Virginia Smith | Essays

Two Dutch Logos

The Hague's new logo, designed By Anton Corbijn

There are so many graphic designers in The Hague that it came as something of a surprise when the city commissioned its logo from Anton Corbijn, a music video and film director. The logo — brush strokes and script — made some Netherlanders angry: was it a kite drawn with magic markers? Could it be printed on a truck, bag, or bus? And what to make of the playful, do-it-yourself amateurism that so defiantly departs from the classic Dutch Modernism of Zwart, of Mondrian and De Stijl?

As it happens, that rigorous geometric tradition carries on still today in professional graphic design, most notably in a specially-designed logo for an architectural conference held not long ago in Rotterdam.

The logo for the DOCOMOMO in Rotterdam, designed by David Knowles

The logo for DOCOMOMO, an organization founded 20 years ago by a group of Dutch architects, was designed by David Knowles of the Rotterdam-based Tremani Studio. (The aim was to advocate for the preservation of iconic Modern buildings in Holland.) For the DOCOMOMO mark, Knowles used a somewhat softened geometry that he believes draws from the abstract minimalism of his predecessors. He is aware of the strong graphic traditions in the Netherlands and accepts its visual language.

The logo appeared on the website and the publicity materials leading up to the Tenth DOCOMOMO Conference in Rotterdam, which took place last fall. Together with bright orange (the Netherlands is a monarchy held by the House of Orange), blue bands and no shortage of Futura Bold, the logo was used to identify posters, schedules, papers and booklets featured during the week.

Karen Knols, the graphic designer of Studio Lampro, implemented the DOCOMOMO logos — both type and mark — on murals and printed matter for the conference. In her view, the abstract DOCOMOMO mark represents a spirit of transformation — not unlike a building moving from one state to another — which, through subtle but significant alterations, arrives eventually as another identity entirely. (The theme of the conference was The Challenge of Change.)

The talks at the conference reinforced the awareness of Modernist design traditions alternately revised or reused; the Van Nelle coffee, tea and tobacco refinery of the late 1920s, where the conference occurred, is now an office building called the Design Factory. Speakers from Germany to Ghana presented examples of Modernist renovations, both successful and disastrous: the Gropius’ Master’s House at the Bauhaus, for instance, was given a peaked roof by East German authorities. (It is now a picturesque cottage.)

Graphic designers in the Netherlands possess a similar challenge: they can reuse or reject. Some continue the Dutch tradition of abstract minimalism, while others elect to incorporate new media trends and more progressive design idioms into their work. It may well be the older generation which tends to adhere to a more traditional approach (called ‘real design’ by some), while a younger generation is more likely to adopt shadows, buttons and other easy options in web design programs. David Knowles uses the term ‘crossover designers’ to address those who create work for both traditional and new media.

When I asked Corbijn how he arrived at his logo for The Hague, he told me that his chief objective was to follow the commission’s instructions, which included eliminating the stork (formerly part of the city’s logo), to emphasize the city’s sense of freedom (the International Criminal Court is located there) and to appeal internationally. The blue stroke is intended to evoke The Hague’s location near the sea, notes Corbijn, while the yellow, green and black strokes allude to Mondrian's painting Victory Boogie Woogie which is in the city's collection.

Corbijn started as a photographer 30 years ago; today, he designs record covers and anything that appeals to him. He had no training in graphic design and doesn’t study it now. He sees the logo as “playful and very un-corporate” and reminds me that he is accustomed to criticism and doesn't care what people think of his logo.

The ultimate question of whether playfulism and pictorialism will make a comeback, or whether abstraction and tradition will continue to prevail in Dutch design (and elsewhere) may be a non-issue, as most information today inhabits a decidedly virtual arena. The Metro stations around Rotterdam inform travelers through digitized panels with train arrivals in real time (as do some New York City subways) and pictures aren’t typically essential. Modernism’s efforts to establish worldwide visual communication systems in the 1920s — as demonstrated in Otto Neurath's family of isotype pictographs, for instance — seem to us now as relatively ancient, a part of history as remote as silent movies and the once ‘universal’ alphabets of Herbert Bayer and others. As representations of graphic form, they remain interesting, if not necessarily relevant, today.

Posted in: History

Comments [26]

> "most notably in a specially-designed logo"

What makes a logo "specially-designed"? Are some logos non-specially-designed?

And I'm just thinking out loud here, is the mark a successful one? I have never been to The Hague, I've never been anywhere in the Netherlands—I just had to Wikipedia if "the" was capitalized in either—but it would seam that the usage, as it pertains to the website, is to attract tourism. On that front, it feels as if it descends from an Eastern culture, and that is probably misleading. As a graphic symbol, it doesn't necessarily inform the viewer about anything particular to the Netherlands, does it? I don't buy that its colors allude to Mondrian's "Victory Boogie Woogie" because the brush strokes remove it from that context. I still want to visit the Netherlands, but I think Mondrian's painting would get me there quicker than this logo. (Perhaps Anton Corbijn wanted to dissuade visitors, as in, go fly a kite.) I would argue that, modernism, as graphic communications meant to educate, to inform, is still relevant today.
John Rudolph

Yes, you're right, Armin. I was quoting from my notes on remarks at the Conference, but it's not necessary here.
Virginia Smith

I'm from NYC and visited Den Haag a couple years ago, which I found to be absolutely gorgeous.

I may sound subjective when saying this, but the brush strokes within this particular logo give it a "tacky" appearance. It's reminiscent of the designers' inside joke with the Papyrus and Comic Sans fonts -- definitely not modern. Now, it's understandable if he wanted to make the logo appear less corporate. But there are other elements he could've used to make a very friendly and organic logo without the need for such jagged brush strokes. Also, the logo doesn't appear scalable. How will the logotype (and the entire logo in general) look at 50%? If it's relocated, where would it go & how will it look?

I understand the kite concept, though. There's a big park in the middle of Den Haag with alot of leisure activities and festivals that seem quite frequent.

I'm a dutch graphic designer so I feel the need to give my 2 cents here:

I don't it's really a matter of two schools of design at work here. Corbijn was asked for his name and fame, which would bring a ring of publicity to the city, which is what this is for. The logo is, imho, pretty crappy. It's really a first idea scribbled on a napkin, and it isn't even a good idea. It's use of metaphores is clichéd to say the least. It reminds me most of all the logo's made for the tourist destinations. (Has anyone ever noticed that they are all alike: with semi naive brush stroked handwriting in bold colors) It definately not something I would show someone as an example of dutch design.

The other logo isn't much better though, it looks dated and bland, and I'm really bored with logo's including references to an url (.nl, .com etc).

I don't see any reason to compare these two mediocre to crappy logo's, and don't see how these could come to represent any schools in (dutch) design. All in all this makes it a pretty pointless article, I'm sorry to say.

Can modernism and playfulism/pictorialism happily coexist? Is it possible to believe in principles of modernism but still see the value in other approaches?

Echoing John Rudolph, I'm also curious about whether this mark for The Hague is a successful mark. For that matter, is it even a good example of the playful and/or pictorial approach?

Interestingly, I cannot really evaluate it without applying modernist thought. More interestingly, Corbijn himself seems to explain (defend) the mark in the languages of modernism and abstraction: The mark emphasizes the city's sense of freedom. The blue represents the sea. The yellow, green and black strokes allude to Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie. It seems a bit ironic that Corbijn has to use modernist language to defend a mark which is is allegedly not modernist. That kind of suggests to me that modernism still has a place at the table. And maybe this mark actually is modernist?

I also wonder why he even bothers to explain (defend) it if he truly doesn't care what anyone thinks (this claim by designers is almost always a lie). Furthermore, I think the weakest possible defense any designer can ever make for his/her work is to label it "un-corporate." I don't want to know what it isn't, I want to know what it is!

In my opinion, it is too busy, too complex and unclear. The name of the city is so small in relation to other elements as to make it virtually unreadable. I don't think it succeeds at conveying any of the allusions that Corbijn claims it is meant to evoke. For those reasons, and more, I think it is not a very successful mark. I'd be hard pressed to see this mediocre work as a bellwether for the demise of Modernism in the Netherlands!
Rob Henning

(The aim was to advocate for the preservation of iconic Modern buildings in Holland.)

In fact, DOCOMOMO International advocates for the preservation of Modernism around the world and has a number of related working groups in countries around the world: this specific logo was designed for the 2008 biennial conference in Rotterdam.

L.M. Cunningham

Corbijn himself associated his drawing with a Sperm cell. Or a kite. It could be anything. Typically a non-designer thing; not being able to make a clear choice what it has to convey. According to Corbij this in itself has a certain quality.
Corbijn couldn't care less; quoting Corbijn; "I'm often on a safe distance from the city, so I didn't experience all the commotion"
All in all, it's the question how one could consider this a serious 'design'. Corbijn had quite a budget for this, mainly for connecting his name to the Hague's ambitious 'citybranding'.

Concerning the Anton Corbijn design:
Will the yellow and other colors be converted to greyscale for line art reproduction? or will all the colors go to black? How will it look and work in line art black with no greyscale?
The signature (den haag) font (or hand drawn) is hard to read on my LCD screen on the designobserver web site. The first “a” has a blob above it. The second “a” is incomplete. The “e” feels awkward and poorly drawn. So how will the letters reproduce under even more stressful circumstances, reproductions of reproductions, media, and various sizes? or more critical things like advertising for the city or legal document reproduction?
Many basic typographic and identity design functionality problems remain regardless if the design makes sense for the problem and purpose and client.
Joseph Coates

You guys show some of the worst examples of Dutch logo design there is! Thanks for showing this isn't the complete Mecca for design, even though there's a lot of good things going on. First one for The Hague by Anton Corbijn is a complete failure that even forced our prime minister to give some serious explaination and makes Dutch designers very shameful and angry. Every single non-famous person would have been laughed at real hard when having the guts to present this... this... #@$^?!! So, photographers designing logo's, gimme a break!

Very flimsy work, with even flimsier rationale to support it. It looks like it is about to erode to dust before my very eyes. If only...
Joshua Leipciger

The logo is not the official logo for the City of The Hague. That one still exists as it was. This one is meant for promotional purposes and show The Hague to an international audience. Not in the corporate use of the city council. FYI.

"Can modernism and playfulism/pictorialism happily coexist?"

Paul Rand seemed to think so. Too bad no one has ever come close to his genius, though.

that new logo is worse than his pseudo film 'control'
ian lover

Jeffrey: Sorry I didn't have your contact before my trip to the Netherlands; would have been glad to meet you. As it was, these designers told me their views, which were impressive. Of course, there are always many different views on design.

LM: Yes, my original wording ' and world wide' was inadvertently omitted from the final.

Peter: Paul is a good example of both, yes. He was my teacher and later a friend. He never discussed logos with us; gave us a cigar box to design. I did a publication on him called Artograph, if you can find a copy somewhere. It is rare now.
Virginia Smith

Lets not forget the Dutch are also known for speaking their mind and being highly critical on everybody and everything. We do this to everyone including colleagues, our boss and our clients. "Yes, but..." is what you'll hear often. It's one of the things foreigners have to get used to. We don't mean to offend, we're just very, very honest and sometimes forget people don't always want to know everything that's on our mind. That's what I feel happened here..

is it reasonable for the designer of a logo that represents an entire city not to care what its inhabitants might think of it? that attitude strikes me as extremely egocentric.

I find this logo a terrible fit for Den Haag. It clearly reflects the creator's disassociation with his subject. I feel a little bit sad that this will be used for marketing purposes, but sadder still if this is to be a representation of Dutch design.
royal creme

publican temas muy interesantes me son de gran ayuda aveces.

Let's steer clear of a discussion about 'good design' and whether photographers can or cannot design. What did Spanish graphic designers think when Miro, the painter, was asked to design a tourist logo for Spain - which is still in use today?
Corbijn, of course, should have accepted the assignment but then have commissioned a few quality designers to eliminate the worst mistakes from this nightmare of a logo.
Maybe however, the trend that the 'sincerity' of the celebrity sketch is going to prevail over densely argued, professionally executed 'dynamic logo systems', is here to stay for some time. At least in The Netherlands which is overcoming decades of rectangular geometry and postmodern curves decorating public institutions.
The fact that these are normally remembered as 'graphic design' doesn't make them automatically good.


excuse me, and your point is...?

Marco: I've noticed this about some Dutch friends of mine... they can be very critical in their opinion, even if they are quite polite in their delivery of said opinions.

As far as the first logo pertains, I'm struck this was even considered. Further confused why a film maker would be interested in working in non-film media. Surely many artists are capable across multiple disciplines, but this logo is just... peculiar. And further more, why was it chosen?

Am I in The Hague? Or eating in a chinese buffet?

It seems this logo has to much meaning in it, with all the colors representing something different. Since he mentions this specifically i assume that this is something he wants to communicate but i am not sure it really does. And what is the logo as a whole supposed to convey?
A designer

it should be as simple as what works for the design, it could be minimalism, it could be web 2.0!!!! who cares? as long as it works for the design and as long as the objective is accomplished .....

A blue stroke AND a green stroke? I only can see one 'petrol' coloured stroke. I suppose that is meant to be blue, for Mondriaan did'm use any green in Victory Boogie Woogie. (Nor in his other abstract work, for that matter...)
Dhr. DeLuxe

Virginia Smith is a Professor Emerita of Baruch College of CUNY. Her book, Forms in Modernism: A Visual Set (Watson-Guptill) places typography in the theoretical context of other design of the Modern period.

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