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The highs and lows of logos

Analysis - The London 2012 logo provoked a barrage of criticism from design professionals. But what do the branding experts make of engineering firms' recent redesigns?John McKenna finds out.

DESCRIBED BY education secretary Alan Johnson as looking like Boris Johnson's hair, derided as a 'pathetic attempt to appear trendy' and ridiculed in the press, Seb Coe's £400,000 graffiti style Olympic logo, designed by branding giant Wolff Olins, has certainly stirred up a hornet's nest of debate.

The engineering community was no different in condemning the design. As NCE went to press, nearly 700 of you had logged on to our website - nceplus. co. uk - to vote in our online poll. A whopping 81% say the logo was inappropriate for the Games, with just 18% supportive and 1% unsure.

Is such negative reaction justified from our industry? NCE decided to find out whether this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black by investigating the engineering industry's imaging.

We asked two branding experts to evaluate the design credentials of logos changed recently - the ICE, Alfred McAlpine, Atkins, Tarmac and Carillion.

Weisheiten UK creative director David Smithson has, during his 15-year career, developed the brands of Land Securities, the Home Office, and the English National Ballet.

Leeds University head of graphic and communication design, Mike Sheedy, is responsible for course content and has mentored, among others, NCE's own designer James McCarthy.

Smithson and Sheedy assessed the logos without prior knowledge of the intention behind each organisation's branding.

Overall, Sheedy said he felt the examples showed that engineering organisations had embraced the 'touchy feely' mood of the age. But this, he felt, wasn't necessarily for the good.

'[This] perhaps demonstrates a lack of con dence about what they do, or nervousness about how they are perceived by the public, or how they think people perceive what they do, ' said Sheedy. 'They appear to be hiding what they do behind a veil.' Here's what the experts said:

ICE

ICE was rebranded in 2002, removing its crest and replacing it with a modern, text-based logo designed by Arup. ICE communications and marketing director Anne Moir says the logo was modernised to appear more commercial and appeal to younger members and prospective members of the Institution.

Sheedy: 'I'm a bit baffled by this one, you almost expect institutions to adhere to certain traditions in visual presentation, and this seems to have gone down the route of 'let's look modern for the sake of it'.

'It ends up looking like a middle of the road high street night club. A bit like politicians when they try to look 'casual' with shirt collars out of their crew neck jumpers.' Smithson agrees that the current logo looks like a high street bar or nightclub and adds: 'When you drop heraldry you're obviously making a conscious effort to not look like establishment. But at the end of the day if you're called the Institution of Civil Engineers there's nothing to be ashamed of about that - it's quite an important title.'

Tarmac/Carillion

In 1999 Tarmac demerged its construction business to concentrate on heavy building materials. The construction business was rebranded as Carillion, with a logo representing a garden, with a star, leaf and pool.

Tarmac itself rebranded from its old 'seven Ts' logo in 1996 to one T to represent one company.

Sheedy: 'I'm a fan of the old (Tarmac) identity. I think it say's what's in the can.

'The new image is a bit of smoke and mirrors. It is trying to make us feel that Tarmac is a friendly, much gentler kind of organisation.

'I think there is a need for a bit more straight-talking in how businesses present themselves.' Smithson: 'Both logos are all right - they're well executed. But I don't know what either of them mean.

The Carillion logo looks like it's designed to appeal to a lot of people no matter what culture they come from.

'Just like Alfred McAlpine they're trying to move away from that typical solid construction look to something more friendly. They want to look like a company that's doing other things and I'm sure they had very good organisational reasons for doing it.'

Atkins

Consultant Atkins changed its branding in 2002, dropping the WS of the company name and modifying the initial 'A' in an attempt to create an instantly recognisable character for the company name.

Sheedy: 'This is a reasonably successful transition from a fairly awful previous identity which just looks like a low grade business.

'The new image suggests a degree of sophistication and intelligence emphasised by removing the bar from the upper case A.' Smithson: 'Out of all of them I've seen it's probably the best change. Just leaving the bridge off the A is quite important, because it tells you something about the company - that it's modern and different' 'They've cleaned it up from the old one quite a lot - it's not the most fantastic logo in the world, but it's very well crafted.'

Alfred McAlpine

Contractor Alfred McAlpine rebranded itself simply as McAlpine in October 2003, but had to reinsert the 'Alfred' following a successful legal challenge by contractor Sir Robert McAlpine in April 2004 (NCE 8 April 2004).

The rebranding was intended to move the rm's image away from 'muddy boots' construction.

Sheedy: 'It's fairly anonymous in relation to what they do. There was some indication of it in the previous identity but that has given way to an identity that appears to lay emphasis on personality rather than what they actually do.' Smithson: They've obviously tried to make the new logo look a bit friendly, a bit warmer.' 'They obviously wanted to move away from the old boys construction company image, but it looks like a healthcare logo - it could be for an old people's home - it says 'we'll look after you'.' He adds that the choice of purple is strange as it is a feminine colour.

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