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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The National Trust's New Logo - A Bold Step Forward

Among the many exciting changes happening at the National Trust for Historic Preservation was the quiet launch of a new logo last week. This coincided with the America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places announcement. Other than a launch party held in a D.C. storefront, attention paid to the new logo was relatively limited. I was smitten from the first moment I saw it and felt it important to write a few words.

The new National Trust for Historic Preservation logo.

What excited me most was what a lively and youthful image the new logo portrayed. There are three buildings and the silhouette of a landscape all set at an angle that reach towards a vanishing point. At first the shapes reminded me of people. Later I went back and saw they were meant to each represent a place. One is a Gothic tower with crenellation, the second is a tree and river set in a landscape, then there is a Neoclassical looking bank or temple, and finally a simple building with a parapet oddly reminiscent of a Spanish Mission. Then there is a small bird that is most likely an eagle just off center. The bird, clouds, and eagle all make a reference to natural resources, while the illustrations of buildings keep the logo grounded in place. Oftentimes we forget that most if not all places are situated in a natural environment - no matter how well tamed that environment may be.

What impressed me about the new logo and its use is how the circle form of the symbol can be easily matched with other graphical elements. The circle is one of the best shapes to use when designing logos for this very reason. The two images below show the symbol used with text in color and black and white, and with differing text treatments. The color version is the banner taken from the National Trust website with the NTHP title prominent. The second is black and white and used for the America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. For this second logo, the NTHP is subservient to the program title. Both have a tasteful, elegant, and refined look to them.

Symbol and text harmoniously blended together with the new NTHP logo.

A Brief History of the National Trust Logo
The National Trust for Historic Preservation received their charter from the U.S. Congress in 1949. The earliest version of the logo we could find was from the first issue of Preservation News published in 1960. Incidentally, the Preservation News archive from Cornell University Library was very helpful in identifying past logos and their approximate dates of use. An early logo from the first issue of Preservation News shows an eagle resting on the capital of a column, with garland beneath, and the text "Guarding America's Heritage." This appealed to a very patriotic sentiment the roots of which might be stretched back to the 19th century and the efforts of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association among others. 

A slightly different version of this logo was used between Feb. 1967 and Dec. 1972 when the logo ceased to appear on the masthead of Preservation News altogether. The same graphical elements remained, though they were encircled by the text in an oval shape spelling out "National Trust for Historic Preservation," and a few stars were thrown in for seemingly added patriotic effect.

Early logo for the NTHP, used between 1960 to 1966.

New NTHP logo that first appeared in Feb. 1967.

Some version of the same eagle from 1960 continued to be used through the 1990's. January 1973 brought with it a revision to the Preservation News format in which the logo was omitted from the cover altogether, and instead was consigned to page 4 of the publication in the publisher credit block. By January 1974 use of the logo in Preservation News was omitted altogether. The eagle proved to be irresistible and returned in January 1975 in the center of an elaborately festooned advertisement for National Historic Preservation Week. This was relatively short lived, and the eagle along the logo disappeared for a long while from Preservation News in favor of plain text. This shedding of representation and symbolism was oddly reminiscent of Modernist experiment in architecture, shedding away ornament and representation in favor of pure forms. 

National Historic Preservation Week advertisement from January 1975.

Fourteen years later in March 1989 a simplified version of the original eagle appeared, along with text giving the organization's name. In the Preservation News issue from July 1990 the simplified eagle logo appeared for the first time. Subsequently the simplified eagle perched on a capital was married with a text block spanning three lines. Finally, in 1997, the simplified eagle logo was semi-retired and used as a watermark behind a heavy typeface mixing serif and sans-serif elements.

Return of the eagle in a simplified logo from Preservation News in March 1989.

Simplified version of eagle and text block used from July 1990 to April 1997.

Transitional NTHP logo that first appeared in May 1997 issue of Preservation News.

In the last decade and a half there have been two primary logos used. The woodcut logo was particularly popular among members and the general public. This introduced color and also highlighted nature and historic places. Dispensed with were the eagle and patriotic appeal. What appeared instead looked like a typical downtown assemblage of buildings that could be taken from almost any historic place anywhere. The street scene and the woodcut styling surely pulled on the sentimental heartstrings in people. The aesthetics if not the line-up of buildings themselves could have been pulled straight from Colonial Williamsburg. Though this was not necessarily the fresh and lively 21st century image that the NTHP needed and wanted.

Woodcut version of NTHP logo first appeared in November 1998 issue of Preservation News.

Much like the impulse that led to shedding of the eagle logo throughout the 1970's and 1980's in Preservation News, the NTHP once again dispensed of any illustration whatsoever and went with a simple text-only logo starting around January 2008. The designer of the text only logo described it as follows:

The old logo was… designed by me. It was done while I was at Pentagram in 2007. Our brief at the time was to design a logo that took attention away from the words “National Trust” because that was the least important part of their name, as their real mission was “Historic Preservation.” We were also told that the illustration used (the woodcut/engraving of the “Main Street” buildings) was too hard to reproduce. Our solution was a wordmark that built up in weight — all Gotham, baby! (Including two custom weights) — to their focus and we got rid of the icon altogether. The latter was the most contentious part, no one was really happy that we took away the buildings but the logo answered what they had asked us to do. I do realize I never dwell this much on an old logo, but since I’m able to shed some light on the behind-the-scenes I figured it would be welcome commentary.

For an audience so attuned to architectural details and visual communication expressed through the historic built environment, the text-only logo left people wanting more. The designer of the new logo acknowledged that "no one was really happy that we took away the buildings but the logo answered what they had asked us to do."

Text only version first appeared around January 2008 and lasted until June 2012.

This latest logo from the National Trust is a revelation to me at so many levels. It is dynamic, bold, lively, and youthful. There is a wonderful aspirational quality to it with the buildings reaching towards a vanishing point in the sky. The bird in the sky is enigmatic too. Is this a return of the eagle from earlier logos that was subsequently shed off in the name of progress? In religious symbolism birds often have a spiritual significance. Should the bird be interpreted as the spirit of the preservation movement, or more weightily the spirit of the nation? One observer commented, "The cloud and bird are nice touches, indeed giving that sense of American freedom and optimism."

As the National Trust has changed through the years - relying on public funding then no public funding, launching innovative programs like Main Street, and carrying the preservation message for over six decades -  it seems there has been a new logo and visual identity to mark every step along the way. One of the most exciting goals of the National Trust at this moment in its history is to make preservation more accessible, inclusive, and relevant in the 21st century. This new logo captures this excitement and the need to expand and grow as a movement. Looking at tag lines alone - we've come a long way from "Guarding America's Heritage" as the early logo proclaimed to "Save the past. Enrich the future." The new tag line has a friendlier and more welcoming tone. It is a statement that nearly anyone can agree with upon hearing it.

Given that the average life of a National Trust logo is a little less than a decade, here is our hope that this logo and the wonderful qualities embodied in it last far longer. It might also be nice at some point to formally "launch" the logo and acknowledge some of the thoughts and motivations that led up to its adoption. Not only does the new logo represent an organization, it captures the excitement and enthusiasm of a whole movement. By that measure, this logo is perhaps the most successful the Trust has adopted to date.

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