Corporate Identity

Corporate Identity

The young profession of graphic design reached maturity during the 20th century. Within that new professional world, the sphere of work called ‘corporate identity’ became a true metropolis. There are a few classic examples of this development, and all historical surveys mention the visionary approach of AEG, the German pioneers in the realm of electricity, founded back in 1886.

AEG Berlin, conceptual pioneers

The concept of corporate identity can be claimed by Peter Behrens (1868–1940). Trained as a painter, he soon developed his skills as an architect and product designer. While director of the Düsseldorf School for Applied Arts, he was also active as a freelance packaging and publicity designer for AEG. In 1907 he joined the company as their aesthetic and architectural advisor. He built their turbine factory and designed numerous products at a new, high level of functionality and beauty. He designed a new, strong AEG logo and employed young talents who would soon become design stars: Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. The whole quality cluster of AEG architecture, packaging, publicity and product design supports the recognition of Behrens as the Godfather of Corporate Identity. His motivation was purely idealistic: he was truly in search of ‘Making Things Better’.

Ciba Specialty Chemicals, Stuart Ash, Gottschalk + Ash Intl. Emscherpark Intl. Building Exhibition, Rolf Müller, 1995. Boeing/McDonnell Douglas merger, Rick Eiber, 1997. Cape Symphony Orchestra, Richard Danne, 1999. Victoria & Albert Museum, Alan Fletcher, Pentagram, 1988. Wembley Stadium, Michael Peters, 2003. Time Warner, Steff Geisbuhler, Chermayeff & Geismar, 1992. Ryman the Stationer, Jock Kinneir, mid-1960s. Centre Pompidou, Jean Widmer, 1975. Habitat, Andy Stevens/Paul Neale, 2002. Museon, Wout de Vringer, Faydherbe/De Vringer, 2003. Biba, John McConnell, Pentagram, 1964. Whitby Public Library, Tiit Telmet. Stadtgärtnerei Zürich, Michael Baviera, 1968. Musée du Louvre, Pierre Bernard, Atelier de Création Graphique, 1990s.


Olivetti: visionary entrepreneurs

In 1855, Giuseppe Ravizza from Turin invented a ‘writing piano’: the first typewriter. Twenty years later he himself said that it was sheer madness to expect that people would ever write or sew with a machine... But in the US, inventors like Remington had followed Ravizza’s footsteps and ideas, and by the start of the 20th century there were factories named Remington, Royal, Underwood and many others producing typewriters by the thousands. Ravizza’s countryman Camillo Olivetti saw clearly the potential of this market, and invested three years in developing his first typewriter, assisted by 20 collaborators. He also sent his son Adriano and his chief engineer Burzio on a study trip to the States to spy on American production methods and theories of technology, economic efficiency and organization. But Adriano also discovered that focusing on profit maximization was not his sole personal ideal: the quality of life of his employees was as least as important! With Adriano in charge (1933–60) Olivetti embarked on a new ethical and social course. As production in the US and Germany, Italy’s major importing countries, was reduced dramatically and the lire devalued to such an extend that foreign companies stood no chance of competing, Adriano’s Olivetti flourished with an increased market share. He then concentrated on working conditions in new factories. In Ivrea, Olivetti built modern apartments, sports grounds and a hospital. He worked with architects that did not follow the fascist style, but instead created landmarks of modernism. The typewriter became a consumer product when portables came on the market. For product design and company communications, Adriano invited ‘artists’ of repute, such as the AGI members Walter Ballmer, Franco Bassi, Silvio Coppola, Bob Noorda, Albe Steiner and Milton Glaser. The Olivetti visual identity had its roots in idealism and led to a corporate culture, intriguing communications and advanced product design. Who could beat Olivetti?


Danish Post, Gert Dumbar, Studio Dumbar, 1994.


CCA, Chicago: Responsibility as a guideline

Many important aspects of the Olivetti story that began in the early thirties, were continued and extended after WW2. Before that war, corporate identity as we know it now was still a new concept that had to be ‘invented’. Gradually, organizations started to develop the concept and produced their own interpretations. Another striking example of the late thirties was set by the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America. Founder P. Paepcke started an advertising campaign in 1937 that was much more institutional than promotional. CCA’s philosophy, put into simple words, was: ‘Design is a vital obligation of the management.’ In media such as Fortune, CCA explained its responsibility to good design and culture. Paepcke employed designers like Cassandre and the German refugees Toni Zepf and Herbert Bayer. CCA was in fact Bayer’s first major project in the USA. Their ads had great impact, especially in wartime, when recycling became an important issue. At the same time the ads and visual identity built up a positive image of the CCA. In 1950 the company started a series called ‘Great Ideas of Western Man’, with designers like Will Burtin and Gene Federico (AGI members, like Bayer and Cassandre). Herbert Bayer was also commissioned by CCA to design a World Geo-Graphics Atlas (1953), a very early environmental exercise.

Post-war developments change the profession entirely

A different, post-war economic structure began to take shape in the industrialized world of the late fifties. It was a smaller world, due to a transportation and communication explosion, but with bigger business owing to new markets and large-scale mergers. With this, new concepts in corporate communications took shape. FHK Henrion and Alan Parkin published their book Design Coordination and Corporate Image in 1967, an early, clear and comprehensive publication on the subject. In the introduction they wrote: ‘A corporation controls a wide range of things whose appearance is, or could be, affected by design. Industrial design in the ordinary sense can ensure that each of these in isolation has a good appearance. But further effort, of a different kind, is needed to coordinate the many separate items all belonging to one corporation, to achieve coherent and controlled results over a long period. This is what we understand by design coordination.’


International Woolmark, Franco Grignani (alias Francesco Seraglio), 1964.


The guru Wally Olins wrote his book Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design in 1989. In the meantime, the design world itself had gone through enormous changes since the days of Henrion’s book. Corporate identity had become a kind of core business for many designers and communication specialists. To quote Olins, roughly translated, on the search for an identity:‘We look at four regions in which the enterprise is active:-     Products/services – what they make or sell;-     Environment – where they produce or sell, the venues of physical contact;-     Information – how the company describes and publishes what it does;-     Behaviour – how people within the organization go about with each other and how they relate with people outside of their organization.’Theory and practice of the subject had evolved over the years, meaning that designers often had to find support from business-oriented disciplines, whether they liked it or not, and they were confronted with a different kind of response at the clients’ end.From the sixties onwards, corporate identity was a new task for many graphic designers and they had to face this challenge in their own way because their training had not prepared them for such a task. Corporate identity required new definitions, a new vocabulary, new techniques, new systems and specifications. Designers had to explain in detail complex matters to their clients, and prepare presentations for boardrooms, middle management or even a whole company. They also had to produce manuals in which the rules of the ‘game’ were clearly laid down, to ensure long-term continuity.


D&AD, Alan Fletcher, Pentagram, 1962.


Graphic design redefined

These commissions for corporate identity programmes changed the structure of design practices dramatically. It was a revolution that can only be compared with the effects of the computer as a dominating new tool. Very soon these challenges were leading to the formation of design groups in which colleagues – often with different skills – could work as a team to cope with these broad demands from the market. From the outset, commissions for corporate identities came mostly from larger organizations. These design services were now required not only by commercial clients, but also by cultural institutions and governmental bodies. Seminars and publications in the trade press helped a rapidly growing legion of designers to get accustomed to the grammar and the idiom of this new playground. Soon, keen managers of smaller firms discovered the value of identity programmes.These could often be served by solo designers or smaller design units, with Chermayeff & Geismar (1957) in New York among the first generation of design groups specializing in these matters. Among their evergreens are Mobil Corporation, the Chase Manhattan Bank and NBC. But the full list of their ‘identity clients’ is almost endless.British Rail became a giant project for DRU (Design Research Unit: Milner Gray and Associates). Nine years elapsed between the first recommendations and their implementation by the railway system.FHK Henrion had founded his first group, Henrion Design Associates, as early as 1951 and turned international in 1972. His KLM Royal Dutch Airlines scheme survived the decades. It embraced house colours, company title, typo­graphy, livery for aircraft and ground vehicles, architecture, signs, catering, uniforms, stationery, publications, advertising, maps and more. Over the years many of these aspects were revised and updated, without denying the character of the original designs.Other strong players in this field were Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, who joined forces in 1962 and grew on the waves of their worldwide successes to become Pentagram in 1972, now operating offices in the UK, the US and Germany.


Mobil Oil, Tom Geismar, Chermayeff & Geismar, 1965.


The German designer Otl Aicher was responsible for the graphic aspects of the identity of Braun Electronics, as well as the design programme for the Munich Olympics in 1972.In the Netherlands, Total Design was founded in 1963, and the group acquired a strong international reputation in this particular field. So did ‘Dutch Design’ as a whole: the Dutch visual environment, including many governmental bodies, the railways, the Post Office, police and fire brigade soon came to constitute a ‘thoroughly designed country’. Studio Dumbar also played an important role in this.In the USA, other AGI designers like Saul Bass (with projects like United Airlines, Bell Telephone, Warner, Exxon) and Paul Rand (IBM, UPS, Westinghouse) were great masters in the field. But the designers I mentioned and their strong, longlasting projects are just the very tip of one of the few icebergs still growing on our planet.

Ben Bos, Amsterdam, 2005


Essay taken from 'AGI: Graphic Design Since 1950' by Ben & Elly Bos