Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2013

Hey, have we met before?

Understanding the fine line between what is inspired and what is imitated.
Photo: Online.
Photo: Online.

There is a fine line between imitation and inspiration. But a line there is for sure. It could be a new logo or a new campaign with the most fleeting recall of another and cries of foul abound. The furore over a TVC or a print ad usually dies a natural death when the TVC goes off air or the print is refreshed. But logos have an infinitely longer life. And therefore become much more contentious.

So what happens when you are given a brief to design a new logo? You start with the conceptual then move on to the elements and colours that fit with the brand’s equity. Then starts the actual process of design. Several options are developed with a story behind each. Presented, shortlisted, feedback incorporated, etcetera. This fine-tuning and short listing continues until the winner is chosen. It can be a long and arduous process, one which is only partly objective.

And every now and then you come across logos which are startlingly similar.

This is... CNN. No wait, it’s FDA. Nope, it’s Sega

One is a US government organisation formed in 1906. The other is a Japanese video game development company which started in 1940. The third is arguably the most famous cable news network (hence the name) which first aired in 1980. All three take pride in a respectable pedigree and belong to brands in wholly different categories. That is until you come to their visual identity. And you would think they were siblings lost in the mela at Kumbh.

Upon scouring the internet, it is discovered that the Sega logo was designed in 1976. Which makes perfect sense. The style has a very 70s nonchalant, lazy vibe about it. The stripes resemble classic stripes, even reminiscent of the Adidas stripes which graced the most popular running shoes for both professional and recreation athletes in the 60s and 70s. At the same time, one could credibly claim that the logo is a classic example of Japanese minimalism. Quite possibly, but not confirmed, as the work of Naoto Oshima and Yuji Naka, the duo behind Sega’s mascot Sonic.

The CNN logo was designed in 1980 and reportedly took all of 48 hours from design to approval. According to Toni Dwyer, Communication Trends Inc, the firm that worked with CNN prior to its launch:

“In the eleventh hour, it occurred to someone that they needed a logo… We had about 24 or 48 hours to turn around and present a logo… There were several forms of the logo they weren’t exactly wild about, there was one we thought would play the best, we tried to keep it simple… It was designed with money in mind, so we tried to keep it one colour.”

Terry McGuirk a former CEO at CNN says it resembled a cable running through and forming the three letters of the brand name and was the one liked most by Ted Turner. The logo itself was designed by Anthony Guy Bost, a professor at the University of Auburn for a much negotiated sum of $2,800 (or $2,400 by some accounts). As Bost has now departed this world we will never know the reality. But suffice it to say, when a client gives a designer a day to come up with logo options, don’t expect earth shattering creativity.

There is no background available on the FDA logo at least not in the obvious places. A trip to Washington might be required to unearth that mystery. What is interesting to note is the complete lack of controversy about the logos. There may well have been speculation 30 odd years ago, but without the omnipresent internet and a few obscure marketing/advertising manuals serving as sound boxes, the debate, if any, was short lived. The three identities have since thrived in their own right. Ironically it is the most recent (and possibly the most likely imitator) that has the most recall. Proof that what you do with the brand is what gives your visual identity life. And not the other way around.

Birds of a feather – Singapore Airlines, Garuda, Gulf Air
The use of birds is a convenient if rather obvious fit with the airline industry. So it is not surprising to see three airlines in our neighbourhood using the bird on the tailfin. Singapore Airlines’ logo as we know has been in existence since 1972. However, Garuda, the Indonesian airline’s logo is in fact older. In existence since the 1950s, the logo has evolved into the one we see today. May we surmise that Singapore Airlines was inspired by Garuda? Perhaps. But at the end of the day it is a different logo. And should Gulf Air not have pursued an avian logo just because two other airlines already use it? Not at all. Gulf Air’s use of the falcon goes well with Arab traditions.

Leafing through – Adidas, Fred Perry, Festival de Cannes

The leaves in the Fred Perry logo form a wreath, whereas the Palme d’Or of Cannes is supposedly part of a wreath. Wreaths were awarded to victors of athletic championships, harking back to the Greek god Apollo. The leaves of the Adidas Originals logo however have less to do with athletic heights and more to do with highs of another kind. Or so rumour has it.

Other notable leafy logos are Air Canada with the maple – the nation’s symbol, the Irish airline Aer Lingus with the three leaf clover and the Parti Liberal du Quebec proclaiming their French connection with the fleur-de-lis (the decorative lily pattern used by the French monarchy).

There are only so many elements and colours to play with. With the design world becoming increasingly crowded, there will certainly be cultural synergies and cross-pollination of ideas. So to cry foul every time we see two logos with some similarity is silly. Run a search on the internet and you will find that dopplegangers abound and perfectly respectable ones too. The Mini Cooper and Bentley. Swiat Zdrowia and Unilever. Sun Microsystems and Columbia Sportswear. Gucci and Chanel. Smart and Stark. The Scottish Arts Council and Quark.

Some will arguably raise eyebrows for being too close for comfort. But in many cases, it is coincidence or at best inspiration with value addition. These are the logos with their own unique personality and representative of a unique brand promise. And certainly not identical to the source of inspiration. This is what matters. To seek inspiration is fine, it is human, it is real. But to take that inspiration and make it well and truly your own, that requires imagination and vision.

S. Hyder works for an advertising agency in Pakistan.