments "anti drug"
campaign. That embarrassing year I got a call from a certain Agency in Richmond Virginia... "Hey Felix, Its Peter, remember? from O&M? Yeah, We have this client, Global Crossing, who needs a huge sculpture out in front of their building. You busy?"

I fought with myself a good while on this one, but no, thankfully it never happened. As any freelancer knows, most of these corporate identity turds are served up with a non-disclosure and work for hire contract... ample lube for an anonymous profession.
felix sockwell

While I think it's very important to question who you work for (because who wants to help an asshole gain more strength), I like that Rand designed this logo. It only makes the company (and what it did) more memorable.

If the logo sucked, would spoofing it have been so easy? Could you just slap it on a shirt with whatever [generally dopey] anti-corporation slogan you wanted and had anyone seeing it make the connection? I don't think designers should just shy away from big companies, because if they ever do something horrendous, I'd like for them to have a branding that can easily shape itself into their very own scarlet letter, preventing them from easily slipping under the recognizability radar.

wow, no pics of the logo on paper. nice.

Great article on what is obviously not always a clear cut issue. Obviously Rand's greatness has not been dimished by the downfall of Enron, and nor should it. I agree wholeheartedly that a logo merely represents the company visually and is not responsibe for whatever greed or malfeasance happens behind the doors.

In principle I agree with Felix that one should know ones clients well and act accordingly. My guess is that having been known for "shady moves" in business isn't going to be a deal breaker for a designer who's being hired to design a logo for a company, and not just the suspect CEO.


" the first thing airline officials do if one of their planes crashes is to cover up the iconic tail fin"

Similarly, when communication devices mess up during a football game you just know Nokia is begging the camera men to look away from the furious coaching staff and their headsets.

Great article. Fitting reference to the Swastika.
I wonder if tilted capital E's will forever be banned from future corporate identities.

Talked to a few UPS delivery drivers in my day, while working for Sherwin Williams (the industrial paint store on Page). They had a couple cans of brown spray paint in their trucks in case of a wreck. Were instructed to paint over all lettering on the truck in such an event. Especially the logo. Honest.

Joe Moran

Sherwin-Williams paint store on Page Ave. in St. Louis, Mo.


Joe Moran


I too wonder why the who seems to be far less relevant than the what in Design. Once I asked a principal of a rather prestigious design firm if they would turn down work for a tobacco company if they knew that it would entice more people to smoke. The response, after an eye roll, was that as long as the client paid on time they could care less what the job was.

Are we responsible for how our work is used, by who, and, if any, the potential outcome? Is it up to us to make a business decision based upon morals or finances?
James D. Nesbitt

The quality of form is objective. Meaning is subjective in relationship to the objectivity of the form. Form does not have meaning. People give meaning to form. Some people might agree that a form does indeed represent a given meaning. However, as shown in this article, meaning is unstable in relationship to form through time and associated in culture.

To ‘soul search’ would be a waste of time indeed if the designer believed that the mark held an absolute meaning–a direct 1:1 correlation of the mark to the meaning of the company. A reduction in ego would seem to be the proper prescription if one was deluded by the belief that the designers intention of meaning was magically inserted into a viewers mind when the logo is gazed upon.

Campaigns are a series of events that attempt to shape the interpretation of a brand identity. The logo functions as a positive id that an object within a campaign is indeed apart of a particular companies offerings. That is the logos strongest, most stable function. This is why consistency and repetition is so important to stabilize a logos potential association.

Logo = Company
Company = Service Set + Benefit to Client

Creating a logo that will stand out in a world of visual clutter is an important role of the designer and style can have local inference. Once a viewer is beyond the introduction phase of a logo, the viewer begins to see the logo as a shorthand for Company = Service Set + Benefit to Client. This is simple and could be refined per company, however this model articulates a logo’s function far better than a designers intent of creating a logo that directly captures the essence of a company always and forever.

To conclude, I don’t see how a professional who served a client is tarnished if the company they served is unethical years after the job is complete. The logo is Enron’s property. Paul Rand provided a service and no one but designers care that Paul Rand created it because the creator does not matter in this situation, only the object matters. As for the question of tobacco companies, that depends on personal ethical decisions and who you want to associate with in your practice.
Kevin Jennings

the creator does not matter in this situation, only the object matters.

Yes, the object here being money.

Who is this guy? The lawyer who wrote that brilliant new gobbity goo in those new work for hire contracts? Sir yes sir! Why yes, of course! Of course creators don't matter in this situation. They never matter do they? Oil matters. Tobacco matters. Defense contracts matter. Money definately matters. You creators out there? You just need to sit back shut up and enjoy another dose of reality (TV).
felix sockwell

Truly, the recent posts on Design Observer about environmentally responsible design, blame ipod for death of a little girl's mother, and a fictional graphic design superhero who intentionally create bad design for his evil client in the name of justice... I started to feel like I live in a very different world than most of you guys. (of course, I eventually want to one day be a graphic designer in New York... like you guys).

But where I am (everywhere but New York, I assumed) people are struggling to find jobs, and with Photoshop and Illustrator, instead of curves and ink grid on vellum, everybody look to find excuses not to have to hire professional designer graduated from design school.

But I do think this article has some merit. When I have meeting with my clients, sometime I feel like I like these people, so much, and probably the reason they made it big is because they have great people skill. It's not just the fact that I am still a student and they gave me chances to do designs that I will see out on the street (in case you guys forget what that feels like, the first time you see your design being used in public and not just for a school event poster, it's very overwhelming... or may be I'm just too dramatic), but also you just simply like these guys... and to even suggest that they are evil. You yourself don't want to believe it.

I know we all hate Enron and neo-cons. But if we ever get hire by them and have lunch with them and talk with them in a living room, I can be sure, you will all like them. And of course, they are evil bastards. But as graphic designer, if we do not carefully look at financial records and all that, we will never know. Or, we don't want to know.

I still stand by my idea that we shouldn't go around judging people "he's bad, she's bad, I am good, he is good, she is good". Anyone who think that they have the same power as Jesus or Buddha to judge people like that need to have a CAT scan. But still, I think it is important in the sense that, some day, the good design for bad people will come back to bite you.

I don't think sabotage is the answer, that's a very 14 year old kid attitude, BUT, we should think about the kind of job we will one day be known for.

I don't think designer of Wal-Mart logo know how big Wal-Mart was going to be. And despite how you feel about globalization, Starbucks logo is awesome and its designer should be congratulated. And McDonald is making our children fat, but there's just something magical about being hungry and being on route 66 and see the big red yellow M sign on top of color red that just makes you say to yourself "thank god".

But to pick and choose clients. I am sure you all are all professors in some design college somewhere. What do you think? Should your students turn down a client with different view point than theirs? You may tell that to your top student, but what about your student with moderate skill?

I'm not saying "you", but your students. Because as someone who made it in design community, as one of the top designers in the world, you are not relevant.

You are not. That's one thing you have to accept. You can't ask graphic designers all over the world to design responsibly, when you cannot relate to them.

You guys have freedom graphic designers on the street fighting for jobs cannot afford. And yes, you worked hard for it, and you should never be ashame of the name you created for yourself.

But you are not representing the majority of graphic designers. Don't even think about pretending that you are. I admire you. As a design student and one of the top students at my school, I wish that I will one day be like you guys, both for my own sake and for the sake of my professors who I respect dearly.

But if you are really good designer, even if you can come up with works on your worst day 100 times better than designers on the street on their best day, stop pretending that you can't understand them when they have to accept jobs for evil client. It seems like all they thought about was money. But, how can you NOT understand them?

Of course you do. You guys are good people and this article and several other old articles about design responsibility has good intentions behind them. But you have to stop acting like an elitist and remember what it was like.

Until you do that, no one will ever believe you. And this will just be another blog article, everyone will agree with it (how can you not agree with Pentagram designers) but ignore the core truth, and then next year there might be a blog post again about how things deteriorate. How's that for being part of the problem?
Panasit Ch

great movie script. i feel the mysterious ferrari owner should be played by tom hanks.
dan e.

Dear Panasit,

I agree that it's difficult to pick and choose clients, not just when you're young and starting out, but anytime, anywhere. Having been burnt a few times, I've learned that I do better work, and have a happier life, if I can work with people who I like and who do something I'm personally enthusiastic about. It's not always possible, but I've learned to proceed very cautiously if the opposite is true. And those times I've done it for the money, in the end the money was never enough.

Michael Bierut

Bruce Sterling of WIRED just posted a link to Design Observer. Great post Michael!

It is ironic that Paul Rand designed the Logo of a company who's advertising slogan was "Ask Why." Most art students know that Paul Rand was famous for his client research. In 1954, he received the gold medal from the Art Directors Club for his Morse Code advertisement addressed to David Sarnoff of RCA.
Carl W. Smith

Fantastic essay. The research and integration facts and quotes is great. I felt empathy for his Rand's legacy in discovering he had designed the Enron logo. But I agree, if Rand had been alive for the ugly demise of Enron he would remained objective about it. Seeing how the logo came to represent the dishonesty of Enron affirms Rand's theory that a logo "derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes". Perhaps a testament to the quality of the design might be how the iconic crooked E came to represent such blackness--it has remained a strong logo, but symbolic for corporate dishonesty . If Enron's logo had been just another swoosh derivative from the 90's their legacy might be slightly less notorious.
Aaron Stienstra

Dear Mr. Beirut,

Thank you very much for your reply. My typography and book design professor is a big fan of yours and I am a fan of his since I personally think he is a genius, so... I think you are my grand-hero or something.

I hope after I graduate I will be able to meet with you in New York. And hopefully by then I will have had several clients I like more than just the fact that they are nice enough to hire me.

With deepest respect, -
Panasit Ch

I actually worked on the initial rollout and subsequent re-rollout of this logo.

We had no idea.

I keep the work in my portfolio because it's nothing if not memorable to prospective clients. I am very proud, though, to have worked on a Paul Rand project. Too bad it had to be one with so much baggage.
Alana Waters

Thanks for referring to my hastily constructed GOP elephant/Enron satirical logo, submitted to Bruce Sterling's Viridian design contest. It's quite amusing to learn I was riffing on Master Rand's [posthumously modified] design.

Which brings me to this question: when a corporation dies, does a logo design become public domain? While a corporation is in business, the value of a logo is expressed as 'Goodwill', or some other difficult to peg value that will be almost certainly be defended in court if you should attempt misuse.

One thing is clear, the man in the gray Ferrari bought a queer piece of history.

re: rights to a logo after a company dies.

I recall that the PanAm name and logo were sold for a million dollars years after the demise of that great airline.
Jerry Kuyper

Very nice read , Funny how things turn out sometimes.
web design , almog

I worked at Enron just before the fall as a contract designer. I worked with the brand manager at Enron who made the mistake. She told me about how Paul Rand died before they chose the colors so she made the selections by herself. She told me about the mistake and I had to hold back a laugh. The sad thing was she was still there even after the rookie mistake that cost them tons to fix.
Jonathan Bybee

Is it beside the point that the logo is just damn ugly anyway?

Paul Rand is impressive. This logo is not. Long live Paul Rand!

After a few years working for soul-sucking clients, my partner and I also deliberately pick and choose the clients we want to work with. It means sometimes we don't always get as much money as other designers who just take the money and run, but we certainly sleep better at the end of the day. I think it's worth vetting the people who contact you.

so does this finally disprove that good design ensures good business?

I think that would act as a momentous realization to most naive designers. Like more money spent on students = better grades/performance, it's doesn't ensure anything other than an anecdotal factoid for sales rhetoric.

Jobs | July 18