The reputation that New York design agency Chermayeff & Geismar has built cannot be underestimated. Anyone who has filled their car at Mobil, read a HarperCollins book or watched an NBC show will have seen one of the company's logos. Like the firm itself, the marks are simple and enduring - classic examples of identity design.
While held in huge regard by designers around the globe, founders Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar have kept the company small and focused. Even today there are just 11 employees. "Unlike many of our peer firms, we keep our office small and all three of us are personally involved in each project," explains Sagi Haviv, the third and youngest partner in the company. "This is not the most profitable way to work, but it ensures that each client gets the full synthesis of all three creative forces, and that the work is always up to the level the firm has established over the last 53 years."
This fits well with the company's design ethos, where clarity and simplicity are evident in everything they produce. Many design groups say they'll work in any style - a we-do-it-all approach - but Chermayeff & Geismar has remained distinctive by keeping to the design principles it honed 1960s. Nobody could call the agency's new work dated, but its method usually produces a pared-back form of perfection that's very effective. Although Haviv joined the company in 2002, a few decades after it was founded, the traditions established by Geismar and Chermayeff match his own design tastes. In fact, he believes this natural affinity towards their style might even have accelerated his rise to partner in 2005.
"The spare, modernist approach to identity design that Tom and Ivan pioneered in the early 60s worked very well at that time because it translated well using the limited reproduction technologies available, such as newsprint, fax and signage," explains Haviv. "But the funny thing is that with the dramatic change and new demands of digital media, mobile devices and the internet, the simple, strong marks are not just holding up - but in fact thriving. So the bottom line is that the same approach to logo design that Tom and Ivan took in the 60s applies perfectly to today's digital media realities."
When it comes to the atmosphere of the studio, rules and regulations are not in evidence. The relaxed aura has guaranteed the company's high standard of creativity over the years. Designers don't have to come in by a certain time in the morning, and they're not told what to wear or what to say. For Haviv, the creative process is central to achieving high quality work - despite the awards and achievements that the partners have gained through the decades, it's about logos, not egos.
The company tackles a variety of projects. Aside from identity, it also produces titling for film and television, not to mention packaging, book covers, web design and art in architecture. Motion graphics is an area where Haviv has really flexed his creativity. His award-winning animation Logomotion employed a huge array of successful logos by Chermayeff & Geismar. Deconstructing them for the 10-minute film, he learned a great deal about the thinking behind them.
"It was really just about listening to what this or that form wanted to do," he explains. "The transitions in Logomotion give insight into the various ways we think about forms when we develop trademarks: positive and negative shapes, geometric versus organic, typographic versus image, symbolism, playfulness and so on. It's become our primary tool for dazzling prospective clients."
Work on any project at Chermayeff & Geismar begins with a lot of exploration with the client, trying to absorb as much about them, their business and their competition as possible. "Then we enter a period of intense creative exploration in which we work individually, but constantly interrupt, interfere and barge in on each other, critiquing each other's work and making suggestions," says Haviv. "In this collaborative way, the work improves rapidly, the weaker ideas fall by the wayside, and the most promising design directions are carried further. We then apply those ideas to various communications relevant to the client, and present it to them."
All work on the concept behind any identity is done in-house, and everything goes back to the handmade sketches - pencil on tracing paper. Often the artwork itself is tackled in-house with Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and After Effects, but Chermayeff & Geismar is run as a tight ship, so sometimes the execution will call for external specialists. The team therefore collaborates with all kinds of creative professionals, including sound designers, architects, 3D artists and animators.
Many recent projects have involved giving established organisations a new look. The charity Conservation International broadened its remit to include, not just regions where plants and animals were endangered, but also places where environmental damage was affecting people, like cities and by the sea. Chermayeff & Geismar was given the task of coming up with a new identity:"We created an abstract, symbolic form that suggests many possible ideas - our blue planet underlined in green; a green sustainable path; an abstract human form - that are all relevant to the new mission and expanded scope," explains Haviv.
The striking logo had a lot of clever thinking behind it, but replacing the old logo was anything but easy. Although it merely depicted a patch of vegetation, many in the charity were quite attached to it. He continues: "We see this a lot: change causes anxiety. But in this particular case - with the client having a literal picture and our recommendation, in contrast, being a highly abstract, symbolic mark - we spent lots of time on reassurance."
A year earlier, in 2008, Chermayeff & Geismar was working with Armani Exchange, trying to solve a problem the brand had faced since it was founded in 1991. The 'A' and 'X' separated by a slash, which the company had been using as a mark for years, wasn't actually conceived as a logo and the feeling was that it looked disjointed. What's more, it tended to fade into the background when used alongside powerful fashion photography.
"To make the identity stand out, we came up with something that the Armani Exchange guys never expected: we reversed the letters out of two identical rectangles," says Haviv. "The small gap between the rectangles recalls the thin line separating the 'A' and 'X' in the old design, and the two boxes hint at military dog tags, a nice visual reference for a brand with origins in Italian military exchange stations. We also drew new letterforms based on the classic Didot typeface that is used for the rest of the Armani brand family. The bold strokes of the 'A' and the 'X' were made parallel to visually unify the two letters," he adds.
From Chermayeff & Geismar's portfolio of recent work, the piece Haviv is most proud of is the Library of Congress project. The institution had been using the library's domed roof as a logo, even though the roof of the Capitol Building is the dome in Washington DC that most people would recognise. "We saw an opportunity to create instead a one-of-a-kind mark that carried a rich set of meanings for the library and its many divisions, programmes and activities: a combination of an open book and the American flag to represent a national library," explains Haviv. "It's hard to think of any other organisation for which this symbol would be appropriate," he continues. "The curves of the open pages were rendered to suggest other symbolic associations, namely life, motion, knowledge and information flowing from a central core. The idea of a book is general enough to apply across the library's many services and departments, which are also suggested by the stripes."
An array of major art galleries and museums have also been clients of Chermayeff & Geismar over the years, including the Smithsonian Institute and New York's famous Museum of Modern Art. However, the agency appears to have specialised in the field of aquariums, and has completed identity work and environmental design for those in Lisbon, Tennessee, Baltimore, Boston and Osaka. Rest assured, Chermayeff & Geismar's designers aren't obsessed with fish; the reason for their aquatic proclivity is that Ivan Chermayeff's brother Peter is an architect who specialises in building aquariums. Working on so many identities for such similar organisations presented its own challenges, even though the agency had the opportunity to learn a great deal about marine life along the way. For differentiation, the designers focused on specific concepts for each aquarium based on its location and exhibits.
"For example, the National Aquarium in Baltimore is about both sea life and water, the element that sustains life and covers over 70 per cent of our planet," chips in Tom Geismar. "Therefore the symbol we designed combines the forms of fish and water - as waves - in an ever-changing, figure-ground pattern. On the other hand, the Tennessee Aquarium focuses on the incredible aquatic and animal life found in and around the Tennessee River and its tributaries, so the mark for that institution depicts various fish, birds and animals interlocked in a way that forms a meandering waterway suggestive of the river and the streams leading to it."
Going forward, the company has a variety of projects coming up, including a 20th anniversary logo for Armani Exchange, and the identity and title sequence for a major PBS series called Half in the Sky. For his part, Haviv is excited about the future: "It's thrilling, and a great honour for me to work in collaboration with Tom Geismar and Ivan Chermayeff. What's great is that they are as creative and prolific as ever. As for the future, it is and will be, a tremendous responsibility continuing the firm's reputation."