Define The Canvas, Then Add Creativity: Lessons From MTV’s and Nickelodeon’s Logos

Fred Seibert is a living legend. In 1980, as the first creative director for MTV, he was charged with finding a logo. After months of rejecting ideas, he came across a design for block letters that would take up the entire screen. Not having any background in graphic design (he had a music industry job before this), he had heard a logo should “dominate the space.” This one seemed to fit the description, so he ordered mockups. Later, staring at fifty or so versions tacked to a wall, he couldn’t decide on one. Part out of frustration, part out of visionary brilliance, he decided to use them all. This was TV – the medium itself was moving pictures, so MTV would have a moving logo.

 

At Nickelodeon they naturally wanted him to create another iconic logo. Easy, right? One of his artists showed him the white block letters over an orange backdrop. MTV was known for lots of colors and motion, why would these stationary letters over that shade of orange work? The artist explained that this specific shade of orange (Pantone 021) didn’t exist in nature. They’d be able to put the white letters bordered by this orange on top of any background and it would still “pop.” Lightning struck twice. 

 

There’s a basic tenet within Seibert’s ingenious logo process that we can all borrow from. Seibert thought of the MTV and Nickelodeon logos on a screen as a unified canvas. Like the edges of the canvas, the space-dominating shape of the MTV letters and the white-on-orange of the Nickelodeon logo were constants. Seibert could easily explain the constants to artists and they, in turn, could do whatever they wanted within the space. The MTV letters held crazy patterns, graphics, and even videos. The Nickelodeon name was presented as an oval, a splat, and an anywhere-on-any-image sticker. Seibert gave them the rules, the artists’ imaginations did the rest.

 

Professionally, once we’ve established our own constants we next should turn our attention to the room we’ve now created for personalization. Delivering a service may not appear as creative as designing logos, but the human experience of the service can only change with this awareness. From the client perspective, this is where our work separates itself by being custom and not cookie-cutter. From our and our employee’s perspectives, this is how we escape the trap of soul-crushing industrialism. Contrary to popular corporate beliefs, this is a good thing.

 

Seibert knew artists hated nothing more than having to recreate someone else’s work, so he gave them an intentionally designed canvas that let them open up and explore. In our own businesses and practices, we have canvases too. It’s on us to see them as canvases and not commandments written on stone tablets. We won’t bring out the value unless we put the personalization in first. 

For more on Seibert, check out his interview on “Math and Magic.”

MTV logo history:

Seibert’s Nickelodeon work starts in the 1985 segment here:

https://youtu.be/pi86Qp25PCw

 

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