The original MTV logo started out as a poorly executed Polaroid shot of a hand holding a tomato. Despite its casual charm, it never saw the light of day.
Creating a network, channel or corporate identity is both a subtle and ruthless thing. When we look at the changes undergone by the IDs of HBO, Showtime and The Entertainment Channel, whim clearly works in tune with the all-important corporate message. This is why the MTV: Music Television story is a good place to start. It tells how breaking all the rules can make for a superb marketing game.
The graphic artists at Manhattan Design were hired in May 1980 by Fred Seibert, WASEC’s vice president of creative services. Their task was to give image to Warner’s planned rock and pop basic cable channel. Seibert not only liked the newly-formed group’s work, he had grown up with its founder, Frank Olinsky, in Huntington, Long Island.
“We went to elementary school together,” Seibert explains. “I’ve known Frank since I was four years old.” More important, Seibert says, “We had listened together to the Beach Boys and the Beatles when they first came out.”
Seibert, fresh out of programming radio stations, was in charge of creating an identity for what was then called “The Music Channel.” He was looking for something which captured his own youthful rapture with contemporary music. He was also looking to work cheap. The Polaroid sent by Manhattan Design was meant to represent a rough approximation of a hand embracing a musical note. Improvised on the spot, the photo shows a dimly lit arm thrust out with a ripe tomato in hand. A pencil represents the “note’s” stem and includes a paper flag taped to the eraser. The drawing which resulted was nevertheless a hit.
“I loved it,” Seibert says. “It was something that could move. It was alive. It represented real feeling for music.”
There was one small problem. Seibert wanted the logo to include the words “The Music Channel.” “It was a real business issue. People have got to remember who and what you are.” Seibert asked Manhattan Design to unify the words and logo and the result was an unqualified disaster.
“It was awful,” Seibert notes unabashedly. Alan Goodman, formerly with CBS had now joined the MTV “Music Channel” design team and he, Seibert and Manhattan Design (including Pat Gorman and Patty Rogoff), all went back to the drawing board.
They began to playing around with just the letters MTV and created mounds of discarded permutations. One day, Seibert recalls picking up a crumpled page from the pile of rejects. “You don’t want that,” he was told. “The M’s too fat.” Seibert replied, “This is it.”
Seibert calls the massive M “classic,” the smaller “tv,” daring. In the first draft the tv was sprayed on graffiti-style, but Seibert wanted to avoid that and the drips were dropped. The design crew, however, continued to fool around with the outrageous covering for that stately M, building it out of red bricks, wooden strips, zebra stripes, polka dots -- even the yellow-and-black of a Checker Cab.
A life of it’s own
“A good ID must have shape, size and simplicity,” Seibert says, but it also must stand out from the 30 other channels competing for attention.” As Alan Goodman sees it, the M, dressed in all its costumes, “has movement even as it sits there. It already has action because something is always being done to it.”
In September, Seibert took his presentation of “Music Channel,” now called “MTV: Music Television,” to the Warner higher-ups, including Bob Pittman, John Lack and Jack Schneider. He decided to show all the variations. “Which one are you going to use?” they asked. “All of them, and more,” Seibert replied. It was a decision he didn’t make lightly.
“Everyone said we must be nuts,” Seibert recalls, although he’s quick to add that most approved the basic MTV look. In fact, Seibert frankly admits the man with the most reservations about letting the logo continually change was himself.
“The idea went against everything I’ve ever known. For weeks after, I kept muttering to myself ‘should it change?’ ‘shouldn’t it?’ Bt my gut feeling was to make it move.”
Seibert’s judgement paid off. The MTV: Music Television logo and on-air look has been nominated by both the Clio Awards and the New York Art Director’s Club for design excellence. (In December 1981, MTV was named one of the “products of the Year” by Fortune magazine). Actually, the logo and on-air look have taken on a life of their own. Viewers routinely send in their versions of MTV, including elaborate renditions of their envelopes.
The print and on-air MTV spots are a collaboration. They are all produced in-house by Goodman, while the animation is done on the outside, most often by Buzz Potamkin’s Perpetual Motion company or Drew Takahashi and Gary Gutirrez of Colossal Pictures in San Francisco. Potamkin is responsible for the “Logo on the Moon,” which has become MTV’s top-of-the-hour signature ID. It’s an animated montage of NASA’s first lunar landing with a rapidly changing MTV logo in place of the United States flag the astronauts staked to the moon’s surface. Potamkin calls it “the iconographic message of our age.”
Colossal is responsible for many of the daring mini-stories, like “Raider’s of the Lost M,” the channel identification that begins with a race through an Egyptian temple with several dramatic exploits occurring before the treasured MTV is found; “M Factory,” an assembly line spot with massive iron Ms being forged into being; and “MT Rooms” which takes place in a desolate motel. A set of falling televisions beaming the MTV logo is called “Network” while the silvery, foil-like M is called simply “Electric Wet.”
One on-air promo is the result of a joke. Designers at Colossal were working overtime trying to come up with a new MTV twist and were getting nowhere. Strictly in fun, and clearly after heaps of cold burgers and cokes had been consumed, the animators created out of twisted french fries and flying ketchup. It was sent to Seibert and Goodman who put it on the air, as is. Perhaps spurred by such zany creations, Seibert says a new animation in the works has the logo formed out of slices of ham, cheese, bacon and lettuce. It’s called “Club M.” (Also in keeping with MTV’s outrageous touch is its new print campaign devised by LPG/Pon which champions the MTV viewers as “able brats.”
The decision to continue such variations breaks every design maxim known, although MTV’s highly-defined audience helps. “since the company has fairly homogeneous listeners, “ Drew Takahashi of Colossal Pictures commented, “it allowed us to do things that would offend other kinds of sensibilities. And we had complaints about how MTV looked. There’s no escaping the fact that it’s both bold and ugly. But you’ve got to call attention to the fact that you’re watching MTV.”