On Aug. 14, we'll celebrate (although that might be the wrong word) the second anniversary of the largest U.S. blackout in recent memory. Which makes it as good a time as any to celebrate (and here it's most definitely the right word) one of the most unsung logos in recent memory: the Consolidated Edison (ED) logo. It seems like such a classic solution, you'd never guess it's only three years older than the blackout itself.
Created in 2000 by branding guru Peter Arnell -- the mind behind identity campaigns for Reebok (RBK), Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, and Samsung, among others -- the logo aimed to reflect changes at Con Ed. No longer in the business of generating energy for New York City in 2000, it was now in the business of moving it around efficiently. The new visual identity debuted in October of that year with a citywide ad campaign and a New York Times article by media columnist Stuart Elliott.
A year later, what started as a simple consumer education effort gained momentum when Enron announced in October, 2001, that its stock was overvalued by $1.2 billion. Suddenly the new Con Ed campaign morphed into a mission to restore consumer confidence in private energy companies.
NO-FRILLS TYPEFACE. It happens that Enron's logo had been created by the grandfather of logo design, the great Paul Rand, who also created IBM's (IBM) famous striped letters and the emblematic C of truck-engine maker Cummins (CMI). If you merged these two classics, you'd have the Con Ed logo, which helps explain its timeless quality.
Prior to Arnell's innovation, the logo had been untouched since 1968, when the words "Con Edison" were stacked and emblazoned in sky-blue Helvetica. Arnell kept the Helvetica, an impersonal, no-frills typeface that's right at home in the context of a multibillion-dollar utility company. He also kept the sky blue. Not only does the color evoke unpolluted atmospheres and optimistic futures, it also creates a feeling of coolness, which, in these sweltering summer months, is one thing we all count on Con Edison for. Imagine if Arnell had jettisoned the blue for, say, the bright red of a hot stove?
Arnell did a number of other smart things as well. He convinced the folks at Con Ed to style the company name as "conEdison," shifting the emphasis from a negative, "con," to a symbol of innovation and ingenuity, Thomas Edison. The capped "E" also slyly signfies "energy," which is what the company delivers, and "efficiency," which is what the company plans to deliver it with.
AN IRONMONGER'S STAMP. The logo itself literally "consolodates" the letters "C" and "E" into a single, coiled unit. Its spiraling quality suggests an emanating force or an infinite loop. Its form initially struck us as similar to the "impossible fork," a children's optical illusion, or the sorts of symbols used by electrical engineers in making schematic diagrams. And it has the same concentric rings as a manhole cover, which harks back to the 180-year-old company's oldest trademark.
The first Con Ed logo wasn't made by a designer at all, but by an ironmonger. Like the stacked logo that followed it, the words "Con Edison Co" were imprinted on the city's manhole covers around the turn of the century. Prior to that, the covers had been emblazoned with the name of their fabricator.
In a project from the early '60s, designer Anthony Robinson trolled London streets for these early manhole covers bearing insignias like "C. Whitley, Ironmonger, King's Cross" and "Jelley Son & Jones, Grindstone Merchants, Blackfriars Road." These stampings, either cast or branded into the soft molten metal, trace their history back to the earliest printed marks, including stamps made by Greek potters called "graffiti," and marks pressed into Roman oil lamps that, before the advent of energy companies, once lit the way for citizens of the world's oldest cities.
In enlisting Arnell, a savvy interpreter of visual culture, Con Ed found a collaborator ready to both embrace the past and set a course for the future. Diagnosis? An elegant logo ready to last another 50 years.