Jens Müller picks five logos worth revisiting from 130 years of branding history

To mark the release of Logo Beginnings, author Jens Müller gives us a lesson in logo history, unpacking five favourites spanning two centuries, from the niche to the revered.

26 April 2022

Some logos are so ingrained into our quotidian surroundings that a second thought is rarely given to how, where or, more importantly, when they were first created. In fact, in the ever-churning rebrand cycle, it’s hard to imagine that global brands such as Rolex, BMW and Louis Vuitton still use logos that were designed over 100 years ago. It’s a lesser-known fact not often discussed and throws up all sorts of questions for commercial branding: do brands keep historic logos for heritage sake, or because the first iteration delivered something iconic, or perhaps even irreplaceable? What stories lie behind these logos? And what can century-old symbols tell us about early graphic design? With Logo Beginnings, a new book released this month with Taschen, graphic designer and author Jens Müller aims to offer some answers.

Delving into the origins of modern trademarks and gathering more than 6,000 logos from the 1800s to 1940, Jens Müller takes us through the life of branding, from the origins of the logo itself to where we find ourselves today. "It is almost impossible to imagine a university, band, medical practice, community initiative, or app without a custom-designed source identifier composed of shapes and letters,” Jens states in the book.

To mark his extensive dive into logo evolution – covering form, typography, effect and the pictorial – we asked the author to give It’s Nice That a slightly briefer course in logo history. Below, Jens runs us through five logos with boundary-pushing visuals and compelling stories. Or, in the case of one selection, one of the earliest examples of designers borrowing from a very cyclical pool of references.

Odol, Anonymous, DE, 1897

"When talking about three-dimensional wordmarks, one does not necessarily think of the early days of modern graphic design. And indeed, the extruded lettering of the mouthwash manufacturer Odol is a notably early example of 3D application in logo design. By the 1930s at the latest, however, logos that made use of a three-dimensional effect were part of the usual repertoire of design concepts. One example that remains largely unchanged to this day is the piled-up lettering of 20th Century Fox, which was created in 1935."

Jan Wils Architect, Piet Zwart, NL, 1912

"Dutch artist Piet Zwart, born in 1885, gained a reputation as a pioneer of modern typography in the 1920s. His abstract mark for the architect Jan Wils, for whom Zwart worked as an assistant, shows that he was producing radical new design solutions years earlier. The influence of the avant-garde on modern logo design is enormous. While constructivist design approaches to posters or book covers could only establish themselves in certain niches, the communicative advantages of reduced-constructivist formal language in logos were widely recognised and were soon to be found in all sectors."

Burberry, Anonymous, UK, 1901

"The fashion brand of British textile merchant Thomas Burberry held a competition for a new trademark in 1901. Its anonymous winner was inspired by a 13th Century knight armour which was on display in London's Wallace Collection at the time, and created a knight on horseback. Complemented by the Latin term 'Prorsum' ('Forward'), which boiled down the company's philosophy to one word. Until the radical and much-discussed redesign by Riccardo Tisci and Peter Saville in 2018, the figurative mark represented the internationally acclaimed brand."

Bang & Olufsen, Anonymous, DK, 1936

"This widely forgotten logo for the manufacturer of high-end audio products, initially founded by Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen as a radio factory, was created in 1935. It is not only a beautiful geometric, typographic combination of the two letters B and O, but in a certain way marks the transition to state-of-the-art, modernist solutions in logo design. A development that finally took place from the 1940s onwards, and which can only be understood in the context of its fascinating prehistory as well as pioneering individual solutions like this one."

Bayer, Hans Schreiber, DE, 1904

"The Bayer cross, created in 1901 presumably by Hans Schreiber, a scientific employee of the company, still stands for the global pharmaceutical giant from Germany. The simple, yet ingenious idea of creating a cross from a five-letter word was – as the research for the book showed – not exclusive to Bayer. A few years earlier, similar solutions already existed in the United States. In the 1910s, there was a veritable boom in similar solutions around the world, although they are now largely forgotten. The issue of designers having the same ideas or borrowing from the same ideas seems to be as old as design itself."

Logo Beginnings is available for purchase at Taschen at £60.

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Jens Müller: Logo Beginnings (Copyright © Jens Müller / Taschen, 2022)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

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