Written by Richard Baird Posted 22 August 2023
The following is a guest article from Logo Histories, a weekly Substack newsletter from the team behind BP&O. Each week, Logo Histories shares the context, concepts and considerations behind some of the most interesting logos and corporate identity design programmes of the past. Read about PAOS’ work for Bridgestone, Lippincott & Margulies’ 1969 brand identity for Coca-cola and Armin Vogt and Jean Reiwald’s 1968 logo for Fiat. Discover these and a 100+ more here.
By the late 1960s the Olivetti logotype had undergone five distinct changes since its founding in 1908, with each lasting for around a decade. As Olivetti was originally a typewriter manufacturer, the design of the logotype was of ‘special concern’ with the belief that the typestyle not only reflect the spirit of a particular age but express the corporation’s contemporary concerns.
This began in 1923 with a logotype created by founder Camillo Olivetti. This was decorative, and very much in keeping with the art nouveau flourishes of the time. This was followed in 1934 by a typewriter inspired Universal Pica logotype by Xanti Schawinsky that better reflected the mechanical nature of the product. Schawinsky would later design a further logotype in 1947 that improved the immediacy and impact across advertising with bolder and more broadly spaced letters.
In 1960 G. Pintori made each letter bolder and tightened the spacing to improve the visual impact and usability of the logotype. This was in keeping with the spirit of the 1960’s, and seen as a heyday for Olivetti graphic design as it experimented with typographical techniques. This afforded individual designers under specific commissions a creative leeway, and gave Olivetti a continued relevance.
Despite Olivetti’s forward-looking approach to graphic design, the combined use of the logotype and symbol had become problematic. A lack of visual cohesion between spiral symbol and logotype had resulted in the symbol being used as decoration. Further, the spiral symbol was thought to not be bold enough to identify the corporation by itself and it was being copied by other companies.
By the late 1960s it was felt that the typestyle had become ‘overused and outdated’, and was too similar to existing typefaces to be registered as a trademark. As well as this, the logotype had suffered from continued incorrect usage in advertising, undermining its effectiveness. In 1967, The Corporate Image Department of Olivetti, headed by H. von Klier and C. Castelli, was tasked with resolving these issues and establishing a formalised corporate identity. Swiss-born graphic designer Walter Ballmer joined the design group.
At the early stage it was decided to abandon the spiral symbol and focus on designing a bold new trademark. Their group’s work began by composing the letters of Olivetti using readily available typefaces. The variety of options produced by different typefaces were then examined and further sketches were made, taking spacing and weighting take into consideration.
The final design, drawn by Walter Ballmer, saw each of the eight letters of ‘Olivetti’ thickened to create a bolder appearance and emphasising a strong horizontal line. Curved elements were then used to add grace to the single mass formed by tightening the individual letters. The resulting logotype was seen as sharing common design language with the products Olivetti produced and effectively symbolised the company.
Once the logotype was settled on in 1971, the design group went to work on developing a design manual which would later be known as ‘The Red Book’. This was described by H. von Klier as a ‘working instrument’ rather than being an ‘authoritative treatise’.
The goal of the Red Book was to unify the Olivetti graphic image on a ‘total scale’ acting as a helmsman. It was developed on the basis of an attitude of ‘glorifying humanity’ and ‘affording the potential of full expression to the talents of designers and artists’ that Olivetti worked with without defining strict rules for each design element. In this way, it was quite different to the systematisation of the America corporate guidelines of the time. However, it did standardise much of Olivetti’s formal corporate communications where appropriate, applying economies of scale to the fabrication of signage and the printing of stationery and forms.
In establishing both the fundamental elements of the design, bearing in mind the spirit of the age, as well as developing a high quality and flexible system for creating various applications, the identity system was not merely a set of rules but a highly original work in and of itself. Although the system was diminished over time the logotype managed to exceed the age of previous iterations, being used over four decades and remaining in use today.