How promoting films and music pushed the boundaries of logo design
Letters are a recording technology. It’s strange to think of them that way, accustomed to them as we are, but old tech is still tech. And for millennia, they were one of the few recording technologies we had.
That all changed around the start of the 20th century. Images sprang to life on screens. Music burst from machines. Letters, usurped from their position as the only show in town, took on a different role in relation to the new media: promotion. To express the qualities of the stories, stars, and feelings represented in these new media, letters had to take on new looks as well.
When books were new, they presented one clear advantage over their competition: they were easy to carry. This portability uncoupled ideas from place—it was possible to take ideas from Rome, for example, and plant them around the world.
Film and recorded music did the same for plays and music. Music had been an inherently vernacular art form, deeply rooted in local culture. In America, uprooted cultures cross-pollinated and took root anew. The resulting music was entirely new and exciting. And it may have remained a New Orleans exclusive if not for the emergence of the recording technology that made it portable. Instead, jazz became the sound of no single place, but of a generation.
Films, meanwhile had become an attraction unto themselves, supplanting even live theatre with the help of new, safe electric lights. Both media presented the same marketing challenge: the recordings were the same things, but the content could be wildly different. A Sachplaket illustration of a record, slipping out of the sleeve bearing the record company’s name in big letters might have been a good look for the record company. It may have gotten them business recording. But it wouldn’t have presented a compelling reason for consumers to check out any particular record. That’s because the good for sale wasn’t the record—it was the content.
By the 1920s, designers were used to the idea that letters could express abstract concepts. From the distillation of typographical nationhood in modernized vernacular typefaces, to the sculpting of brands in typographic logos, the practice was well established. They just needed to draw something from the art they were representing. Fortunately, films and music absolutely exuded character.
Charlie Chaplin was easily the decade’s biggest film star and film maker. He remains a great example of personal branding: physical comedy, derby hat, toothbrush moustache, duck-foot walk—all spring to mind on reading his name, even for those who’ve never seen his films. That's because Chaplin was a bigger brand than his films; the strength of his brand carried his films commercially. As such, his name typically appeared higher in the visual hierarchy of his film posters than the titles of the films. On posters for 1921’s The Kid, for example, he signed his name in a big, bold cursive, right above the smaller film title. It made sense: signatures, in cursive letters, evoke personal branding. And no brand was bigger than Charlie Chaplin’s.
The font used to render The Kid's title was a slightly rounded, bold serif. The set of letters, modest compared to Chaplin’s name, was a precursor to one of the most brand-friendly fonts of all time: 1923’s Cooper Black, designed by an advertiser to sell to other advertisers. And buy it advertisers did. Today, you’ll see Cooper Black everywhere from the Pet Sounds album cover to the easyJet logo.
Back in 1921, The Kid became the biggest film of the year. Other films that couldn’t bank on Chaplin’s star power forged their own brands with more distinctive title lettering. The year’s second most popular film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was a war film written by Great War veteran Laurence Stallings. It starred Rudolf Valentino, but nobody seemed to care—his name didn’t even appear on posters. The film’s title appeared in a bold serif, not strikingly different from that used for The Kid but for one detail: this was a long series of letters, stretching across the bottom of the posters in two ranks; the poster’s designers broke up the regimented grouping with off-kilter ‘O’s, suggesting motion and chaos.
Rudolf Valentino appeared in another film that year, The Sheik. Its title featured very rounded, almost blobby letters. It’s hard to take anything away from what their designers wanted to express—perhaps by then anything remotely Art Nouveau looked antiquated and medieval. Whatever the case, the film inspired a hit jazz song, Ted Snyder’s The Sheik of Araby. The cover of the sheet music made its intentions somewhat more clear: a man—presumably the Sheik himself—supports a swooning woman under an ancient arch; the title appears in tremulous letters that evoke ambiguously Arabic writing—a clearer Art Nouveau-esque appropriation of nation in letterform.
By the middle of the 1920s, film titles had become even more expressive. Ben-Hur appeared in an approximation Square Capitals. Appropriate, if unimaginative, for a film about an Ancient Roman creep who preys on time-travelling flapper girls (according to the poster illustration). The Gold Rush still played second Charlie Chaplin’s own name, appearing in a smaller sans serif, but it was at least rendered in gold. Meanwhile, another Stallings-written war film, The Big Parade, made the boldest visual statement yet, with asymmetrically lengthened ‘legs’ on its letters, bearing one-sided serifs. The result was the appearance of letters marching on parade. The next year, Stallings wrote yet another war film, a comedy-drama called What Price Glory. The poster’s bubble letters subverted the films apparently serious content, warning its audience to expect laughs.
In 1927, movie posters hit a high they’ve arguably never surpassed. Heinz Schulz-Neudamm’s Metropolis poster was both minimal and chaotic. The title of the film explodes over skyscrapers like a nightmarish vision of Guimard’s Métropolitain signs: imbalanced and spontaneous, lacking any reassuring natural dimension. This is a mechanical creation, cast by electric lights below on the knife edge between wonder and terror, a Platonic projection of the industrialized city, cast in one word.
By the 1930s, audio and visual recording had joined forces. Talkie films were all the rage. That didn’t stop Charlie Chaplin from releasing one of the greatest films of all time without sound. The poster for City Lights features the silhouette of Chaplin’s Tramp looking out on an art deco skyline, lit from behind by gentle sunlight. His love interest’s face appearing in the fluffy clouds above. It’s both visually similar and diametrically opposed to the Metropolis poster. The film’s title appears at the very bottom of the poster, well under Chaplin’s own name (which forms the ground), in smaller, lighter letters. The counter of the "g" even casts a beam of light. Long descenders elevate and leaven the sans serifs, buoying the image above.
It’s an optimistic look. In 1931, the Great Depression was still new and already interminable; the consumer culture of the 1920s, erected on poor economic fundamentals, had caved in, leaving an uncertain future. Whether Chaplin was offering escapism or irony, City Lights seemed to shore things up.
Out in the streets, the city lights themselves were taking new shapes: letters.