“Sad sign of the times”, The Australian, 13-14 Nov, 1993.

I hate logos. Impossible to avoid them these days. In becoming all pervasive, logos lost their sole redeeming feature. They traded in their symbolic appeal for visual banality. For purveyors of popular culture, that’s a bad deal.

Good logo design harmonises image and type into a memorable symbol or ingenious form. Playful or provocative; serious, whimsical or straight – a logo should sum up its product in a direct and vital way. It should grab us by the eyeballs. That’s the theory anyway. Too bad so many of the new logos we encounter every day are so boring and insipid.

I haven’t always hated logos. There was a time when I considered the redesign of, say, the Coca Cola logotype as one of the more exciting events of corporate culture. But things have changed since American design guru Raymond Loewy admonished his fellow designers to “never leave well enough alone”. When it comes to a couple of recently revamped logos, perhaps they should have.

The new Commonwealth Bank ID would have to be one of the missed design opportunities of the decade. Timed to coincide with the bank’s transition to a public company, this identity change has done for the Commonwealth what Elvis did for pizzas. Nothing. The previous concentric circles have been replaced with a lopsided yellow square, complete with a black notch in the corner. Like SAO dipped in vegemite, as one of my less generous friends would have it.

Though the symbolic significance of the old circles may have escaped most of the clientele, the square is a complete mystery. The bold san serif “Commonwealth” now sits snugly beside the skinny sanserif “Bank”. It wouldn’t be so annoying if the interplay of shape, colour and typography actually implied something. But it doesn’t.

Telecom have also gone through a similar revising of identity. Although more meaningful and seductive, it sits uneasily amid the visual jumble of the street. From my bedroom window it looks like it’s about to slip off the side of the corporate HQ where it so proudly hangs. Happier on the top of phone bills, corners of phonecards and sides of vans, there is at least an attempt to develop consistent usage that doesn’t assault our visual senses. Invoking the look of a satellite dish, Telecom, it seems to say, will beam us up into the age of global communications.

For modernists like Peter Behrens, whose logo for German industrial giant AEG remains unchanged since 1906, or Paul Rand (creator of IBM’s trademark in 1956), a logo had to be logical reflection of a company’s product. A good logo looked right stamped on everything the company did, from product to letterhead and blazing neon. For the classic modern designers, the logo was to be an orderly industrial icon that united the whole of the company into one image while marking it off from its rivals in the marketplace.

The logo took over where the trademark left off. It could anonymously compete with the friendly animal or human figures who would sell us ice , petrol or potato chips. The kooky smile of the bulbous Michelin Man seemed to guarantee the quality of the tyres that formed his body. About the same time, Nipper the RCA dog sat listening patiently to the recorded sounds of his master’s voice. The corporate logo, however, was to extinguish this more human dimension, replacing it with the image of a smooth-running machine.

The modern logo, which had its heyday in the 1970s, combined the mechanical precision of photography with the abstract look of diagrams. This might be too austere for these funky postmodern times. Hence the 1980s saw a revival of interest in the popular trademarks of the 1920s and 1930s, with all their intricate and dynamic naivety.

In the 1990s this interest has shifted to popular clothing labels. With the help of a cheap bromide machine or digital scanner, the mark of a 1930s airliner or a sports label like Nike (it doesn’t matter which) can be transformed into an ersatz record label or cheeky T-shirt print. At least these logos go easy on the symbolic banality and heavy on the ironic appeal.